‘Critical thinking’ is required of students writing essays as part of an academic programme. But it is also a skill that is essential for anyone attempting to negotiate the challenging world of ‘alternative facts’ and social media proclamations.
In this post, I intend to offer some guidance to students (and others who might find it useful) on how to engage in, and demonstrate, ‘critical thinking’. I plan to develop it over time in the light of further reflection and feedback from those who read it.
There are already a number of posts on ‘critical thinking’ available online. It might be helpful to compare and contrast some of them. Here are examples from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Manchester, and the University of Plymouth.
[Update 8th March 2017: Justin Taylor has shared a useful summary of the key points from Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s book, How to Read a Book. Readers may find this post, and the book itself, helpful.]
It is important to emphasise that the word ‘critical’ in this context does not indicate a negative or judgemental attitude. It simply indicates the necessity of making judgements regarding the validity, or otherwise, of every claim made around us. Nobody treats every source of information as equally trustworthy. And that is a good thing. But we may not have thought clearly about the process by which we evaluate claims.
In this post, I will offer a list of simple questions that can be used, by students and others, to evaluate any claim that may be encountered. Students should demonstrate that they are engaging with these questions in their written work. Essays will normally be subject to the constraints of strict word limits. Students should, therefore, ensure that they limit the scope of the essay so as to ensure that sufficient space is allocated to critical engagement with the kind of questions listed below. Please contact me with suggestions for improvements to this list.
[Update 8th March 2017: The following questions may be grouped into the following broad categories:
- Questions about sources (1-5)
- Questions about different viewpoints (6-8)
- Questions about definitions (9-10)
- Questions about evidence and arguments (11-17)
- Questions about one’s own judgements (18-24)
The specific questions are as follows:]
- What is the source of the claim?
- Do I have reason to trust or doubt the reliability of the source?
- What are those reasons?
- Is the claim corroborated by other sources?
- Are any other sources reliable? (And on what grounds can that be judged?)
- What is the nature of the claim? (e.g., does it claim the status of ‘fact’ or is it simply opinion?)
- Is the claim disputed?
- Have I considered the strongest representatives of any differing views?
- Are key terms clearly defined?
- Do all participants in the debate accept the same definitions?
- Is evidence provided for the claim (or counter-claims)?
- What is the relative value of the evidence? (And on what grounds can that be judged?)
- Are ‘primary sources’ discussed and evaluated? (‘Primary sources’ are the most fundamental sources for a topic, e.g., Paul’s letters for a discussion of Paul’s thought; Josephus’s writings for a discussion of Josephus; Barth’s writings for a discussion of Barth’s thought. ‘Secondary sources’ are commentary by other writers on these primary sources. It is not good practice to rely on secondary sources alone.)
- Is the claim (or counter-claim) supported by arguments?
- Are the arguments coherent?
- Do any arguments display fallacies?
- What is the relative strength of the arguments?
- What are my own presuppositions?
- Are my presuppositions well-founded and defensible?
- Have I taken my own presuppositions into account as I have formed my judgements?
- Have I stated my own definitions and presuppositions clearly?
- Have I, as far as possible, taken account of all relevant information?
- Have I represented all views accurately, fairly, and charitably?
- Have I expressed my judgement on any given claim in clear and measured terms, showing due regard for the complexity of the issue and due respect for those with whom I disagree?
I hope that this post will help to encourage and enable critical thinking at all times.
Thanks for reading!
If you would like to respond to this post, you can send an email to email@example.com or follow me on Twitter: @DrAIWilson