Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thinking: Standards

In the last two posts I began an inventory of a number of critical thinking strategies that I have found useful in the clasroom. But as I was finishing yesterday's entry I realized that it would be a mistake to give the impression that a collection of strategies would suffice. If we wanted to approach critical thinking systematically, we would need to put those strategies in some sort of context—which I will attempt in a later post—and then there are at least two other dimensions we would need to explore: standards and habits of mind. Today I'd like to sketch out some turf in regard to standards. I'm going to discuss them as thinking standards, but insofar as writing is a predominant vehicle for conveying thought, they serve as standards of good writing as well.

I am indebted to Richard Paul for much of the framing of the idea of standards. In several books that he has published on critical thinking and on his web site, he has identified a set of standards against by which we can attempt to assess the quality of our thinking. In different publications he's played around with the list; cin the list I just linked to he's naming clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, breadth, depth, and logic. I've adapted his listing to some degree, and grouped them as placards over the board in the front of my classroom. We refer to them frequently as we explore the concept of quality in thinking and writing. They are:

Clarity, Specificity, Accuracy: We start with clarity. If what your thinking isn't clear, or if you are not able to communicate it clearly, we're dead in the water. Clarity is often a function of specificity: that's why we often rely on examples and analogies to make ourselves clear. Big generalities are inherently unclear. And accuracy matters. There's a difference between a flaming-red minivan and a flaming red minivan. The presence or absence of the hyphen—an apparently minor matter of accuracy in punctuation, makes a difference. One of those cars is on fire.

Logic, Significance, Relevance: I group these three together because they are value-adds. If your thinking is not clear, not specific, or not accurate, it's simply not good thinking. However necessary those things may be, however, they not sufficient. It's possible to be clear and specific and accurate and still not be thinking very well. Is your thinking (or writing) organized? Is it well-structured? Are there gaps or redundancies? All of those kinds of structural considerations are what we mean by logic.

It would also be possible to be imagine someone who was being clear, logical, specific, and accurate, but still not demonstrating quality in thinking. For example, I might observe, correctly, that wood and concrete are often used as housing materials, and that lettuce and carrots are often used as foods. The clarity and logic of such an assertion are unassailable. But who cares? Is it relevant? That may depend on context, but in most cases they answer will be "No." Is it significant? It would be hard to think of a context in which that would seem like an important assertion. So out of the universe of possible utterances, which ones seem relatively important, relatively useful?

Breadth and Depth: If all of the other six criteria have been met, it is time to consider the Holy Grail of critical thinking, breadth and depth. Have you considered all of the relevant information, looked at the question from several points of view, made the sideways move, thought about other possibilities? Have arrived at a line of thought that that gets beyond the obvious, that goes below the surface, goes deep?

The strategies I enumerated over the last two days are in essence vehicles by which one might aspire to push one's thinking and writing in the direction of the standards of quality listed above. The next step, which I hope to discuss tomorrow, is to use these strategies and pay attention to these standards not just as an occasional exercise, but as a regular part of the fabric of everyday thought. In other words, to develop habits of mind that support and help to develop quality of life and quality of thought.

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