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 (http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/601-99.html)

  • 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?


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

2 Responses to A manifesto for critical thinking (from 1995)

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Thank you for this–a chance to fill a gap in my education (since I had something different than CCT in my Critical Thinking course).

  2. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I have been reflecting on this critical thinking idea of alternatives and wondered if a Creative tension mandela is possible–one strand having intentional planning and play, another serendipity and persistence and so on. Since this is based on the ideas above, extending (or not extending) these ideas should come from the originator rather than the adapter though. But I think that it could be interesting to explore if it is possible then to take a creative theory and come up with an opposing but equally valid alternative if crediting the above inspiration for this.

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