A Very Brief Guide to Critical Thinking

Anthropology Doctoral Candidate Kali Rubaii shares a blueprint for fostering critical thought in the classroom.

February 02, 2016

By Kali Rubaii 

A Very Brief Guide to Thinking Critically

Kali Rubaii


"What's wrong with the students?" is not an uncommon dinner conversation among teachers, especially in the past 5 years. It is a conversation I have had hundreds of times, and I have only started teaching this decade. I have never started these conversations, because as a new teacher I did not think there was anything wrong with students. As it turns out, there is.

In the past 5 years, college students (in general) have been speaking and writing at an astoundingly reduced quality. This is not about test scores, language skills or the ability of first generation students to budget reading time. This is about the ability to think, to produce ideas, thoughts, or opinions. Thoughtfulness has declined. It is a subjective finding, of course, but one that worries teachers.

So I started asking my students -- What’s going on? What is interfering with the quality of your scholarship? What is getting in the way of thinking? A lot of students are intrigued by the question. They know something is wrong, and they cannot quite put their finger on the cause. Some of them reference too much screen time, being tired, or being in college for the degree rather than the education. Some teachers thought it was class size. None of this was enough to explain certain tendencies among even the most motivated students. Tendencies that sound like this:

“I understand the assignment, but what do you want me to argue?”
Or “I am afraid to speak because I might offend someone or get it wrong.” Or, “I want to have an opinion, but I don’t know how.”

When Andrea Steiner of Community Studies at UCSC thought through the timing-- what year she noticed a marked and permanent change-- she gave me a structural answer. Most of the students we now teach grew up entirely under the No Child Left Behind Act. That means they were taught to the test, and more importantly, had teachers who were punished for --or actively dissuaded from-- teaching critical thinking.

When students hear this, they are relieved.

And curious. Many linger after my class, or in my office hours, and ask questions that are astounding:

“So what is critical thinking, exactly? How do we do it?”

And for those actively trying to restore these skills, skills that were rooted out of them, the questions are more specific:

“I don’t understand how to read for meaning. I can summarize the text, but how do I find the argument?”
Or “How do I know if I agree or disagree with the argument?”
Or, “I know the keywords, but I can’t string them together in a full sentence. How do I form a full thought [instead of just keyword recognition]?”

Thank you, Students, for so willingly helping your teachers with these questions. I had no idea I was sidestepping the main thing you wanted to learn! The first step is to take these questions seriously and answer them.

Finding out that you were cheated by your entire education system is a big deal, so the second step is to make sure that you do not develop a victim complex that could further atrophy your critical thinking skills. The phrase for this is: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Here is a general introduction to the components critical thinking. Each bold item should be its own chapter. For the most part we are working on the first item in my classes. For now, this starts to answer the first question you are asking: What is critical thinking exactly, and how do I do it?

Components of Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking is a method of perceiving, speaking, thinking, and doing. It insists on hard thinking, and resists easy or overworked trails of inquiry. It also transforms hierarchy in knowledge: meaning that critical thinkers value “knowledge” not as a commodity, but as a collective process.

We might call this “thinking critically” Instead of “Critical Thinking,” because:

1)    Critical thinking requires thinking first, critique second.

2)    Thinking critically is a process. “Critical Thinking” might mislead us into thinking that it is a commodity we can acquire.

Literacy: Perception

Reading: The ability to find and identify a thesis, main argument, concept, and evidence. What are some phrases or words that might signal that the main argument is coming? When should you stop and look up a word before you keep reading? What does a title tell you about the thing you are reading?

Reading in Context: The ability to identify the informing principles, social/historical context, and interest (financial, political) behind something. Can you depart from the text and imagine what the author would say about a current situation? Can you imagine why an author might choose to spend days of her life writing this document-- what was at stake for her?

Literacy: Voice

Vocabulary: Using words of a particular discourse; learning the “big words” well enough to use them (or lose them). Usually this means mastery of nouns, often concepts. Mastery means understanding the definition, the meaning, and the connotation of a word. It also means making a decision about how the word should be defined.  

Verbs and Adverbs: The ability to write and speak in full sentences about something. Recognition and identification of nouns is not enough for critical thinking. The adverbs and verbs in your sentences are what determine the meaning of your own arguments. If you are given two nouns-- say “neoliberalism” and “capitalism”-- can you articulate their relationship in full sentences?

Analysis: Thinking

Engagement: Speaking up and taking risks with ideas. People do not generate ideas alone, so critical thinkers trust others to shape and add to what they share. Test out an idea; see what happens.

Humility: “Sitting in the wrong,” or “being comfortable being uncomfortable” means embracing the idea of being wrong about something. Self-reflection and questioning one’s own perspective are necessary to critical thinking. If you ever feel like you have figured it all out, you have stopped thinking critically.

Participating in a Common Project: Identifying the common ground you share with your “opponents.” To critique is to care. If you don’t care about something, you won’t bother to critique it, so a critical thinker is not so critical that she loses sight of the common goal.

Analysis: Doing

Personalizing Knowledge Production: Positioning yourself as an equal peer to all intellectual parties, seeing experts as human, and giving each form of knowledge full credit (including your own). If someone says, “It’s too complex, you wouldn’t understand” a critical thinker responds, “Show me: I want to understand.”  Or “Show me: my lack of understanding may produce something between us.” This does not mean we all have equal expertise, but that we have equal capability of understanding something.

Responsibility: This also means we have equal responsibility. Taking action based on the knowledge you gain, taking seriously the knowledge shared with you, and seeking out knowledge (curiosity) are all examples of taking responsibility. Connecting or juxtaposing arguments, for example, is a form of taking responsibility for what you learn by carrying knowledge to new places and metabolizing it in creative ways.

Blind Spots:

You are probably already a critical thinker in some aspects of your life, and less so in others. You might be really good at reframing the context of certain debates in your community, but not so good at critically reading scholarly articles. You might be really good at critiquing film plots, but not so good at critiquing news plots. We all have blind spots --big ones! That is why we need all the components in the “Analysis-Thinking” section: engagement, humility, participation.

Power: Remember, critical thinking is all about power, and how power appears in the process of knowledge making. At this point, if you are catching on to some of the anarchist* trends in critical thinking, you know that this is not always in your personal “interest” (financial, political) -- power places each of us in positions of blindness.

Critical thinking is meant to transform critical thinkers, themselves!  Knowledge is not power. Thinking is power.

(*anarchist means “no hierarchy” or “against hierarchy.”)

Personal: When I say “your personal interest” I am also trying to tackle the problem of self-centeredness. Self-centeredness is when you can only imagine the world through an individual’s personal and emotional experience (a “self”), to whom you can relate personally. Thinking critically should never get comfortable or formulaic. Pay attention to your nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. They will help you!