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Hispanic Outlook

Critical Thinking: Hispanic Imperative
What It Is and Why We Need It

The significance of critical thinking to the Hispanic community has not yet been duly recognized. Perhaps the most fundamental goal we should have for our children is preparing them to be effective problem solvers and decision makers. To achieve this end, students must learn how to minimize poor thinking and maximize good thinking in addressing problems and potential decisions.

Critical thinking is the art of thinking better as a result of analyzing and assessing thinking effectively. To understand the importance of critical thinking, it is helpful to understand ways in which poor thinking gets us into trouble.

Here is a partial list of how thinking can go bad. Ask yourself how often students:
are unclear, muddled, or confused
jump to conclusions
fail to think through implications
lose trace of their goal
are unrealistic
focus on the trivial
do not notice contradictions
accept inaccurate information
ask vague questions
give vague answers
ask loaded questions
ask irrelevant questions
confuse questions of different types
answer questions they are not competent to answer
come to conclusions based on inaccurate or irrelevant information
use only the information that supports their view
make inferences not justified by their experience
distort data and state it inaccurately
do not notice the inferences they make
come to unreasonable conclusions
do not notice their assumptions
make unjustified assumptions
miss key ideas
use irrelevant ideas
form confused ideas
form superficial concepts
misuse words
ignore relevant viewpoints
cannot see issues from points of view other than their own
confuse issues of different types
are unaware of their prejudices
think narrowly
think imprecisely
think illogically
think one-sidedly
think simplistically
think hypocritically
think superficially
think ethnocentrically
think egocentrically
think irrationally
do poor problem solving
do poor decision making
are poor communicators
have little insight into their own ignorance

Each of these habits is characteristic of those who have not been taught the art of critical thinking. They all wreak havoc in our lives. It is not in the interest of Hispanic students to think unclearly, inaccurately, imprecisely, irrelevantly, superficially, narrow-mindedly, illogically and unfairly. Presently, the schooling of Hispanics is doing little to teach students to think critically.

The way we think defines us as a species, a culture, a society, a civilization, and as a people. Yet, the history of thought is a history of learning after the fact what we should have been thinking when we thought we were thinking quite well (thank you very much!). In other words, our history has been a product of beliefs (of mixed quality including insights and prejudices, knowledge and ignorance) embedded in our lives.

Diversity is critical to reason and reasoning. Marvin Minsky, the father of artificial intelligence, once said you really never understand anything unless youve understood it in at least two ways. There are many, many insights waiting for us in the viewpoints and world views of others. Critical thinking lets us climb out of the intellectual traps we have inherited from our environment to see and understand the world in new ways.

We are all born into different backgrounds, cultures and circumstances. Each of us has inherited values and belief systems that live within us. Some of our beliefs are a blessing; others are a curse. It is our responsibility, to ourselves and to each other, to figure out which is which. The tools, the skills, the process that helps us achieve that is called critical thinking.

About the Authors:
Dr. Richard Paul is director of research and professional development at the Center for Critical Thinking, which he founded, and chair of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. He has taught beginning and advanced courses in critical thinking at the university level for more than 20 years, and has written seven books and more than 200 articles on the subject. Dr. Linda Elder, an educational psychologist, is executive director of the Center for Critical Thinking, and president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. She currently co-authors a quarterly column on critical thinking in the Journal of Developmental Education, and co-authored, with Dr. Paul, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life.


A Brief History of Critical Thinking

The following historical overview of critical thinking was drawn from materials available through the Center for Critical Thinking, Sonoma State University. For a more complete history, including the centuries that followed the death of Socrates, up to the last 35 years.

The idea of critical thinking derives from roots in ancient Greek: kriticos (meaning discerning judgment) and kriterion (meaning standards). In Websters New World Dictionary, the relevant entry reads characterized by careful analysis and judgment and is followed by: critical, in its strictest sense, implies an attempt at objective judgment so as to determine both merits and faults. We might provisionally define critical thinking as thinking that examines thinking to improve thinking. It is explicitly aimed at well-founded judgment. It uses intellectual standards to determine strengths and weaknesses of thinking.

Research reflects the common perception that human thinking left to itself often gravitates toward prejudice, over-generalization, common fallacies, self-deception, rigidity, and narrowness. The critical thinking tradition seeks ways of understanding the mind and then training the intellect so that such errors, blunders, and distortions of thought are minimized. It assumes that the capacity of humans for good reasoning can be nurtured and developed by an educational process aimed directly at that end. It assumes that sound critical thinking maximizes our ability to solve problems by helping us to avoid common mistakes and to proceed in the most rational fashion. The idea of critical thinking did not develop suddenly, but rather progressively (with emergences and suppressions) over a couple of thousand years.

Its historical roots are traceable to the teaching practice and vision of a teacher named Socrates who 2,400 years ago developed a way of deeply questioning what people think and believe. Using his probing method, Socrates discovered that none of the leaders in his city-state could rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge. Confused meanings, inadequate evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath smooth but largely empty rhetoric.

Socrates was the first to establish that one cannot depend upon those in authority within a community to have sound knowledge and insight. He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position and yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief. He established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done. His method of questioning is the best known critical thinking teaching strategy.

Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking: namely, to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those that are reasonable and logical from those whichhowever appealing they may be to our native egocentrism, however much they serve our vested interests, however comfortable or comforting they may belack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant our belief.

The Last 35 Years: Three Waves
The 1970s witnessed the birth of a movement among a vocal minority of educatorsto teach critical thinking explicitly in the schools, colleges, and universities. This movement has generated three waves. The first was initiated by college and university faculty concerned that their students were not thinking critically in the classroom.

Courses were established, primarily in philosophy departments, with a view to transfer critical thinking to all the students other courses. Content in these general education courses were composed fundamentally of some combination of formal and informal logic. Unfortunately, the training in logic seemed to have little effect on how students went about learning in their other courses. Indeed, many students successfully used rote memorization to pass their logic course.

The second wave emerged because of the failure of general education (GE) courses in critical thinking to help students reason better, across the disciplines. Second wave enthusiasts tried to explore the connection between critical thinking and self-esteem, feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism, creativity, rhetoric, communication theory, etc. The problem with second wave theoreticians is that they share little in common. They show no sign of having studied the history of critical thinking. What they propose, therefore, varies enormously from theoretician to theoretician. At times political or ideological correctness seems to be masking as critical thinking.

Third wave proponentsmost affiliated with or influenced by the Foundation for Critical Thinkingstrive to go beyond the narrowness of a logic-based concept of critical thinking, beyond the messiness of an everything goes concept of critical thinking. Both intellectual rigor and comprehensiveness are viewed as essential to any concept of critical thinking that is to be useful across the curriculum and in everyday professional and personal life.

The third wave is seen as a limited success. A major study of critical thinking suggests the nub of the problem. It is the tendency of faculty to give lip service to the importance of critical thinking, on the one hand, while ignoring it in the day-to-day planning of instruction, on the other hand. The problem is seen as calling for long-term professional development of faculty. But many faculty are convinced that they already know pretty much all of what they need to know about thinking, teaching, and learning to effectively foster critical thinking in their students. An interesting review of related research can be found through the centers Web site.

The Sonoma State Center and the Foundation
Critical thinking, as a defined core of concepts, skills and best practices that generalize across the curriculum, came into focus in the mid-1970s. It was galvanized into a movement for educational reform when the first organization created to promote critical thinking that applies to all subjects and disciplines was founded by Dr. Richard Paul at Sonoma State University in 1980.

The center was launched largely as a reaction to a growing awareness that many teacherspressured to cover content and move onand students pressured to score well on testshad fallen into an understanding based upon mutual accommodation and convenience. This collusion was said to be undermining not only the learning process, but also a teachers ability to turn out students capable of participating and competing in all aspects of life, business and society. Teachers were trying to lecture students into becoming better thinkers. Students were memorizing what they took to be the correct answers provided by the lectures. Sound familiar?

The Center for Critical Thinking claims to be the first to define and promote a view of critical thinking principles that translated into practical strategies for deep learning. And the first to call for intellectual standards (clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, fairness) that faculty and students recognize as universal.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking was established, also by Paul, soon after the center to provide an off-campus outreach, information, training, and funding for projects of the center. The center, through its foundation, has encouraged the creation and development of other centers for critical thinking at other universities worldwide. Some of its publications have been translated into other languages, including Japanese and Spanish.

The foundation had a significant influence in getting critical thinking onto the national agenda and into the Goals 2000 initiative. And reports that today there is some form of legislation highlighting the importance of critical thinking in classrooms in each of the 50 states. Unfortunately, though some states, such as Hawaii and Washington, have embraced critical thinking in practical ways, most, it is said, have merely paid it lip service. Worse, theyve created inadequate or bad law like No Child Left Behind, which transforms schools into test prep centers at the price of education itself.

The center conducts advanced research and some of the findings of that research can be reviewed via its Web site. Its Study of 38 Public Universities and 28 Private Universities to Determine Faculty Emphasis on Critical Thinking, conducted in the mid-1990s, lends credence to charges that critical thinking is not alive and well in the U.S. educational system.

The center has hosted an annual international conference every year since 1980, and has worked with national entities such as The College Board, the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of Education. It routinely conducts in-service workshops and seminars in universities, colleges, school districts, and training throughout the world. Its constituencies include corporations, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the state of Hawaii, to name a few.

The foundation integrates the centers research and theoretical developments, and hosts events that help educators improve their instruction. It has developed books, textbooks, micro-publications, and videos, and special events that include the National Academy (Training for Trainers) and the National Academy for Administrators.

The foundation is the business arm of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (NCECT), which fosters intellectual standards in related research, scholarship and instruction, and the International Center for Assessment of Higher Order Thinking (ICAT), which helps K-12 schools, school districts, colleges, and universities worldwide to design cost effective ways to track, measure and determine their success at teaching students fundamental critical thinking skills. It has designed the International Critical Thinking Test, an assessment instrument that benchmarks against prompts in any and all subjects to measure the abilities of learners to think critically.


A Brief History of Critical Thinking Continued

Due to space limitations, the following history was not included in the original Critical Thinking Hispanic Imperative Article in Hispanic Outlook. It continues the brief history of Critical Thinking.

In the middle ages, the form of questioning and thinking of the Greeks was largely lost, expect as embodied in an emergent theological tradition, thought through by a small religious "elite." The individual person in society was not viewed as a "citizen" who needed to debate the issues facing the community, nor even as capable of independence of thought, but rather as a subordinate to those at the top of civil and religious governance. Critical thinking, during the middle ages, was therefore largely limited to priestly thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (Sumna Theologica) whoto ensure his thinking met the test of critical thoughtalways systematically stated, considered, and answered all criticisms he could think of as a necessary stage in developing them. Aquinas heightened our awareness not only of the potential power of reasoning but also of the need for reasoning to be systematically cultivated and cross-examined.

In the Renaissance (15th and 16th Centuries), a flood of scholars in Europe began to think critically about religion, art, society, human nature, law, and freedom. They proceeded with the assumption that most of the domains of human life were in need of searching analysis and critique. Among these scholars were Colet, Erasmus, and More in England.

Many of the better educated people started to question the ideas of the past, to "awaken" themselves to "new" ways to think, believe, and act (though much of what was "new" was really old ideas from ancient Greece and Rome made available). This "awakening" was accelerated by the discovery of old manuscripts and the invention of printing. The best thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome became accessible to many more people. Self-education, along with the consequent encouragement to think for oneself, became more prevalent. Many of the beliefs expressed in old manuscripts contradicted received beliefs and present authority.

The religious warfare of the 16th century added to the growing distrust of the dogmatism that had previously dominated all levels of society and belief. The atmosphere in which individuals might begin to think about their thinking and reflect on how they formed their beliefs was developing more and more.

Francis Bacon (England) was explicitly concerned with the way humans misuse their minds in seeking knowledge. He recognized explicitly that the mind cannot safely be left to its natural tendencies. In his book The Advancement of Learning, he argued for the importance of studying the world empirically. He laid the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on the information-gathering processes. He also called attention to the fact that most people, if left to their own devices, develop bad habits of thought (which he called "idols") that lead them to believe what is false or misleading. He called attention to "Idols of the tribe" (the ways our mind naturally tends to trick itself), "Idols of the market-place" (the ways we misuse words), "Idols of the theater" (our tendency to become trapped in conventional systems of thought), and "Idols of the schools" (the problems in thinking when based on blind rules and poor instruction). His book could be considered one of the earliest texts in critical thinking, for his agenda was very much the traditional agenda of critical thinking.

Some fifty years later in France, Descartes wrote what might be called the second text in critical thinking, Rules For the Direction of the Mind. In it, Descartes argued for the need for a special systematic disciplining of the mind to guide it in thinking. He articulated and defended the need in thinking for clarity and precision. He developed a method of critical thought based on the principle of systematic doubt. He emphasized the need to base thinking on well-thought through foundational assumptions. Every part of thinking, he argued, should be questioned, doubted, and tested.

In the same time period, Sir Thomas More developed a model of a new social order, Utopia, in which every domain of the present world was subject to critique. His implicit thesis was that established social systems are in need of radical analysis and critique. The critical thinking of these Renaissance and post-Renaissance scholars opened the way for the emergence of science and for the development of democracy, human rights, and freedom for thought.

In the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli (The Prince) critically assessed the politics of the day, and laid the foundation for modern critical political thought. He refused to assume that government functioned as those in power said it did. Rather, he critically analyzed how it did function and laid the foundation for political thinking that exposes both, on the one hand, the real agendas of politicians and, on the other hand, the many contradictions and inconsistencies of the hard, cruel, world of the politics of his day.

Hobbes and Locke (in 16th and 17th Century England) displayed the same confidence in the critical mind of the thinker that we find in Machiavelli. Neither accepted the traditional picture of things dominant in the thinking of their day. Neither accepted as necessarily rational that which was considered "normal" in their culture. Both looked to the critical mind to open up new vistas of learning. Hobbes adopted a naturalistic view of the world in which everything was to be explained by evidence and reasoning. Locke defended a common sense analysis of everyday life and thought. He laid the theoretical foundation for critical thinking about basic human rights and the responsibilities of all governments to submit to the reasoned criticism of thoughtful citizens.

It was in this spirit of intellectual freedom and critical thought that people such as Robert Boyle (in the 17th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (in the 17th and 18th Century) did their work. In his Sceptical Chymist, Boyle severely criticized the chemical theory that had preceded him. Newton, in turn, developed a far-reaching framework of thought which roundly criticized the traditionally accepted world view. He extended the critical thought of such minds as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. After Boyle and Newton, it was recognized by those who reflected seriously on the natural world that egocentric views of world must be abandoned in favor of views based entirely on carefully gathered evidence and sound reasoning .

Another significant contribution to critical thinking was made by the thinkers of the French enlightenment: Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. They all began with the premise that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world. What is more, for these thinkers, reason must turn inward upon itself, in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought. They valued disciplined intellectual exchange, in which all views had to be submitted to serious analysis and critique. They believed that all authority must submit in one way or another to the scrutiny of reasonable critical questioning.

Eighteenth Century thinkers extended our conception of critical thought even further, developing our sense of the power of critical thought and of its tools. Applied to the problem of economics, it produced Adam Smiths Wealth of Nations. In the same year, applied to the traditional concept of loyalty to the king, it produced the Declaration of Independence ---based on the view that the king was no more than the chief officer of the people, with limited powers, that revolution from unjust rule is a right, that "government is established by the consent of the governed and must serve the people," and that if any government tends to destroy the lives, the liberties, and the happiness of the people, "it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it." Applied to reason itself, it produced Kants Critique of Pure Reason.

In the 19th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human social life by Comte and Spencer. Applied to the problems of capitalism, it produced the searching social and economic critique of Karl Marx. Applied to the history of human culture and the basis of biological life, it led to Darwins Descent of Man. Applied to the unconscious mind, it is reflected in the works of Sigmund Freud. Applied to cultures, it led to the establishment of the field of Anthropological studies. Applied to language, it led to the field of Linguistics and to many deep probings of the functions of symbols and language in human life.

In the 20th Century, our understanding of the power and nature of critical thinking has emerged in increasingly more explicit formulations. In 1906, William Graham Sumner published a land-breaking study of the foundations of sociology and anthropology, Folkways, in which he documented the tendency of the human mind to think sociocentrically and the parallel tendency for schools to serve the (uncritical) function of social indoctrination :

"Schools make persons all on one pattern, orthodoxy. School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe...An orthodoxy is produced in regard to all the great doctrines of life. It consists of the most worn and commonplace opinions which are common in the masses. The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations (p. 630).

At the same time, Sumner recognized the deep need for critical thinking in life and in education:

"Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty. ...A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded...They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence...They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices...Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens (pp. 632, 633)."

John Dewey agreed. From his work, we have increased our sense of the pragmatic basis of human thought (its instrumental nature), and especially its grounding in actual human purposes, goals, and objectives. From the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein we have increased our awareness not only of the importance of concepts in human thought, but also of the need to analyze concepts and assess their power and limitations. From the work of Piaget, we have increased our awareness of the egocentric and sociocentric tendencies of human thought and of the special need to develop critical thought which is able to reason within multiple standpoints, and to be raised to the level of "conscious realization." From the massive contribution of all the hard sciences, we have learned the power of information and the importance of gathering information with great care and precision, and with sensitivity to its potential inaccuracy, distortion, or misuse. From the contribution of depth-psychology, we have learned how easily the human mind is self-deceived, how easily it unconsciously constructs illusions and delusions, how easily it rationalizes and stereotypes, projects and scapegoats.

All of the above notwithstanding, it is important to recognize that most scholars and teachers have not interested themselves in the history of critical thinking, so that the contributions of the forerunners above have often been ignored in the design of teaching. Thus, though the tools and resources of the critical thinker have been vastly increased in virtue of the history of critical thought, and though hundreds of thinkers have formulated insights relevant to critical thinking, critical thinking is not yet a significant part of the education of the "ordinary" person.

People still believe most of what they believe because those around them believe in it, because it is comfortable to believe it, because they are rewarded for believing it, because they want to believe it. Critical thinking is not common practice in the thinking of most humans today. It is still "exceptional" thinking, the thinking we sometimes do but usually fail to do.


This article has been slightly modified from the origina article publishe in the Hispanic outlook Magazine, Summer 2004.


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