1 Barriers to critical thinking
First, let’s briefly examine some barriers to critical thinking.
Take another look at the visual summary below on critical and analytical thinking, which was introduced at the end of Session 3. Note the warning sign next to the ‘black pit’ to the lower right of this figure.
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What are the common pitfalls or barriers to thinking critically and analytically? Some of these were highlighted in the visual summary, and include:
- Misunderstanding. This can arise due to language or cultural differences, a lack of awareness of the ‘processes’ involved, or a misunderstanding that critical thinking means making ‘negative’ comments (as discussed in Sessions 3 and 4).
- Reluctance to critique the ‘norm’ or experts in a field and consider alternative views (feeling out of your ‘comfort zone’ or fearful of being wrong).
- Lack of detailed knowledge. Superficial knowledge (not having read deeply enough around the subject).
- Wanting to know the answers without having to ask questions.
Why do you think being aware of these potential pitfalls is important?
As a critical and reflective thinker, you will need to be aware of the barriers, acknowledge the challenges they may present, and overcome these as best you can. This starts with an understanding of expectations. Some students feel anxious about questioning the work of experts. Critical thinking does not mean that you are challenging someone’s work or telling them that they are wrong, but encourages a deeper understanding, a consideration of alternative views, and engagement in thought, discourse or research that informs your independent judgement. At postgraduate level you will also need to read widely around a subject in order to engage effectively with critical and analytical thinking, and to ask questions: there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers, only supported arguments. This is at the heart of postgraduate study.
Critical thinking encourages you to be constructive, by considering the strengths and weaknesses of a claim and differing sides to an argument. It helps you to clarify points, encourages deeper thought, and allows you to determine whether information that you come across is accurate and reliable. This helps you to form your own judgement, and drives research forward.
People can find it difficult to think critically, irrespective of their education or intellectual ability. The key to understanding critical thinking is not only knowing and making sure that you understand the process, but also being able to put this into practice by applying your knowledge.
Critical and reflective thinking are complex and lifelong skills that you continue to develop as part of your personal and professional growth. In your everyday life, you may also come across those who do not exercise critical thinking, and this might impact on decisions that affect you. It is important to recognise this, and to use critical and reflective thinking to ensure that your own view is informed by reasoned judgement, supported by evidence.
Take another look at the visual summary. You will see two aspects to critical thinking: one focusing on the disposition of the person engaged in critical and reflective thinking, and the other concerning their abilities. Let’s focus here on dispositions. At a personal level, barriers to critical thinking can arise through:
- an over-reliance on feelings or emotions
- self-centred or societal/cultural-centred thinking (conformism, dogma and peer-pressure)
- unconscious bias, or selective perception
- an inability to be receptive to an idea or point of view that differs from your own (close-mindedness)
- unwarranted assumptions or lack of relevant information
- fear of being wrong (anxious about being taken out of your ‘comfort zone’)
- poor communication skills or apathy
- lack of personal honesty.
Be aware that thinking critically is not simply adhering to a formula. For example, reflect on the following questions:
- How can you communicate with those who do not actively engage with critical thinking and are unwilling to engage in a meaningful dialogue?
- How would you react or respond when you experience a lack of critical thinking in the media, amongst your own family members, colleagues at work, or on your course?
- A person trying to interpret an angry friend’s needs, expressed through a rush of emotion and snide comments, to give that friend some help and support.
- A manager trying to be as objective as possible when settling a dispute by summarizing the alternatives, with fairness to all sides to a disagreement.
- A team of scientists working with great precision through a complex experiment in an effort to gather and analyze data.
- A creative writer organizing ideas for the plot of a story and attending to the complex motivations and personalities of the fictional characters.
- A person running a small business trying to anticipate the possible economic and human consequences of various ways to increase sales or reduce costs.
- A master sergeant and a captain working out the tactical plans for a dangerous military mission.
- A soccer coach working during halftime on new tactics for attacking the weaknesses of the other team when the match resumes.
- A student confidently and correctly explaining exactly to his or her peers the methodology used to reach a particular conclusion, or why and how a certain methodology or standard of proof was applied.
- An educator using clever questioning to guide a student to new insights.
- Police detectives, crime scene analysts, lawyers, judges, and juries systematically investigating, interrogating, examining, and evaluating the evidence as they seek justice.
- A policy analyst reviewing alternative drafts of product safety legislation while determining how to frame the law to benefit the most people at the least cost.
- An applicant preparing for a job interview thinking about how to explain his or her particular skills and experiences in a way that will be relevant and of value to the prospective employer.
- Parents anticipating the costs of sending their young child to college, analyzing the family’s projected income, and budgeting projected household expenses in an effort to put aside some money for that child’s future education.
- A financial planner anticipating the impact of new income tax legislation on a client’s future tax liabilities.
- A first responder coming upon the scene of an accident and quickly analyzing the situation, evaluating priorities, and inferring what actions to take in what order.
Examples from Facione, P. & Gittens C. Think Critically, Pearson Education
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Improving critical thinking:INSIGHT Development Program is designed to build critical thinking in teams as well as individuals. It provides a series of online thinking skills and mindset enrichment modules with accompanying exercises, access to an assessment metric and performance reporting tools. Designed to be used as an independent study by employees, it can also be incorporated into existing training programs.
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