Critical thinking – fundamental skills

According to Alec Fisher (2010), some of the fundamental critical thinking skills are:

  • Identifying the elements in a reasoned case, especially reasons and conclusions
  • Identifying and evaluating assumptions
  • Clarifying and interpreting expressions and ideas
  • Judging the acceptability (especially the credibility) of claims
  • Evaluating arguments of different kinds
  • Analysing, evaluating, and producing explanations
  • Analysing, evaluating, and making decisions
  • Drawing inferences
  • Producing arguments

Fisher goes on to point out that while this is a good place to start, there are other thinking skills a critical thinker might wish to develop.

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What is critical thinking?

I first mentioned Alec Fisher’s fantastic introduction to critical thinking back in April 2011, in the second ever post on this blog. At the time I was just beginning my Open University journey, and was undertaking some extra-curricular reading by working my way through Fisher’s book.

Everyone with a curious mind should read this book. Instead of just accepting things the way they are, it teaches you to question everything, and never accept something at face value. In fact, critical thinking is so important I’d go as far as to say everyone with a curious mind should read this book several times throughout their life.

Reflective thinking

John Dewey (1909) cited in Fisher (2010) called it ‘reflective thinking’, and Fisher (2010) expands upon this idea, describing it as:

  • An active process
  • Thinking things through for yourself
  • Raising questions yourself
  • Finding relevant information yourself

What matters are the reasons we have for believing something and the implications of our beliefs. Critical thinking attaches huge importance to reasoning, to giving reasons and to evaluating reasoning as well as possible. Skilful reasoning is a key element of critical thinking.

An attitude or disposition

Edward Glaser (1941) cited in Fisher (2010) builds upon this, speaking about critical thinking being:

  • An attitude or disposition to be thoughtful about prpblems
  • Application of methods of logical enquiry and reasoning

Fisher points out how having certain thinking skills is important, but more important is being disposed to use them!

Thinking about thinking

According to Fisher, Richard Paul cited in Fisher (2010) draws attention to the fact that the only realistic way to develop one’s critical thinking ability is through ‘thinking about one’s thinking’ – often called ‘metacognition’ – and consciously aiming to improve it by reference to some model of good thinking in that domain.

A skilled activity

Michael Scriven cited in Fisher (2010) defines critical thinking as an academic competency akin to reading and writing. He points out that thinking does not count as critical merely because it is intended to be. Critical thinking is a skilled activity that has to meet certain standards of clarity, relevance, reasonableness, etc.

Just starting out

I received my OU books at the start of April, just before going on holiday. Since then, I’ve learnt a lot, particularly about effective study techniques and critical thinking.

The effective study techniques I picked up from the Manager’s Good Study Guide, provided as part of my OU study materials. This really opened my eyes to how I currently learn and have learnt in the past, how I can go on to learn better, and how to manage my learning. One of the suggested activities to carry out was this one – keeping a learning diary.

I also learnt how to read effectively – such as skim reading, or reading actively with a purpose in mind. I learnt how to make effective notes, including highlighting, annotating, and mind-mapping.

Logical reasoning and critical thinking were two other topics covered by the Manager’s Good Study Guide which caught my attention. I learnt about formal logic: deductive reasoning and inductive reasoning, and saw some examples of reasoning in action. I then read about critical thinking, and how to use it to critique and question assumptions and premises, tradition, and authority, as well as how to use it to construct sound arguments.

Finally, I learnt about communication, and in particular two different models for communication – the information theory model developed by Shannon and Weaver (1949), and the constructivist model, which is much more empathic. I learnt the importance of active listening, and assertive communication – both of which I already use at work, but it’s nice to read about them from an academic viewpoint.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking interested me so much that I bought a book from the Cambridge University Bookshop, Critical Thinking An Introduction (Alec Fisher, Cambridge University Press). I began testing out some of my new learning, reading, and note-taking skills as I worked my way through this book.

The book is hard going, with many worked examples to carry out for oneself, but to say it has changed the way I think is something of an understatement! I’ve learnt so much more about what critical thinking is, and how to improve it; how to identify reasons and conclusions, and the language of reasoning – including the different patterns of reasoning, such as side-by-side reasoning, chains of reasoning, or joint reasoning. I’ve also learnt about assumptions and context, and discovered the importance of these myself when I made a Facebook remark that was judged to be snobbish by some of my friends.

I’m still working my way through the book and am now using thinking maps while learning how to clarify and interpret expressions and ideas, judge the acceptability of reasons (including their credibility), and skillfully judge the credibility of sources.

Now I’m also doing the actual coursework for B628 Managing 1: Organisations and people, there isn’t as much time to do the exercises from Critical Thinking An Introduction, but I’m hoping to be able to spend a little time on them over the Easter holidays.