3 Core Critical Thinking Skills Every Thinker Should Have
Critically thinking about critical thinking skills.
Posted March 13, 2020
I recently received an email from an educator friend, asking me to briefly describe the skills necessary for critical thinking. They were happy to fill-in-the-blanks themselves from outside reading, but wanted to know what specific skills they should focus on teaching their students. I took this as a good opportunity to dedicate a blog entry here to such discussion, in order to provide my friend and any other interested parties with an overview.
To understand critical thinking skills and how they factor into critical thinking, one first needs a definition of the latter. Critical thinking (CT) is a metacognitive process, consisting of a number of skills and dispositions, that when used through self-regulatory reflective judgment, increases the chances of producing a logical conclusion to an argument or solution to a problem (Dwyer, 2017; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014). On the surface, this definition clarifies two issues: first, critical thinking is metacognitive—simply, it requires the individual to think about thinking; second, its main components are reflective judgment, dispositions, and skills.
Below the surface, this description requires clarification; hence the impetus for this entry—what is meant by reflective judgment, disposition towards CT and CT skills? Reflective judgment (i.e. an individuals' understanding of the nature, limits, and certainty of knowing and how this can affect their judgments [King & Kitchener, 1994]) and disposition towards CT (i.e. an inclination, tendency or willingness to perform a given thinking skill [Dwyer, 2017; Facione, Facione & Giancarlo, 1997; Ku, 2009; Norris, 1992; Siegel, 1999; Valenzuela, Nieto & Saiz, 2011]) have both already been covered on this blog; so, consistent with the aim of this piece, let’s discuss CT skills.
CT skills allow individuals to transcend lower-order, memorization-based learning strategies to gain a more complex understanding of the information or problems they encounter (Halpern, 2014). Though debate is ongoing over the definition of CT, one list stands out as a reasonable consensus conceptualization of CT skills. In 1988, a committee of forty-six experts in the field of CT gathered to discuss CT conceptualisations, resulting in the Delphi Report; within which was overwhelmingly agreement (i.e. 95% consensus) that analysis, evaluation and inference were the core skills necessary for CT (Facione, 1990). Indeed, over 30 years later, these three CT skills remain the most commonly cited.
Analysis is a core CT skill used to identify and examine the structure of an argument, the propositions within an argument and the role they play (e.g. the main conclusion, the premises and reasons provided to support the conclusion, objections to the conclusion and inferential relationships among propositions), as well as the sources of the propositions (e.g. personal experience, common belief, and research). When it comes to analysing the basis for a standpoint, the structure of the argument can be extracted for subsequent evaluation (e.g. from dialogue and text). This can be accomplished through looking for propositions that either support or refute the central claim or other reasons and objections. Through analysis, the argument’s hierarchical structure begins to appear. Notably, argument mapping can aid the visual representation of this hierarchical structure and is supported by research as having positive effects on critical thinking (Butchart et al., 2009; Dwyer, 2011; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2012; van Gelder, Bisset & Cumming, 2004).
Evaluation is a core CT skill that is used in the assessment of propositions and claims (identified through the previous analysis) with respect to their credibility; relevance; balance, bias (and potential omissions); as well as the logical strength amongst propositions (i.e. the strength of the inferential relationships). Such assessment allows for informed judgment regarding the overall strength or weakness of an argument (Dwyer, 2017; Facione, 1990). If an argument (or its propositions) is not credible, relevant, logical and unbiased, you should consider excluding it or discussing its weaknesses as an objection.
Evaluating the credibility of claims and arguments involves progressing beyond merely identifying the source of propositions in an argument, to actually examining the ‘trustworthiness’ of those identified sources (e.g. personal experiences, common beliefs/opinions, expert/authority opinion and scientific evidence). This is particularly important because some sources are more credible than others. Evaluation also implies deep consideration of the relevance of claims within an argument, which is accomplished by assessing the contextual relevance of claims and premises – that is, the pertinence or applicability of one proposition to another.
With respect to balance, bias (and potential omissions), it's important to consider the ‘slant’ of an argument—if it seems imbalanced in favour of one line of thinking, then it’s quite possible that the argument has omitted key, opposing points that should also be considered. Imbalance may also very well imply some level of bias in the argument – another factor that should also be assessed. However, just because an argument is balanced does not mean that it isn’t biased. It may very well be the case that the ‘opposing views’ presented have been ‘cherry-picked’ because they are easily disputed (akin to building a strawman); thus, making supporting reasons appear stronger than they may actually be—and this is just one example of how a balanced argument may, in fact, be biased. The take-home message regarding balance, bias, and potential omissions should be that, in any argument, you should construct an understanding of the author or speaker’s motivations and consider how these might influence the structure and contents of the argument.
Finally, evaluating the logical strength of an argument is accomplished through monitoring both the logical relationships amongst propositions and the claims they infer. Assessment of logical strength can actually be aided through subsequent inference, as a means of double-checking the logical strength. For example, this can be checked by asking whether or not a particular proposition can actually be inferred based on the propositions that precede it. A useful means of developing this sub-skill is through practicing syllogistic reasoning.
Similar to other educational concepts like synthesis (e.g., see Bloom et al., 1956; Dwyer, 2011; 2017), the final core CT skill, inference, involves the “gathering” of credible, relevant and logical evidence based on the previous analysis and evaluation, for the purpose of drawing a reasonable conclusion (Dwyer, 2017; Facione, 1990). Drawing a conclusion always implies some act of synthesis (i.e. the ability to put parts of information together to form a new whole; see Dwyer, 2011). However, inference is a unique form of synthesis in that it involves the formulation of a set of conclusions derived from a series of arguments or a body of evidence. This inference may imply accepting a conclusion pointed to by an author in light of the evidence they present, or ‘conjecturing an alternative’, equally logical, conclusion or argument based on the available evidence (Facione, 1990). The ability to infer a conclusion in this manner can be completed through formal logic strategies, informal logic strategies (or both) in order to derive intermediate conclusions, as well as central claims.
Another important aspect of inference involves the querying of available evidence, for example, by recognising the need for additional information, gathering it and judging the plausibility of utilising such information for the purpose of drawing a conclusion. Notably, in the context of querying evidence and conjecturing alternative conclusions, inference overlaps with evaluation to a certain degree in that both skills are used to judge the relevance and acceptability of a claim or argument. Furthermore, after inferring a conclusion, the resulting argument should be re-evaluated to ensure that it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that was derived.
Overall, the application of critical thinking skills is a process—one must analyse, evaluate and then infer; and this process can be repeated to ensure that a reasonable conclusion has been drawn. In an effort to simplify the description of this process, for the past few years, I’ve used the analogy of picking apples for baking. We begin by picking apples from a tree. Consider the tree as an analogy, in its own right, for an argument, which is often hierarchically structured like a tree-diagram. By picking apples, I mean identifying propositions and the role they play (i.e. analysis). Once we pick an apple, we evaluate it—we make sure it isn’t rotten (i.e. lacks credibility, is biased) and is suitable for baking (i.e. relevant and logically strong). Finally, we infer—we gather the apples in a basket and bring them home and group them together based on some rationale for construction—maybe four for a pie, three for a crumble and another four for a tart. By the end of the process, we have baked some apple-based goods, or developed a conclusion, solution or decision through critical thinking.
Of course, there is more to critical thinking than the application of skills—a critical thinker must also have the disposition to think critically and engage reflective judgment. However, without the appropriate skills—analysis, evaluation, and inference, it is not likely that CT will be applied. For example, though one might be willing to use CT skills and engage reflective judgment, they may not know how to do so. Conversely, though one might 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 (Valenzuela, Nieto & Saiz, 2011). Though the core CT skills of analysis, evaluation, and inference are not the only important aspects of CT, they are essential for its application.
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