Critical Thinking for the Uncritical Thinker
September 22, 2007 6:26 PM   Subscribe

Critical Thinking Skills - Apparently, I don't have any. What exactly entails "having" this skill and is it something I can develop?

I've recently started college (for serious this time) and managed to test into one of the higher level English classes. Yay for me. However, now that I've been in the class for a couple weeks, I realize that I lack the ability to critically think.

In fact, I didn't realize there was even such thing as having critical thinking skills until the professor mentioned it in class.

Yea. UH OH time.

During class discussions it seems like everyone knows how to pull out these super vague ideas implied in the text.

Even though I really would like to do well in school this time, I've had pretty terrible experiences in the past with asking for help from teachers/tutors (though I do realize I will have to bite the bullet on this eventually), so I'm avoiding that avenue for the moment.

Can anyone please explain to me what exactly critical thinking skills even are? Is there any way for me to develop them on my own? Any kind of help or encouragement would be greatly appreciated.

(oh, and let's just assume that dropping the class or switching to another one is not a viable solution at this time)
posted by zippity to Education (43 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
Plenty of fodder on the net about this. The only real way is to learn by doing. So go do some critical thinking. Come up with an opinion on something, think of three reasons to back your opinion. Debate. Think up new opinion and repeat.
posted by maxpower at 6:36 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Can anyone please explain to me what exactly critical thinking skills even are?

Roughly: The ability to analyze things (be it statements, a work of art or a person) and form a good guess about their qualities.

The best way to learn the ability is to ask questions. Question everything, even things you think you know, question why you know them, how to came to know these things and question if they're even right.


If you could give an example of some of these super vague ideas that others can pull from text, that would probably help people to explain it to you better.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:37 PM on September 22, 2007


Critical thinking, in a nutshell, mainly seems to mean not taking things at face value; saying to yourself, "OK, now what's this really saying".

It can be tricky knowing when to do that, but the answer is: pretty much all the time, in literature classes.

As for interpreting what's actually going on: that could be pretty involved. I hope someone can explain it.
posted by amtho at 6:40 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was very worried about this too when I started nursing school. Critical thinking was stressed as a very important tool. That we all must possess it, and if we didn't, we were screwed.

I think critical thinking comes with knowledge in your subject. It's looking at the big picture, not just what is lying in front of your face. As Brandon Blatcher mentions it's asking questions, seeing outside the obvious.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:43 PM on September 22, 2007


During class discussions it seems like everyone knows how to pull out these super vague ideas implied in the text.

Don't feel bad. Half the time they're just bullshitting or making up things the author never intended to say. It's pretty easy to learn how to do this yourself. Part of the reason they make you take English classes in general ed is the development of BSing skills.

Can anyone please explain to me what exactly critical thinking skills even are?
This term gets thrown around so much it hardly means anything anymore. But in the context of an English class, for example, discussing a novel, it could mean going beyond simply summarizing the events of the novel - "reading between the lines", so to speak. Figuring out what the author (might have) intended to express through his work, and defending your argument.
posted by pravit at 6:44 PM on September 22, 2007


In English classes:
Read closely. Take a class on poetry from before 1900; take the big English literature survey course that your school offers. Read classical stuff and read it very closely. That is, in poetry especially, every word is there for a reason. Why did the author choose "stormed out" rather than "walked away"? Why is this character always described in metaphors that remind us of wind and flightiness? What does it tell us about the character? etc. If you are reading a good author, there's a reason for those choices, and if you think it through you will be able to find it. Here's an overgeneralization: study older literature first, and you are likely to get less b.s. in interpretation.

Critical thinking generally:
Means thinking for yourself, and not just taking things at face value. Many students fresh out of high school can figure out the main idea of a text, but then don't really ask whether that main idea is true. Start asking questions as you read.

For example: The author makes this character unsympathetic. Why? How does that develop a main theme of the book? You will look for passages in the book that illustrate your claim about this theme.

Outside of English classes, it will mean: (a) read and understand what an article is saying, and then (b) think about whether the article's argument is plausible. Maybe the author has made an unjustified assumption? Maybe the theory depends on some other things being true. Maybe the study could have been improved if additional variables were controlled for? etc.

It's the difference between doing a book report (the author said this, and then that, and then the other) and doing a critical essay (the author said this; here's what he meant in a grander scheme; here's what I think about whether we should believe him).

It's definitely the kind of thing you will get better at with practice. In fact, it's the main skill set that a liberal arts education is supposed to give you.

Pick up a copy of Anthony Weston's A Rulebook for Arguments. It's about $7 new and it explains how to write a paper like the ones you will be having to write in college; concise and very useful.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:45 PM on September 22, 2007 [15 favorites]


Damn broken link. A Rulebook for Arguments.

And I should say: I am teaching the course "Critical Thinking" right now.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:47 PM on September 22, 2007 [6 favorites]


Here's a common critical thinking exercise you could practice(if they haven't made you do it in school already) - the next time you're watching TV, or come across an advertisement in a magazine, analyze it. What sort of claims do they make? Do they offer any proof for their claims, and how valid is that proof? How do they present their product? Who are they trying to market to? Anything in the graphic design, choice of words, etc. that was chosen just to influence the consumer? Etc.
posted by pravit at 6:51 PM on September 22, 2007


I think the best way to teach yourself these "skills" - rather a way of looking at reportage, fiction, whatever through a filter that identifies value judgments and claims, as folks have written above - is to start with a framework.

A critical thinking framework allows you to apply a set of questions to almost any sort of claim, which will narrow down the values the author or claims-maker is trying to put forward.

There's a really good book on this subject by Dorn - it's a textbook that may be out of print, but if you can find a used copy, there are some handy charts inside that apply not just to social science and related academia, but news and literature as well.
posted by luriete at 7:01 PM on September 22, 2007


Do you have a trade, or a hobby, or a sport or a craft that you are fairly good at? In THAT field, when you watch one of your peer's (or betters) do their thing, notice how you're less inclined to just see their results as a layperson would, and more inclined to take a technical interest - watching how they achieved those results? You have a professional interest as a fellow practitioner, rather than an audience interest wowed by the results.

With the literature, you might be reading a book and enjoying it as a reader, swept away by the story.

Instead, read the book as if you were an author, and this book is a work written by your competitor, and you're trying to learn his tricks of the trade so you can one-up him in your own work.

Or read it like it was written by Hannible Lector, and you are Clarice Starling - and she is focused not on the story, but on what the story inadvertently reveals about the mind that wrote it. What can she glean about the author from his text?

Once you're doing that, then you can let yourself get back to enjoying a good read and getting swept away by the story, because you'll be able to do both.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:26 PM on September 22, 2007 [7 favorites]


Above, you've had some suggestions for developing critical thinking skills and I have no doubt that you will receive others.

However, if you want to survive English (I have a degree in it), get a copy of The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms. Start reading. You should also look up any poems/lit you read before class and see what the encyclopedia has to say. The people who sound smart in class are doing that. You can use the literary terms book to look up anything you need to know about in more detail. (I imagine you could also look up literary terms online, but sometimes it's easier to have something you can cart around.)

You may also want to think about dropping back into first-year English. You'll be more likely to get a solid A. You'll feel much more confident. And you can spend time learning all the basic stuff they teach you in first year, such as proper citations, how to write a paper and how to analyze literature. When you go into second year, you'll be ahead of the pack...and making some other person feel unsure of their critical thinking skills.

Failing that, get the literary terms book and research readings ahead of time.
posted by acoutu at 7:27 PM on September 22, 2007


Don't feel bad. Half the time they're just bullshitting or making up things the author never intended to say.

A) No one but the author knows what the author intended to say
A') Sometimes even the author doesn't know what the author intended to say
B) It doesn't matter what the author intended to say
posted by ludwig_van at 7:28 PM on September 22, 2007 [9 favorites]


One thing that can help dredge up some critical thought is to immerse yourself in differing opinions. TV panel shows are great for this. (Something like Real Time with Bill Maher is ideal, since the panel will often discuss critical thinking, but The View will do in a pinch.) Listen to the arguments, weigh them out, and think about where you stand on the issue. You'll know you're truly a critical thinker when you can successfully disagree with everyone.

Listen. Be curious. Sniff out the bullshit.
posted by Reggie Digest at 7:32 PM on September 22, 2007


The way I learned it, the general process of critical thinking is sifting out fact from opinion, and modeling the author's viewpoint on the piece. There are three fundamental bits of information that you are trying to extract: the truth, what the author believes, and what he or she is trying to get YOU to believe.

These three things can all be different. The last two are often the same, but when dealing with dishonest argumentation, they may not be the same at all. This is particularly true when analyzing arguments from staunch conservatives.

The way I try to do it, when I'm being extra formal, is to answer these questions:

A) What facts are present in the piece?
B) What is the author trying to make you think about the subject?
C) What is the author's actual opinion on the matter? This can be hard to determine from a single sample, but it's useful information to have, if you can figure it out.
D) What are the secondary messages of the piece?
E) What are the unanticipated/accidental messages?
F) Do the facts presented support the conclusion? If not, why not?
G) Do the secondary and unanticipated messages agree with the primary one? If not, why not?
H) Given all this input, what do you think is the actual truth, and why?

It's not actually _that_ difficult, it just takes a little practice. The most important part with non-fiction is generally determining what the author is trying to make you think, and analyzing the facts provided to see if they support his or her conclusion. The other steps are secondary to that main goal.

For English fiction, you're generally not dealing with facts, but you can sort your way through a story in a similar way. Some stories are just there to tell a ripping good tale and be done, but the kind of stories you'll study in college are perceived as having multiple layers. (the authors are, in general, conveniently dead, so they can't dispute the extra metaphorical readings that get added. :) )

Primarily, you're going to be focusing on extracting both the primary theme of the story, as well as secondary ones that are buried. The unanticipated-message idea is especially interesting with fiction, and is the source of many A grades, when well-argued.

Unlike with nonfiction, the most important part of critical thinking in English class is this: what does the instructor want me to see in this paper? Whether or not that message is actually there, if you find and argue for ideas that the instructor likes, you will get better grades.
posted by Malor at 7:36 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


Lots of great advice above. I would recommend an introductory course in logic. It should be focused around critical thinking.

Also, consider reading up on common fallacies. A google search will turn up tons of lists, and knowing the most common ones can only help. It may not help you figure out why the person is saying x, but it will help you figure out why x is wrong.
posted by chndrcks at 7:41 PM on September 22, 2007


People say "I am going to school to study X" and I always think "no, you are going to school to develop critical thinking skills (in general) and to develop an intuition in your chosen field (in particular)." If school was just about learning the subject material, you could read a book or two and get a degree... but they are trying to teach you how to think, and that takes a longer, more multifaceted approach.

As for those students who just seem to "get it", maybe they have more developed critical thinking skills than you do, or maybe they just got to the Cliff's Notes before you did. The importance of actively participating in study groups (and not being afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid) cannot be overstressed... you'll expose yourself to different types of thinking and add new tools to your toolbox.
posted by foobario at 7:43 PM on September 22, 2007 [2 favorites]


You totally have this skill, you just don't realise it.

Watch advertisements on television, using TiVo or a VCR or YouTube or whatever. Critically evaluate the ads. What are they trying to sell you? What mechanisms are they using to do that? What is the subtext they are using?

If you realise that panty liners are telling you that normal female discharge make you have a stinky kitty, that women are responsible for critically shining pots, and that even fundamentally useless dads can make macaroni and cheese, then you have successfully passed Critical Thinking 101.

In terms of literature, its the same thing more or less. Be suspicious of the narrator. Evaluate all the characters motivations. Ask yourself why they do certain things, remembering that this is not a biography but fiction, and the author is making all the decisions for them. And of course, at the end, ask yourself what the moral of the story is :)
posted by DarlingBri at 7:45 PM on September 22, 2007


Critical thinking means using your bullshit detector.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:53 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


FYI, as you read all of these answers, you're probably thinking critically.)
posted by Reggie Digest at 8:00 PM on September 22, 2007


Well, a good way to develop critical thinking skills is to come up with an argument, put it forth in class, and have it shot down or torn to pieces, repeatedly. You'll learn to see what arguments people will make against your position, and whether that means your position was pretty silly from the beginning; you'll learn to figure out when those counterarguments are themselves bullshit, or if you can counter them in turn; and so on. This kind of thing is supposedly what going to a real physical school is good for.
posted by hattifattener at 8:03 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Also: your professor will have listed "office hours" on the syllabus. These are times when s/he is just sitting in their office, waiting for students to come in and ask questions. Take advantage of this!

Drop by one of these times. You might have to wait 10 minutes while s/he talks to another student, but usually not longer than than. Ask what s/he wants you to be doing, explain that you are serious about the course and want to understand. Ask if s/he can walk you through a close reading of a couple of pages of whatever you're reading (or, otherwise give you a demonstration of the skill s/he wants you to have).
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:09 PM on September 22, 2007


To expand on hattifattener's answer -- one of the less embarrassing ways of putting forth such an argument is to put it in the form of a question.
posted by Reggie Digest at 8:09 PM on September 22, 2007


(Sorry, I just re-read the end of your question where you say you have had bad experiences talking to profs. Are you at a school with graduate students? Maybe you could get in touch with a grad student who could walk you through "how to read like an English major"?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:12 PM on September 22, 2007


Ok, let's step back. Encyclopedia Brown (or some other solve-it-yourself mystery series) is as good a place to begin critical thinking as any. Such things force you to categorize info as "important" "irrelevant" or "misleading" and that's important.
posted by ilsa at 8:25 PM on September 22, 2007


How to Read a Book. Seriously.

I wish I had read this before I graduated from undergrad.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 8:40 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


This questions intrigues me as I learned that critical thinking was not thinking critically or looking to detect bs in someone's words, but rather taking facts you have learned and being able to apply them in real world situations. I view critical thinking as how I can take what I learned in school and apply it to everyday life. Too often, people are full of facts and knowledge but cannot apply it to anything. For example, there are people who know the sun sets in the west, but if they were lost could not tell what direction they are facing. A person who learned critical thinking would say, "oh, the sun is setting to my left, I must be facing north."

It is really what the schools should be teaching. Too often in High School (or lower grades) children are tested on fact knowledge. They are given a multiple choice test. We end up graduating a lot of knowledge filled students who can not apply that knowledge to the real world. The schools must adapt to the changing world. By the time most high school students are ready to get their first job after college, there are jobs available that didn't even exist 5 years ago. So, they must be able to adapt and be critical thinkers. They must be able to apply knowledge in unforeseen circumstances in creative ways.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:49 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Critical thinking = BSing. Whether you're BSing or really, really into the stuff to the point of seeing the "deeper meaning", it usually comes out the same.

For instance: The constant battle between Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner are a personification of the battle between good and evil. And then from there you can go to Jesus and Satan, or that it's a commentary on politics of the day, etc.

Latch on to the faintest idea and BS the hell out of it. Entire papers, theses, and careers have been made out of this.
posted by Xere at 8:51 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


When professors sit around drinking beer and complaining that "these kids don't have any critical thinking skills" (which they do every semester, it is part of the ritual of teaching, just like complaining about all the grading), they mean something fairly specific. They mean, "these kids haven't yet learned how to read below the surface."

Anyone can give a surface reading of a book, an article, a movie, an event, an experiment, etc: "The Lord of the Rings is a really awesome adventure story about some hobbits and a ring and some elves." A deeper reading (aka "critical thinking") looks past the surface to see what else is going on: "Hey, TLOTR is totally full of weird sexual symbolism! Look at the homoerotic subtext in this scene where Frodo blah blah blah."

You are not trying to figure out "what the author intended." You are trying to approach the reading on its own terms, perhaps looking at it in a historical or literary or cultural context, perhaps applying a specific theoretical lens, and the "critical thinking" is in looking deep enough to see all the layers of what is going on and finding nuanced ways to express your observations.

You ask if it is possible to develop critical thinking skills on your own. The answer is "sort of." I say "sort of" because part of what you learning is the analyzing, and you can do that on your own, by learning to be a critical reader and consumer of culture. Always asking, "why is that politician using those phrases? why is that author using these structures?" will do that, along with reading critical scholarship. But the other part of what you are in college to learn (and the reason why college, despite all its costs and inefficiencies, remains the fastest and cheapest way to reliably do this) is to articulate and defend your ideas, and you can't do that alone, or by being in the class and never talking, or by never talking to the professor. "Critical thinking" is not only the thinking part -- it is also the learning the confidence to express and develop your ideas in front of your peers and your teachers. You can read the books on your own, that is easy. Learning to talk about, and to write about, those books is another matter entirely, and is much harder to do alone.
posted by Forktine at 8:53 PM on September 22, 2007 [4 favorites]


A deeper reading (aka "critical thinking") looks past the surface to see what else is going on: "Hey, TLOTR is totally full of weird sexual symbolism! Look at the homoerotic subtext in this scene where Frodo blah blah blah."

I agree.

Like tonight, I was watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship at a bar, and I said to my friend, "You can just tell those guys really wish they were having sex with each other." That's critical thinking.
posted by jayder at 10:10 PM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]


JohnnyGunn: "This questions intrigues me as I learned that critical thinking was not thinking critically or looking to detect bs in someone's words, but rather taking facts you have learned and being able to apply them in real world situations. "

That's just problem-solving. Even teachers get this wrong; I saw an actual teacher, here on MeFi, insist that he or she was teaching critical thinking by showing students how to solve computer hardware problems. Yes, they are analyzing what's wrong, developing theories, and repairing the problem. No, it is not critical thinking; it's at a lower level of abstraction.

In non-fiction, critical thinking is separating out truth from BS, analyzing arguments, picking out their flaws, and drawing your own conclusions.

Remember, critical, in this usage, is related to 'criticize', which means someone is making an argument. You can't criticize your computer into working. You can't critically think about a computer because it offers no ideas.

At most, it doesn't work, which takes analysis to repair, not criticism.
posted by Malor at 10:36 PM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]


Malor wrote: Unlike with nonfiction, the most important part of critical thinking in English class is this: what does the instructor want me to see in this paper? Whether or not that message is actually there, if you find and argue for ideas that the instructor likes, you will get better grades.

In my class, it does not matter if you argue for ideas that I personally like. What matters is if you can show WHY you are arguing for these ideas, and if you can support them with evidence from the text or other sources.

I have received many student papers which presented ideas I agreed with. However, some of these papers received poor grades because they were not logical and/or provided inadequate support for their arguments. These students showed no evidence of critical thinking, merely of writing what they thought I wanted to hear. Conversely, I have received papers with which I disagreed completely, yet these papers received high grades because the students provided a logical, well-supported argument.

I would hope your instructors approach marking your papers the same way.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:48 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Another really good book that can teach you all about the various logic traps you can fall into & how to avoid them is The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Critical Thinking. I can't recommend it highly enough, it's that good.
posted by scalefree at 3:55 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would add to my first answer that there is another aspect to the "these kids can't critically think" complaints, which is synthesis. New students tend to take each text and each class totally separately. Today you read A, tomorrow you read B, and never the twain shall meet. (This really frustrates my friends who teach science, where students might take O-chem and then Population Bio, but often have great difficulty in synthesizing the ideas and approaches across those kinds of boundaries.)

So to continue my Tolkien example, my pretend student might demonstrate some ability to synthesize ideas by saying, "After reading the essay by Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil, I was really troubled by Tolkien's overwrought and florid depiction of Mordor; the scene that really captures this is when the evil horseman does such and such..." Another pretend student might stick up their hand and talk about how Tolkein and Homer both use a structure of an epic journey with lots of tests, but do so in very different ways.

These examples aren't exactly very profound (and are probably sufficiently inaccurate to really irritate an actual Tolkien scholar). But it is always striking at how hard it is for many new students to do these basic tasks that are so fundamental to life in academia. Very few high schools, and very little in our wider culture, encourage the kind of thinking I am talking about, where you look deep into a problem to see its underlying components, and look wide to see how it connects to other issues. So almost every new student struggles with learning and applying critical thinking -- the people next to you in class may have been doing this longer, or may just have picked up the vocabulary and are faking it, but chances are that they are no more profound and no smarter than you are, and your struggles with this are hardly unique.
posted by Forktine at 6:14 AM on September 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


One of the most reassuring things ever said to me at university was from a lecturer (who I think was still a phd student at the time), he said "I believe everything I read". It was in 3rd year, and I only wish he'd said it to us about 2 years earlier. We all came out of that lecture relieved to find out that we weren't the only ones. In the pub afterwards even those in on my course who were known to be champion debaters/bullshitters said that it was good to hear.

The lecturer went on to explain that it was only after assimilating a lot of arguments and ideas that he could begin to understand it and find his own way through it. And sometimes he didn't even manage that.

So don't worry too much, you are at college to learn this skill.

My university (I'm in the UK) ran study skills courses, open to all students and independent of any department, one of which was on critical thinking. Maybe your college runs something similar? It was only a half day thing, but I found it really useful, not only for the critical skills, but also to meet people who were also struggling with the concept. I went with an Indian friend, who had studied maths as an undergraduate, and was studying management in the UK. She came from a culture where you always respect the writer/lecturer and accept what they tell you, so she had a difficult time adapting to the more critical approach of her course in the UK. One of the things that they did was give us two newspaper articles to read and get us to compare them. They were both reporting the same event (the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands War), one was from a right-wing tabloid and the other was from a left-wing broadsheet. It was a good way to start, because the differences in reporting and argument were really easy to see. So maybe you could start to practice by reading/watching different news sources?

One more anecdote, I have a good friend who went to Oxford to study PPE, that course basically teaches you how to argue. You have to produce an essay every two weeks, it doesn't matter what you argue, it's the way you argue it that is important. He liked playing devils advocate and arguing things that other people wouldn't agree with. I would never have had the confidence at university to argue something I didn't support, but looking back, I wished I'd tried it once or twice. Because I think it does help you strengthen your own beliefs.
posted by Helga-woo at 6:24 AM on September 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


Critical thinking is a method of decision and valuation that implies the desire to avoid misleading or flawed persuasion, and by extension, the increased ability to appreciate honest and sound persuasion as convincing, whether from yourself or others.

See also,

Fallacies

Cognitive biases

Defense mechanisms
posted by Brian B. at 8:58 AM on September 23, 2007 [3 favorites]


You totally have this skill, you just don't realise it.

I think this is very optimistic. Many people take what they learn at face value. Some people are naturally more argumentative, but they may not necessarily approach the issues logically or analytically, and so will still end up not being properly critical but just defensive or competitive for emotional reasons. Thinking critically means a)not caring whether your initial assumption / "gut feeling" was right or wrong and b)taking the time to follow through on the various threads of consistency and congruence that will lead to an outcome after you ask all the necessary questions, both of which are not the most common of skills.

I learned that critical thinking was not thinking critically or looking to detect bs in someone's words, but rather taking facts you have learned and being able to apply them in real world situations.

That is pretty much the opposite of critical thinking. When I taught critical thinking I made the tagline of the class "Question Authority", which doesn't mean blindly go against whatever the author/teacher suggests, but honestly investigate the assumptions and trains of thought that lead the person to the conclusions they reach. See if you would reach the same conclusions with your own reasoning abilities, and if not, figure out where you diverge from the path the author lays out. Unquestioningly accepting the facts as given and going out to apply them to the world is not being critical at all. Also, you can certainly be a critical thinker in a purely theoretical realm - questioning other people's interpretations or understandings of a text is thinking critically, thinking for yourself as opposed to accepting the information as provided.

I used Asking the Right Questions as a supplemental text when I taught a critical thinking class, as it had a nice breakdown of some basic concepts without being overly abstract or absolutist, and I'd still recommend it for someone looking for an intro (and it seems to be available used for next to nothing, so...) I believe the analogy they opened with was the "sponge vs panning for gold" method of learning - you may have always approached your education as if you should soak up everything sent your way, but to be a critical thinker means to realize that part of learning is actually work: you have to determine what actually makes sense or stands up to scrutiny, and what doesn't (in literature this would presumably apply to the various interpretations of a text).

On the other hand, you don't really clarify what the teacher has asked of you that you don't feel capable of performing - are you sure it's "critical thinking" you're looking for rather than critiquing, e.g.? If you're reading lots of theoretical or interpretative essays about literature, you need to be able to think critically about their conclusions; if you're reading lots of literature for the class, you need to be able to read with a critical eye, and critique the work, but that is not about reasoning and argument, but aesthetic judgment. That is a somewhat different skill, though it also involves not simply accepting that the author is "right" to have written the way he or she did, but that the work could have been a different or better piece if _______, where it's up to you to consider what resonated and what didn't, etc (like a film critic).
posted by mdn at 5:06 PM on September 23, 2007


lots of great advice here...but for more clarification on what critical thinking is, check out bloom's taxonomy (specifically the cognitive domain). it starts with knowledge & comprehension, but the critical thinking picks up with application, analysis, synthesis, & evaluation.

check out: the basic bloom's pyramid and wiki's entry

oh, and by the way...asking this question is pretty good evidence you have critical thinking skills!
posted by hazel at 8:17 PM on September 23, 2007


I really understand how you feel, and I have been there myself.
True story: I sat in class and the teacher asked, "what does the rain symbolize in this story?" and everyone came up with some crazy ideas. I was kind of ignoring everyone, and read a caption/mini bio of the story, where someone asked him the same thing and he said that it was just rain. When she called on me, I repeated the same thing. Obviously, she didn't like that answer.

But what I realized is that I could at least argue some themes after I had a sociology class, as well as an ethics class. When you have a background knowledge of human behavior, it helps you to B.S some arguments. Just a thought anyway.
posted by slc228 at 8:50 PM on September 23, 2007


This seems like it might help with bullshitting in the context of a literature class. Or at least to have some fun.
posted by kindall at 2:42 PM on September 24, 2007


I really appreciate all of your answers. None will be marked best because they are all excellent and useful.

I wish I could give an example of the discussions we've had in class that I didn't understand or know how to engage in but I don't remember what the answers other people gave were so it wouldn't be of any help.

I will check out all the links and books suggested!
posted by zippity at 3:59 PM on September 24, 2007


zippity: don't get discouraged by all the people saying "critical thinking is just a euphemism for bullshitting, you should try to bullshit through all your courses". That's not true, if the people teaching your courses are remotely competent. Professors recognize BS when it is offered; sometimes we choose not to slam someone in public for it, so class discussions can get a little BS heavy, but no professors I know are impressed at all by BS. (This is in philosophy)

Learning to analyze (pick apart an argument or text) and synthesize (put ideas together) in the way people have described above really is a very useful skill, and a major one you will develop as you go through college. Learning to read closely, to see how particular choices an author made contribute to the message of a book, is one of the basic tools you will develop.

If you think someone in your class is BSing, ask them politely "where is your evidence in the text? because I'm not seeing the thing you're seeing".
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:49 PM on September 24, 2007


next time you read a book, skip the foreword, then go back and read it after.

i did this in magister ludi and found it humiliating but edifying.
posted by klanawa at 5:28 PM on September 24, 2007


"they are all excellent and useful."

You are doing it wrong.

A great exercise in critical thinking would be to find the best, or the best three, answers in the thread.

Why don't you go back, see if you can finds the answers that are similar to each other, the ones that contradict others, the ones that told you something you did not know, the ones that gave you no new information. This would be a good start.

I can see at least two themes going on here. There is also at least one answer that is completely different from the others, were any convincing arguments presented for either side?

Critical thinking is one of those thing that get better with practice.
posted by Dr. Curare at 8:02 AM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


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