Critical Thinking And Problem Solving Examples Principles

Critical Thinking


What is Critical Thinking?

When examining the vast literature on critical thinking, various definitions of critical thinking emerge. Here are some samples:

  • "Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (Scriven, 1996 ).
  • "Most formal definitions characterize critical thinking as the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation" (Angelo, 1995, p. 6 ).
  • "Critical thinking is thinking that assesses itself" ( Center for Critical Thinking, 1996b ).
  • "Critical thinking is the ability to think about one's thinking in such a way as 1. To recognize its strengths and weaknesses and, as a result, 2. To recast the thinking in improved form" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996c ).

Perhaps the simplest definition is offered by Beyer (1995) : "Critical thinking... means making reasoned judgments" (p. 8). Basically, Beyer sees critical thinking as using criteria to judge the quality of something, from cooking to a conclusion of a research paper. In essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.).


Characteristics of Critical Thinking

Wade (1995) identifies eight characteristics of critical thinking. Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity. Dealing with ambiguity is also seen by Strohm & Baukus (1995) as an essential part of critical thinking, "Ambiguity and doubt serve a critical-thinking function and are a necessary and even a productive part of the process" (p. 56).

Another characteristic of critical thinking identified by many sources is metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about one's own thinking. More specifically, "metacognition is being aware of one's thinking as one performs specific tasks and then using this awareness to control what one is doing" (Jones & Ratcliff, 1993, p. 10 ).

In the book, Critical Thinking, Beyer elaborately explains what he sees as essential aspects of critical thinking. These are:

  • Dispositions: Critical thinkers are skeptical, open-minded, value fair-mindedness, respect evidence and reasoning, respect clarity and precision, look at different points of view, and will change positions when reason leads them to do so.
  • Criteria: To think critically, must apply criteria. Need to have conditions that must be met for something to be judged as believable. Although the argument can be made that each subject area has different criteria, some standards apply to all subjects. "... an assertion must... be based on relevant, accurate facts; based on credible sources; precise; unbiased; free from logical fallacies; logically consistent; and strongly reasoned" (p. 12).
  • Argument: Is a statement or proposition with supporting evidence. Critical thinking involves identifying, evaluating, and constructing arguments.
  • Reasoning: The ability to infer a conclusion from one or multiple premises. To do so requires examining logical relationships among statements or data.
  • Point of View: The way one views the world, which shapes one's construction of meaning. In a search for understanding, critical thinkers view phenomena from many different points of view.
  • Procedures for Applying Criteria: Other types of thinking use a general procedure. Critical thinking makes use of many procedures. These procedures include asking questions, making judgments, and identifying assumptions.

Why Teach Critical Thinking?

Oliver & Utermohlen (1995) see students as too often being passive receptors of information. Through technology, the amount of information available today is massive. This information explosion is likely to continue in the future. Students need a guide to weed through the information and not just passively accept it. Students need to "develop and effectively apply critical thinking skills to their academic studies, to the complex problems that they will face, and to the critical choices they will be forced to make as a result of the information explosion and other rapid technological changes" (Oliver & Utermohlen, p. 1 ).

As mentioned in the section, Characteristics of Critical Thinking , critical thinking involves questioning. It is important to teach students how to ask good questions, to think critically, in order to continue the advancement of the very fields we are teaching. "Every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996a ).

Beyer sees the teaching of critical thinking as important to the very state of our nation. He argues that to live successfully in a democracy, people must be able to think critically in order to make sound decisions about personal and civic affairs. If students learn to think critically, then they can use good thinking as the guide by which they live their lives.


Teaching Strategies to Help Promote Critical Thinking

The 1995, Volume 22, issue 1, of the journal, Teaching of Psychology , is devoted to the teaching critical thinking. Most of the strategies included in this section come from the various articles that compose this issue.

  • CATS (Classroom Assessment Techniques): Angelo stresses the use of ongoing classroom assessment as a way to monitor and facilitate students' critical thinking. An example of a CAT is to ask students to write a "Minute Paper" responding to questions such as "What was the most important thing you learned in today's class? What question related to this session remains uppermost in your mind?" The teacher selects some of the papers and prepares responses for the next class meeting.
  • Cooperative Learning Strategies: Cooper (1995) argues that putting students in group learning situations is the best way to foster critical thinking. "In properly structured cooperative learning environments, students perform more of the active, critical thinking with continuous support and feedback from other students and the teacher" (p. 8).
  • Case Study /Discussion Method: McDade (1995) describes this method as the teacher presenting a case (or story) to the class without a conclusion. Using prepared questions, the teacher then leads students through a discussion, allowing students to construct a conclusion for the case.
  • Using Questions: King (1995) identifies ways of using questions in the classroom:
  • Reciprocal Peer Questioning: Following lecture, the teacher displays a list of question stems (such as, "What are the strengths and weaknesses of...). Students must write questions about the lecture material. In small groups, the students ask each other the questions. Then, the whole class discusses some of the questions from each small group.
  • Reader's Questions: Require students to write questions on assigned reading and turn them in at the beginning of class. Select a few of the questions as the impetus for class discussion.
  • Conference Style Learning: The teacher does not "teach" the class in the sense of lecturing. The teacher is a facilitator of a conference. Students must thoroughly read all required material before class. Assigned readings should be in the zone of proximal development. That is, readings should be able to be understood by students, but also challenging. The class consists of the students asking questions of each other and discussing these questions. The teacher does not remain passive, but rather, helps "direct and mold discussions by posing strategic questions and helping students build on each others' ideas" (Underwood & Wald, 1995, p. 18 ).
  • Use Writing Assignments: Wade sees the use of writing as fundamental to developing critical thinking skills. "With written assignments, an instructor can encourage the development of dialectic reasoning by requiring students to argue both [or more] sides of an issue" (p. 24).
  • Dialogues: Robertson andRane-Szostak (1996) identify two methods of stimulating useful discussions in the classroom:
    • Written dialogues: Give students written dialogues to analyze. In small groups, students must identify the different viewpoints of each participant in the dialogue. Must look for biases, presence or exclusion of important evidence, alternative interpretations, misstatement of facts, and errors in reasoning. Each group must decide which view is the most reasonable. After coming to a conclusion, each group acts out their dialogue and explains their analysis of it.
    • Spontaneous Group Dialogue: One group of students are assigned roles to play in a discussion (such as leader, information giver, opinion seeker, and disagreer). Four observer groups are formed with the functions of determining what roles are being played by whom, identifying biases and errors in thinking, evaluating reasoning skills, and examining ethical implications of the content.
  • Ambiguity: Strohm & Baukus advocate producing much ambiguity in the classroom. Don't give students clear cut material. Give them conflicting information that they must think their way through.

References & Resources

  • Angelo, T. A. (1995). Beginning the dialogue: Thoughts on promoting critical thinking: Classroom assessment for critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 6-7.
  • Beyer, B. K. (1995). Critical thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Cooper, J. L. (1995). Cooperative learning and critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 7-8.
  • Jones, E. A. & Ratcliff, G. (1993). Critical thinking skills for college students. National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, University Park, PA. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 358 772)
  • King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum: Inquiring minds really do want to know: Using questioning to teach critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22 (1) , 13-17.
  • McDade, S. A. (1995). Case study pedagogy to advance critical thinking. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 9-10.
  • Oliver, H. & Utermohlen, R. (1995). An innovative teaching strategy: Using critical thinking to give students a guide to the future.(Eric Document Reproduction Services No. 389 702)
  • Robertson, J. F. & Rane-Szostak, D. (1996). Using dialogues to develop critical thinking skills: A practical approach. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 39(7), 552-556.
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Strohm, S. M., & Baukus, R. A. (1995). Strategies for fostering critical thinking skills. Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, 50 (1), 55-62.
  • Underwood, M. K., & Wald, R. L. (1995). Conference-style learning: A method for fostering critical thinking with heart. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 17-21.
  • Wade, C. (1995). Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 24-28.

Other Reading

  • Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, & active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass.
  • Bernstein, D. A. (1995). A negotiation model for teaching critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 22-24.
  • Carlson, E. R. (1995). Evaluating the credibility of sources. A missing link in the teaching of critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 39-41.
  • Facione, P. A., Sanchez, C. A., Facione, N. C., & Gainen, J. (1995). The disposition toward critical thinking. The Journal of General Education, 44(1), 1-25.
  • Halpern, D. F., & Nummedal, S. G. (1995). Closing thoughts about helping students improve how they think. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 82-83.
  • Isbell, D. (1995). Teaching writing and research as inseparable: A faculty-librarian teaching team. Reference Services Review, 23(4), 51-62.
  • Jones, J. M. & Safrit, R. D. (1994). Developing critical thinking skills in adult learners through innovative distance learning. Paper presented at the International Conference on the practice of adult education and social development. Jinan, China. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 373 159)
  • Sanchez, M. A. (1995). Using critical-thinking principles as a guide to college-level instruction. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 72-74.
  • Spicer, K. L. & Hanks, W. E. (1995). Multiple measures of critical thinking skills and predisposition in assessment of critical thinking. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, TX. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 391 185)
  • Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1995). Influences affecting the development of students' critical thinking skills. Research in Higher Education, 36(1), 23-39.

On the Internet

  • Carr, K. S. (1990). How can we teach critical thinking. Eric Digest. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://ericps.ed.uiuc.edu/eece/pubs/digests/1990/carr90.html
  • The Center for Critical Thinking (1996). Home Page. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Ennis, Bob (No date). Critical thinking. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://www.cof.orst.edu/cof/teach/for442/ct.htm
  • Montclair State University (1995). Curriculum resource center. Critical thinking resources: An annotated bibliography. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.montclair.edu/Pages/CRC/Bibliographies/CriticalThinking.html
  • No author, No date. Critical Thinking is ... [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://library.usask.ca/ustudy/critical/
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Sheridan, Marcia (No date). Internet education topics hotlink page. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://sun1.iusb.edu/~msherida/topics/critical.html

A while back, Elon Musk revealed that his success is based on a special way of solving problems called first principles thinking.

In this type of problem-solving method, you don’t rely on old ways of doing things (analogies), but instead you rethink the problem from the ground up. You go back to the fundamental assumptions (first principles) that underpin the problem and try to see what other possible directions could be followed.

However first principles thinking is not natural to most people. That is because the human mind evolved in order to promote survival. This favored speed and efficiency in the thinking process and not a slow, thorough evaluation.

Barriers to first principles thinking:

In order to reach quick decisions in a world of uncertainty, the human mind uses heuristics, or shortcut methods to solving problems. In most cases, these result in good enough answers, but there are instances when heuristics fail. These failures are called cognitive biases.

If you want to know more about cognitive biases, check out my series on critical thinking and my cognitive biases framework:

– How to be a critical thinker

– My Cognitive Biases Framework

There are two main cognitive biases that make it harder for you to solve problems using the first principles method: the Einstellung effect and functional fixedness.

These two effects are not bad things in themselves. They do promote fast thinking and an efficient way of doing things. For the vast majority of tasks this is the best way to proceed. In most cases, you want to follow best practices and do things using the tried and tested method.

Daily practice of the same moves reinforces them in the brain. More and more synapses between specific neurons are built up, which helps information to be passed on quicker between them. This then enables you to execute the moves faster and better (and after a significant amount of practice often even without thinking about them, just by instinct).

This is what makes experts so good at what they do. Their heuristics become automatic and since they have been in these situations many times before, they can execute almost effortlessly.

However there is also a problem. Once these neural pathways connecting different neurons are built up, it is hard to pass around them and to do things differently. When one neuron lights up, the other ones connected to it light up too.

That’s why functional fixedness is so strong. If you have a hammer and the only thing you have ever done with it is to pound in nails, then you will only see one use for the hammer. You might become really good at pounding in nails with a hammer, but you will fail to see the other potential uses of the hammer.

What techniques can you use in order to be able to think in first principles?

1) Set up the right problem to solve.

The way you set up your problem will have a huge influence on what answers you will arrive at. Each way of framing the problem can imply a different set of assumptions and first principles.

This is oftentimes the hardest thing to do. The big question you are asking and trying to find the solution to needs to be clear and precise. That’s why you should spend a significant amount of time doing this.

Once you have established the problem you want to solve, things will flow from there.

2) Ask lots of questions.

Throughout the entire process, you need to be asking a lot of questions. What? Why? How?

Question everything. Question your assumptions, question your choices and question your solutions. Try to find holes in everything you do. Create counterfactuals and develop alternatives.

If you want to find out more about how to phrase the right questions, read the part on questioning here:

– The technique for first principles thinking

3) Find your assumptions -> find first principles.

Any type of argument or solution is built upon a series of assumptions. What you need to do in order to find those first principles is to go through the different assumptions you are making and see which ones can be broken down further.

At every step of the way, don’t forget to question these assumptions. If your assumption is not correct, then your conclusion will also be flawed. That’s why it is very important to keep an open mind throughout the entire process.

A first principle is a basic statement that cannot be broken down further and upon which all other statements are built. In the first principles method, this is your starting point.

4) Use the generic parts technique.

One technique that you can use in order to find the first principles of something and to free your mind of functional fixedness is the generic parts technique. There are two basic questions that you ask as part of this process:

  • Can it be broken down further?
  • Does my description of the object imply a use?

The first question is quite straight-forward. You take a look at an assumption and try to determine whether it can be broken down further.

When explaining his use of the first principles method, Elon Musk used the example of a battery and how he broke it down further to find the first principles.

First he asked what are batteries made of? That resulted in a series of parts that make up a battery. After that he went one level further down and so on and so on until he came to the real first principles of the composition of batteries, the materials themselves: cobalt, nicked, aluminum, carbon and polymers.

The second question in the generic parts technique is the one that really helps when you are stuck and functional fixedness is blinding you.

Tony McCaffrey, the researcher who came up with the technique, illustrated how this works with an example from an experiment.

There is a candle and a match. You also have two steel rings. Your goal is to join the two rings together only using the candle and the match. How would you do this?

The key to solving this problem is the second question. You need to be able to get rid of functional fixedness and see different, non-traditional uses of the candle and the match.

One way to solve the problem is by breaking down the candle to its constituent parts. The two parts of a candle are wax and a wick.

The problem with these labels is that they still imply a use. What is a different way to call a wick?

Well, it is a string!

This is the generic term that you can use and suddenly you see a world of possibilities. In this way, you can solve not just this problem, but numerous other problems you might come across.

5) Be agile.

Another thing that you need to remember is that this is not always a linear process. You might need to return to different stages at different times and some parts you can run in parallel.

If you are getting nowhere, don’t be afraid to go back and rephrase your initial question and change the problem you are trying to solve.

The key to everything is keeping an open mind.

If you want to know how to manage any type of project in an agile way, then read this:
–Agile Project Management and Productivity

——–
Read More:
This lesson was just a short teaser summarizing first principles thinking. I have written a series of more detailed articles on what it is, what barriers there are to thinking that way, and how to overcome them. If you want to learn more, read the series of articles below.

If you want to read an introduction on first principles thinking and a discussion on barriers to thinking in first principles, click below:
Introduction to first principles thinking and barriers to thinking in first principles.

If you want to read more on what types of techniques you can use in order to overcome those barriers and solve problems using first principles, click below:
The techniques for first principles thinking.

If you want to read more on the applications of first principles thinking, then click below:
The applications of first principles thinking.

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Peter

Who is happy? "He who has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile nature." Thales (Greek philosopher) ------------ "The only thing that I know is that I know nothing." Socrates (Greek philosopher)

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