opencourseware on critical thinking, logic, and creativity
Critical thinking is a meta-thinking skill. It requires thinking about thinking. We have to reflect on the good principles of reasoning and make a conscious effort to internalize them and apply them in daily life. This is notoriously hard to do and often requires a long period of training. The mastery of critical thinking is similar to the mastery of many other skills. There are three important components: theory, practice, and attitude.
If we want to think correctly, we need to follow the correct rules of reasoning. Knowledge of theory includes knowledge of these rules. These are the basic principles of critical thinking, such as the laws of logic, and the methods of scientific reasoning, etc.
Also, it would be useful to know something about what not to do if we want to reason correctly. This means we should have some basic knowledge of the mistakes that people make. First, this requires some knowledge of typical fallacies. Second, psychologists have discovered persistent biases and limitations in human reasoning. An awareness of these empirical findings will alert us to potential problems.
However, merely knowing the principles that distinguish good and bad reasoning is not enough. We might study in the classroom about how to swim, and learn about the basic theory, such as the fact that one should not breathe under water. But unless we can apply such theoretical knowledge through constant practice, we might not actually be able to swim.
Similarly, to be good at critical thinking skills it is necessary to internalize the theoretical principles so that we can actually apply them in daily life. There are at least two ways One is to do lots of good-quality exercises. Exercises include not just exercises in classrooms and tutorials. They also include exercises in the form of discussion and debates with other people in our daily life. The other method is to think more deeply about the principles that we have acquired. In the human mind, memory and understanding are acquired through making connections between ideas.
Good critical thinking skills require not just knowledge and practice. Persistent practice can bring about improvements only if one has the right kind of motivation and attitude. The following attitudes are not uncommon, but they will not help you improve your thinking :
- I prefer being given the correct answers rather than figuring them out myself.
- I don't like to think a lot about my decisions as I rely only on gut feelings.
- I don't usually review the mistakes I have made.
- I don't like to be criticized.
To improve one's thinking one must recognize that the importance of reflecting on the reasons for belief and action. One must also be willing to engage in debate, to make mistakes, to break old habits, and to deal with linguistic complexities and abstract concepts. See also our next tutorial about the teaching of critical thinking.