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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chapter 2:Part 6. Thinking about Thinking

I used to carry a small notebook in my pocket during my early years in medicine. I used to write the critical elements in each patient I saw, together with my initial impression. Days later, I will revisit the note to find out whether I was right or wrong and the reason why. This is actually thinking about thinking. This is learning from your experience and mistakes. This is what is called meta-cognition by educational psychologist. This is an essential step in life-long learning. Alfred North Whitehead said that animals can learn; man can learn. But only man can learn how to learn. May be, computers can too in the near future!
We can also learn from the habits of creative thinkers. Edward De Bono listed these habits in his book with the title” de Bono’s Thinking Course”. They are clear focus, ability to see the trees and the forest, both breadth and depth of knowledge, and ability to pay great attention to details. Creative thinkers are open to new ideas and can look at problems from different perspectives. They accept criticism easily and they enjoy thinking.
It will be useful to clarify why I am using the word “creative thinking” as suggested by Edward De Bono instead of “critical thinking”.
Critical thinking is defined differently by different people. Wikipedia considers critical thinking as a form of reflective judgment. It further states that “Critical thinking gives due consideration to the evidence, the context of judgment, the relevant criteria for making that judgment well, the applicable methods or techniques for forming that judgment, and the applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the nature of the problem and the question at hand”. Critical thinking is a time – honored method based on the premise that looking for flaws in the argument of a proposition (criticizing) and correcting those flaws will lead to better understanding of the Universe. (Note that all of this depends on the use of concepts and words and how misleading this can be. Also, remember what de Bono said. He said that the true impediments to clear, creative thinking are emotions, inhibitions and delusions, even when the facts and logic are used properly)
What are the essential elements of critical thinking as opposed to everyday thinking?
Everyday thinking is almost involuntary, based on perceptions, emotions, faith and judgments. We do not require precise data; approximation is adequate. We often think about similar situations and assume many things.
In critical thinking, we use data and measurements. We need to analyze the data, hypothesize and use reasoning.
Everyday thinking is reflexive. Critical thinking is reflective.
Creative thinking also has been defined in several different ways. As pointed out in the Wikipedia, creativity is manifested in the production of an original and useful work. In other words, creative thinking is known by the outcome. Creative thinking often lead to the production of something new, investing new properties on an existent object, imagining new possibilities and performing something in a manner not considered possible.
De Bono points out that in critical thinking there is ‘a purpose, a line of thought and an achievement”. In creative thinking “the achievement is not complete until the idea has been put into action and shown to work”.
In practice, both creative and critical thinking require similar mental habits. What are the habits of critical/creative thinkers? They are curiosity, imagination and ability to look for new ideas and alternate ways of looking at events and phenomena, honesty, a clear focus, and ability to support new ideas with data and sound arguments. These creative and critical thinkers accept criticism, respect others point of view and listen even if they do not agree. They are humble and have an open mind.
Critical/creative thinkers are aware of pitfalls and fallacies in thinking and try to avoid them consciously. Beveridge listed some of these pitfalls as applied to scientific inquiry. They are: clinging to ideas that have been proved useless or untrue; inability to subordinate ideas to facts; inability to submit hypotheses to most careful scrutiny and inability to recognize that false hypotheses interfere with progress. (Beveridge W I B. The Art of Scientific Investigation. Blackburn Press, 2004)
Ingle (Is it really so? A Guide to Clear Thinking. Dwight J.Ingle, Westminister Press, 1976) supplied a list of fallacies applicable to common situations and discussions. They are: fallacies that concern associated or correlated events (eg; post hoc, ergo propter hoc. In English, this is the fallacy of relating two sequential events as definitive cause and effect); fallacies of generalization (eg; judging an individual on the basis of the general characteristics of the group); fallacies of oversimplification (eg; assuming that our hypothesis must be true because there is no proof that it is not true) and fallacies that beg the question (eg; hiding behind un-testable hypothesis). All of these are applicable to critical and creative thinking.
Based on all these facts, let me suggest you develop the following skills and attitudes so you can be a critical/creative thinker:
1. Ability to think about thinking. Without this attitude you may hang on to pet methods and views and make no progress. Without an open mind and ability to ask how one can improve, you cannot be a critical thinker and a problem solver. This attitude will automatically lead to the company of others for discussions and cooperation.
2. Ability to ask critical questions. When listening to others, ask questions about meanings of words and definitions (concept related), about evidence and its veracity (empirical), and about the logic in reasoning. You should apply these rules to your own thinking too.
3. Ability to form concepts (conceptual), ability to observe, document, question hypothesize and test those hypotheses (enquiry), ability to use logical arguments, deductive and inductive reasoning and avoidance of fallacies and ability to interpret and apply.
Finally, how do we think critically on metaphysical, political and ethical issues using these critical thinking habits? It is important that all the discussants are agreed on three major topics before there can be meaningful discussion. They are the meaning of words, definitions of concepts and means of obtaining valid knowledge. I have already written about words. The other topics will be discussed in future essays.


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Balu said...

Thank you for your interest and comment Dr.Basu. I am in the process of writing a book on Thinkin Skills for the Digital Generation in collaboration with an educator, who has a Ph.D in the use of technology in education. This should be out by the end of next year, I hope. Balu Athreya