By Chia Suan Chong for EtonX | February 2019
In a time when we are constantly juggling multiple social media platforms, increasing news sources, and corporations and politicians seeking to sway our views one way or another, we are faced with a serious case of information overload. We are pulled in all directions by the messages around us. With the limited time we have, we sometimes choose to believe what we are told perhaps because it matches our own views of the world. In ex-US President Barack Obama’s words,
“It’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles…surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions… And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.” (President Obama, farewell speech, Jan 2017)
It is now more important than ever that we help our students develop the skill of thinking critically so that they can sift the information they are bombarded with and effectively and efficiently form opinions or withhold judgements where necessary.
What is critical thinking?
The ability to think critically is the ability to clearly and logically consider the information that is presented to us. This information could be in the form of the news we get from the media, the ‘facts’ we find online, the adverts pushed out by corporations, the rhetoric of those in authority or the passionate opinions of our peers.
Contrary to what some might believe, thinking critically is not about criticising the information we are given. Instead, it is about assessing that information so as to discern between what is subjective and objective, what is useful and what is misleading, and what we need to seriously consider and what we should not waste our time on.
Having critical thinking skills allows us not only to reflect on information from external sources, but also on our own experiences and our reactions to the world around us with a level of objectivity. This can in turn help us manage our emotions, empathise with others and improve our self awareness.
What skills do we need to think critically?
There are many frameworks that can help break down the skill of critical thinking into smaller parts: while some teachers prefer to turn to the father of Western philosophy and use the art of Socratic questioning, others might choose Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide. While the frameworks might provide different approaches to the skill of critical thinking, the basic skills that enable students to think critically are similar. Here are five skills we can help foster in order to get students thinking more critically.
Rather than taking everything we encounter at face value, we need to be able to analyse the information or the problem at hand. This might require an understanding of the different aspects of it and recognising issues within it. We need to be able to challenge the assumptions and examine the supporting evidence to enable us better to evaluate something.
2. Logical reasoning
In order to decide whether an argument is sound, we have to be able to follow its logic, infer meaning, and identify possible fallacies so that we can separate bad arguments from good. The ability to reason logically also means that we can form better arguments of our own and present our opinions in a more convincing and confident manner.
3. Information seeking and researching
A critical thinker cannot rest on their laurels, evaluating information based only on their own experience and existing knowledge. We need to actively seek out information so as to explore an issue, to prove or disprove a point or to gain a deeper understanding. We need to be curious about other points of view and be motivated to find out more. While curiosity is not a skill as such, it can be triggered and the hunger to know more can be nurtured.
The biases and prejudices that we harbour can skew the information we receive. An awareness of our emotional state and our inherent attitudes and beliefs can help us be more objective when gathering information. The only way we can cultivate this awareness is by reflecting on our inner voices. The ability to reflect can help us to learn from our life experiences and the mistakes we make. With good reflection skills, we can turn everything into a learning experience.
The lessons we learn and the knowledge we gain from one context might not easily be applicable to another. We need to be able to draw conclusions and apply them to different scenarios in an appropriate and useful way.
On EtonX’s critical thinking course, Michael Wilcockson, the Head of Philosophy at Eton College suggests that by using our critical thinking skills to help us evaluate the information we are given, we can sniff out weak arguments and therefore become less likely to be deceived. In an era of fake news and information manipulation, there is no doubt that this is a skill that will be increasingly useful both in our personal lives and at the workplace as we strive to make good decisions based on the information we are given.
Find out how to implement these skills of critical thinking to the classroom in our next post.