Saturday, June 1, 2013

Analytical & critical thinking: Yin & yang of thinking?

Analytical thinking. Critical thinking. When I talk with educators about "critical thinking," I often ask them to explain what they mean by that term. It's funny how many can't really explain it. This seems to be the premise of Ben Johnson in his article "Teaching Students to Dig Deeper." (And thanks to my colleague and friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach for sharing this article, one of the movers and shakers behind Powerful Learning Practice.)

Johnson notes that critical thinking is different from analytical thinking. He even does the etymology thing! Callooh callay!, she chortled in her joy. He suggests that one cannot analyze something unless one understands. Well, we can hope so.

But I think we get a bit circular in our thinking about thinking. I'm not really sure that we can think critically about something--critiquing it--without doing some analysis.

In 1987, the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (I kid you not) defined critical thinking thusly:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness (emphasis mine).
In the original and revised versions of Bloom's taxonomy, there is no category for critical thinking. There is, in the revised version, levels for analyzing, evaluating, and creating. As educators have gone through iterations of identifying specific verbs that correlate to each of those levels, it is clear there are overlaps. And that makes sense as we think about the learning process.

If you want learning to be tidy, well, methinks you'll be disappointed. With learning--and I don't pretend to have any neuroscience to back this--it seems that we do many processing tasks, often without realizing it. I read something and as I read my brain is busily making connections. There are times I must stop and exert cognitive effort to reason through things and as I am doing that I am applying other learning, testing theories, bringing together various bits and pieces of knowledge and information I have and in often non-linear and chaotic ways analyzing and synthesizing.

It's like mental puzzle pieces hurtling through my synapses: "Does that fit there? No? Maybe? Oh, what if? Yes, put that there and then that fits. But oh, there's this piece, so take out that first one. . ." and so on and so on.

This is, I think, why we struggle to explain "critical thinking." It's not just one thing, but many things that can occur nearly simultaneously. That's why I think analytical thinking and critical thinking are a kind of yin and yang of thinking. Though I don't think they're contradictory forces, I do think analytical thinking and critical thinking are interconnected and interdependent and very much complementary to each other.

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