Web tools for critical thinking

A few years back, Dave Pollard wrote a post on critical thinking and it’s one that I’ve referred to a few times since. I think that real critical thinking is a key survival skill in our global, digital surround.

What I think really needs to be taught is critical thinking as a defensive skill. We all think logically, but we can be fooled. Inadvertently or maliciously. If I were to design a Critical Thinking course it would quickly cover the basic cognitive skills, and provide some exercises for students to get these muscles working, and would then focus entirely on learning to challenge intellectual deception.


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Almost every interest group in the world is now on an information & marketing offensive. It’s what Seth Godin calls a Marketing War, and if every corporate, government and special interest group masters it, we had all better watch out. To fight this war, we now have a few new tools at our disposal to help us question assumptions, including our own.

Looking at several web tools from the perspective of critical thinking, and the processes described by Dave, shows something similar to a personal learning environment (PLE). You could call it a PLE with an attitude, and educators can start with the book, “Teaching Defiance“.

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22 Responses to “Web tools for critical thinking”

  1. Charlene Croft

    Teaching critical thinking! What a great idea… but, isn’t that what a Liberal Arts University degree supposed to do?

    Do you think that critical thinking is something that can be taught? I’m skeptical. And I grow increasingly skeptical with every first year B.A. student that I meet.

    Though I do think that there are many more critical thinkers around now than there have ever been before… and the environment to nurture critical thought is enhanced by these global technologies… but I’m starting to think that the kind of information overload and corporate, government and special interest manipulation of the tools will breed more cynicism and disenfranchisement than critical thought on the nature of our social conditioning.

    Thanks for that spark :)

  2. Tom Haskins

    Harold: Thanks for bringing “critical thinking” into all this latest exploration of PLE’s. In Dave’s diagram, I’ve got some thoughts on 3 of the boxes:

    Draw Inferences: (a.k.a. see the pattern, connect the dots, relate the content to other contexts, etc) Since I began my recent reading in cognitive neuroscience, I’ve been wondering if inferences are an unconscious process, rather than a consciously logical operation. That would explain descriptions of inferences like “leap of insight”, “an aha experience” or “dawning realizations”. It also suggests that a way to create inferences is the same as getting creative inspirations: incubation (sleep on it, give it a rest, put it on a back burner) after intense consideration of the problem.

    Identify missing information: Sherlock Holmes was a fictitious master of identifying what was missing, like his recognizing “the dog that did not bark in the night”. To know what usually occurs or what is supposed to happen seems to be a prerequisite to recognizing what’s missing. I’ve been fascinated by studies of ecosystems and ecological models of family systems that recognize when things are out of balance, going to extremes, or compensating for an excess — because something is missing. Perhaps growing awareness of value networks, system models and cyclical maps of interactions will help us do a better job of identifying missing information.

    Challenge and evaluate assumptions: In trying to teach this to college students, I found that assumptions are usually unknown to the person holding them. We cannot challenge what we take for granted because we take it for granted. Therapists wrestle with this issue since unconscious assumptions usually create most the symptoms getting complained about. Getting assumptions out of hiding can be done by sentence completion exercises (e.g. the best way to get ahead is ___, the most favorable reaction to get is __ ).

    I agree that these kinds of skills will help confront the assault from marketers, politicians and “The Corporation” who’s self interest is designed to exploit us and our fragile environments. — Thanks for the links to my blog!

  3. Clark Quinn

    Harold, I’ve been a fan of critical thinking for years, since I was a grad student and TA’d for Jean Mandler’s class on it. We used Diane Halpern’s book as a text, and that approach is still relevant.

    I think we need to do more, however. Just having the tools isn’t enough. To develop new skills, we need support: motivation, examples, guided practice. The received wisdom is that it has to be layered on to authentic tasks. Of course, I say build it into a game! (there’s a bit in Quest).

    I sympathize with Charlene’s cynicism, but I believe it can be taught, and there’s evidence to support my position. But we do it by making it a priority (before college), and making it part of what we test (meaning a whole new type of testing, but that’s what we need anyway).

  4. Harold

    Thanks for all the great comments. Can critical thinking be taught? I’m not sure, but learning environments have been created that put up obstacles to the development of critical thought processes. I agree that the tools are not enough and my main point here is to show that we now have some more tools to help individuals develop into critical thinkers.

    The Web offers more places outside of the classroom where students can engage in critical discussions on topics that they’re passionate about. For instance, I’ve had young students make some very insightful comments on my blog. A challenge to all of us is to show how to use these tools and support learners of all ages in becoming critical thinkers. An educated and informed citizenry is our best hope for the future.

  5. Dave Ferguson

    Gee, if it can’t be taught, you’d have to ask if it can be learned. And if it can be learned, then surely it’s possible to create conditions conducive to that learning — the practice and application you mention, for example.

    I’m a big believer in the value of varied examples as a way to help build someone’s competence / mastery / expertise. Whether formal university education is the right place to provide those probably depends on the university, the place within it, and the learner.

    I do think you’re onto something with regard to inferences, Harold — some type of background processing that enables you to relate two things in a new way. Maybe that’s the creation of a new pattern in your mind. Communicating that insight depends on similar data and connections being available to the other person. If I say that Agincourt was like the Alamo, except that at Agincourt, the Texans won, this inference falls apart if you don’t know that both were lopsided battles.

  6. Tim van Gelder

    I’ve been working in critical thinking for the past 10 years or so – both teaching it to undergraduates, and developing better methods and tools for teaching CT.

    A couple of quick observations:

    First, it is (IMHO) definitively established that it *is* possible to teach critical thinking. That is, you can set up a learning experience such that students demonstrably have much stronger generic, transferable CT skills than they had when they started.

    Second, CT skills are acquired in much the same way as any other skills – by extensive deliberate practice. K.A. Ericsson is the relevant authority here, and our approach is simply an application his observations about skill acquisition in other domains to the particular case of critical thinking.

    Further reading in this area:

    Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science http://www.philosophy.unimelb.edu.au/reason/papers/Teaching_CT_Lessons.pdf

    Cultivating Expertise in Informal Reasoning: http://www.philosophy.unimelb.edu.au/reason/papers/CJEP_van_Gelder.pdf

  7. Harold

    Thank you for sharing your experience here, Tim. Both papers are quite informative. Given that CT requires much practice and appropriate feedback, I doubt that it will be properly taught where it is most needed, and that is in public education.

  8. Lionel Carter

    Critical thinking? I thought that was what university was all about since the time of Aristotle.

    Of course many universities have succumbed to simply running training programmes.

    Critical thinking is in itself a means to an end – decision making or ‘deciding’ in more vaugue terminology.

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