Critical thinking as an entry point, not a foundation

What is the goal of having a required course on critical thinking for a graduate program in critical and creative thinking? The goal, I think, is to foster something and foster the students’ capacity to do likewise, to pay it forward. What is that “something” and what is its relationship to “critical thinking”?

My answer to the first question is that the something is a sense of “ITS CAPL”— impossible to simply continue along previous lines. It may be possible to continue along previous lines, but it is no longer a simple matter to do so. At every moment, or at frequent intervals, the person is aware of alternatives, interested to explore them, ready to make some changes. A relevant image is that it is like a journey, involving risk, opening up questions, creating more experiences than can be integrated for slot, requiring support, and yielding personal change. A shorthand for all this might be “alternatives thinking” (which also avoids the negative connotations that “critical” has).

My answer to the second question is that critical thinking might be seen as people understanding ideas and practices better when they can hold them in tension with alternatives. This definition is quite compatible with more conventional definitions of critical thinking, in which the person scrutinizes assumptions, evidence, and reasoning. However, I want to distance my view from any sense that critical thinking is the foundation on which the rest of the courses in critical and creative thinking program build. And from a sense that critical thinking is a coherent set of skills and dispositions to be fostered on their own, as in the “teaching of thinking.” Instead the critical thinking course provides an entry point. Teaching critical thinking is an opportunity to introduce tools and processes that the student may adopt and adapt in the larger process of developing towards a sense of ITS CAPL. But one entry point among others into this larger process.

Now, the tools and processes might at some points in the course be directly taught, the way one might be taught to bring perspective into a drawing by tracing lines to a point on the horizon. Yet, even then, the teaching should not be conveyed as some necessary foundational steps towards competence in critical thinking. Instead, the direct instruction is something to be complemented by more indirect fostering of a sense of ITS CAPL.

Two relevant analogies: It is possible if you have hypertension for a doctor to focus directly on reducing your hypertension, by prescribing you some medicine. This approach does not address why you developed hypertension, nor does it address how to reduce the incidence of hypertension in society in the future. Nor does it address why, for example, why African-Americans have a higher incidence of hypertension. To spell out the analogy, if a teacher saw illogical or loose arguments being made, the teacher could provide instruction in how to identify and eliminate the error in question. But the teacher could also be interested to contribute to a culture that was less likely to deliver illogical or loose thinkers to their classes. Another analogy is coaching a soccer team. Of course, the coach tells the team members that they must try to get the ball into their net and stop the other team from doing so. But the coach that simply emphasizes that objective will surely be a coach of a losing team. Instead, the soccer coach needs to train the players in fitness, controlling the ball, passing to well-positioned teammates, keeping a sense at all times with the other teammates are, and so on. In this spirit, the teacher of a course in critical thinking, now construed as one entry point into the development of ITS CAPL, has to design a training program in alternatives thinking. What that might look like will be the subject of future posts.


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 Critical thinking as an entry point, not a foundation

  1. Pingback: Repeated reflection as part of development as a critical thinker (and more) | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  2. Pingback: Why teach critical thinking even as an entry point? | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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