How to Think Critically

Better Late than Never.

Since this column is about Critical Thinking, it seems appropriate that we at least do a periodic, quickie overview of how to think critically…

Not surprisingly, most people label themselves as critical thinkers. But are they?

Likewise, most teachers contend that they teach Critical Thinking. But do they?

The concept of critical thinking is not complex. One way to define Critical Thinking is to call it advanced problem-solving. Another way is to look at how it works in practice: when we are faced with an important decision, if we want better results we need to objectively and thoroughly analyze both sides of an issue.

Let’s say that you are a farmer, who is financially just getting by. A good-ole-boy salesperson comes to your door (purposefully dressed down), and offers to lease a relatively small part of your spread for some industrial wind turbines. The deal is that his firm would pay you $400,000 cash ($20,000 per year for the next 20 years). He says: “Just say yes to this very reasonable agreement and it’s a done deal.”

Wow, you think, this could be life-changing! “Where do I sign?” you hear yourself saying. But WAIT! This is exactly the type of case where Critical Thinking is essential. You are about to make a 20+ year commitment, that has enormous implications.

Let’s THINK about this. To begin with, most decisions have both an emotional and logical component. They both need to be fully engaged. The farmer’s initial response was emotional — as he saw himself sitting on a Florida beach. That’s fine as long as the logical part also makes sense. This is where thorough and objective come in.

He does understand that he is being given a one-sided sale pitch. What does he know about this salesman or the wind developer? Nothing! What is he legally agreeing to when he accepts this deal? No idea! (It’s spelled out in a 34-page contract.) Has he read every word of the contract? No! Does he fully understand every part of it? No!

As a minimum, he should hire a competent attorney, and specifically instruct the lawyer to tell him EVERYTHING that is potentially problematic in this contract.

He should also reach out to those who are opposed to industrial wind energy, and carefully listen to their arguments. The lease money is one thing, but there are other adverse consequences to his family, to his neighbors, and to his community. Doing this, he comes across a webpage which identifies many wind energy liabilities, and a document where forty (40) potential adverse consequences to farmers are listed. OMG!

The choice here is stark: 1) go the emotional route, focusing on the money, or 2) do Critical Thinking and see the whole matter from a much more accurate perspective.

The benefits of Critical Thinking apply to hundreds of life choices — from who you are going to vote for, to whether or not you are going to attend church.

When should we learn how to do Critical Thinking? Easy: the sooner the better. Every year that goes by without that ability, you are much more likely to be victimized by con artists or to make mistakes that might have lifelong implications.

Where do we learn how to do critical thinking? The most logical place is in K-12 Science classes. Why? Because real Scientists are taught to question everything. Real Scientists do not rely on “consensus” or “peer review” (another form of consensus).

When a technical matter is being debated (e.g., Is wind energy a net societal benefit?), they conduct a scientific analysis, which has four (4) components. Such an evaluation is: 1) objective, 2) comprehensive, 3) empirical, and 4) transparent.

Note that the first two parts are the same thing that any critically thinking citizen will automatically do!

The bottom line of this brief overview is that critical thinking should be specifically and carefully taught in K-12 Science classes so that it becomes second nature. Why isn’t this already happening in our education system?

A major reason is that the powers-that-be who are controlling our K-12 educational standards (e.g., NGSS), do not want critically thinking citizens. Of course they do not acknowledge that, but the proof is in the pudding.

This source stated another substantial obstacle:

A few years ago the Center for Critical Thinking was asked to conduct a study for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to determine the extent to which teacher preparation programs were preparing prospective teachers to teach critical thinking. The study showed that although most faculty considered critical thinking to be of primary importance to instruction (89%), only 19% could adequately articulate what critical thinking is.

“The reason teacher preparation programs fail to place critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum is two-fold,” says educational psychologist and critical thinking specialist Linda Elder. “First, faculty who control and teach the curriculum simply don’t know what critical thinking is. Second, they think they do.”

How to Teach Your Child to Be a Critical Thinker says it well:

Critical thinking fosters independence, enhances creativity, and encourages curiosity. Kids who are taught to use critical thinking skills ask a lot of questions and never take things at face value—they want to know the “why” behind things.

Good critical thinking skills also can lead to better relationships, reduced stress, and improved life satisfaction. Those who can solve everyday problems will feel more confident in their ability to handle whatever challenges life throws their way.

There is an abundance of published material on how to become a critical thinker (e.g., see next two paragraphs). If one didn’t know any better, one may conclude that since there is plenty of material available to have a K-12 course specifically dedicated to learning how to Critically Think, that our education leaders are purposefully avoiding it — i.e., it is NOT a top objective of our current education system

PS — Adults who were deprived of that educational experience in school can learn to do critical thinking if they are committed to making it happen — just as with any other skill. They should want to do this, as it is in their interest to do so. “How to Learn Critical Thinking” has many worthwhile points.

In How to Build Your Critical Thinking Skills in 7 Steps, the steps listed have a startling correlation with the Scientific Method — a premier problem-solving tool. Some other good discussions on this topic are: hereherehere, and here.

©2023. John Droz, Jr. All rights reserved.

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