Thursday, June 29, 2006

Cognitive strategies: macro abilities

Cognitive strategies in critical thinking: macro abilities

• Refining generalizations and avoiding oversimplifications
It is natural to oversimplify problems – it is one of our ways of making light of them – thinking they are simpler than they are. However, we should realize this and come to view problems as not being as simple as we would like to think they are. To do so is to come up with solutions or decisions that miss the mark – that solve nothing, or worse, increase or compound our problems.

Being able to see the difference between useful simplifications and oversimplifications that are misleading is vital when thinking critically about a topic.

For example, we can sometimes build models to test a hypothesis, altering variables to see how other, connected factors vary. This is common, particularly in subjects like Economics or Urban Geography. The simplification used in building a model, however, is only a device to render the model usable, and should not be mistaken for reality.

• Comparing analogous situations: transferring insights to new contexts
We can use insights in one area to inform us about another. Comparing analogous situations occurs when we look at a phenomenon from various perspectives and viewpoints. The ability to use ideas from one subject area to look at another, or from one part of a topic to another facet of that same topic is the hallmark of a person who can think critically.

Being hidebound, which is to say, being pedantic and even puritanical where thinking is concerned will most probably lead a person away from a valuable source of insights into problems that yield solutions only when lateral thinking takes place.

• Developing one’s perspective: creating or exploring beliefs, arguments or theories
If you have an open mind – an essential quality for a person who thinks critically – you will be more amenable to the idea that one particular way of looking at the world or at a topic or problem is not the only possible way; that there are others, and that finding them and benefiting from them can only be done when your mind is open.

• Clarifying issues, conclusions or beliefs
Formulating an issue – putting it into words – is the best way of way of clarifying it prior to finding information to work on it or learn from it. Not knowing what a particular issue is about is being ignorant of it, which might lead to denying that it exists at all. Issues don’t go away because you choose to ignore them. Stating clearly and unambiguously what they are is half way to having a handle on them, as we say.

• Clarifying and analyzing the meanings or words or phrases
Using words and phrases – language – to provide a definition, for instance, indicates a mind that is equal to the task of delving into problems or issues. Points that are irrelevant to the matter at hand quickly become apparent if words are used concisely. Fluffy words indicate fluffy or confused thinking.

• Developing criteria for evaluation: clarifying values and standards
Using one’s own preferences to evaluate is to simplify at best, or to show bias at worst. Having criteria with which to evaluate that are rational and relevant is the way to avoid imagining success when none is evident. It is essential to know the value you place on evaluation criteria. If you do not, somebody else will quickly and easily point them out to you, undermining your whole scheme of evaluating anything.

• Evaluating the credibility of sources of information
Using sources that are utterly reliable and can be seen and proven to be so ensures the success of any scheme. Similarly, knowing there are obstacles to obtaining reliable information helps to confront them and to overcome them. Sidestepping perceived obstacles is dishonesty or just laziness, not being aware of obstables is ignorance or wishful thinking.

• Questioning deeply: raising or following significant questions
Recognizing underlying principles and concepts to what, on the surface, appear to be straightforward, even simple issues is to more fully comprehend their nature and, in the case of reading a novel, for example, is to more fully enjoy that experience and learn something from it.

Shakespeare wrote his plays hundreds of years ago, and yet the issues dealt with are still with us and are important to us. Reading Othello, we learn something about unreasonable jealousy, Macbeth, vaunting ambition, Hamlet, letting our fears and our prejudices get the better of us.

• Analyzing or evaluating arguments, interpretations, beliefs, or theories
Instead of blindly accepting a premise or an argument, a critical thinker will analyze preconceptions or assumptions, both in his own thinking and in the thinking of those that are putting forward arguments.

• Analyzing or evaluating actions or policies
Examining the consequences of actions and recognizing them as fundamental to the standards of assessing behaviour is what critical thinkers pay importance to. The effects of actions is the ultimate test of those actions and the logic on which they are based. Anticipated effects should be factored into thinking prior to action being taken.

• Reading critically: clarifying or critiquing texts
Texts should never be held up as gospels, but rather readers should maintain a degree of skepticism, which does not mean that readers should always doubt everything, but that they should apply thought and logic when judging claims to be worthy of their attention. Simply put, this means not believing everything you read.

• Listening critically; the art of silent dialogue
Listening, once thought to be a passive activity, is now viewed as an active one, in which a listener takes words in arguments and dissects them for their meaning, what they signify and how they are being used to construct an argument. Listening actively is something akin to note taking and reconstructing those notes to form a coherent argument; a listener must place herself in the position of the speaker, asking herself why she just said what she did. In addition, a listener must, as she is taking an argument in, be able to construct a critique of the points being made, the better to counter those points in forthcoming discussions and debates – that is what is involved in conversing with someone about a matter that demands thought to express it and contend with it.

• Making interdisciplinary connections
Knowledge, traditionally divided into subject areas, overlaps, and it is seeing these points of overlap that the critical thinker benefits. Thinking too narrow mindedly about an issue, either for political reasons or because of an inability to see that there is some overlap is to be guilty of oversimplifying issues and missing opportunities to get to the bottom of problems.

• Reasoning dialogically: comparing perspectives, interpretations, or theories
This way of reasoning involves using dialogue between two opposing points of view to synthesize an alternative one. This dialogue can be between people in opposing camps, and also between two opposing views held by one individual.

• Reasoning dialectically: evaluating perspectives, interpretations, or theories
Reasoning dialectically is to be aware of strengths and weaknesses in your argument as well as in those of others. Being aware of shortcomings in one’s own argument is vital as someone holding an opposing view to your own will surely exploit them. Being aware of their existence is to be prepared when the time comes to defend against those weaknesses.

Robert L. Fielding


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