Becoming a critic of your thinking
by Dr. Linda Elder and Dr. Richard Paul
1. Clarify Your Thinking
Be on the look-out for vague, fuzzy, formless, blurred thinking. Try to figure out the real meaning of what people are saying. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Try to figure out the real meaning of important news stories. Explain your understanding of an issue to someone else to help clarify it in your own mind. Practice summarizing in your own words what others say. Then ask them if you understood them correctly. You should neither agree nor disagree with what anyone says until you (clearly) understand them.
Our own thinking usually seems clear to us, even when it is not. But vague, ambiguous, muddled, deceptive, or misleading thinking are significant problems in human life. If we are to develop as thinkers, we must learn the art of clarifying thinking, of pinning it down, spelling it out, and giving it a specific meaning. Here’s what you can do to begin. When people explain things to you, summarize in your own words what you think they said. When you cannot do this to their satisfaction, you don’t really understand what they said. When they cannot summarize what you have said to your satisfaction, they don’t really understand what you said. Try it. See what happens.
Strategies for Clarifying Your Thinking
- State one point at a time.
- Elaborate on what you mean
- Give examples that connect your thoughts to life experiences
- Use analogies and metaphors to help people connect your ideas to a variety of things they already understand (for example, critical thinking is like an onion. There are many layers to it. Just when you think you have it basically figured out, you realize there is another layer, and then another, and another and another and on and on)
Here is One Format You Can Use
- I think . . . (state your main point)
- In other words . . . (elaborate your main point)
- For example . . . (give an example of your main point)
- To give you an analogy . . . (give an illustration of your main point)
To Clarify Other People’s Thinking, Consider Asking the Following
- Can you restate your point in other words? I didn’t understand you.
- Can you give an example?
- Let me tell you what I understand you to be saying. Did I understand you correctly?
2. Stick to the Point
Be on the lookout for fragmented thinking, thinking that leaps about with no logical connections. Start noticing when you or others fail to stay focused on what is relevant. Focus on finding what will aid you in truly solving a problem. When someone brings up a point (however true) that doesn’t seem pertinent to the issue at hand, ask, “How is what you are saying relevant to the issue?” When you are working through a problem, make sure you stay focused on what sheds light on and, thus, helps address the problem. Don’t allow your mind to wander to unrelated matters. Don’t allow others to stray from the main issue. Frequently ask: “What is the central question? Is this or that relevant to it? How?”
When thinking is relevant, it is focused on the main task at hand. It selects what is germane, pertinent, and related. It is on the alert for everything that connects to the issue. It sets aside what is immaterial, inappropriate, extraneous, and beside the point. What is relevant directly bears upon (helps solve) the problem you are trying to solve. When thinking drifts away from what is relevant, it needs to be brought back to what truly makes a difference. Undisciplined thinking is often guided by associations (this reminds me of that, that reminds me of this other thing) rather than what is logically connected (“If a and b are true, then c must also be true”). Disciplined thinking intervenes when thoughts wander from what is pertinent and germane concentrating the mind on only those things that help it figure out what it needs to figure out.
Ask These Questions to Make Sure Thinking is Focused on What is Relevant
- Am I focused on the main problem or task?
- How is this connected? How is that?
- Does my information directly relate to the problem or task?
- Where do I need to focus my attention?
- Are we being diverted to unrelated matters?
- Am I failing to consider relevant viewpoints?
- How is your point relevant to the issue we are addressing?
- What facts are actually going to help us answer the question? What considerations should be set aside?
- Does this truly bear on the question? How does it connect?
3. Question Questions
Be on the lookout for questions. The ones we ask. The ones we fail to ask. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Listen to how people question, when they question, when they fail to question. Look closely at the questions asked. What questions do you ask, should you ask? Examine the extent to which you are a questioner, or simply one who accepts the definitions of situations given by others.
Most people are not skilled questioners. Most accept the world as it is presented to them. And when they do question, their questions are often superficial or “loaded.” Their questions do not help them solve their problems or make better decisions. Good thinkers routinely ask questions in order to understand and effectively deal with the world around them. They question the status quo. They know that things are often different from the way they are presented. Their questions penetrate images, masks, fronts, and propaganda. Their questions make real problems explicit and discipline their thinking through those problems. If you become a student of questions, you can learn to ask powerful questions that lead to a deeper and more fulfilling life. Your questions become more basic, essential, and deep.
Strategies for Formulating More Powerful Questions
- Whenever you don’t understand something, ask a question of clarification.
- Whenever you are dealing with a complex problem, formulate the question you are trying to answer in several different ways (being as precise as you can) until you hit upon the way that best addresses the problem at hand.
- Whenever you plan to discuss an important issue or problem, write out in advance the most significant questions you think need to be addressed in the discussion. Be ready to change the main question, but once made clear, help those in the discussion stick to the question, making sure the dialogue builds toward an answer that makes sense.
Questions You Can Ask to Discipline Your Thinking
What precise question are we trying to answer?
Is that the best question to ask in this situation?
Is there a more important question we should be addressing?
Does this question capture the real issue we are facing?
Is there a question we should answer before we attempt to answer this question?
What information do we need to answer the question?
What conclusions seem justified in light of the facts?
What is our point of view? Do we need to consider another?
Is there another way to look at the question?
What are some related questions we need to consider?
What type of question is this: an economic question, a political question, a legal question, etc.?
4. Be Reasonable
Be on the lookout for reasonable and unreasonable behaviors — yours and others. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Listen to what people say. Look closely at what they do. Notice when you are unwilling to listen to the views of others, when you simply see yourself as right and others as wrong. Ask yourself at those moments whether their views might have any merit. See if you can break through your defensiveness to hear what they are saying. Notice unreasonableness in others. Identify times when people use language that makes them appear reasonable, though their behavior proves them to be otherwise. Try to figure out why you, or others, are being unreasonable. Might you have a vested interested in not being open-minded? Might they?
One of the hallmarks of a critical thinker is the disposition to change one’s mind when given good reason to change. Good thinkers want to change their thinking when they discover better thinking. They can be moved by reason. Yet, comparatively few people are reasonable. Few are willing to change their minds once set. Few are willing to suspend their beliefs to fully hear the views of those with which they disagree. How would you rate yourself?
Strategies for Becoming More Reasonable
Say aloud, “I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. I’m often wrong.” See if you have the courage to admit this during a disagreement: “Of course, I may be wrong. You may be right.”
Practice saying in your own mind, “I may be wrong. I often am. I’m willing to change my mind when given good reasons.” Then look for opportunities to make changes in your thinking.
Ask yourself, “When was the last time I changed my mind because someone gave me better reasons for his (her) views than I had for mine?” (To what extent are you open to new ways of looking at things? To what extent can you objectively judge information that refutes what you already think?)
Realize That You are Being Close-Minded If You
a. are unwilling to listen to someone’s reasons
b. are irritated by the reasons people give you
c. become defensive during a discussion
After you catch yourself being close-minded, analyze what was going on in your mind by completing these statements:
a. I realize I was being close-minded in this situation because . . .
b. The thinking I was trying to hold onto is . . .
c. Thinking that is potentially better is . . .
d. This thinking is better because . . .
In closing, let me remind you that the ideas in this article are a very few of the many ways in which critical thinkers bring intellectual discipline to bear upon their thinking. The best thinkers are those who understand the development of thinking as a process occurring throughout many years of practice in thinking. They recognize the importance of learning about the mind, about thoughts, feelings and desires and how these functions of the mind interrelate. They are adept at taking thinking apart, and then assessing the parts when analyzed. In short, they study the mind, and they apply what they learn about the mind to their own thinking in their own lives.
The extent to which any of us develops as a thinker is directly determined by the amount of time we dedicate to our development, the quality of the intellectual practice we engage in, and the depth, or lack thereof, of our commitment to becoming more reasonable, rational, successful persons.
Elder, L. and Paul, R. (2004). Adapted from The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Strategic Thinking: 25 Weeks to Better Thinking and Better Living.
This article was adapted from the book, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.