Monday, 14 February 2011

Introduction to critical thinking

Critical thinking skills are a key component of your learning during this degree.

In a nutshell critical thinking involves questioning things rather than accepting them, there is not really any limit on what the thing to be questioned is; some examples that may be relevant to you include: a small but significant critical incident in the workplace, an accepted wisdom or way of doing something, an idea from literature, a personal belief, a statement from a colleague, workplace policy, global warming, life the universe and everything.

The aims of critical thinking include: understanding a problem, testing the validity of a statement or idea, trying to arrive at improved and valid knowledge, there are many more.

You have your own understanding of the world, this developed over many years, it evolves from many influences and experiences and will vary from person to person; your own understanding provides a framework against which new things can be tested, critical thinking may change what you believe or lead you to challenge what others have said or done.

From an academic perspective critical thinking helps us make more sense of the world, what we believe about it and who we are. It is important to take an objective or unbiased stance when attempting to understand something new however it is also valuable to question the information in the light of personal constructions or understanding - two themes emerge:

1. What sense is being conveyed?
2. What sense does this make to me?

In respect to reading new literature you might first consider what the author is trying to say (1) - What sense is being conveyed?
This can be augmented by considering the ideas from your perspective - (2) what sense does it make to me?

A real world perspective can bring personal understanding from consideration of an abstract theory and can be useful in showing your understanding to others.

There is a third consideration:
3. What do others think?

This can lead to comparison (showing how things are similar) or contrasting (showing how things are different) of one author's views against those of another author. It may also involve consulting informed others to help consolidate your understanding - e.g. your peers in a learning community or colleagues in your workplace.

Considering all three aspects should lead to a well informed perspective; you are in a position to make good judgements, you can make firm assertions or develop well founded arguments drawing on your deep examination of sense, your objective critique, your link to personal beliefs and experiences. many philosophers argue you will never reach the absolute truth of anything, statements like "it seems..." or "xxx appears to be the case" are more accurate than, "I now know that xxx is true."

In order to think critically and objectively you need to be able to deconstruct information taking it apart and examining it from many perspectives, you need to be able to rise above personal beliefs, to be open to changing what you believe and be willing to challenge the views of others.

In order to present the results of critical thinking in a clear way you need to avoid constructing statements such as:
"We all believe that xxx...". This is a universal statement, no unified theory of the universe yet exists - avoid universal statements; we are all different.
"Obviously xxx is right." This is an unsubstantiated and finite statement, it assumes the reader has the same view as the writer. A more sensible approach is a tentative statement that refers to evidence to give it substance such as - "It appears xxx may be the case because..."
" I know xxx is right." Again no substance is provided, only a personal statement of opinion.

Avoid ambiguity; look for it in what you read and what others say and try and eliminate it from what you say. Ambiguity is where meaning is not clear; some words can be inherently ambiguous or it might be sentence construction that is ambiguous. Consider have you said what you really meant to say; could your words be interpreted differently?

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