1 Barriers to critical thinking
First, let’s briefly examine some barriers to critical thinking.
Take another look at the visual summary below on critical and analytical thinking, which was introduced at the end of Session 3. Note the warning sign next to the ‘black pit’ to the lower right of this figure.
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What are the common pitfalls or barriers to thinking critically and analytically? Some of these were highlighted in the visual summary, and include:
- Misunderstanding. This can arise due to language or cultural differences, a lack of awareness of the ‘processes’ involved, or a misunderstanding that critical thinking means making ‘negative’ comments (as discussed in Sessions 3 and 4).
- Reluctance to critique the ‘norm’ or experts in a field and consider alternative views (feeling out of your ‘comfort zone’ or fearful of being wrong).
- Lack of detailed knowledge. Superficial knowledge (not having read deeply enough around the subject).
- Wanting to know the answers without having to ask questions.
Why do you think being aware of these potential pitfalls is important?
As a critical and reflective thinker, you will need to be aware of the barriers, acknowledge the challenges they may present, and overcome these as best you can. This starts with an understanding of expectations. Some students feel anxious about questioning the work of experts. Critical thinking does not mean that you are challenging someone’s work or telling them that they are wrong, but encourages a deeper understanding, a consideration of alternative views, and engagement in thought, discourse or research that informs your independent judgement. At postgraduate level you will also need to read widely around a subject in order to engage effectively with critical and analytical thinking, and to ask questions: there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, only supported arguments. This is at the heart of postgraduate study.
Critical thinking encourages you to be constructive, by considering the strengths and weaknesses of a claim and differing sides to an argument. It helps you to clarify points, encourages deeper thought, and allows you to determine whether information that you come across is accurate and reliable. This helps you to form your own judgement, and drives research forward.
People can find it difficult to think critically, irrespective of their education or intellectual ability. The key to understanding critical thinking is not only knowing and making sure that you understand the process, but also being able to put this into practice by applying your knowledge.
Critical and reflective thinking are complex and lifelong skills that you continue to develop as part of your personal and professional growth. In your everyday life, you may also come across those who do not exercise critical thinking, and this might impact on decisions that affect you. It is important to recognise this, and to use critical and reflective thinking to ensure that your own view is informed by reasoned judgement, supported by evidence.
Take another look at the visual summary. You will see two aspects to critical thinking: one focusing on the disposition of the person engaged in critical and reflective thinking, and the other concerning their abilities. Let’s focus here on dispositions. At a personal level, barriers to critical thinking can arise through:
- an over-reliance on feelings or emotions
- self-centred or societal/cultural-centred thinking (conformism, dogma and peer-pressure)
- unconscious bias, or selective perception
- an inability to be receptive to an idea or point of view that differs from your own (close-mindedness)
- unwarranted assumptions or lack of relevant information
- fear of being wrong (anxious about being taken out of your ‘comfort zone’)
- poor communication skills or apathy
- lack of personal honesty.
Be aware that thinking critically is not simply adhering to a formula. For example, reflect on the following questions:
- How can you communicate with those who do not actively engage with critical thinking and are unwilling to engage in a meaningful dialogue?
- How would you react or respond when you experience a lack of critical thinking in the media, amongst your own family members, colleagues at work, or on your course?
Creativity and critical thinking sit atop most lists of skills crucial for success in the 21st century. They represent two of the “Four Cs” in P21’s learning framework (the other two being communication and collaboration), and they rank second and third on the World Economic Forum’s top ten list of skills workers will need most in the year 2020 (complex problem solving ranks first).
The various lists of 21st-century skills grant creativity and critical thinking such prominence in part because they are human abilities robots and AI are unlikely to usurp anytime soon. The picture of the near future that emerges from these compilations of skills is one in which people must compete against their own inventions by exploiting the most human of their human qualities: empathy, a willingness to work together, adaptability, innovation. As the 21st century unfolds, creativity and critical thinking appear as uniquely human attributes essential for staving off our own obsolescence.
Like many things human, however, creativity and critical thinking are not easily or consistently defined. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s list of “Deeper Learning Competencies,” for example, identifies creativity not as its own competency but as a tool for thinking critically. Bloom’s Taxonomy treats the two as separate educational goals, ranking creativity above critical thinking in the progression of intellectual abilities. Efforts to pin down these skills are so quickly muddled, one is tempted to fall back on the old Justice Stewart remark regarding obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that yardstick isn’t much help to teachers or students.
Definitions of creativity tend toward the broad and vague. One of the leading researchers in the area, Robert Sternberg, characterizes creativity as “a decision to buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.” While this is itself a creative approach to the problem of defining creativity, it is not a solution easily translated into a rubric.
Definitions of critical thinking don’t fare much better. According to one group of researchers, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Again, a curiously self-demonstrating definition, but not one ready-made for the classroom.
Generally speaking, creativity is associated with generating ideas, while critical thinking is associated with judging them. In practice, however, the two are not so easy to separate. As parents and teachers know well, creativity without critical judgment tends toward the fanciful, the impractical, the ridiculous. “Creative thinking” becomes a nice way of saying that someone’s ideas have run amok.
At the same time, critical thinking gets short shrift when reduced to making a judgment, since, at its best, critical thinking is also a way of making a contribution. It is fundamentally creative in the sense that its aim is to produce something new: an insight, an argument, a new synthesis of ideas or information, a new level of understanding.
Our grasp of creativity and critical thinking is improved when we see them in symbiotic relationship with one another. Creativity benefits from our recognizing the role of critical thinking in ensuring the value of novel ideas. In turn, critical thinking comes into clearer focus when we recognize it as a creative act that enriches understanding by giving rise to something that wasn’t there before.
What does this symbiotic relationship look like in the classroom? Here are a few educational contexts in which creativity is disciplined by critical thinking and critical thinking is expanded through recognition of its creative function:
- Writing. Creative writing only works when the writer’s critical judgment is brought to bear on the product of their imagination. However richly imagined, a story’s success depends on the skill with which its author corrals and controls their ideas, crafting them into something coherent and cohesive. Storycraft is accomplished by writers who discipline their own creative work by thinking critically about it.Successful academic writing — argumentative, expository — requires not just critical analysis but also creative invention. Academic writers enter into conversation with their readers, their instructors, fellow students, other writers and scholars, anyone affected by or invested in their topic. As in any conversation, a successful participant doesn’t simply repeat back what others have already said, but builds upon it, asking critical questions, fine-tuning points, proposing solutions — in short, creating and contributing something original that extends and enriches the conversation.
- History. History classes lend themselves readily to creative exercises like imagining the experiences of people in the past, or envisioning what the present might look like if this or that historical event had played out differently. These exercises succeed only when imagination is disciplined by critical thinking; conjectures must be plausible, connections must be logical, and the use of evidence must be reasonable.At the same time, critical analysis of historical problems often employs invention and is (or should be) rewarded for its creativity. For example, a student analyzing the US mission to the moon in terms of the theme of the frontier in American mythology is engaged in an intellectual activity that is at least as creative as it is evaluative.
- Math. Creative projects can generate engagement and enthusiasm in students, prompting them to learn things they might otherwise resist. In this example, a middle school math class learned about circuitry on their way to creating a keyboard made of bananas. Projects like this one demonstrate that creativity and critical thinking are reciprocal. A banana keyboard is unquestionably creative, but of little utility except insofar as it teaches something valuable about electronics. Yet, that lesson was made possible only by virtue of the creative impulse the project inspired in students.
The skills today’s students will need for success are, at a most basic level, the skills that humans have always relied on for success — the very things that make us human, including our creativity and our capacity for thinking critically. The fact that our defining qualities so often defy definition, that our distinctive traits are so frustratingly indistinct, is just another gloriously untidy part of us that robots will never understand.
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