3 – Dimensions of Critical Thinking
More than merely reasoning correctly, critical thinking involves the high-level functioning of a number of different psychological, emotional, and social faculties.
Consequently, the study of the development of critical thinking spans all branches of psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.
The cognitive dimension: the way in which attention span, mental representations, and learning ability are structured. Critical thinking involves the faculties responsible for reasoning, arguing, and understanding others’ arguments, as well as the faculty of self-perception.
Critical thinking also involves what are called “cognitive biases.” Often formed during childhood, cognitive biases are tendencies that lead us into error. For example, using a single counter-example to reject a generalization is a cognitive bias. Consider the view that “Labradors are gentle dogs.” Someone may tell a story about an aggressive Labrador and conclude that “Labradors are not gentle dogs.” This cognitive bias can easily become a source of conflict. The person who thinks Labradors are gentle may interpret the counter-example as an act of bad faith or an attempt to mislead others in order to assert dominance.
The psychological dimension: the conscious and unconscious aspects of emotional life and self-image. Critical thinking is, from a very early age, only possible if we have enough self-esteem to think of ourselves as subjects worthy of thinking for ourselves. This requires both love as well as the imposition of certain limits when we are children.
Self-esteem gives children the confidence to rely on their own reasoning rather than just unthinkingly adopting the attitudes of others. It also allows them to have influence on a given discussion. Their criticisms and opinions can only have an impact if they have the self-assurance to voice them.
The emotional dimension: emotional reactions triggered by stimulation from one’s environment or one’s own actions. To enable critical thinking, we must possess sufficiently developed emotional management skills in order to rise above attractions, distractions, and compulsive urges.
Our emotional reactions immediately disclose our personality. Maintaining balance between the cognitive and emotional dimensions of thinking is dependent upon psychological stability. Thus, a paranoid personality may too swiftly interpret a logical or argumentative weak spot in an argument as an attempt to manipulate rather than an honest mistake. Children or adults with low self-esteem may become paralyzed by their emotions, and, subsequently, unable to defend their own position.
Our emotions, if excessive and unchecked, can weaken our cognitive faculties and our critical thinking skills, lowering the quality of the discussion and giving free rein to cognitive biases. These biases, especially if they are interpreted as simple dishonesty, can in turn provoke excessive emotional responses from the other side of the argument, turning a rational debate into a fight.
The social dimension: the individual’s relationships to others in a culture bound by customs and rules. Critical thinking, from a very early age, requires conventions that affirm and communicate free thinking and individuality. In cultures and ideological frameworks that uphold the ideals of free and critical thinking, it is usually not until the ages of 10 to 12 that the educational system begins to emphasize argumentative skills for English, mathematical logic and proofs, or debate. But this is starting to change. For example, the all-too-rare introduction of philosophical debate at the kindergarten level has been a resounding success. Students are highly enthusiastic about it, and they come up with remarkably sharp arguments.
Emotions, personality, and self-esteem all bear significantly on critical thinking, even more so than our cognitive faculties of reasoning and argumentation. But there remains yet another equally decisive dimension: the different cultures of the world and different generations within the same society, which do not all abide by the same social norms of critical thinking.
Assertiveness, knowing how to make your mark within a social group, and thinking for oneself are not universal values. Students have no chance of challenging the word of their teachers if these authority figures are put on a pedestal. A student may be logical, cultured, well-liked, and able to manage their emotions. But without certain cultural values in place, critical thinking will never become a part of their behavioral skill-set.
To develop critical thinking in children and teenagers, parents and educators must grapple with these four dimensions. Drawing on these dimensions they can begin to instill in children the ability to think about their own thinking. This practice, called “metacognition,” is a crucial precondition for developing the analytical skills central to critical thinking. It is both possible and important to develop children’s critical capacities through metacognition beginning at around the age of eight. For children younger than eight, it is much more important to develop self-esteem first.
Metacognition is the ability to analyze one’s own mechanisms of thought and one’s own cognitive processes in general.
If children who think eating meat is wrong recognize that this opinion may be adopted because it is fashionable, rather than because of ethical concerns, they are thinking about their thinking.
Through metacognition, a child accepts that the opinion is not an absolute. He or she must, therefore, find ways of convincing other people. This is conscious awareness of the need to argue. What’s more, metacognition encourages children to listen to other people’s arguments and to reflect before accepting or rejecting them. Rapidly, argumentative modes of thought are reinforced and become a source of enjoyment.
A crucial part of metacognition is being able to understand and identify with perspectives other than one’s own. For young children, emotion seems to be an argument in itself. An emotion is, by its very nature, irrational and always seems absolutely correct from a child’s point of view. Parents must help their children realize that their emotional reactions are not the same as everyone else’s.
Although a child may be repulsed by hamburgers, he or she can come to recognize that other children delight in eating them. A child can, empathetically and calmly, learn to mull over such thoughts and use critical thinking to shift focus away from their emotions and onto their thoughts.
The goal should not necessarily be to change the child’s mind. Critical thinking can serve to teach your children to respect others and to base their arguments on something other than their emotions. This training in argument stimulates the mind, fostering the growth of new neural pathways and improving cognitive efficiency. It also lays the groundwork for a mode of thought that complements, if not surpasses, argument: that of reasoning.