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?

Design for living complexities, a course in development

Extracted from, a wikipage that invites reader input
Design is about intentionality in construction,
which involves

  • a range of materials,
  • a sequence of steps, and
  • principles that inform the choice of material and the steps.

Design always involves putting people as well as materials into place,
which may happen by

  • working with the known properties of the people and materials,
  • trying out new arrangements, or
  • working around their constraints (at least temporarily).

Critical thinking involves understanding ideas and practices better when we examine them in relation to alternatives.
This course exposes and explores alternative designs through

  • history (showing that things have by no means always been the way they are now),
  • archeology of the present” (shedding light on what we might have taken for granted or left as someone else’s responsibility/specialty),
  • comparison (looking at the ways things are arranged in different organizations and cultures), and
  • ill-defined problems (in cases of real-world “living complexity” that invite a range of responses).

In a sense, critical thinking is in design from the start, because design cannot proceed without the idea that there are alternatives to the current way of doing things.

Each course session:

  • issue about design [see below],
  • presentation (drawing on videos available online),
  • a case related to that issue -> students’ design sketches to address the case,
  • add to or revise a growing set of principles for critical thinking in design [listed below each issue].


1: Waste

Byproducts are products

2: Play

A yin and yang of design is intentional planning and play, to the extent that play involves ongoing experimenting and adjustment in putting people as well as materials into place.

3: Gathering into community

Putting people into place—as designers, users, co-designer-user—may happen by working with what you know about people, facilitating new arrangements, or working around their constraints.

4: Enabling

All disabilities can be reframed as opportunities to a) enable others and b) learn from those who are differently abled

5: Design thinking

(making such thinking available to all)
Imagine that you don’t say “it’s not my problem” or “this seems too hard for me to solve,” and imagine instead that, whatever your age or background, you can rise to the challenge and contribute, through a series of steps, to a prototype to be tested in the real world.

6: Craft, improvisation, innovation and uptake

(design thinking in professional and commercial practice)
Craft, innovation, improvisation and uptake are well-managed learning.

7: Standards, Modularity and Infrastructure

“All invention is borrowing” (D. Pye, furniture designer); infrastructure already in place, standards and modularity enable the designer to know the properties of borrowed materials and have some sense of the possibilities and limits of adaptation into new arrangements. Indeed, Pye’s dictum reminds us to build on what is already in place, not assume that new is better.

8: Local particularity

“All design is local” (to paraphrase Tip O’Neill)—ultimately what is designed has to work for particular people using the materials that can be made available in their particular setting.
To that end, a) the knowledge of the people most affected by the given issue needs to be brought into play and b) participation needs to be facilitated in ways that ensure that the full range of participants are invested in collaborating to bring the resulting design to fruition [see Gathering into community)
A corollary is for designers not to rely on early adopters of innovations, but to pay attention to users who, while prepared to adopt innovations, need them to be integrated with their own practical day-to-day concerns and specific situations [see innovation and uptake].
Finally, a corollary of all that is to acknowledge local distinctiveness or vernacular is to demand that the new keeps places worked in, lived in, not standardized, maintains employment etc.

9: Spanning distance

People distant in space can have their cultures profoundly shifted by mediated connections, especially those made around new technologies and the commodities they give rise to.

10: Integration of diverse social and material worlds

Instead of dividing real world complexities into many local situations (as if they were well-bounded systems with other processes pushed into the background or hidden for the time being), we can examine “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time.
There is always a tension between, on one hand, local knowledge and solidarities forged through working and living together in particular places and, on the other hand, application of trans-local perspectives, abstractions, or other resources–or withholding such resources.
Within the intersecting processes, there are multiple potential points of engagement, which need to be linked together “transversally” in a manner that is intentional and explicit. In other words, if sustained engagement in local situations is desired to ensure that design is not a “solution.. for the problems that people don’t have” (Myles Horton), what else is needed to mitigate the consequences of decisions made in governments and corporations operating on a larger spatial and temporal arena?

11: Keeping track

Possibilities for surveillance are an unavoidable by-product of standards and of keeping track of the effects of one’s design.

12: Improving by taking stock (from design to adoption & adaption by others)

Making space to reflect, using various tools or processes, before proceeding either from one phase to another or on from an activity or event, makes it more difficult to simply continue along previous lines, opening up possibilities of alternative paths to proceed.

How can we ensure that we notice that we needed to probe assumptions we didn’t notice ourselves making?

I have long had a sense that affirmative action (such as it is/was) has been interpreted so that every white person who missed out on a job knew that they would have got the job if a black person hadn’t been favored (said without any sense of the arithmetic problems involved).

In this climate, the Supreme court is about to rule on the University of Texas’s use of race as one factor among many when considering who to accept among those who did not make the cut via the “top 10% of high school graduates in Texas” criterion.  It turns out that if the person in whose name the case is being presented, Abigail Fisher, had “received points for her race and every other personal achievement factor,” she would still have missed out according to UT university officials (Nikole Hannah-Jones in ProPublica).

Let me confess, however, that I had assumed that anti-affirmative-action litigators had found a white person for the case who had grades and a profile that would have gotten her in if race had not added points to an applicant of color.  This is certainly what the media coverage suggested until Hannah-Jones’s article.  This leads me to the critical thinking question: How can we ensure that we notice that we needed to probe assumptions we didn’t notice ourselves making?

I want to have guns because… (a critical thinking exericise)

Do you see something faulty in this account of three reasons one might want to have guns?

  1. I just want to have guns.
  2. I want to have guns because the Constitution gives me the right.
  3. I want to have guns so I can resist violations of the Constitution.

Take each in turn:

  1. -> Q: Why?
    • To protect myself against people who would harm me, especially with guns -> Q: What other forms of protection would suffice or do better?  (An elected government might provide some of these forms of protection.)
    • To be able to blast away others.  (An elected government should protect others by preventing this.)
    • To hunt -> Q: What is the minimum capacity gun that suffices for hunting? (An elected government might legislate this capacity as a limit to guns purchased.)
    • To resist an elected government if they do something I don’t like (including something I claim is against the Constitution).  -> Q: Would you ever rely on future elections and the Constitutional checks and balances to push back, without using guns, against what the government did?
  2. -> Q: Would giving everyone a simple, C18 militia-ready gun at age 18 (and controlling all other gun purchases) meet the requirement of 2nd amendment?
    • Yes.
    • No. In my view, this violates the Constitution.
    • No. In the view of the Courts, this violates the Constitution.
  3. ->Q: Who decides what violates the Constitution?
    • With respect to violations by elected governments, I accept that the Constitution provides for checks and balances. (If I didn’t, then I can’t appeal to rights provided by that same Constitution and I’d be back with #1 for why I want to have guns.)
    • Obviously, an invader or insurgency that overthrows the Constitutionally elected government violates the Constitution. However, if an elected government decides that the best defence against this possibility is through the military budget and diplomacy, not by endorsing individual gun ownership outside militias regulated by the government, then I would cease to invoke this possibility for why I want to have guns (even though I might get involved in elections to change the government or its policies). (If I kept invoking this possibility, then I would not be accepting the actions of the Constitutionally elected government, which means I’m not fully accepting the Constitution which would put me back with #1 for why I want to have guns.)



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