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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Developing critical thinking skills

Whether you are a professional learning leader in your school or interested in your own CPD, developing your critical thinking skills will help just about every endeavour. Being able to read research, blogs, articles or any literature concerned with your role in education with enhanced critical thinking skills will always be of value.

The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it. Terry Pratchett

You only need to read the comments beneath some of the articles on internet newspaper sites or on social networking sites to see how easy it is for us (and we’re all guilty at times) to jump on bandwagons. An influential voice makes a declaration and it can be hard to oppose. However, every line of argument can be interrogated and critical thinking is key.

Objective rather than subjective

Critical thinking is notoriously difficult to define. We encourage pupils to do it but the chances are we're not working to a shared definition when we use the term. In short, critical thinking is objective rather than subjective thinking.

We use it for problem solving, devising and addressing research questions and much more. As a CPD leader in your school, or as someone interested in furthering your professional development, you may find the following points useful for consideration and discussion in your school.

Discernment: Do we believe everything we read? Mostly not, but at times the force of a message can be mistaken for its value and that's something we should all guard against. Instant reactions to what we read need to be kept in check.

As Aristotle says, it's a sign of an educated mind if we can entertain a thought without accepting it.

Bias: Personal biases often come into play for both reader and writer. We see it frequently. If we are not well versed with all positions in a debate we may easily be swung by a writer's biases, and if we are not aware of the biases we harbour ourselves we’re less likely to think critically about the work that supports our existing views.

It can be surprisingly rare to find work free from bias and may be incredibly challenging to read texts with a full awareness of the biases we may hold ourselves. Awareness is everything here.

In short, if we are thinking critically we are:
  • reserving judgement – jumping to conclusions is something we all do from time to time but judgement should be reserved if we are to hone our critical thinking skills until we have fully evaluated an argument
  • being open – adopting a fixed position isn’t always helpful. Remain open to the possibility that your firmly held view may need revising or that the research, book or blog that you read may need challenging. The aim, always, is to improve our understanding through critical thinking
  • building on what has gone before – take professional learning further by using your critical thinking to interrogate an argument or develop a line of thinking
  • guarding against certainty – being absolutely certain of something will discourage critical thinking. Don’t do it!
  • ignoring status – just because someone speaks with authority or has some status doesn’t mean their argument is watertight. Everyone and every argument can be engaged with and challenged where appropriate. Being authoritative, famous or both does not exempt you from scrutiny.

The purpose of critical thinking is not victory or vitriol; if we stray down that path we’re more likely to be regurgitating our biases. Rather, the purpose is furthering knowledge and understanding, not in a way that prevents challenge but which invites challenge so that progress can truly be made.

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