Archive for the ‘Critical Thinking’ Category

John Stuart Mill, in his classic On Liberty, said

three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it.

In this spirit, the second lesson of our free email course, Argument Mapping: Make Your Case Clear and Compelling covers the importance of anticipating and responding to objections to your position, and shows how you can use argument mapping to organise these arguments.

A participant, Chantal, asked: “My question would be about how to produce objections. You are saying we can train for that. Sometimes I try and no interesting idea will arise :( What type of question should I be asking myself to create this other point of view?”

This is an excellent question.  How might one actually go about identifying the strongest objections to one’s own position?

Here are some things you can try.  Of course not all of these may be feasible in your situation.

1. Ask Opponents, or Bystanders

Perhaps the most obvious strategy is just to ask one or more people who strongly disagree with your position.  Such people are likely to be quite happy to help, and are likely to know the best objections.

If you can’t ask somebody who strongly disagrees, you can try asking somebody who is neutral on the topic.  Having no emotional involvement in the matter, they may find it easier than you do to see the problems with your position.

2. Research the Topic

If your position is on an issue that many people may have considered, a little digital sleuthing will often quickly uncover the main arguments on the other side.  For public issues, it should be easy to find op-eds or magazine articles, government reports, and so on.  For more technical or academic issues, scholar.google.com is a great resource.

3. Adapt Objections to Similar Positions

The best arguments against your position might just be adaptations of the best arguments against similar positions.  For example, if you are proposing that there should be a new freeway to the airport, you could look at proposals for freeways elsewhere to quickly get an idea of the kind of objections you are likely to encounter.

4. Use Standard Form Objections

This is a closely related suggestion.  There are many standard types of objections to positions of various kinds.  For example, any position which involves restricting people’s behavior – e.g., a proposal to ban vaping in public places – will encounter objections from based on individual rights and liberties.  (See the rest of Mill’s On Liberty).  If your position is that your group or team should pursue a certain course of action, there will be objections based on risk, particularly worst-case possible outcomes.  And so on.

5. Construct Objections from Interests

Consider what interests are threatened by your position.  Objections might be direct or indirect expressions of those interests.  For example, if your position is that our future energy needs should be met by large nuclear fusion plants, your position will threaten anyone with an interest (commercial, ideological, or any other type) in standard renewable energy industries such as wind or solar.  Those interests will lead to objections such as the impact on jobs in regional areas.

6. Identify and Challenge Assumptions

Any position will depend on a range of assumptions.  You can identify objections by ferreting out all or most of your assumptions and challenging those yourself.  One way to do that is covered in the email course, Lessons 4 and 5.  This is using principles of logic to expose the hidden assumptions in your own arguments supporting your position.


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Some people excel at critical thinking; others, not so much. Scientist Carl Sagan and investor Charlie Munger are oft-mentioned exemplars; my friend and colleague Paul Monk is less famous but also impressively sharp. On the other side we have… well, Homer Simpson can stand in for all those it would be rude to name.

But what makes a thinker more highly critical than others? And how can any person lift their game? This can be explored through the notion of habits. Highly critical thinkers have developed many habits which help them think more effectively. With sufficient commitment and patience, and perhaps a little coaching, such habits can be acquired by the rest of us.

This post describes seven major habits of highly critical thinkers. The list is obviously inspired by the hugely successful book about highly effective people. Whatever one might think of that book, if a similar exercise for critical thinking could have even a tiny fraction of its impact, it would be well worth undertaking.

Everybody is familiar with the term “critical thinking,” and has a reasonable working sense of what it is, but there is much disagreement about its proper definition. There’s no need to enter that quagmire here. Suffice to say that critical thinking, for current purposes, is truth-conducive thinking, i.e., thinking that leads to correct or accurate judgements. It is, in a phrase I like to use, the art of being right – or at least, of being more right more often.

But what kind of thinking conduces to truth? What is this subtle art? Back in the early seventeenth century, the philosopher Francis Bacon characterised it this way:

For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things … and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture.

Four hundred years later, political scientist Philip Tetlock conducted extensive and rigorous studies of hundreds of experts in the political arena, focusing on their ability to forecast. He found that the experts fell into two main groups:

One group of experts tended to use one analytical tool in many different domains; they preferred keeping their analysis simple and elegant by minimizing “distractions.” These experts zeroed in on only essential information, and they were unusually confident—they were far more likely to say something is “certain” or “impossible.” In explaining their forecasts, they often built up a lot of intellectual momentum in favor of their preferred conclusions. For instance, they were more likely to say “moreover” than “however.”

The other lot used a wide assortment of analytical tools, sought out information from diverse sources, were comfortable with complexity and uncertainty, and were much less sure of themselves—they tended to talk in terms of possibilities and probabilities and were often happy to say “maybe.” In explaining their forecasts, they frequently shifted intellectual gears, sprinkling their speech with transition markers such as “although,” “but,” and “however.”

The second group, the “foxes,” were better forecasters than the first, the “hedgehogs.” Foxy thinking, it seems, is more truth-conducive than hedgehoggery.

Two points jump out from these quotes. First, the two accounts have much in common, underneath the differences in style. The essence of critical thinking is largely stable across the centuries.

Second, they are both describing what good thinkers tend to do. Theorists of critical thinking have various ways of thinking about these tendencies; some talk of dispositions, others of virtues. Here I take what may be a novel approach and consider them as acquirable habits.

A habit is just a propensity to take actions of a certain kind in a relatively automatic or reflexive manner. And as we all know, and as elaborated in the recent book by Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, good habits can be cultivated, and bad habits overcome. So the goal here is to list:

  • propensities to do things of certain kinds more or less automatically under appropriate circumstances; which propensities are
  • possessed by highly critical thinkers much more often than by ordinary folk, and which
  • help them to make more correct or accurate judgements, and
  • could be picked up, or further developed, by any ordinary person with a reasonable amount of effort; with the result that
  • they would themselves become more critical.

The habits described below are the kinds of things highly critical thinkers really do do. They are not merely prescriptions or guidelines which would help anyone to be more critical if anyone were disciplined or virtuous enough to follow them.

To illustrate: Blogger Shane Parrish reports that a hedge fund manager and author, Michael Maubousson, asked the Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman what a person should do to improve their thinking. “Kahneman replied, almost without hesitation, that you should go down to the local drugstore and buy a very cheap notebook and start keeping track of your decisions.”

Now, it is plausible that keeping track of your decisions in a notebook would improve your thinking. However, it is not a habit of highly critical thinkers, at least in my experience. I don’t recall ever observing a highly critical thinker doing it, or hearing one say they do it. I don’t even do it myself, even after hearing the great Laureate’s advice (and apparently Maubousson doesn’t either).

And so to the habits themselves.

1. Judge judiciously

One of the most salient thinking traps is, in the common phrase, jumping to conclusions. Highly critical thinkers have cultivated four main habits which help them avoid this.

First, they tend to delay forming a judgement until the issue, and the considerations relevant to it, have been adequately explored, and also until any hot emotions have settled (Bacon’s “slowness to assert”).

Second, they tend to abstain altogether from making any judgement, where there are insufficient grounds to decide one way or another. They feel comfortable saying, or thinking, “I don’t know.”

Third, when they do make a judgement, they will treat it as a matter of degree, or assign a level of confidence to it, avoiding treating any non-trivial issue as totally certain.

And fourth, they treat their judgements as provisional, i.e., made on the basis of the evidence and arguments available at the time, and open to revision if and when new considerations arise.

2. Question the questionable

Much more often than ordinary folk, highly critical thinkers question or challenge what is generally accepted or assumed. Sometimes they question the “known knowns” – the claims or positions which constitute widely-appreciated truths. Other times, they target the implicit, the invisible, the unwittingly assumed.

Highly critical thinkers do not of course question everything. They are not “radical skeptics” doubting all propositions (as if this was even possible anywhere other than in philosophical speculation). Rather, they tend to be selective or strategic in their questioning, targeting claims or positions that are worth challenging, whether in some practical or intellectual sense. They are skilled in identifying or “sniffing out” the “questionable,” i.e. claims which are potentially vulnerable, and whose rejection may have important or useful implications.

3. Chase challenges

We all know that feeling of instant irritation or indignation when somebody dares to suggest we might be wrong about something. Highly critical thinkers have cultivated various habits counteracting this reaction – habits which actually lead to them being challenged more often, and benefiting more from those challenges.

For example, while we mostly seek and enjoy the company of those who share our views, highly critical thinkers make an effort to engage those of a contrary opinion, tactfully eliciting their objections. And when fielding such challenges, highly critical thinkers resist the instinct to ignore, reject or rebut. They will be found doing such seemingly perverse things as rephrasing the objections to be sure of understanding them, or even to render them even more powerful. Charlie Munger is quoted as saying “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

Another habit of highly critical thinkers is reading widely, and especially reading from sources likely to present good quality contrary views and arguments. Finding themselves drawn to a position (e.g., that William Shakespeare of Stratford was unlikely to have been the author of the works attributed to him) highly critical thinkers seek out the best presentations of the orthodox position. In short, they strive to test or “prove” their views, rather than support or defend them.

4. Ascertain alternatives

Highly critical thinkers are always mindful that what they see before them may not be all there is. They habitually ask questions like: what other options are there? What have we missed? As opposed to/compared with what? They want to see the full range of relevant alternatives before passing judgement.

For example, when considering a difficult decision, they put extra effort into searching for – or creating – courses of action outside the standard, provided or obvious ranges. When trying to explain why something happened, they will allocated more time than most people do to expanding the range of hypotheses under consideration. In a negotiation, they seek to develop new, mutually acceptable solutions rather than “horse-trading” on existing positions.

5. Make use of methods

When considering a course of action, a critical thinker of my acquaintance, who happened to be successful banker and company director, said she always asked herself two simple questions: (1) what’s the worst thing that could happen here? and (2) what’s the best thing that could happen? The first question prompts us to search for potential drawbacks a bit more thoroughly than we might otherwise have done. The routine amounts to a rudimentary (or “fast and frugal”) risk analysis.

This example illustrates how highly critical thinkers habitually deploy suitable methods to structure their thinking and improve the conclusions. Another example: in psychology department colloquiua I used to attend, participants, after hearing a colleague present their work, would reflexively use a method I call scenario testing. This involves diligently and creatively searching for scenarios in which their colleague’s conclusions are false, even though their premises (data) are true. To the extent that plausible scenarios of this kind can be identified, the inferences from the premises to the conclusions are suspect.

There are literally scores of methods one might use. Some, like the rudimentary risk analysis mentioned above, are simple and informal, and can be quickly learned and exploited by almost anyone. Others are elaborate, technical and may require specialist training (e.g., rigorous argument mapping, or full quantitative risk analysis). Generally, the more sophisticated the method, the less widely it is used, even by the most highly critical thinkers. Every such thinker has built up their own repertoire of methods. What’s most important is not so much their particular selection, but the fact that they habitually deploy a wider range of methods, more often, than ordinary folk.

6. Take various viewpoints

Highly critical thinkers well understand that their view of a situation is unique, partial and biased, no matter how clear, compelling and objective it seems. They understand that there will always be other perspectives, which may reveal important aspects of the situation.

Of course, most people appreciate these points to some degree. The difference is that highly critical thinkers are especially keen to profit from a more complete understanding, and so have cultivated various habits of actually occupying, as best they can, those other viewpoints, so as to see for themselves what additional insights can be gained.

One such habit is trying to “stand in the shoes” of a person with whom we may have some conflict, or are inclined to criticise. Another is to adopt the persona of a person, perhaps a hypothetical person, who strongly disagrees with your views, and to argue against yourself as strongly as they would. A third (relatively rare) is to take the perspective of your future self, having found out that your current position turned out to be wholly, and perhaps disastrously, wrong. What do you see, from the future, that you are missing now?

7. Sideline the self

People tend to be emotionally attached to views. Core beliefs, such as provided by religions or ideologies, help provide identity, and the comforts of clarity and certainty. Sometimes pride binds us to positions; having publicly avowed and defended them previously, it would be humiliating to concede we were wrong. Highly critical thinkers have habits which help to sever these emotional bonds between self and beliefs, allowing the thinker to discard or modify beliefs as indifferently as a used car dealer will trade vehicles. Highly critical thinkers have in other words learned how to sideline the self, removing it from the field of epistemic play.

One habit is to avoid verbally identifying oneself with positions by using distancing locutions. Instead of saying things like “Its obvious to me that…” they will say things like “one plausible position is that”. A similar technique is to give positions names. Instead of boldly asserting that Shakespeare must have written the works, publicly committing yourself to this view, say “According to the Stratfordian view…”.

To be continued…

This post is already much longer than originally intended, but still leaves much unsaid. A few quick final points:

  • The current list can’t claim to be definitive. Others may well come up with different lists.
  • It is also a work in progress. I hope to elaborate each of the major habits in separate posts.
  • Clearly much more could be said about the notion of a habit, and the somewhat paradoxical character of critical thinking habits, which generally involve automatically (“without thinking about it”) engaging in thinking activities.
  • This list is not based on rigorous empirical research, though in places it is informed by such research. There is much scope for scientific clarification here. Tetlock’s studies provide an impressive model.

Comments are most welcome.

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I’ve had the following abstract accepted for a presentation at a conference in December at the University of Melbourne, Higher Education Research & the Student Learning Experience in Business.

A Pragmatic Definition of Critical Thinking for Business

This presentation will lay out a pragmatic definition of critical thinking.  It doesn’t purport to be the definitive characterization of what critical thinking is. Rather, it is offered as a convenient framework for understanding the nature and scope of critical thinking, which may be useful for purposes such as developing a dedicated subject in critical thinking for business, improving the teaching of critical thinking within existing subjects, or evaluating the effectiveness of a business course in developing critical thinking.

The definition is constructed around five commitments:

    • First, the essence of critical thinking is correct or accurate judgement. That is, to think critically is to think in ways that are conducive to being “more right more often” when making judgements.
    • Second, “being more right more often” can be achieved through the skillful application of general thinking methods or techniques.
    • Third, these techniques range on a spectrum from the simple and easily acquired to technical methods which require special training.
    • Fourth, for all but the simplest of methods, there are degrees of mastery in application of these techniques.
    • Fifth, there are many different kinds of judgements made in business, including decision making, prediction, estimation, (causal) explanation, and attribution of responsibility. For each major type of judgement, there are typical pitfalls, and a range of critical thinking methods which can help people avoid or compensate for those pitfalls.

These commitments enable us to define a kind of three-dimensional chart representing the critical thinking competency of any individual. Along one (categorical) axis is the various kinds of judgements (decision making, etc.). Another axis represents the spectrum from simple through to advanced critical thinking methods. Particular methods can then be placed in appropriate “boxes” in the grid defined by these axes. A person will have a degree of mastery of the methods in each box; this can be represented on a third dimension. A person’s critical thinking competency is thus a distinctive “landscape” formed by the varying levels of mastery.

This characterisation is tailoring, for business, a more general pragmatic approach to understanding critical thinking.  About a year ago I developed this approach in preparation for a workshop in the US on development of a test of critical thinking for intelligence analysts; my role in the workshop was to lay out a general framework for understanding what critical thinking is.   That approach was described in a manuscript Dimensions of Critical Thinking.

I’m also supporting a team from the University of Sydney Business School, who have had the following abstract accepted:

Evaluating critical thinking skill gains in a business subject

Helen Parker, Leanne Piggott, Lyn Carson
University of Sydney Business School
Tim van Gelder
University of Melbourne and Austhink Consulting

Critical thinking (CT) is one of the most valued attributes of business school graduates, and many business school subjects claim to enhance it. These subjects frequently implement pedagogical strategies of various kinds aimed at improving CT skills. Rarely however are these efforts accompanied by any rigorous evaluation of CT skill gains. But without such evaluation, it is difficult to answer questions such as:

    • Are our students’ CT skills in fact improving? By how much?
    • Are those skills improving more than they would have even without our special CT instruction?
    • Are the marginal gains worth the cost?
    • Are our attempts to improve our instruction from semester to semester making any difference?

These kinds of questions are particularly relevant to the University of Sydney Business School, which has an entire subject dedicated to improving CT (BUSS5000 – Critical Thinking in Business), enrolling some 800 students per semester. Consequently, in 2013, the Business School embarked on a large-scale, multi-year evaluation program. The evaluation is based on pre- and post-testing using an independent objective test (the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment), whose coverage overlaps with the range of critical thinking skills taught in the subject. This presentation will give an overview of the approach it has adopted. It will discuss some of the challenges and pitfalls in the testing process, and how to interpret results. Finally, it will present data and insights from the first semester of full-scale evaluation. The session should be of interest to anyone interested in evaluating CT skills, or more generally in how business school education can enhance CT.

There’s an obvious complementarity between these two topics.

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Fernando Leal and colleagues at the University of Guadalajara have released Introducción a la Teoría de la Argumentación, an integrated selection of pieces intended to assist students and their teachers to focus on argumentation when reading and writing academic texts.

The section Parte II: La téchnica de mapeo de argumentos (argument mapping) contains three pieces emerging from work at the University of Melbourne and Austhink:

  • A translation of my article Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science
  • A translation of Enhancing our Grasp of Complex Arguments, by Paul Monk and me, a big-picture view of why complex arguments are cognitively challenging and how argument mapping can help.  It has been available as a manuscript since 2004 and been well-received so we are very happy to see it finally appear in print.
  • A new chapter  by Claudia María Álvarez Ortiz, ¿El estudio de le filosofia mejora las habilidades de pensamiento crítico? which extracts some core material from her MA thesis Does Philosophy Improve Reasoning Skills?.  This is the first proper publication of the very important meta-analysis of studies of gains in critical thinking at college.

Well-designed and attractively produced, the appearance of the volume is a significant development in critical thinking pedagogy and theory, particularly in the Spanish-speaking Americas.   Regrettably the language barrier will be a major hurdle to recognition and uptake in the Anglosphere.  Perhaps somebody should undertake a translation of the whole volume into English?

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Almost everyone agrees that critical thinking skills are important.  Almost everyone agrees that it is worth investing effort (in education, or in workplace training) to improve these skills.   And so it is rather surprising to find that there is, in the academic literature, little clarity, and even less consensus, about one of the most basic  questions you’d need answered if you wanted to generate any sort of gains in critical thinking skills (let alone generate those gains cost-effectively); viz., how are critical thinking skills acquired?

Theories on this matter come in five main kinds:

  • Formal Training. CT skills are simply the exercise of generic thinking power which can be strengthened by intensive training, much as general fitness can be enhanced by running, swimming or weightlifting.  This approach recommends working out in some formal ‘mental gym’ such as chess, mathematics or symbolic logic as the most convenient and effective way to build these mental muscles.
  • Theoretical Instruction. CT skills are acquired by learning the relevant theory (logic, statistics, scientific method, etc.).  This perspective assumes that mastering skills is a matter of gaining the relevant theory.  People with poor CT poor skills lack only a theoretical understanding; if they are taught the theory in sufficient detail, they will automatically be able to exhibit the skills, since exhibiting skills is just a matter of following explicit (or explicable) rules.
  • Situated Cognition. CT is deeply tied to particular domains and can only be acquired through properly “situated” activity in each domain.  Extreme versions deny outright that there are any generic CT skills (e.g. McPeck).  Moderate versions claim, more plausibly, that increasingly general skills are acquired through engaging in domain-specific CT activities.  According to the moderate version general CT skills emerge gradually in a process of consolidation and abstraction from particular, concrete deployments, much as general sporting skills (e.g., hand-eye coordination) are acquired by playing a variety of particular sports in which those general skills are exercised in ways peculiar to those sports.
  • Practice sees CT skills as acquired by directly practicing the general skills themselves, applying them to many particular problems within a wide selection of specific domains and contexts.  The Practice perspective differs from Formal Training in that it is general CT skills themselves which are being practiced rather than formal substitutes, and the practice takes place in non-formal domains.  It differs from Situated Cognition in that it is practice of general skills aimed at improving those general capacities, rather than embedded deployment of skills aimed at meeting some specific challenge within that domain.
  • Evolutionary Psychology views the mind as constituted by an idiosyncratic set of universal, innate, hard-wired cognitive capacities bequeathed by natural selection due to the advantages conferred by those capacities in the particular physical and social environments in which we evolved.  The mind does not possess and cannot attain general-purpose CT skills; rather, it can consolidate strengths in those particular forms or patterns of thinking for which evolution has provided dedicated apparatus.  Cultivating CT is a matter of identifying and nurturing those forms.

Formal training is the oldest and most thoroughly discredited of the perspectives.   It seems now so obvious that teaching latin, chess, music or even formal logic will have little or no impact on general critical thinking skills that it is hard to understand now how this idea could ever have been embraced.   And we also know why it fails: it founders on the rock of transfer.  Skills acquired in playing chess do not transfer to, say, evaluating political debates.  Period.

Theoretical Instruction has almost as old a philosophical pedigree as Formal Training.  It has been implemented in countless college critical thinking classes whose pedagogical modus operandi is to teach students “what they need to know” to be better critical thinkers, by lecturing at them and having them read slabs out of textbooks.   Token homework exercises are assigned primarily as a way of assessing whether they have acquired the relevant knowledge; if they can’t do the exercises, what they need is more rehearsing of theory.   As you can probably tell from the tone of this paragraph, I believe this approach is deeply misguided.  The in-depth explanation was provided by philosophers such as Ryle and Heidegger who established the primacy of knowledge-how over knowledge-that, of skills over theory.

Current educational practice subscribes overwhelmingly (and for the most part unwittingly) to the moderate version of Situated Cognition.  That is, we typically hope and expect that students’ general CT skills will emerge as a consequence of their engaging in learning and thinking as they proceed through secondary and especially tertiary education studying a range of particular subjects.  However, students generally do not reach levels of skill regarded as both desirable and achievable.  As Deanna Kuhn put it, “Seldom has there been such widespread agreement about a significant social issue as there is reflected in the view that education is failing in its most central mission—to teach students to think.”  In my view the weakness of students’ critical thinking skills, after 12 or even 16 years of schooling, is powerful evidence of the inadequacy of the Situated Cognition perspective.

There may be some truth to the Evolutionary Psychology perspective.  However in my view the best argument against it is the fact that another perspective – Practice – actually seems quite promising.   The basic idea behind it is very simple and plausible.   It is a truism that, in general, skills are acquired through practice.   The Practice perspective simply says that generic critical thinking skills are really just like most other skills (that is, most other skills that are acquired, like music or chess or trampolining, rather than skills that are innate and develop naturally, like suckling or walking).

In our work in the Reason Project at the University of Melbourne we refined the Practice perspective into what we called the Quality (or Deliberate) Practice Hypothesis.   This was based on the foundational work of Ericsson and others who have shown that skill acquisition in general depends on extensive quality practice.  We conjectured that this would also be true of critical thinking; i.e. critical thinking skills would be (best) acquired by doing lots and lots of good-quality practice on a wide range of real (or realistic) critical thinking problems.   To improve the quality of practice we developed a training program based around the use of argument mapping, resulting in what has been called the LAMP (Lots of Argument Mapping) approach.   In a series of rigorous (or rather, as-rigorous-as-possible-under-the-circumstances) studies involving pre-, post- and follow-up testing using a variety of tests, and setting our results in the context of a meta-analysis of hundreds of other studies of critical thinking gains, we were able to establish that critical thinking skills gains could be dramatically accelerated, with students reliably improving 7-8 times faster, over one semester, than they would otherwise have done just as university students.   (For some of the detail on the Quality Practice hypothesis and our studies, see this paper, and this chapter.)

So if I had to choose one theory out of the five on offer, I’d choose Practice.  Fortunately however we are not in a forced-choice situation. Practice is enhanced by carefully-placed Theoretical Instruction.  And Practice can be reinforced by Situated Cognition, i.e. by engaging in domain-specific critical thinking activities, even when not framed as deliberate practice of general CT skills.   As one of the greatest critical thinkers said in one of the greatest texts on critical thinking:

“Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited.”

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  1. Martin Davies, a colleague of mine at the University of Melbourne and a energetic advocate of argument mapping in teaching critical thinking has published “Computer-assisted argument mapping: a rationale approach” in the journal Higher Education.  In the article Martin describes using argument mapping in an upper-level Economics subject, and discusses how the students themselves regarded the exercise as helping them improve their critical thinking skills.  This reinforces the conclusion from other studies using pre- and post-testing which have found that student skills do in fact improve.
  2. The most popular post on this blog by a significant margin has been “What is Argument Mapping?“.   When first posted, it was a draft of an entry submitted to a new “Encyclopedia of the Mind.”  I have now revised the entry in response to editors’ suggestions & requirements, and I’ve now put the probably-final version on the blog post in place of the old draft version.    Or you can download a print-friendly version.


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I was recently asked “Is mindfulness the same as metacognition?”

It is a reasonable question.  The concepts are closely related.  However I think they should be teased apart.  They are more like cousins than identical twins.

Mindfulness in the everyday sense is something like “having your mind on the job” which I would translate as doing something attentively and carefully.

This is not exactly what Ellen Langer meant by it.  Langer is the academic who brought the concept of mindfulness to prominence in social science, and more widely, with publications like Mindfulness and  The Power of Mindful Learning.  In the former book she says

the key qualities of a mindful state of being [are]: (1) creation of new categories; (2) opennness to new information; and (3) awareness of more than one perspective. (p.62)

Metacognition is basically just thinking about one’s own thinking, though the term generally also has the connotation that the thinking one is doing about one’s thinking is aimed at or being used to improve that thinking.

So with these definitions on the table, it seems fairly clear that metacognition is not the same as mindfulness in either of its senses.  Metacognition is concerned what you’re thinking about.  Mindfulness is concerned with how you think as you go about what you’re doing.

You can be engaged in your work mindfully, in the ordinary sense, without going up a level, so to speak, and attending to your thought processes themselves – that is, without any metacognition.  And I think the same is true for mindfulness in Langer’s sense.  I can create new categories, be open to new information, and be aware of more than one perspective, without  “stepping back” and thinking about whether and how I am actually doing these things.

In fact I’d go further and say that “expert” mindfulness – the mindful behavior of someone who had truly mastered mindfulness – would not be metacognitive.   The truly mindful person would not need to reflect on her thinking, and indeed doing so would actually interfere with mindful activity.

Generally it is beginners who need to think about what they are doing.  The learner driver needs to pay lots of attention to even the most mundane aspects of driving, such as where the gearshift is.  The experienced driver pays very little attention to driving, and can carry on a lively conversation instead.

The same is true for thinking.  “Beginner” thinkers – that is, thinkers who have only just begun to try to rise above ordinary (in)competence – will need to pay lots of attention to their thinking, with the intent to understand how they are thinking and to modify that thinking in line with certain guidelines. As they master those alternative patterns of thought, the need for metacognitive reflection as a steering mechanism diminishes.

When you first attempt to cultivate Langerian mindfulness, you would need to pay attention to how you are going about your tasks, and in particular how you are thinking as you go about them; and you would have to be thinking about how that thinking could be modified in a “mindful” direction.  Thus, metacognition would be an essential activity.  But as you mastered mindfulness, you could just be mindfully engaged without needing to think about it (the thinking).  This is good because whatever mental energy you might have put into reflecting on your thinking can instead be devoted to the primary task, deepening your mindful engagement.

Coming from the other direction, metacognition can be “un-mindful”.  I can think about my thinking without (1) creating new categories, etc..  In fact a beginner’s metacognition is likely to be quite “mindless” in this technical sense.   But just as you will, say, exercise better if you do so mindfully, so you will cognize and indeed metacognize better if you do so mindfully.

Thus mindfulness and metacognition differ in this respect: novice mindfulness is metacognitive; expert metacognition is mindful.

All this reminds me of an issue in the definition of critical thinking.  If you look in the academic literature, there are lots of different definitions of “critical thinking.”  My feeling is that nobody has every really improved on Francis’ Bacon’s account back in 1605:

For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things … and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture.

However for most people this definition is too wordy, too complicated, and just too… old.  Surely these days we can pin down the essence of critical thinking more precisely and succinctly?  If you really want the concept in a nutshell, then my version is

The art of being right

which may not capture every nuance, but is, I sincerely maintain, “better than any other definition that short.”

Anyway, one of the better known figures in the field, Richard Paul, has defined critical thinking as

The art of thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, so as to make your thinking more clear, precise, accurate, relevant, consistent, and fair…

This seems to me almost exactly wrong.  Sure, critical thinking is thinking that is clear, precise, etc..  But there should be no requirement that you have to think about your thinking.   Just think clearly, precisely, etc. about your topic – your health, the financial crisis, or whatever.   The beginner critical thinker will have to reflect on her thinking, in order to improve that thinking.  But the expert critical thinker just will be clear, precise etc. in thinking about the matter at hand.  Requiring the sharp thinker to think about her thinking would be like requiring the expert tennis player to think about her stroke while playing.  It would immediately degrade her game.

So Richard Paul, my advice is – chop off the first phrase and you’d have a good definition.  You might then add that if you’re a novice, then in order to make thinking more clear, etc., you may have to do some reflecting on your thinking.  But your goal will be to get beyond that stage as quickly as you reasonably can.

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