Steps in development of a critical thinker

Someone wanting to develop as a critical thinker might, when faced with lists of skills, habits, dispositions in various texts on critical thinking, benefit from seeing the list ordered.  That is, we would identify what conditions are conducive of other conditions and thus might be worked on first?  This would also help someone wanting to foster critical thinking in others.  Such was the rationale for a recent activity undertaken in my experimental graduate Critical Thinking course.

The activity resulted in schemas.  For example, this.

Some preliminary observations include the following:

  • The schemas focus on what individuals need to do, which matches the emphasis of key texts in the field. This is in contrast to emphasizing ways that different contexts or the actions of others—teachers, coaches, parents, colleagues,…—foster the development of critical thinking.
  • By downplaying the context we don’t see the role of obstacles and overcoming obstacles in people’s development as critical thinkers. This strikes me as not like what happens to actual people, for whom shifts in thinking often follow significant events or realizations somewhere in their life course.
  • There is a chicken and egg issue, which corresponds somewhat to the ambiguous meaning of terms. For example, persistence might be lower down in one schema, because it makes it easier to put in place the other conditions, and it may be high in another schema, because it is a result of building a range of disposition and skills.
  • Something that was missing in the schemas was an item at the top that all the conditions were building towards. One might suggest that that top level is simply “thinking critically.” It might, however, be something different, a synthesis of the various conditions.  For example seeing life as a journey that involves risk, opens up ever more questions, provides more experiences than can be digested at first, and involves ongoing personal change. Moreover to support one’s own journey, one needs to support the journeys of others (Taylor 2002).
  • It may be that two schemas are needed: the first for oneself; the second for fostering critical thinking in others.  (My schema, based on the Coda to Taylor 2002, emphasized the latter.)

All this leads me to propose – or, at least, this is something I want to explore – that critical thinking be seen as a process of development in the context of support, with some of those processes being to build that context of support. Here are the opening words of post that I’m preparing which borrows from a post two years ago on the development of creativity:

An individual’s critical thinking happens and is recognized–or rebuffed–in some context.  Indeed, shaping the relevant context provides additional opportunities for an individual’s critical thinking.  An individual’s context-shaping efforts, in turn, influence the critical thinking pursuits of others.  Pursuits here means that critical thinking extends beyond what the individual does to how to foster it in others.

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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).

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