Is this a key moderator for Critical Thinking?
Posted Dec 19, 2017
The most common conceptualisations of critical thinking (CT) describe it as consisting of a set of specific skills and dispositions (e.g. Dwyer, 2017; Ennis, 1996; Halpern, 2014; Ku & Ho, 2010; Perkins & Ritchhart, 2004). Indeed, though an individual may be aware of which CT skills to use in a given context and may have the capacity to perform well when using these skills, they may not be disposed to use them. Conversely, an individual may be prepared and willing to use CT skills, but may not know how to do so. In both contexts, it is unlikely that CT will be applied well (Valenzuela, Nieto and Saiz, 2011). However, what is often overlooked in its influence on CT is reflective judgment.
Remember, CT is a metacognitive process (i.e. thinking about thinking) and the ability to do this (Flavell, 1976; Ku & Ho, 2010) and apply CT skills to a particular problem implies a reflective sensibility and the capacity for reflective judgment (King & Kitchener, 1994). The simplest description of reflective judgment is that of ‘taking a step back’. In one of my previous posts, I relayed a great conversation with a colleague about some people who get so good at critical thinking that they no longer have to trudge through it in a step-by-step sequence; so much so that it becomes almost automatic. It is a common assumption in cognitive psychology that the automaticity (i.e. the ability to complete a task without paying attention to it) of cognitive processes is achieved through frequent engagement (Anderson, 1981; Bargh, 1997; Strack & Deutsch, 2004), given that through extensive use, procedural schemas will be constructed for such processes. However, if these processes become automatic, then it implies that little or no attention is paid to the task – which is the antithesis of CT. So, to overcome this problem, reflective judgment must be engaged – one must take a step back and think about the argument or problem a little bit longer (a behavior that significantly increases decision accuracy; e.g. Teichert, Ferrera & Grinband, 2014).
Some existing definitions of CT include this notion to some extent; for example: reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1987) or reflective thinking in which a person evaluates relevant evidence and works to draw a sound or good conclusion (Bensley, 1998). They imply avoidance of jumping to a conclusion or relying solely on intuitive judgment. However, there is more to reflective judgment - more which is necessary for CT, than just that. A longer, better elaborated and, perhaps, more accurate description of reflective judgment (RJ) implies an epistemological understanding – that is, an individuals' understanding of the nature, limits, and certainty of knowing and how this can affect how they defend their judgments and reasoning in context; as well as an individual’s acknowledgement that their views might be falsified by additional evidence obtained at a later time (King & Kitchener, 1994).
The ability to acknowledge levels of certainty and uncertainty when engaging in CT is important because sometimes the information a person is presented with (along with that person’s pre-existing knowledge) provides only a limited source of information from which to draw a conclusion. This is often the case when a person is presented with a problem that cannot be solved with absolute certainty (i.e. an ill-structured problem; King, Wood & Mines, 1990; Wood, 1993) and specific thinking skills are necessary when people realise that some problems cannot be solved with certainty (Dewey, 1933; King & Kitchener, 2004; Wood, 1993). RJ is often engaged when an ill-structured problem is encountered, where the uncertainty associated with the problem indicates that multiple paths of reasoning and action are possible (e.g. “What is the best way of decreasing global warming?”). Such encounters often lead thinkers to reasonably consider multiple, alternative solutions (e.g. “Make everyone drive electric cars”, or, “Cut down on cattle farming in order to lower methane emissions”). However, some solutions are deemed better than others based on the organisation, complexity and careful consideration of the propositions within an argument (e.g. in comparison with the unsupported singular claims above, a more complex and better considered response might propose that "Although research is still ongoing in this area, mathematical models based on existing research findings suggest that by making small decreases in emissions in all walks of life, whether it be travel, farming, industry or energy production, emissions around the globe will decrease substantially"). Therefore, it is not only the conclusion one reaches, or the inference one draws, correct or otherwise; but also the manner in which one arrives at the conclusion which is important in both RJ and CT. This description of RJ, as involving inferential, CT processes, further suggests that there is interdependence between RJ and CT.
RJ is considered a component of CT because it allows one to acknowledge that epistemic assumptions (i.e. assumptions about one’s knowledge) are vital to recognising and judging a situation in which CT may be required (King & Kitchener, 1994) and may also influence how well an individual applies each CT skill (King, Wood & Mines, 1990). Past research has investigated the link between the concepts, indicating a correlational relationship between RJ and CT (i.e. both skills and disposition) with suggestion that the two develop in an interdependent, cyclical manner (Brabeck, 1981; Dawson, 2008; King & Kitchener, 1994; King, Wood & Mines, 1990). Furthermore, RJ development is not a simple function of age or time, but more so a function of the amount and nature of engagement an individual has with problems that require RJ or CT (Brabeck, 1981; Dawson, 2008; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2015; Fischer & Bidell, 2006). It is also possible that RJ development is a function of engagement with such problems coupled with the development that occurs as a result of time and maturation (as suggested by Dawson-Tunik et al.  and King and Kitchener ). Recent research also suggests that RJ performance may be moderated by CT dispositions (Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2015).
Now that we have a better understanding of what RJ is and how it relates to CT, it is necessary to ask what this all means and, more importantly, why is RJ so vital to CT? Let’s back up to the issue of CT potentially becoming automatic - RJ requires the critical thinker to slow down the thinking process, regardless of whether it is being conducted automatically; and truly consider the nature, limits, and certainty associated with the information being thought about and applied. Essentially, RJ acts as a slower, more thorough ‘double-check’ of the CT conducted, whether it is automatic or not. Though further research is necessary to provide more than correlational evidence alone in support of the link between RJ and CT development, it is reasonable to suggest that through the acknowledgement of uncertainty in decision-making and problem-solving, an individual with good RJ will be able to apply CT skills with caution and awareness of alternative conclusions and/or solutions that may be drawn.
In conclusion, a person with a strong willingness to conduct CT has the consistent internal willingness and motivation to engage problems and make decisions by using reflective judgment -facilitated CT. Reflective judgment development is important for facilitating ongoing acquisition and application of knowledge in everyday situations. When we read the paper or watch the news, we use RJ. Even when we are socializing with our friends, we are forced to reflectively judge situations, especially if we enter into a debate or encounter a problem. Essentially, reflective judgment is our way of taking the time to think about the way in which we think and how we consider making changes to it – certainly a necessary skill for engaging in our modern world!
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