Moving students beyond opinions to critical thinking is a hefty challenge for educators. It requires earnest consideration of more than one profound topic.
First, make sure you understand what critical thinking is: a reasonable and reflective thought process, which employs depth, accuracy, and insight to determine the merit of an object or theory, for the purpose of making effective decisions. Critical thinking is also creative thinking, because it involves evaluating and analyzing facts and other input to synthesize them into new and effective conclusions. An effective critical thinker understands how to put logic before emotion, possesses a healthy level of sound judgment, and functions effectively in both the material world and the world of complex ideas.
The level below critical thinking is bare thinking, which comes naturally to everyone and is based primarily on input filtered through personal feeling or perception of authority. Useful as a starting point for observing life experiences and forming basic opinions, this falls short in the area of accurately recognizing the pros and cons in others’ positions—and especially in one’s own. The challenge for educators is to emphasize the importance of learning critical thinking and of understanding that sound judgment goes far beyond deciding whether something is “right” or “wrong.” It even goes beyond gaining additional knowledge through research, for quoting scholarly beliefs, ideas, and theories is not genuine critical thinking if it stops at regurgitating the thoughts of others.
Where proficient research skills do help critical thinking is in allowing students to understand that there are well-formulated opinions different from what “my dad told me and he ought to know”; that the most qualified and intelligent people disagree on both minor and major points; and that disagreeing with the student’s or even the teacher’s opinion does not make anyone stupid or evil. This is where a person begins to move beyond personal opinion and see the multifaceted nature of the world—the first step toward developing effective critical thinking skills.
Once they begin practicing critical thinking, students can learn to engage in independent thinking, understand the logical connection between ideas, and merge those ideas into new insights. They can learn to identify, construct, and evaluate arguments and to identify errors in reasoning. Thus, they can master a system for independent problem-solving and unlock their potential to bring new ideas to the world.
The educator sets the example by personally exhibiting critical thinking skills, by encouraging students to proficiently search for scholarly knowledge, by respectfully examining and challenging students’ viewpoints—and by not being offended when students’ well-formulated opinions disagree with the educator’s. Part of the educator’s duty is to work himself out of a job by helping students grow beyond blind acceptance of the teacher’s or any other authority’s point of view. Thus, we can raise a generation capable of building problem-solving careers, riding out changes in the workplace and the world, and maximizing the continued effectiveness of the growing knowledge economy. Ultimately, the whole world needs strong and creative leaders, experts in critical thinking, to survive.