Critical Thinking.

Please consider the first phrase in the Bolinas-Stinson School Vision Statement:

We educate students to be inspired critical thinkers…

I think that is wonderful! Since we believe our job is to facilitate critical thinking in our students, we should also want adults in our school community to think critically so that they can teach critical thinking both by example and as part of the instructional program.  Unfortunately, adults do not always agree on what critical thinking means, much less on how to help students become inspired practitioners of it. So we have a little work to do:

Step 1: Start with a simple definition of Critical Thinking: 

The practice of thinking in a clear, rational, open-minded way that is informed by evidence.

When we say we want our students to be “inspired critical thinkers,” I think that’s what we mean. We want their thinking to be clear, logical, as free as possible from prejudice and backed up by reliable evidence.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves; as humans we are subject to moments of irrationality. We all hold beliefs based on things other than solid evidence and sound reasoning.  So this is an exercise in improvement not a pursuit of perfection.  It helps to keep this perspective: The work of critical thinking never ends; it’s more like brushing and flossing than it is like curing a disease. So when you find yourself thinking un-critically, cut yourself some slack and think again.

Step 2:  Understand key critical thinking concepts and habits.

In order to understand whether or not one is thinking critically, it’s a good idea to understand basic rules of logic and what it looks like when people violate them.  Over the next several months (and starting today) I will post short articles related to critical thinking definitions and concepts.  My hope it that this will provide members of our school community with a set of shared terms that we can use to promote the cause of critical thinking, particularly with our children. 

Step 3:  Continue the conversation.

As we collaborate in our efforts to educate students to be “inspired critical thinkers,” my hope is that we will use the language of critical thinking overtly in our work at school and challenge one another to remain clear, open minded and aware of the need to provide evidence to support our beliefs, policies and practices.

Critical Thinking Terms # 1:  Propositions and the burden of proof:

A proposition is a statement that someone makes and wants or expects others to believe.  It’s basically someone saying that something is so. 

Here are a few examples of propositions:

  • The ocean temperature right off the Bolinas Channel is 54 degrees.
  • Students will learn more if we are nice to them.
  • We need to add a school bus stop.

People have different responses to different propositions.  For example when someone says that it’s better to start school at 9:00, you might simply agree.  But an inspired critical thinker will take time to consider the proposition critically, knowing that agreement between 2 people (or 2000) does not mean that a proposition is true. A critical thinker will want evidence to support the proposition.

If you look at the four propositions above you will notice that each one would require different kinds of evidence. 

  • The idea that the ocean is 54 degrees requires simple evidence that may be hard to get.  One could swim or boat out with a thermometer and read it… and that might convince most people.  Perhaps we trust a website enough to believe what it says.
  • The example about being nice to students is simple- maybe even common sense- but it seems to demand evidence including a definition for “learn more” and for “nice”.  Actually measuring those things could even be more difficult than a swim in cold water.  Most of us can agree on what 54 degrees means but we might argue about how to measure niceness or even learning.
  • The proposition about the bus stop requires something else- an understanding of what creates a need for a bus stop and a demonstration that such a need exists.  What one person sees as a need another might view as a luxury.

So when someone says something (makes a proposition) where do we get the evidence to consider it critically and how do we know when we have enough evidence to move on?

That brings us to this concept: burden of proof.  A basic rule in philosophy (logic)  is that the person making a proposition takes on the job (burden) of providing enough proof to support it.  Thus, in critical thinking, when you say something, you automatically take on the task of having to provide sufficient evidence to support your claim.

That is an important idea because it forces people to be clear about what they think and why they think it before they ask others to agree or act.  It also helps us resist the temptation to make the logical mistake of assuming something is true because no one seems to be able to show that it isn’t. That is called a fallacy and we will deal with that next time.