Stages of Development of Critical Thinking

Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker
Are you ready to accept the challenge?

We cannot solve a problem we do not own. We cannot deal with a condition we deny. Without knowledge of our ignorance, we cannot seek the knowledge we lack. Without knowledge of the skills we need to develop, we will not develop those skills.

As we begin to become aware that "normal" thinkers often think poorly, we move into the second stage of critical thinking development. We begin to notice that we often:

  • Make questionable assumptions;
  • Use false, incomplete, or misleading information;
  • Make inferences that do not follow from the evidence we have;
  • Fail to recognize important implications in our thought;
  • Fail to recognize problems we have;
  • Form faulty concepts;
  • Reason within prejudiced points of view; and
  • Think egocentrically and irrationally.

We move to the "challenged" stage when we become aware of the way our thinking is shaping our lives, including the recognition that problems in our thinking are causing problems in our lives. We are beginning to recognize that poor thinking can be life-threatening, that it can lead literally to death or permanent injury, that it can hurt others as well as ourselves. For example, we might reflect upon the thinking of:

  • The person who is a perpetual procrastinator;
  • The irrational manager who can't understand why his employees can't "give it up;"
  • The person who is angry at the world in general;
  • The teenager who thinks that smoking is cool;
  • The woman who thinks that Pap smears are not important;
  • The motorcyclist who reasons that helmets obstruct vision and, therefore, it is safer to ride without one;
  • The person who thinks he can drive safely while drunk;
  • The person who decides to marry a self-centered person with the thought that he or she will "change" after marriage.

We also recognize the difficulty involved in "improving" our thinking. If you are at this stage in your own thinking, you recognize that the problem of changing your habits of thought is an important challenge requiring extensive and difficult changes in your normal routines.

Some signs of emerging reflectiveness are that:

  • You find yourself striving to analyze and assess your thinking;
  • You find yourself working with the structures of mind that create, or make possible, thinking (for example: concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view);
  • You find yourself thinking about the qualities that make thinking sound -- clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness -- though you may have only an initial grasp of how these qualities can be achieved;
  • You find yourself becoming interested in the role of self-deception in thinking, though your understanding is relatively "abstract" and you may not be able to give many examples from our own life.

At this point in your development, there is a distinct danger of self-deception. Many resist accepting the true nature of the challenge -- that their own thinking is a real and significant problem in their life. If you do as many do, you will revert to the unreflective stage. Your experience of thinking about your thinking will fade. Your usual habits of thought will remain as they are. For example, you may find yourself rationalizing in the following way:

My thinking is not that bad. Actually, I've been thinking well for quite a while. I question a lot of things. I'm not prejudiced. Besides that, I'm very critical. And I'm not near as self-deceived as lots of people I know.

If you reason in this way, you will not be alone. You will join the majority. The view -- "if everyone were to think like me, this would be a fine world" -- is the dominant view. Those who share this view range from the poorly schooled to the highly schooled. There is no evidence to suggest that schooling correlates with human reflectiveness. Indeed many college graduates are intellectually arrogant as a result of their schooling. There are unreflective thinkers who did not go beyond elementary school, but there are also ones who have done post-graduate work and now have advanced degrees; unreflective people are found in the upper, middle, and lower class. They include psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, mathematicians, doctors, senators, judges, governors, district attorneys, lawyers, and indeed people of all professions.

In short, absence of intellectual humility is common among all classes of people, in all walks of life and at all ages. It follows that active or passive resistance to the challenge of critical thinking is the common, not the rare case. Whether in the form of a careless shrug or outright hostility, most people reject the challenge of critical thinking. That is why some soul-searching is important at this point in the process.

Test the Idea: Begin to Challenge your Thinking

Adapted by Vi Olsen from: Paul/Elder: Critical Thinking (2002) p. 50- 51, used with their permission.

Purchase text through: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2002: http://www.criticalthinking.org

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