What is Critical Thinking?

Our Book of the Week this week is Early Years Policy and Practice – A Critical Alliance by Pat Tomlinson. It is a comprehensive and up to date text for all those required to understand early years’ policy and practice. It provides a succinct insight into key elements of the national and international political, economic and social agendas that influence and affect young children’s lives, and the impact of these on early years’ professional practice and provision. It provides a critical examination of policy development and its application within an historical and international context.

This short extract is taken from the Introduction.

This introduction gives you the opportunity to learn more about critical thinking and the skills you will acquire as you use this series, introducing you to the meaning of critical thinking and how you can develop the necessary skills to read and research effectively towards a critical approach to learning and analysis. It is a necessary and wholly beneficial position to be starting with questions and finishing your journey with more questions.

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire)

If you are already a professional within the Early Years sector, maybe as a teacher in a Reception class, or as an Early Years educator in a private day-care setting, you will no doubt have faced many challenging debates, discussions at training events and your own personal questioning of the policies faced by the sector as a whole. We want you to ask these questions. More importantly, we believe it to be an essential and crucial part of your professional development. You will no doubt be required to implement policies that might at first seem detached from your day-to-day professional practice. It is critical that you question these policies, that you understand their purpose, and moreover that you understand how they have come into being. Often students are faced with complex definitions of critical thinking that require them to deconstruct the concept before they fully understand just how to ‘do’ the critical thinking in the first place. For example:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. 

(Scriven and Paul, 1989)

Rather than confusing you with specific academic definitions, it is our hope that as you read further and begin to understand this topic more, you will be encouraged to ask contemplative questions. Alison King emphasises the importance of students acquiring and cultivating a habit of inquiry to enable them to learn to ask thoughtful questions (King, 1995, p 13). Contrary to the standard methods of ‘instruction’ that leave the student as a passive recipient of information, King argues that where a student has developed the skills of critical thinking they become an ‘autonomous’ learner:

Such a habit of inquiry learned and practiced in class can be applied also to their everyday lives: to what they see on television, read in the newspaper observe in popular culture and hear during interaction with friends and colleagues, as well as to decisions they make about personal relationships, consumer purchases, political choices, and business transactions.

(King, 1995, p 13)

Consider the subject matter that you are now researching; you may have been tasked with the question ‘How has policy changed over the past 25 years?’ This is what King would suggest is a ‘factual’ question, one that may well have a limited answer. Once you have this answer, there is a tendency to stop there, making the inquiry fact-based rather than critical. If
you were to follow up this fi rst question with a critical question, King would argue that you are beginning to ‘introduce high level cognitive processes such as analysis of ideas, comparison and contrast, inference, prediction [and] evaluation’ (1995, p 140).

Example

Critical thinking has been described by Diane Halpern (1996) as

example

thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal directed – the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions when the thinker is using skills that are thoughtful and effective.

(Halpern, 1996 )

The emphasis is on ‘thinking’ that alludes to the student pausing and considering not only the topic or subject in hand, but also the questions generated from taking an opportunity to ask those critical rather than factual questions. To think critically signifies the ability to use ‘a higher order skill’ that enables professionals to act in a rational and reasonable manner, using empathy and understanding of others in a specific context, such as an Early Years setting. The rights and needs of others are always the priority, rather than blindly following established procedures.

A critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely; gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • reaches well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognising and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications and practical consequences;
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

(Taken from Paul and Elder, 2008)

Alec Fisher ( 2001 ) examines the description given by John Dewey of what he termed reflective  thinking as active, persistent and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds which support it and further conclusions to which it tends . Rather than rushing to discover what you believe to be ‘the answer’, consider disentangling the question and the ‘right answer’ before stating your conclusion. Could there be more to find by turning your factual question into a critical question?

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