It is generally agreed that the modern critical thinking tradition derives from the work of the American philosopher, psychologist and educator, John Dewey (1859–1952). He called it ‘reflective thinking’ and defined it as:
‘Active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or knowledge in the light of the [evidence] which support[s] it and the further conclusions to which it tends.’ (Dewey, 1909, p. 9.)
The important aspects of this definition include:
Critical thinking is essentially an ‘active’ process. We should be thinking things through for ourselves, raising questions ourselves, finding relevant information ourselves, finding assumptions ourselves, and so on.
Critical thinking should involve ‘persistent and careful consideration’. Rather than the unreflective thinking we all engage in at times – for example, jumping to conclusions or making snap decisions – we ought, instead, to stop and think when the opportunity affords it. Of course, sometimes we need to decide quickly, or the issue is not important enough to warrant careful thought, but there should be many times in which we practise careful and persistent thinking – and where better to do this than during a Learning Challenge session?
Perhaps the most important aspects of Dewey’s definition are the ‘[evidence] which support[s] it and the further conclusions to which it tends’. This, in part, explains the huge importance of ‘reasoning’ in the critical thinking tradition. It means giving reasons, evaluating reasons, checking assumptions and implications, making connections and so on. If a class of students were engaged in critical thinking, they would be encouraged to test whether or not conclusions are supported by reasons rather than wondering whether they agree with those same opinions. For example, if a boy said, ‘Girls can’t play football,’ a group of critical thinkers would be expected to ask for his reasons rather than to simply argue against his point of view. In practice, this might sound like this:
Boy: ‘Girls can’t play football.’
Student A: ‘What makes you say that?’
Boy: ‘Well, my sister can’t play football.’
Student B: ‘So, are you saying that because your sister can’t play football, that all girls can’t play football?’
Boy: ‘Yeah, I guess.’
Student C: ‘If we think of something that you’re good at – let’s say, playing the guitar – does that mean all boys can play the guitar?’
Boy: ‘No, of course not.’
Student D: ‘So, if we can’t make a generalisation (all boys can play the guitar) from one example (you can play the guitar) then should we also not generalise about all girls because of what one girl can or can’t do?’
Boy: ‘OK, so girls can play football, but my sister doesn’t.’
Teacher: ‘That was a really good example of checking whether or not reasons support conclusions. In this case, we found that they didn’t. What other ways could we have challenged or questioned the first statement?’
Student E: ‘We could have pointed to contrary evidence – for example, there are many female professional soccer players; or pointed to the FIFA Women’s World Cup.’
Student F: ‘Or, we could have asked what was meant by ‘can’t play’. For example, does it mean, ‘chooses not to play’, ‘is physically incapable of playing’, or perhaps ‘has never had the opportunity to play’?’
Does this interaction seem like anything that might take place with your students? If it is, then I would say it is a good sign (though not proof!) that they are engaging in critical thinking. The important factor is that the emphasis is not on deciding who is right or wrong, who has the strongest point of view, or indeed whether or not participants can agree with each other. Instead, the focus is on determining if the reason(s) given support the conclusion – in this case, whether the reason that one girl can’t (or chooses not to) play football is a good enough reason to support the conclusion that ‘therefore, all girls can’t play football’.
Of course, this is just one example of critical thinking. However, in my experience, a focus on reasons is a really good place to start if you wish to develop critical thinking. Indeed, I like to introduce sessions on critical thinking by adding a hyphen to the term ‘reasonable’ so that it becomes ‘reason-able’ and then explaining that reasonable behaviour comes from being ‘able to reason’.
A focus on reasons also lends itself really well to guiding your students to think through some really important issues that are often out of bounds in a school context. I’m thinking particularly of racism, sexism, and ableism, as well as any other topic that is important for students to understand in a multicultural, pluralist society but which teachers often shy away from because of the sensitivities surrounding the issues. This quote that does the rounds on social media from time to time seems appropriate in this context:
‘Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.’ – Anon.
The example about girls playing football was a fairly tame one because most students in that class of Year 5s (9-10-year-olds) already knew that girls can play football. It is a different matter though if the differences of opinion come from deep-seated beliefs, dogmas, or long-held prejudices. Add into the mix some unsavoury – or at times, taboo or even illegal – assertions and no wonder most teachers would prefer to steer well clear of these topics.
Personally though, I would much rather students engaged with these sorts of topics within the safety and supportive culture of a classroom than be left to engage with them, unsupervised, out in the ‘big bad world’.
To prepare for this, I would strongly recommend that you get into the following habits: