Critical thinking, Creative thinking & Gender

A. Consider this schema that I used to discuss the idea of creativity in context:
It is clearly complex: Many strands, many cross-connections, many things going on in addition to the focal outcome.

Now consider this simpler image, where the light bulb stands for an idea or inspiration that a creative brain comes up with:

Even that additional elements of this logo from the Critical & Creative Thinking graduate program present a simple image:

B. The contrast between the first schema and the simpler images speaks to my sense of critical thinking as thinking that depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. We understand things better when we have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives (Taylor 1995, cited in Taylor 2001).

C. Now consider the following three levels of analysis of gender in relation to knowledge-making (based on previous post [originally made 3/3/13 on a blog for a course Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology ])

    #1. Under-representation of women in research areas and in technological design.
    Obstacles to and under-recognition of their contributions.
    Possibilities for women’s standpoint to address aspects of the world under-recognized by men.

    #2. Biases in knowledge and technologies [and language] that claim to represent progress, efficiency, or other universal interests,
    but in practice promote the unequal social status of men over women.

    #3. The pervasiveness of gender-like dualisms in which one category is subordinate to the other and complex spectra are purified into dichotomies.
    The suppression of overlapping ranges, multiplicities and hybrids that trouble these conceptual schemes.

D. These three levels provide a set of tensions on which to build critical thinking. For example, if we observe under-recognition of contributions of women, we might look for places where women’s contributions are recognized and compare the two situations. Moreover, the set of tensions as a whole exists in tension with a fourth level, namely:

    #4. The contribution of gendered resources among the heterogeneous resources that knowledge-makers link together over time as they construct and reconstruct established knowledge and reliable technologies.

What is a “resource” and what makes one “gendered”? A: “[R]esearchers establish knowledge and develop their practices through diverse and often modest practical choices, which is the same as saying they are involved in contingent and on-going mobilizing of materials, tools, people, [themes] and other resources into webs of interconnected resources” (Taylor 2005, 225). A gendered resource is, therefore, some material, tool, group of people, theme, and so on that is associated with one gender more than another (as in #1) or biases against women hidden underneath what is supposedly universal (as in #2) or viewing the world in dualisms that resonate with the preceding (as in #3). Lest this sound too negative, a very significant source of resources has been the existence of a feminist movement(s) that provides solidarity and support around efforts to contest the inequalities.

A further tension (for critical thinking) is that people talk about angles #1-3 as if they have weight on their own, not as part of the complexity of #4. Yet another tension is seeing such talk as a resource, among others, in the heterogeneous construction.

E. Look back at the initial schema. The *’s denote multiple points of engagement. Using the critical thinking tensions above can be a way to insert gender into the intersection of strands (or heterogeneous construction). No engagement on its own suffices to change the focal outcome; they need to be linked together and even then there is no guarantee that the outcome will shift the way intended. Linking engagements together means collaborating with others given that each person’s position, skills, and resources prepares them only for a subset of possible engagements.

F. The idea of collaboration in linking multiple, partial engagements within intersecting strands that do not guarantee an outcome recalls a metaphor from my paper, “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge“: “One’s development as a critical thinker is like a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yields personal change, and so on.”

This picture is different from the view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims. And from critical as judgement and finding fault according to some standards. Journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking.

G. This picture of critical thinking parallels the picture of creative thinking as a process in context that led me to adapt a schema for the heterogeneous construction of knowledge into the original schema in this post:

Each of us navigates the distributed complexity in part by trying to impart order according to our sense of our self—our identity, aspirations or goals, and will to choose among goals and move towards them.
We achieve some goals and then have greater capacity, knowledge, skills, plans, and direction to keep moving and developing.
We also have setbacks and revise our goals.  Indeed, our self-directedness can be buffeted or even threatened by the order-imparting efforts of other people navigating their distributed complexities.
Yet relationships with others are a source of resources and support (material, emotional, etc.) from outside ourselves, which help shape how far and in what directions our movement and development happens.
Relationships are also a source of unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from.
Such connections can help us to not simply continue along previous lines and, at the same time, to clarify our sense of directedness as individuals.

H. In one sense this picture is about the complexity of angle #4 on gender in relation to knowledge-making. In another sense — a sense in tension with that — the picture reminds us of a simple theme often associated with feminist analyses: interdependency and interrelatedness is the foundation for our existence — from the single celled zygote to the newborn and onwards.

I.  Two parting questions, repeated from the previous post:  a) What case studies and situations in the material world to engage in in order to complement the abstraction of A-H?  b) How does this all translate into the terms used by feminist teachers now and in previous decades?

Taylor, Peter J. (2001) “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking,”
—- (2005) Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Critical thinking and gender stereotypes

Elbow’s paragraph below (source) seems believable until I start to ask how to move beyond it. Then I doubt that the implication that men should strive for more believing activities and women for more doubting activities.
Read more of this post

Critical thinking in an arena of abundant information

Here is the start of a list of themes for critical thinking in an arena of abundant information, namely, the internet: Read more of this post

Indirect paths to critical thinking

This topic: “Explore possibilities of using critical thinking to develop empathy in trying to understand alternate perspectives and behaviors in areas of culture (politics, education, social movements) where polarization exists and tends to push ideas and people to extreme opposing sides” led me to begin to:

1. Catalog indirect paths to critical thinking; and
2. Raise questions about promotion of these paths and their relevance to empathy in polarized culture.

1. Indirect paths to critical thinking

Instead of directly naming what you, perhaps correctly, see as lack of sound assumptions, evidence, and reasoning, work with people in ways that lead them to (re)gain access to their full intelligence.  The paths to critical thinking are not only indirect, but may also be windy and protracted.  (See links for details and references.)

• Re-evaluation of past hurts through supportive listening with a forward-looking orientation, extending
• Restorative justice processes,
• Cycles & epicycles of action research,
• Slow mode refractive practice,
• Building a studio or supportive space,
• Critical thinking as a journey,, including

The central challenge… is that of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge. Some related challenges for the teacher/facilitator are to:
a. Help students to generate questions about issues they were not aware they faced.
b. Acknowledge and mobilize the diversity inherent in any group, including the diversity of mental, emotional, situational, and relational factors that people identify as making re-seeing possible.
c. Help students clear mental space so that thoughts about an issue in question can emerge that had been below the surface of their attention
d. Teach students to listen well. (Listening well seemed to help students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions and logic, or of those of others is difficult to motivate or carry out; see also point i, below. Being listened to, in turn, seems to help students access their intelligence—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense.)
e. Support students on their journeys into unfamiliar or unknown areas. (Support is needed because these journeys involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, and yield personal change.)
f. Encourage students to initiative in and through relationships, which can be thought of in terms of themes that are in some tension with each other: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge affect,” “be here now,” and “explore difference.”
g. Address fear felt by students and by oneself as their teacher.
h. Have confidence and patience that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves.
i. Raise alternatives. (Critical thinking depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. People understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives.)
j. Introduce and motivate opening up heuristics [themes], that is, propositions that are simple to convey, but always point to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study those cases.
k. Be patient and persistent about students taking up the alternatives, opening up heuristics, and other tools and applying them to open up questions in other areas. (Experiment and experience are needed for students to build up a set of tools that work for them.)
l. Take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, while still allowing space for researchers to insert the “translocal,” that is, their analysis of changes that arise beyond the local region or at a larger scale than the local.

• Others? — please suggest

2. Questions

• Examine how any of these paths can get co-opted to delay change and perpetuate privilege
• Examine, in turn, how co-optations can get turned around
• Identify fertile or strategic locations for change
• Examine whether focusing on these allows other locations to get more entrenched

Teaching Critical Thinking in Age of Digital Credulity

Howard Rheingold wants to address how to “impart to young people the always useful but now essential skills of how to question, investigate, analyze and judge that link they just got in email or the factual claim they just found through a search engine.”  In his video interview with me, I emphasize the “challenge of… get[ting] students to take themselves seriously — not to perform according to some standards of mastery of content, but to identify projects that are really important to them to advance in the program and to continue afterward.”

Design for Living Complexities: an open course has begun

This course explores critical thinking about design in a range of areas of life and its complexities. It started July 14 and continues for 3-4 weeks. The recorded presentations and subsequent discussion are taking place on google+. See for other options for participation and links to more details about the course. An overview of the course is below. Read more of this post

A manifesto for critical thinking (from 1995)

A “manifesto” on critical thinking

(from spring 1995, with notes stimulated by teaching Critical Thinking with Arthur Millman in spring 1999.[1,2])

Peter Taylor, version October 8, 2000

In a sense subscribed to by all teachers, critical thinking means that students are bright and engaged, ask questions, and think about the course materials until they understand well established knowledge and competing approaches.[3]

This becomes more significant when students develop their own processes of active inquiry, which they can employ in new situations, beyond the bounds of our particular classes, indeed, beyond their time as students.[4]

My sense of critical thinking is, however, more specific; it depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise.  I want students to see that they understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives.[5]

Critical thinking at this level should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts[6], but they do have to move through uncertainty.  Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted.

Students can no longer expect that if they just wait long enough the teacher will provide complete and tidy conclusions; instead they have to take a great deal of responsibility for their own learning.[7]

Anxieties inevitably arise for students when they have to respond to new situations knowing that the teacher will not act as the final arbiter of their success.

A high level of critical thinking is possible when students explore such anxieties and gain the confidence to face uncertainty and ambiguity.[8]



1.  We expect that the diversity and openendedness of definitions of critical thinking (CriT) in the initial classes and readings will require you to develop your own personally meaningful definition (see also the manifesto assignment).  At the same time, we do appreciate that some students get worried without more explicit guidance from their teachers, or find the openendedness unhelpful.  In response to this learning preference, I’m circulating these notes.  But please note that it’s only one view of critical thinking—a view that is evolving and open to critical assessment by yourself and others—rather than a revelation of the full final authoritative definition of critical thinking for this course.  In fact, as revelations go, these notes are condensed and you may need to see how the ideas play out in the classes ahead, before their meaning shines through.  This also speaks to an issue that runs through the course more generally—whether and for whom theory can be introduced on its own, or is digestible only after working through some activities.

2.  Sequence of weeks in CCT 601, spring 1999 (

  • 1. Self-introductions.  What is critical thinking?
    2. More elements of critical thinking.
    3. Observations and the reliability of sources.
    4. Reasoning and inference.
    5. Styles of causal explanation & their relation to ideas about action.
    6. Frames of reference.  Critical thinking and feminism.
    7. Listening I.  Methodological believing.
    8. Listening II.  Empathy and voice.
    9. Focused conversations/ORID.  Ladder of inference.
    10. Lesson remodeling.
    11. Overcoming obstacles to putting critical thinking into practice.
    12. Complexity and Critical heuristics.
    13. Taking stock of the course

3.  There are tensions between working on CriT for specific subjects and CriT in general.  Many of the class activities refer to specific subject areas, but are expressed in plain language and are not intended to require specialized knowledge in those subject areas.  The goal is more to stir up thinking about current practices that are widely accepted/ rarely questioned, which is sometimes easier for people who haven’t adopted the specialists’ frames of reference (week 6).  In that sense the activities are related to CriT in general.  In another way the course promotes CriT in general, namely, by leading students to set up practices that extend CriT, including practices of getting support for such practices.

4.  In the last class of the course we take stock so we can build in the future on what we (students and teachers) did well and less well in the course.

-One of the ways students who are teachers can extend this course is to remodel lesson plans so as to address some aspect(s) of CriT (see class 10).

5.  There’s a relationship here with meta-cognition or thinking about thinking.  To see places where alternatives could in principle be inserted, one has to not take something for granted, that is to stand back from what one would have taken as given, to move out of one’s usual frame of reference.

-Question: What are the sources of alternatives?  Through class activities we try i) to add items to your tool-kit of sources of “otherwise” — to make the items your own; and ii) to lead students to see that you can come up with them yourselves.

-There’s a relationship here with creative thinking.  The more items in one’s tool-kit of alternatives the more likely one is to be creative, to invent something unanticipated, to surprise oneself in a new situation.  (Invention is, according to furniture designer David Pye, never from nothing; it’s always a borrowing.)  Reciprocally, creative thinking activities may help add to one’s tool kit of alternatives.

-There’s another dimension to the interplay of critical & creative.  When the number of factors is small, it’s easier to use logic and to solve problems.  The real world, however, is often quite complex (class 12).  Critical thinking for an issue with a large number of factors may require Elbow’s expansive, freewriting, creative phase.

6.  In other words, CriT is not as negative as criticizing.  CriT involves being able to do something with thinking about alternatives.  To this end the course involves model activities; smaller, do-able alternatives (as against Big oppositions or sweeping scepticism) (class 5); dialogue (class 6); listening (class 7-9, 11); facilitated brainstorming leading to strategic, participatory planning (class 9, 11); support through struggle (see note 7); shedding light on why there’s emotional struggle about thinking otherwise (class 8,11).

-The category of “doing something” should include more than more thinking and inquiry.  Knowledge or accounts of the world are used to support action.  Moreover, choices made in the course of knowledge making correlate with the kinds of social actions favored by the person making the choices (see class 5 & 12).

7.  See tension in note 1.

8.  This requires support from others—recognizing and developing inter-dependency.  Inter- and intra-personal dimensions of critical thinking are the topics of many classes from 7 onwards.  In the meantime, we do have challenges, especially as a large class, in building a learning community that can work on inter- and intra-personal levels.  We started right out with ice-breakers, but we have to continue to risk connecting with others, and not to distance ourselves via clever thinking.

-Thinking about inter- and intra-personal dimensions leads me to think about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  Are there kinesthetic, musical, naturalistic dimensions of critical thinking that should also be developed in the course?  Remember that Gardner’s theory says that working on each kind of intelligence also promotes development in the others.  Or is his theory that working on all kinds of intelligence promotes development in any specific one, e.g., logical, that might be dominant in a particular situation, e.g, a conventional academic test?


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