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


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, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

2 Responses to Indirect paths to critical thinking

  1. Your list is comprehensive so it is hard to come up with “other” as you offered. I would like to thank you for giving that opportunity to consider indirect paths for critical thinking empathy. I know that you will come up with more and richer resources, but I wondered if there are ways to build on the application portion since you inspire a lot of directions to go with your thinking. Are there ways you have currently worked empathy into a course as suggested by Sylvia?

    In Action Research you have scenarios and problems that have no ‘right answer’ (such as setting up a snack system exercise which is deceptively simple, but not about the solution as much as the process). Could this thinking be extended here? I think for empathy it might be interesting to offer scenarios in which there are only wrong answer (darned if you do, darned if you don’t) problems to work on. (This is an abstract way to learn about polarization since that is a big issue-no right answer no matter what is offered.)

    Another exercise might be for people/groups to in some way caricature themselves–take their opinions and positions to the next level, even the extreme, to be able to see what they look like to others/themselves so that you are not walking a mile in someone else’s shoes you are walking ten miles further in your own.

    Hope this helps since your work is fueling some more ideas for mine. Thanks for the post!

  2. feedback from a live audience
    • are there processes that move beyond the individual and have the institution or social norms the root?
    • Would like to see an activity using the steps, a scaled down application of one aspect maybe
    • Another possible indirect path to critical thinking: CEs and dialogue processes as ways of exposing participants to alternatives that they hadn’t yet thought about

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