Monday, January 7, 2013

A Framework for Thinking about Critical Thinking

There are many who argue that teaching critical thinking skills is among the most important tasks of a
n educational system (see One way to frame critical thinking is around argumentation – that is, discourse aimed at establishing a point. Logicians conceive of arguments as a collection of statements or assertions, some of which (called the premises, or the foundation of the argument) are offered in support of another (the conclusion, or the point to be established). Logicians typically distinguish two fundamentally types of arguments due to the different standards to be applied in assessing their merit. Arguments that are aimed at establishing the conclusion with certainty are called deductive arguments and require the most rigorous standards of adequacy. Such arguments occur in mathematically intensive domains; methods to establish the validity of deductive arguments are called proofs. 

Arguments that are aimed at establishing the conclusion with less than absolute certainty are called inductive arguments and are the type encountered in the social sciences and in everyday life. Inductive arguments have less rigorous standards of adequacy, but it is worth noting that standards do exist even though they are often ignored in informal everyday discourse. Figure 1 depicts the general structure of an argument, and it also provides the basic framework for critical thinking skills.


 Figure 1. The general structure of an argument. 

When does critical thinking arise? Critical thinking arises in the context of a problematic situation (Jonassen, 2007, 2011; Jonassen & Kim, 2010; Jonassen & Land, 2012). A problem exists when one perceives that the current situation is somehow deficient and in need of improvement of when one cannot adequately explain why things happen the way they do (see Figure 2). 


Figure 2. The general structure of a problem situation. 

If one accepts the basic notion that reasoning is often in the context of problem situations and can be represented in the form of an argument, then there are a number of places where critical reasoning can focus. First, let’s focus on the problem situation itself. One might focus on the so-called problematic situation and question the facts pertaining to the situation. Suppose the problematic situation is that a significant number of persons are not performing as expected in a particular course. One might ask how many or what percentage are performing poorly, or how poor performance is being defined, or whether this situation has persisted for a period of time. Other questions are also possible that address the facts of the situation or that ask for clarification of key aspects of the situation (e.g., performance criteria). One might also ask questions about the desired state of affairs that reflect a level of critical thinking. For example, one might ask how the desired situation was determined or whether and to what extent achieving the desired situation is realistically attainable.

Additionally, one can inquire what kinds of transformations are required to resolve the problematic situation and why they might be expected to result in the non-problematic situation. Such questions go well beyond simply accepting the claim that doing X, Y and Z will lead to the desired outcome. This can be called questioning the underlying theory of change involved in the argument.

 One can also frame critical reasoning skills in terms of the underlying argumentation. First and foremost, one can ask the fundamental question of whether or not adequate evidence has been provided in support of the conclusion – do the premises provide strong support for the conclusion? This is different from asking whether or not one agrees with the premises, as one might agree with all the premises of an argument that still fails to provide adequate support for the conclusion. This question about the adequacy of the evidence addresses the form of the argument rather than the content. First focus on the form of the argumentation.

 Once the form of the argument is deemed acceptable (a step that is often overlooked), one can then focus on the various pieces of evidence and ask whether or not they should be believed or accepted as convincing. This often leads one to ask about what assumptions have been made. Because assumptions are often not stated, an important critical reasoning skill is making the assumptions explicit and then asking whether or not there is sufficient reason to accept those assumptions.

One can perform a similar kind of provisional or hypothetical reasoning with regard to the conclusion of the argument. One can ask what else must be accepted if one accepts the conclusion. It can happen that a conclusion that might first appear to be reasonable will lead one to other statements or situations that are clearly unacceptable but left unstated or not addressed in the argument. Thinking ahead to the implications of accepting the conclusion is one form of critical reasoning. In summary, one can think of critical reasoning skills in terms of those skills required to assess arguments and to determine if what is alleged to resolve a problematic situation is likely to do so. These skills are not trivial yet they are important in nearly every discipline and in many everyday problem solving situations. It is a wonder that so little emphasis is placed on developing these skills, especially at an early age.

Jonassen, D. H. (2007). Learning to solve complex, scientific problems. Mahway, NJ: Erlbaum.

Jonassen, D. H. (2011). Learning to solve problems: A handbook for designing problem-solving learning environments. New York: Routledge.

Jonassen, D. H., & Kim, B. (2010). Arguing to learn and learning to argue: Design justifications and guidelines. Educational Technology Research & Development, 58(4), 439-457.

Jonassen, D. H., & Land, S. M. (2012). Theoretical foundations for learning environments. New York: Routledge.

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