What exactly is critical thinking? You hear about it all the time as a valuable 21st Century skill that everyone should have, and one that a good education will help you develop. If it is so important, why aren’t there specific courses, seminars, self-help videos, or even whole schools focused on helping students develop it? This post, which focuses on research skills, and the next one, "Applying Hyper-Connected Critical Thinking in Higher Education" present a few things that you can do during your college career to make sure that you develop the kind of critical thinking ability that will make you an innovator and leader in the hyper-connected 21st Century, global economy.
What is Critical Thinking?
Surprisingly, critical thinking as a distinct area is relatively new, having only been formally defined in the late 20th Century. Its roots however, go back as far as recorded human history, as we have always been striving to apply these concepts to our existence in the world. The formal definition we use today comes from Michael Scriven and Richard Paul, who presented the concept at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform in 1987. Here is their summary:
"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. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness."
Scriven and Paul, 1987)
According to Scriven and Paul, there are two distinct parts of critical thinking: gathering information from the world around you (researching for class assignments) and making sense of that information (completing class assignments). They list several different ways in which information can be gathered and several steps necessary for actively understanding the facts gathered. Both aspects of the critical thinking process can be developed and sharpened by the thoughtful college student interested in enhancing their ability to think critically and thus to make informed judgments and take appropriate action in any circumstance that they might encounter.
Gathering information is the first step in critical thinking. Here’s how you can become a thoughtful and thorough researcher to provide the best data for your critical consideration.
Building Your Critical Capacity
Prior to applying your critical thinking skills, you must first acquire the material that you are going to analyze and synthesize. This is a process which can be honed, thus providing you with the best possible information to consider. Whenever you are engaged in looking for targeted information, whether for conducting scholarly research or to determine which new cell phone to purchase, you will be well served by following these tips for conducting critical research:
- Cast a wide net/conduct primary research – In any information gathering task you should begin by considering the broadest possible array of sources. In the 21st Century, this generally means using the Internet and your favorite search engine such as Google or Bing. More important than which engine you use are the search terms that you enter. Start with the most general. If you are doing research on the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, starting with a generic search for Native American history, or Indigenous movements will net you some results that may help place your specific topic in a broader context and that may open up additional avenues of inquiry. You are looking for the most authoritative and reputable sources regardless of the search you conduct. Google does a fairly good job sifting out the bad ones, but following these tips from George Mason University will help to ensure that you are targeting the best resources possible.
- Refine your questions – Once you have done your initial search and background reading you will be ready to dig in to specific questions and your targeted issue. First you will want to formulate a research question. Referring back to the Alcatraz occupation as an example, you may choose to ask "What were the objectives in occupying the prison?" or "What events led to the occupation and how does it contribute to an understanding of the indigenous rights movement?" or even more specifically, "What was John Trudell’s role in the occupation and why is he a controversial figure in the indigenous rights movement?"
Once you have generated a specific question you are interested in answering you should generate a list of key words – names, dates, concepts, etc. that can help you create a list of search terms that will help you find your answers. At this point you should also consider switching to a more academically focused search engine such as Google Scholar or any of these others recommended by TeachThought.com. These engines will return results from even more authoritative sources such as scholarly journals that will give your assertions real weight, and lead you to further articles.
- Track back other sources – As you read through the sources you are finding at both levels above, you should be making a list of additional references given in what you are reading. Specifically make note of those that seem to provide more detailed information about some aspect of your research. Write down the author’s name, title of the work, and date of publication whenever available. Then begin searching for those sources. I have had surprisingly good luck putting titles and author names into Google and receiving results that link directly to digital copies of the work I am looking for. Start there for the broadest possible search. Then head to the library for some old fashioned catalogue/stack searching, or search online research databases such as JSTOR, or ERIC. The specific one you use will depend on the field you are researching. For a list of which databases contain what type of information check out studenthacks.org’s "Super-Sized List of Online Academic Databases."
Putting Your Research to Work
Part of the problem with doing all of this critical research is going to be keeping it organized. Best Colleges Online blogger Michael Keathley offers three steps for dealing with the "information overload" you are likely to generate by doing thorough research in the Internet Age. Keathley’s suggestions for organizing and incorporating your findings are excellent, but in addition to just using them, you want to make sure that you are incorporating them into your personal critical framework.
Once you have applied critical thinking to the process of finding valuable information about a topic you are researching, you will need to understand how to make sense of the material in order to draw sound conclusions. I will address that process in the next post.