The Art of Critical Thinking

I know I haven’t mastered this yet and this was reinforced during some recent feedback from my PhD supervisor after he reviewed an early draft of my writing – “you need more critical thinking”. Which got me thinking – what is critical thinking and what exactly do I need to work on?

I think the biggest thing wrong with the term critical thinking is that it has the word “critical” in it. This holds negative connotations for me, for example, being critical of something or another. Personally I have always preferred the term constructive criticism. However as we know, critical thinking is much more than “being critical”, so I took to doing some quick googling to cross check my understanding versus more formal definitions, and this is what I found.

First up is an extended collection of Critical Thinking definitions from Harvard University which can be found here. Interestingly, they commence their summary by confirming my suspicion that critical thinking is an often used and seldom defined term.

One online dictionary defines critical thinking as:

“disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence”

The oxford online dictionary goes a little further:

“The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement”

OK, so far we have disciplined, objective, evidence-based thinking to inform a judgement. That sounds about right.

My supervisor described critical thinking using a movie review analogy. A reviewer doesn’t just state what happened in the movie, they comment on (for example) the director’s success in delivering a top quality movie, relevance of the main themes to society and maybe the quality of the acting. It’s a neat analogy that perfectly captures the difference between a literature summary and literature review (critique).

Following my definition searching I came across this fantastic summary by Deakin University. They go one step further than a definition by presenting an overview of critical thinking stages;

  1. observe,
  2. analyse,
  3. evaluate,
  4. question,
  5. contextualise and
  6. reflect.

The definitions I found are useful but it’s the clear presentation of the process that helps me most in reflecting on how to improve my own critical analysis. I also understand that being at the earlier stage of my PhD, I am rather focused on the initial stages of observe, analyse and evaluate for my literature review. Sure, I question and reflect, but I am prioritising knowledge gathering at this stage. That said, it’s great to have this Deakin framework to support my own research and understanding of the critical thinking process.

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