Critical Thinkers - Born or Made?

<p>I agree that critical thinking is a skill that is developed. Students should be taught to ask questions, to challenge, to look for the data. I loved being around lots of critical thinkers. ti was encouraged at my UG. Didn’t matter what their major was-- they were encouraged to discuss, question, challenge. The psychology majors were particularly good at it, but so were the History and English majors.</p>

<p>I think one of the problems is the word ‘critical thinking’ means a lot of things to a lot of people. Its a positive valenced term so any ‘smart’ person or ‘educated person’ or someone in ‘ones major’ has ‘good critical thinking’. </p>

<p>It is not just about asking questions, being critical, not accepting things at face value. Anyone can do that and indeed it may have more to do with personality than anything else. Rather, critical thinking is knowing <em>what</em> questions to ask, and how to argue an alternative reality (from what is seen at face value) to get to a higher level of understanding (or closer, if you will, to ‘the truth’). This can be learned tacitly through years of experiences and/or formal education. We attempt to also teach it explicitly with books or courses, which may help, but truly internalizing these cognitive abilities takes years (and indeed some would argue that overriding our hard-wired heuristics, which lead to so many biases and ‘non-critical thinking’, may not be possible even with formal education). </p>

<p>The reality is the vast majority of adults often can not recognize themselves or others using logical fallacies, they have not come to learn of biases inherent in different types of information and data, nor do they appreciate the ways by which all humans engage in distortions from rationality when it comes to their own perceptions, decision making, choices and risk. They do not necessarily understand basics such as probability, or cause and effect reasoning in a way that is most helpful to them or others. Most lack a basic grasp of what (conceptually speaking) a correlation is, or how it differs from causation (as but one example). Some learned along the way to recognize the ‘information that is missing’ or the ‘information that is misleading’ and to ask for it or seek it out before drawing conclusions, but too many others do not. </p>

<p>This seems to be a very hot topic these days. For those interested, here are some popular and interesting books I recommend that fit loosely into this umbrella:</p>

<p>Sway: The Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behavior (Brafman & Brafman)
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (Kathryn Schulz)
The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us (Chabris & Simons)
Risk: Why we fear the things we shouldn’t and put ourselves in greater danger (Dan Gardner)
Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness (Thaler & Sunstein)
Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks (Ben Goldacre)
Future Babble: Why expert predictions fail- and why we believe them anyway (Dan Gardner)</p>

<p>I think that the human neurosystem has a few sometimes conflicting/sometimes reinforcing “basic” or instinctual activities.
One is “questioning”- the underlying emotions could be about mis-trust, curiosity, even fear.
Another, of use for safety, nourishment, social trust, dealing with new items, etc. is “pattern finding”- which requires acts of categorization by certain attributes, memory, and the ability to hold at least two things in the mind at once. Pattern finding can be very mis-leading for a number of reasons. It can lead the human to assume causalities where they do not exist. And the patterns are very dependent upon the categories/attributes chosen. Without pattern finding, a being is unable to generalize from experience, i.e. learn, and is quite “un-intelligent”. Critical thinking would appear to IMPROVE the quality of one’s natural tendency of finding patterns. Creativity is the ability to operate without that many rules and crate new rules that somehow make sense. Dreaming is the most free version of pattern-finding.</p>

<p>For lack of dependable and thorough research on others, the rest of my post is about myself- apologies for sounding self-absorbed. It is just that this great thread caused me to think about all this.
Personally, I am quite at the mercy of the scary inaccuracies and lies about statistics. I am not naturally nor a very disciplined thinker about the magnitude of probabilities.
I feel that young children onwards should be taught how to play games, to make predictions, to describe in words and graphically how events correlate.
It is important for the brain to develop good habits of scientific reasoning, and also familiarity with probability and statistics. Working with objects, a deck of cards, questionnaires, surveys, dice from a young age would teach this easily to the plastic and eager young brains! Logic problems are also under-used and can be so helpful.</p>

<p>Ironically, as I have aged, I find I reverse things: my past experiences and knowledge seem to be pre-organized into pattern-based structures in my mind. It is easier for me to remember something if I can hitch it somehow onto something similar (including a polar opposite)- it is easier to remember things if they somehow relate to something I already know and hold in my mind.
This can be dangerous and can lead to a “closed” mind with a lack of critical thinking.
Yet it is a very useful mnemonic technique, and can actually lead to decent critical thinking if I suspend my belief in the “identity” I have made between the “new” thought and the old one. And I then can, hopefully, expand my understanding of the new thing (idea, situation, personality, image, smell, event, conflict, problem…)</p>

<p>Being old is not for sissies!!</p>

<p>p.s. I do speak many languages and learn them very easily. I am not officially bi-lingual but I was exposed daily to my very first second language from the age of 4, and was then introduced to my second at age 8, and then was schooled in a third at age 11-14, and then picked up a 4th (in the 2nd, while abroad) during college. I have since learned how to read several more, and then lived in a country with a 5th for several years.
Initially I see universalities/commonalities in how the language works with the ones I already know, and thereby also see the “key” differences. And I am motivated by curiosity and questioning: how languages can be structured, words are used, people are alike and different across cultures, history is seen, etc. from the multiple points of view. Being able to share communication with those from “other” worlds, learning how others think and use words, and understanding how languages work can really keep the mind busy!</p>

<p>Thanks for the great links and questions!
I think that there is an aspect to critical thinking that is developmental also - and that people develop at different rates. The physics professor who commented on the article stated that gains are hard to show if students start near the top. Could it be that people whose critical thinking develops earlier gravitate toward certain majors, and then it is harder to show an effect because there is less change?
As in many educational studies, there is too much selection bias to draw any conclusions from this.
A researcher would have to randomize a huge group of students to majors, and then blindly follow their score improvement to make this a quality study. This is, of course, after proving the validity and reliability of the test.</p>

<p>I think that one can develop critical thinking skills; I don’t think that it’s some innate ability.</p>

<p>I like to think of myself for proof. To be frank, I almost had to retake 4th grade because I simply could not comprehend math. I could not do any mental math, to put it simply. Not only that, but one expect that I would be born with great critical thinking skills (both of my parents are chemical engineers from Georgia Tech). Because of that near failure, my dad began teaching me math during the summer and after school. We continued to do this until 8th grade. </p>

<p>After all that work, I was able to take Multivariable Calc as a senior, earned a 36 on the Math ACT section (but a 25 on reading, haha!) and 800 on SAT Math. I also like to think I have great critical thinking skills.</p>

<p>Anyways, the point is that you can become skilled at anything if you work hard at it (I know, it sounds corny, but it’s true!)</p>

<p>EDIT: BTW, I define critical thinking as the ability to individually analyze and problem solve</p>

<p>I won’t comment on the benefits of multilingualism or anything like that, but I argue that critical thinkers are born and made. </p>

<p>I refer to the idea of “Multiple Mental Models” championed by Charlie Munger. The idea is that instead of relying on principles of a single discipline, you create a latticework of mental models that draw from various disciplines and create an arsenal of tools to solve problems. Mr. Munger argues that a skilled thinker will utilize the tools from different areas to solve problems instead of only using the tools of a single discipline.</p>

<p>I believe that critical thinking is nothing more than analyzing a problem to find a solution, and Munger’s latticework facilitates that analysis. I can’t elaborate much here but it’s a fascinating topic and I highly recommend any of Mr. Munger’s essays.</p>

<p>Lastly, I think there is a misguided focus on “critical thinking.” Everyone goes to college to learn how to “think critically” and we must think critically when analyzing essays and blah blah. I prefer Feynman’s algorithm:</p>

<li>Write the problem.</li>
<li>Think real hard.</li>
<li>Write the solution.</li>

<p>It’s easy to argue that step 2 = critical thinking, but I think context is essential. I fear we are approaching the point where we are trying to think critically but have lost sight of why we need to think critically i.e to solve problems. </p>

<p>And I think solving problems is something anyone can learn to do if he or she puts in the effort.</p>

<p>I was born a thinker.</p>

<p>75% genetics, 25% outside influence. Read an article about geniuses being born or made. At least I think it had to do with critical thinking…</p>

<p>An0maly, great post!</p>

<p>I especially liked the Feynman algorithm.</p>

<p>My husband is a philosopher and over the last thirty years he has taught in a number of places from night courses at community college to HYSP. He has come to some considerations that would seem to support the idea that you are born with some skills, but life experience/education can raise that ability. For instance he finds that pre-med students, in general, are not so good at critical thinking, but non-trad nursing students are really good. Engineers not so good, architects very good. Physics students very good, math students less so, but still good, life science students nothing outstanding. But without a doubt the best critical thinker will always be the kid who comes in freshman year with high test scores, a B average, and a stack of recommendations that say “He has so much POTENTIAL, but…” These kids are the ones he tries to convince to become philosophy majors.</p>

<p>Thanks for posting, lololu.</p>

<p>Your husband’s experience is very interesting.</p>

<p>I wonder if the subject matter leaves some of these majors cold – maybe some people will push to wrap their minds around a “real world” problem, but have less patience with philosophical issues – although that doesn’t explain why architects would do better than engineers – perhaps because architecture has an artistic turn to it?</p>

<p>Another problem for some might be a predilection to DO things, rather than observe and think. This is the ready, fire, aim tendency that gets in the way of good critical thinking.</p>

<p>Critical thinking is more than just the ability to solve a problem – it starts with the ability to see that there is a problem and to see it in context. </p>

<p>Because our human mind and experience is complex and messy, my husband would argue that by not wrapping your mind around the more philosophical issues of any situation you are not dealing with a “real world” problem. The difference is that engineers design bridges to get you from point a to point b, but architects design bridges to change the world.</p>

<p>That is a good point about seeing that there is a problem.</p>

<p>I was a philosophy major, so I definitely believe in the value of it.</p>

<p>I do believe critical thinking develops with age. Perhaps there is some acknowledgment of that in the concept of the wisdom of elders. This may also explain why non-traditional nursing students do well in your husband’s classes.</p>

<p>Critical thinking seems to be an innate thing. That’s why people find the CR section on the SAT so hard, because it can’t really be learned. However, it can be developed by repeated critical thinking exercises.
And as posted above, I also believe critical thinking develops with age.</p>



<p>I think you mean architects design bridges to change the world and engineers make them actually work (so they can do their job of changing the world).</p>



<p>Oh good grief - not only is there one Superior School (MIT) but even within there, there is only One Superior Major (EECS!).</p>

<p>Very interesting question.</p>

<p>I disagree with the notion that critical thinking must be generated through innate talent being trained further</p>

<p>When I was younger, I never had any concept of critical thinking. I could only do simple arithmetic and math, never anything more abstract or complex. I was also terrible at Chess. Then I got into math competitions (somehow only being able to do simple arithmetic). I’d like to say my critical thinking skills have shot up a LOT since then. At least I can win at Chess now!</p>

<p>Perhaps your story supports the notion of innate talent being trained further.</p>

<p>Critical thinking is an explicit process/set of skills that must either be taught or learned by oneself. It doesn’t run concurrently with whatever you consider intelligence to be and it isn’t a function of maturity. </p>

<p>Intelligence can make critical thinking more effective, but the human race has never experienced selection pressure for critical thinking skills. Those are only useful in our more civilized, information-fueled world. Therefore, innate critical thinking is unlikely to exist. </p>

<p>Also, language learning tisn’t as based on rote memorization as you suppose; it requires active involvement to master, just like most subjects.</p>



<p>Doesn’t that mean it’s more likely to exist in a continuum of levels since there’s never been any selective force against poor performers?</p>