critical thinking

Close up of a white person in a denim jacket writing in a book while drinking a cup of coffee

Teaching began last week, and I used the face-to-face time with my students to encourage some critical discussion of a fashion brand whose story focused on sustainability.

At the end of the session, I asked students what they would take away from the discussion to apply to their own work.

About 25% of them said: “To think more deeply about what I’m looking at“, “To dig into information to find out what’s really happening”, “To think more critically” – or some variation of this.

This was the first week of a new second year, so I was taken aback. One of my teaching aims is always to encourage critical thought, but it’s rare that it ‘lands’ so early on in the year.

What encouraged these students (albeit a small percent of them) to recognise the importance of critical thinking?

What had we done that had got them thinking that way?

How can we learn from this brief experience to improve our own critical thinking, and that of those around us?

One of the hurdles to critical thinking which I’ve seen in my experience is an emotional one; that critical thinking can often feel like you are deconstructing and destroying everything you know. Because of this, we avoid it: we do not want what we know to crumble around us, so we avoid critical thought.

The image that springs to mind is The Tower tarot card. On the card, a stone tower is in the process of falling apart, with beings tumbling from the parapet and destruction and disarray all around. The Tower’s tearing apart is often caused from some small action – a lightning strike on one part of the tower, for example – but the consequences are wide-reaching.

Critical thinking is a process of deconstruction. However, the purpose isn’t to just take things apart and leave them in a scattered mess. It’s to take things apart, find out how they work, and then discover a better way to put them back together.

In this way, it’s like the aftermath of The Tower; now that the old structure has fallen apart, what would you like to build instead?

The emotional resistance to critical thinking makes it easier to actively not teach it or to include it as part of educational strategies, or even in our daily lives. We don’t want to do things which feel uncomfortable … so we don’t make the effort to do them.

If we can reframe critical thinking as a process of curiosity which will take apart what we know, but for the purposes of better rebuilding, perhaps we would be more willing to use critical thinking regularly.

This was one of the effective aspects of that session. We deconstructed a brand – and then I asked the students “What could this brand do instead?”, “What would you do differently?” and “How do you think a brand should behave?”.

If critical thinking does result in emotional discomfort, then another important aspect to encouraging it is creating a positive, caring environment in which to do it.

Too often (and from my own experience, I’ve done this) when we’re learning to think critically, we ourselves are interrogated about our beliefs, expectations, assumptions and more. Questioning what we believe? Getting curious about what we believe? Yes, absolutely. But interrogating? In a classroom, no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition and, to be frank, no-one likes them either.

There is a case for interrogation when we see that a person ‘should’ know better; they are educated enough, old enough, privileged enough or experienced enough to handle pointed questioning. But most of us, most of the time, are like children. We are learning, constantly, about how to exist in the world and what the world is actually like, so interrogating that will cause emotional panic and often resistance to critical thought.

Appropriate, curious questioning with the intention of growth is more likely to result in critical thinking than interrogation with the intention of ‘proving someone wrong’. This was another effective aspect of the taught session; my aim was growth, not proving a student wrong. Phrases like “Tell me more about that”, “Could you explain that in more detail?” or “What are your reasons for thinking that?” helped to show curiosity, rather than interrogation.

Interrogation is designed to rock the foundations of a person’s belief; that’s why interrogative techniques are used on those educated, old, privileged or experienced enough to handle it. It’s like ‘punching up’ in comedy – your expectation is that those who are ‘punched’ can handle it; in fact, expect it themselves.

I’ve found, however, that the foundations of a person’s beliefs can often be more critically exacting than we expect. When intuition is listened to and acted upon – that is, our belief under all the social/cultural stuff we’ve been taught to believe is listened to and acted upon – it can effectively result in critical thought.

I think this is because the social / cultural beliefs we are taught to have frequently (and unfortunately) directly oppose what our intuition tells us is a healthy, happy way to live. Our intuition tells us that all of us are equal; we’re taught, implicitly and explicitly, that this is not true. Or our intuition tells us to rest when we need to rest; our cultural paradigm teaches us that we can only rest at certain pre-approved times.

If we listen to that intuition as a starting point, we might find ourselves thinking more critically than expected simply because our contemporary capitalist world has not been built on listening to and acting on intuition.

When discussing this with my students, I offer that intuition is a starting point for critical analysis: “If something doesn’t feel right, start from there. Ask yourself what doesn’t feel right, and why.”

Curiosity is, I think, our inner knowing telling us there is more to find out. In a moment in which we are suffering from a ‘trust deficit’, I don’t want to be creating a lack of self-trust in my students (or myself). But I do want to be encouraging critical thought. Using intuition as a starting point means taking our inner knowing and trusting it enough to be the basis of the critical thinking process.

Phrases to use for critical thinking

For building something better

  • “What could this [X] do instead?”
  • “What would you do differently?”
  • “How do you think a [X] should behave?”

For appropriate, curious questioning

  • “Tell me more about that”
  • “Could you explain that in more detail?”
  • “What are your reasons for thinking that?”

For leading from intuition

  • “What doesn’t feel right in this situation?”
  • “What feels ‘off’ to you?”
  • “What do your feelings tell you about this?”
  • “… and why?”

By Eleanor Snare

Eleanor Snare is a creativity consultant, art school educator, writer and speaker. Their mission is to help liberate the hidden artist within individuals and organisations so they can create more meaningful, imaginative and profitable work.

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