What Critical Thinking is:
Critical thinking is about thinking for yourself rather than accepting, without questioning, the thinking someone else presents to you. Critical thinking identifies and examines underlying assumptions and biases about a concept, a discourse, a work of art or written expression, or some other abstract idea. It involves judgement – your judgement, which is justified with reasons and evidence. The process of critical thinking might lead you to agree with an argument (I do, for example, accept that the current Climate Change is a phenomenon that has been accelerated by human actions) or disagree (I do not accept that women are under-represented in the NZ Honours lists because they are less deserving of awards than men), but the most important aspect of a critical thinking judgement is presenting the reasoning and evidence on which your judgement is based. That allows others to use their own critical thinking skills on your work.
Ask yourself some questions about this picture and quote! Sourced from iRevolutions blog by Patrick Meier, entry of 31 March 2013
What Critical Thinking is not:
Critical thinking is often confused with criticism, yet criticism is a concept that intersects with critical thinking. It does not tell the whole story.
- Criticism is about finding fault with something. Critical thinking is about judgement, which can include finding faults and flaws, but has more emphasis on questioning and analysis.
- Criticism is often directed at a person. Critical thinking should always be directed towards the argument (or produced work, or concept).
- Criticism is sometimes driven by emotion. Critical thinking analyses emotion as part of the overall process.
A recent example in Aotearoa of critical thinking in the public arena concerns the book The Luminaries, written by Eleanor Catton. It won the prestigious Man Booker prize, and suddenly Catton was famous. However, as Simon Wilson, editor of the Metro, said, “[the literary critics] did not feel obliged to gush and rave, simply because the book had been anointed by a judging panel in [England].” Instead, he said, the critics did what critics were supposed to do, and that is they wrote about their responses to the book and explained why they had those responses, with a view to helping the reading public to engage more deeply with the book. “They treated Catton as a major artist whose public deserved as insightful a critique as they could muster. They treated her seriously.” For an artist or an academic, it is a mark of approval by peers to have one’s work considered worthy of critique. However, the further developments also showed the general confusion of critical thinking with criticism, when Catton made some public statements which was greeted with name calling – personal attack without reasoning or evidence.
The difference between description and critical thinking:
Description ‘tells it like it is’; critical thinking asks questions. Nothing is taken for granted in critical thinking. Examples of questions that can be asked are (there isn’t a limit, it depends on your context and your purpose):
- What are the underlying assumptions that this work is based on? How does the argument change if you challenge that assumption?
- Who is the producer of this work and what do I know about them?
- Does the reasoning and justification make sense to me?
- What is the evidence and do I trust it? Why?
- What has been missed, what is ignored?
- How does the argument change if you view if from someone else’s perspective – e.g. an indigenous person in a colonised country, a woman, a child, a homeless person, a gay person?
Here is an example of the difference between descriptive writing and critical thinking from a film review by Sheila O’Malley of the final Hobbit movie The Battle of the Five Armies, which shows both elements (as most critiques will need to do).
The “very terrible” battle takes up only one chapter in Tolkien’s novel and is the majority of the action in Peter Jackson‘s final entry in “The Hobbit” trilogy. It’s a stunner of a sequence, although it also illuminates the flawed logic of stretching out Tolkien’s book into three installments. What is the real story? How do we get from A to B? And, crucially, why do we care?
And where is Bilbo Baggins in all of it? The novel is concise, humorous, with a dark periphery, and even in the midst of extremely tense moments, we have Bilbo, a tut-tutting little homebody, wondering how the heck he got involved in all of this nonsense in the first place. There’s not enough Bilbo in “The Battle of the Five Armies.” The story misses his presence.
Critical thinking – giving a judgement on the film and pointing out where some of the flaws are, through posing questions and comparing the film with the novel it is based on (justifying the judgement, giving reasons and considering other evidence from beyond the film, i.e. the book).
“The Battle of the Five Armies” picks up where “Desolation of Smaug” left off: Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has burst free into the air, and descends onto the helpless people of Laketown in a blitzkrieg of fire. Bard (Luke Evans) becomes the natural leader of the traumatized refugees, who straggle around dazed at the destruction of their homes. An endless line of devastated people trail up the dizzying slopes towards the Lonely Mountain, where they hope to receive compensation for all they have lost. Meanwhile, the Dwarf contingency, along with Bilbo, hole themselves up in the Mountain, protecting the treasure, most of the dwarves uneasy about the increasingly paranoid leadership of Thorin (Richard Armitage).
Descriptive writing – telling the story as it is shown on the film, enough so that those who haven’t seen the film are able to understand something about the storyline.
The real story is about greed, what Tolkien termed “dragon-sickness,” and when Jackson focuses on that aspect, “Battle of the Five Armies” finds its footing. It’s a strong theme, Shakespearean in scope, perfectly exemplified in one nightmare sequence in which Thorin, lost to “dragon-sickness,” greedy and jumpy, finds himself sucked into a monstrous whirlpool of thick molten gold. Everyone who has read the book knows that Thorin loses it once he has the gold under his care, but Jackson imagined it in a way that is surreal and visceral.
Critical thinking – this time pointing out strengths of the film, using an example from the film to illustrate the point being made.
Peter Jackson has devoted an enormous part of his life to the creation of these films, and taken all together they are a major accomplishment. … But that magic something is missing in “Battle.”
Critical thinking – acknowledging the credentials of the producer of the work and (his) experience, yet not being overawed by this and still treating the review of this particular film as separate to reviews of other films by the same director.
The value of such clearly outlined critical thinking is that you, as a reader and a potential viewer of the film, can look at the arguments and agree or disagree with them, and help you think more deeply about the film. This is not the sort of independent viewpoint that you will get from the publicity material for the film. That is where the critic/reviewer/critical thinker adds value to public and academic debate.
Further resources on critical thinking:
Qualiasoup: Critical Thinking video
What is Critical Thinking? By Joe Lau & Jonathan Chan, (includes the above embedded video)
Critical thinking on the Web: a directory of quality online resources.
Critical Essay. From Custom-Essays.org.