Learning to Define Critical Thinking

A technician’s career depends on their troubleshooting skills, but we don’t teach that.  Instead, we teach students to build and analyze circuits.  We know that they will have “troubles” along the way, and we hope that they will learn to “shoot” them.  Or worse — we assume that troubleshooting is a “knack” bestowed by “fortune,” and that our function is to weed out students who don’t have it.

Problem-solving fortune cookie, by Tomasz Stasiuk, via Flickr

Some students enter with those skills, some don’t, but all of them understandably interpret “building circuits” as the point.  That’s what we teach, that’s what we assess, right?  This causes weird tensions throughout the program.   Students rarely attend to or improve troubleshooting skills deliberately.  This is the story of how I’m starting to teach that this year.

Last spring, I starting feeling frustrated by an underlying pattern in my classroom that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Eventually, I decided that entailment was part of it.  My students were only sometimes clear about which was the cause and which was the effect, often begged the question, missed the meaning of stipulative definitions, and made unsupported assumptions (especially based on text, but sometimes based on the spoken word).  We had no shared vocabulary to talk about what it means for a conclusion to “follow” from a set of premises.  My students obviously troubleshoot in their daily lives, whether it’s “where are my keys” or “why is the baby crying.”  When the car won’t start, they don’t check the tire pressure.  Yet when their amp has no bias, they might check the signal source before checking the power supply (this makes no sense).

I was only occasionally successful at tapping into their everyday logic.  In a program that ostensibly revolves around troubleshooting, this is a serious problem.  I started discussing troubleshooting explicitly in class, modeling techniques like half-split and keeping an engineering log, and informally assessing my students on their use.  It wasn’t really helping them think through the ideas — only memorize some useful techniques.  I started wondering whether I should teach symbolic logic or Euclidean proofs somehow. I read about mathematical and scientific habits of mind, but there seemed to be an arbitrarily large number of possible candidates and no clear pattern language to help a newcomer decide which one to use when.

I started teaching technical reading, and boiled down the reading tactics to

  • Choosing a purpose
  • Finding the confusion
  • Checking for mental pictures/descriptions
  • Using structural clues
  • Making connections to what you already know
  • Asking questions/make inferences

That helped.  We started to have a way to talk about the difference between what an author means and what I think.  Because of that, I discovered that my students had no idea what an inference was.

I started reading everything I could about logic and critical thinking.  It lead me to a lot of sentimental claptrap.  There’s a whole unfortunate genre of books about “harnessing the power of the whole brain” and “thinking outside the box” and other contentless corporate-pep-talk cheerleading.  On the rare occasions that these materials contained teaching ideas, they ignored the “critical” part of critical thinking altogether and seemed satisfied by the “creativity” of students thinking anything at all, concluding that we should “celebrate our students’ (employees’) ideas.”

Yeah.  I get that already.

One of the things I read was the website for the Foundation for Critical Thinking (FCT), and I confess that I didn’t have much hope.  It looked a lot like all the others.  I started reading about their taxonomy of thinking and found it simplistic.  I let it sit in the back of my brain for the summer.  But it kept coming back.  The more I read it, the more useful it seemed.  It helped me notice and connect other threads of “thinking moves” that I felt were missing in my classes:

  • What premises are presupposed by a conclusion?
  • What other conclusions follow from those premises?
  • Are there other sets of premises from which this conclusion would also follow?
  • What is the difference between a characteristic and a definition?  Between a necessary and sufficient condition?
  • Generalize based on specific examples
  • Give a specific example based on a generalization
  • Try to resolve discrepancies
  • Identify the steps that lead from premise to conclusion

So I read more.  Their basic model of critical thinking has 8 elements (Purpose, Questions, Information, Inferences, etc.) and 9 standards against which the elements should be assessed (Clear? Accurate? Logical? Significant? etc).  As you can see, there’s a fair amount of overlap with the reading comprehension tactics.  The FCT also discuss 7 intellectual traits or attitudes that they consider helpful: intellectual humility, perseverance, autonomy, empathy, integrity, etc.

Then I read an essay called Why Students and Teachers Don’t Reason Well. The authors discuss responses and perspectives of teachers who have taken FCT workshops — see the section called “The Many Ways Teachers Mis-Assess Reasoning.”  It shed a lot of light on the above-mentioned sentimental claptrap.

Finally, here is their paper on faculty emphasis on critical thinking in education schools across the US. Interview responses include samples of both weak and strong characteristic profiles. I found it fascinating.  Most ed school profs who were interviewed knew that they wanted to emphasize critical thinking in their classes, but couldn’t come up with a clear definition of it… very much the position I was in.

I’m a little wary of putting too much weight on this one model, but it has been very helpful in clarifying what I’m looking for in my students’ thinking (and in my own).  I’m not convinced that my definition of critical thinking is exhaustive, but at least I have one now (this is better than the vague feeling of frustration and unease I had before).   The expected benefit is better conversations about troubleshooting — inferences about causes, implications of various solutions, the ability to generate better-quality questions, etc. Some unexpected benefits include

What I say to students— it helps me use specific and consistent language when I write to them. I’m focusing on clarity, precision, and relevance in their questions, and clarity and logic in their inferences.  Also, an agreed-upon language about high-quality thinking means that I’m training myself to stop writing “This is impressive reasoning” on their papers.  Who cares that I’m impressed?  Was the purpose to impress me?  Or was the purpose to reason well?  I’m learning to write “Using a diagram helped clarify the logic of this inference,” and let them decide whether they’re impressed with themselves.  It’s not perfect (I’m still doing a lot of the judging) but I think it’s an improvement.  As I mentioned, any agreed-upon taxonomy would work.  I just haven’t found any others that don’t irritate me.

What they say to themselves — my students are already starting to expect that I will write “can you clarify what you mean by x exactly?” Language to that effect is starting to show up in the feedback they write on self-assessments.

What they say to each other — I’ve started using real-time feedback on group discussions (more soon), and realized that I’m looking for all the same things there (“When you say x, do you mean…” and “If x, does that mean y?”).

What I hear — I’m learning to hear out their current conceptions, regardless of accuracy.  Giving them feedback on the quality of their thought takes my focus away from “rightness” (for now anyway).  It also helps me appreciate how exquisitely logical their thinking sometimes is, complete with self-aware inferences that clearly proceed from premise to conclusion.  I’m embarrassed to say that my knee-jerk desire to “protect” them from their mistakes meant that I often insisted that they mouth true statements for which they had no logical justification — in other words, I beat the logic out of them.  Then I complained about it.

What they say to me — students have started asking questions in class that sound like “can you clarify what you mean by x” and “when you say x, does that mean y?”  Holy smoke.  From a group that’s only been in college for 10 days, I had to hear it to believe it.


  1. Sounds like an interesting year so far. Just like reading and comprehension are 2 different things, maybe adults have a problem understanding that their “thinking” is different from kids’ “thinking”? Great post. It’s so universal

    • I suspect that everyone has a problem understanding that our thinking is different from everyone else’s thinking. It’s natural to see things from our own point of view; it can be easy to “forget” what doesn’t fit, or to slip into assuming that that is the only way or the best way to see things (I’m paraphrasing from an FCT article called Natural Egocentric Dispositions). I’m enjoying our class practice of seeing things from the viewpoint of “the model.” More on this soon.

  2. Mylene,
    I’m humbled by the content knowledge which is beyind me. I think I now understand why I have math phobia though!
    I really like how you’re making the learning space a learning lab in experimenting with/building/learning about the critical thinking process. I wondered about those who like more ‘air time’, which you referred to. What about those quiet deliberative learners? Have they enagaged yet? And how do you build a bridge for those whose experience and reality remain a teacher driven and owned ‘banking notion’ of education ( which may be a majority)?
    You’re managing lots-moving from content focus to learning focus, moving learners to ‘own’ their learning as active partners rather than passive receivers, to develop their critical thinking process through trial and error, to tolerate both ambiguity and misconceptions and to look within them for appropriate answers etc.. Wow! I can feel the excitement of this learning environment. It reminds me of Moses Coady and the Cooperative movement. He noted something like If he gave a man a fish, he’d have supper but if he taught a man to fish he’d have a living. You’re doing the same. It’s a wonderful, messy business.

    • Hi Maria, I can absolutely see why the specialized vocabulary of formal logic could trigger math phobia. Since a lot of my students come to me mathematically intimidated or under-prepared, I knew I couldn’t just “explain” all these ideas. I appreciated the FCT model for being concise and using mostly plain language that my students could relate to.

      I’ve made a lot of progress with the “high air time” students — it’s the subject of my next few posts: giving them the more difficult task of working out the implications of the model, rather than recalling facts; generating a shared set of class norms, which I haven’t done before; using small groups to create more airtime and giving explicit feedback in real-time. The more deliberative thinkers are making great use of Cris Tovani‘s “double entry diaries” to hold their thinking and communicate with me, and I’ve been using document scans of their work to illustrate a few “skillful thinking moves” at the beginning of each day. I feel like I’ve fallen into a puddle of inquiry sort of by accident. Messy is right! A strange position to be in, but I’m going to take it as far as I can (day 10 of my no-lecture streak today).

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