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Published by: George on Mar 21, 2010
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Common misconceptions of critical thinking
In this paper, the ®rst of two, we analyse three widely-held conceptions of criticalthinking: as one or more skills, as mental processes, and as sets of procedures. Eachviewis, wecontend, wrong-headed, misleadingor, atbest, unhelpful. Somewhowriteabout critical thinkingseemtomuddle all three views inanunenlightening meÂlange.Apartfromtheerrorsorinadequaciesof theconceptionsthemselves, theypromoteorabet misconceivedpractices for teaching critical thinking. Together, theyhave ledtothe view that critical thinking is best taught by practising it. We oer alternativeproposals for the teaching of critical thinking.
Critical thinkingisasubject of considerablecurrentinterest, bothintermsof theory and pedagogy. A great deal is written about critical thinking,conferences on the subject abound, and educational initiatives aimed atfostering critical thinking proliferate.
It is our view that much of thetheoretical work and many of the pedagogical endeavours in this area aremisdirectedbecause they are basedon faulty conceptions of critical think-ing. Critical thinking is frequently conceptualized in terms of skills, pro-cesses, procedures and practice. Much of the educational literature eitherreferstocognitiveorthinkingskills orequatescriticalthinkingwithcertainmental processes or procedural moves that can be improved throughpractice. In this paper we attempt toexplain the misconceptions inherentin such ways of conceptualizing critical thinking. It is important to notethatmuchof theliteraturecontainsapervasivemiasmaof overlappingusesof such terms as skill, process, procedure, behaviour, mental operations,
 j. curriculum studies
3, 269±283
Sharon Bailin
, aprofessor intheFacultyof Education, SimonFraser University, Burnaby,British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6, is interested in philosophical inquiries into criticalthinking, creativity and aesthetic education. Her publications include
Reason and Values:NewEssaysinPhilosophy of Education
(Calgary, AB: Detselig, 1993
, co-editedwithJohnP.Portelli.
Roland Case
, anassociate professor in the Faculty of Education, SimonFraser University,conducts researchinsocial studies and legal andglobal education. His most recent bookis
The Canadian Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies
(Burnaby, BC: Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University
, co-edited with Penney Clark.
Jerrold R. Coombs
, aprofessor intheFacultyof Education, Universityof BritishColumbia,haspublishedextensivelyonethical issuesineducationandthedevelopmentof competencein practical reasoning. His publications include
Applied Ethics: A Reader
(Oxford: Black-well, 1993
, co-edited with Earl R. Winkler.
LeRoi B. Daniels
, a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Education, University of BritishColumbia, is interested inphilosophyof mind andlegal education. He is currently editing(with Roland Case
the `Critical Challenges Across the Curriculum’ series (Burnaby, BC:Faculty of Education, SimonFraser University
Journal of Curriculum Studies
ISSN 0022±0272 print/ISSN 1366±5839 online
1999 Taylor &Francis Ltdhttp://www.tandf.co.uk/JNLS/cus.htmhttp://www.taylorandfrancis.com/JNLS/cus.htm
etc. We thus ®nd similar kinds of error and confusion about criticalthinking under super®cially dierent ways of talking. We have tried tofocus on plausibly distinct uses of skill, process and procedure in ourcritiques. Our arguments will lay the groundwork for oering a newconception based on dierent foundational assumptions in the followingpaper on this theme.
Critical thinking as skill
Many educators and theorists appear to view the task of teaching criticalthinking as primarily a matter of developing thinking skills. Indeed, thediscourse on thinking is suused with skill talk. Courses and conferencesfocus on the development of thinking skills and references toskills appearin much of the literature.
Even leading theorists in the area of criticalthinking conceptualize critical thinking largely in terms of skill. Thus, forexample, Siegel (1988: 39, 41
writes of thecritical thinker as possessing`acertain
as well as certain skills’, and makes reference to `a widevariety of reasoning skills’. Similarly, Paul (1984: 5
refers to criticalthinking skills and describes them as `a set of integrated macro-logicalskills’. The Delphi Report on critical thinking (Facione 1990
, whichpurportstobebasedonexpertconsensusinthe®eld, viewscriticalthinkingintermsof cognitiveskillsininterpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference,explanation and self-regulation.It is important tonote that the term`skill’ can be used in avariety osensesandthat, asaconsequence, someof thediscussionof skillsincriticalthinking is relatively unproblematic. In some instances `skill’ is used toindicatethatanindividual ispro®cientatthetaskinquestion. Itisused, inthis context, inanachievement sense. Askilledreasoner is onewhois abletoreasonwell andtomeettherelevantcriteriaforgoodreasoning. Theuseof skill in this context focuses attention on students being capable ointelligent performance as opposed tomerely having propositional knowl-edge
intelligent performance. Thus, someone whois thinking criti-cally can do more than cite a de®nition for
ad hominem
. He or she willnotice inappropriate appeals to an arguer’s character in particular argu-mentative contexts. Clearly, being acritical thinker involves, among otherthings, having acertain amount of `know-how. Such thinkers are skilled,then, inthesensethattheymustbeabletoful®llrelevantstandardsof goodthinking. Conceptualizing critical thinking as involving skill in thisachievement sense is relatively benign.However, some of the discussion of skills in the context of criticalthinkingis moreproblematic. There isastrongtendencyamongeducatorsto divide educational goals or objectives into three distinct kinds: knowl-edge, skills (i.e. abilities
, and attitudes (i.e. values
, and to assign criticalthinking tothe categoryof skills.
Conceiving of critical thinking as askillinthis senseimplies morethansimplythat anindividual is acompetent orpro®cient thinker. It is based on a conception of skill as an identi®ableoperationwhichis generic anddiscrete. There are diculties withboth othesenotions. Wewill beginwiththeproblemsentailedinviewingskills as
s. bailin
generic, i.e. oncelearned, theycanbeappliedinany®eldof endeavour; theproblems involved in viewing skills as discrete will be dealt with later.
Skills as generic
Theidenti®cationof critical thinkingwithskill inthe tripartite divisionoeducational goals separates critical thinking from the development oknowledge, understandingandattitudes. Criticalthinkingisseentoinvolvegeneric operations that can be learned in themselves, apart from anyparticular knowledge domains, and then transferred to or applied indierent contexts. Thus, for example, Worsham and Stockton (1986: 11,12
claim that `there are some skills that are basic and common to mostcurriculum tasks (for example, gathering information, ®nding the mainidea, determining meaning
’. They further state that:
Most curriculum materials at the high school level require that studentsanalyze, synthesize,andevaluateaswellasto[
]createnew`products’, suchas original oral and written pieces and artistic creations. Students areexpectedtoapply the appropriate thinking skills toaccomplish these tasks.
In a similar vein, Beyer (1987: 163
makes reference to discrete thinkingskills and claims that:
Tobe pro®cient in athinking skill or strategy means tobe able touse thatoperation eectivelyand eciently on one’s own inavariety of appropriatecontexts.
The separation of knowledge and critical thinking is fraught withdiculties however. If the claim that critical thinking skills are generic istaken tomean that these skills can be applied in any context regardless obackground knowledge, then the claim seems clearly false. Backgroundknowledge in the particular area is a precondition for critical thinking totakeplace. Apersoncannotanalyseaparticularchemicalcompoundif heorshe does not know something about chemistry, and without an under-standing of certain historical events a person will be unable to evaluatecompeting theories regarding the causes of World War I.Manytheoristsacknowledgethenecessityof backgroundknowledgeforcritical thinkingbut still maintainaseparationbetweenknowledgeandtheskill orskillsof thinkingcritically. Forexample, Nickerson
et al.
(1985: 49
contend that:
recognizing the interdependence of thinking and knowledge does not denythe realityof the distinction. It is at least conceivable that people possessingthe same knowledge might dier signi®cantly in how skillfully they applywhat they know.
We argue, however, that the distinction is itself untenable. Skilledperformance at thinking tasks cannot be separated from knowledge. Thekinds of acts, such as predicting and interpreting, which are put forth asgeneric skills will, in fact, vary greatly depending on the context, and thisdierence is connected with the dierent kinds of knowledge and under-
common misconceptions of critical thinking

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