A Protocol for Critical Thinking

Image - young girl studying

Bringing the hermeneutic of suspicion into my everyday life
really only requires a slight shift of focus

Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here is one way to think about what “critical thinking” is: a set of concrete questions.  When we ask ourselves these questions, and follow appropriate procedures for answering them, we are “doing” critical thinking.

Here are the questions:

What am I thinking?
Why am I thinking that?
Am I right? How can I check that out? (alternatively: Could I be wrong – mistaken? Is there another possibility here?)
Would anything improve if I changed my thinking? (alternatively: who or what would benefit if I changed my thinking?)

I think what this does is make simple and concrete four “moments” in an ongoing process of critical thinking. One is simply noticing that we are thinking, catching ourselves in the act of thinking something. We have to recognize that our own act of mind is involved in something. For example: I look at the small print in the course syllabus, and I think “I don’t have time for this, the heck with it.”

Second, we look at that act of mind more closely, recognizing that it doesn’t just spring from a vacuum, or from the nature of the situation the way a plant grows from a seed. What are my reasons for this thought I’m having? Where does this thought come from? Back to the example: I realize, I know this will be an effort, I don’t want to put out that much effort, and I tell myself, well, anything I really need to know the teacher will tell me.

Third, a moment of doubt or suspicion: the recognition that we could be wrong, or limited in our perspective. Allaying this suspicion could entail getting some evidence or information, gathering and analyzing some data, generating alternative explanations or hypotheses and testing them, imagining different perspectives or seeking out different perspectives; it could also involve checking the logic of an argument according to the generally accepted rules of logic. So, back to the example, a simple procedure for finding out whether my thought that the teacher will tell me anything important would be to ask the teacher. (If the teacher were me, I would say: actually, I have told you everything you really need to know – in the syllabus. I assume that if you care about your grade, you’ll read it.)

Fourth, an acknowledgement of the connection between thought and action. What I think contributes to what I do, to the decisions I make. How would a change in my thinking change my decisions, or my behavior, and from there, the outcomes of a course of action? Would a change in my thinking lead to a better decision and a better outcome? Back to the example: now that I know my assumption about the teacher is mistaken (at least, if the teacher is like me), I might be inclined to revise my thinking to something like “there might be something in that syllabus I need to know;” what will change? I’m going to be more likely to make the effort to read the syllabus. I might find out something important. Of course, it still might prove to be a waste of effort. But now I’m thinking it might be a prudent one, anyway.

(Why am I thinking that? Well, I guess I think it’s better to be safe than sorry; this is starting to look like it could be a choice between a little more leisure now, and a big sense of disappointment or even failure later. I think I’d rather give up a little now, to avoid an even bigger loss later.

Am I right? How can I check this out? I have a lot of evidence that it’s better to be safe than sorry, actually, from past experience of both kinds of situations. But in this syllabus example, the obvious way to check this out for sure is to read the syllabus.

So what will change if I change my thinking? Read the syllabus, possibly do better in the class than if I hadn’t … unless I find out it’s a ridiculous amount of work …

What am I thinking? …)

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