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Introduction to Critical Thinking

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Children’s fables often contain a moral or theme that teaches us something about life. From reading The Three Little Pigs, for example, we take away a lesson about building upon a strong foundation.

The old tale about a hysterical hen that believes the sky is falling can be used to teach us a little about critical thinking. In The Story of Chicken Little we learn a few things about jumping to conclusions and accepting ideas that are not worthy of belief.

The concept of critical thinking has been defined in many complex ways, but for young students new to the concept, it can best be summed up as thinking and judging for yourself.

When you develop critical thinking skills, you will learn to evaluate information that you hear and process information that you collect honestly and without baggage (baggage such as the assumptions that we carry around). You will analyze the evidence that is presented to you in order to make sure it is sound.

Just to recap the saga of Chicken Little, the tale begins with a hen who, while wandering through a yard, is hit on the head by a falling acorn. The hen jumps to the conclusion that the sky is falling, and is convinced that disaster is pending. On her way to tell the king, she runs through the farmyard warning friends like Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and Ducky Lucky. One by one, the other farm animals follow along behind Chicken Little. Each animal believes Chicken: some believe the story because the frantic fowl makes such a great emotional appeal, and some believe simply because so many others do—in other words, they just join the bandwagon. In the end, the animals meet their doom because the sly fox sees the folly and lures them into his den.

Recognize Common Fallacies

Gullible people - or those who don't think through situations very deliberately - can be misled by common fallacies (or tricks of logic). Once you really think about this, you will realize that fallacies are all around us! A critical thinker is not easily convinced; instead, a critical thinker sees right through "false logic."

There are many types of fallacies, and the more you think about them, the more readily you will recognize them all around you - especially in advertisements, arguments, and political discussions.

  • Bandwagon appeals: the argument that you should follow along with something because everyone else believes it.
  • Scare tactics: using scary stories to make someone believe what you believe.
  • Appeal to emotion: using a fiery speech or a tragic story to convince someone to side with you.
  • False dichotomy: claiming that there are only two possibilities in an argument. In Chicken Little, a false dichotomy would be that the barnyard animals must either believe that the sky is falling or believe that Chicken Little is lying. The smart fox knew that there were other possibilities!

Characteristics of Critical Thinking

To become a critical thinker, you must develop a few skills.
  • Recognize assumptions you carry with you. Have you ever wondered why you believe the things that you believe? Do you believe things because you’ve been told to believe them? Step outside your own beliefs to observe from a neutral viewpoint. Be aware of assumptions and learn to self-reflect.
  • Process information honestly. People sometimes pass along information that is not really true. For an example of this, all you have to do is take a look at Facebook! We’re all guilty of reading posts that make funny or outrageous claims and passing them along without checking for accuracy.
  • Recognize a generalization. Girls don’t like bugs. Old people are wise. Cats make better pets. These are generalizations. They’re not always true, are they?
  • Evaluate old information and new ideas. There was a time when doctors thought leeches could cure us. Thank goodness, some doctor somewhere decided to challenge this belief!
  • Produce new ideas based on sound evidence. Detectives solve crimes by collecting bits of truths and putting them all together like a puzzle. One small deceit can jeopardize an investigation. The entire truth-seeking process is destabilized by one piece of bad evidence, and this leads to a wrong conclusion.
  • Analyze a problem and recognize the complex parts. A mechanic must understand how an entire engine works before s/he can diagnose a problem. Sometimes it is necessary to deconstruct an engine to figure out which part isn’t working. You should approach big problems like this: break them down into smaller parts and observe carefully and deliberately.
  • Use precise vocabulary and communicate with clarity. The truth can be blurred by fuzzy language. It is important to develop your vocabulary so you can communicate truths accurately.
  • Manage emotions in response to a situation or problem. Don’t be fooled by stirred up, emotional speech like a Loosey Goosey. Stay rational and keep your emotions in check as you encounter new information.
  • Judge your sources. Learn to recognize hidden agendas and bias when you collect information.

As students progress from high school into college and graduate school they must develop critical thinking skills in order to carry out research. Students will learn to identify good sources and bad sources, and make logical conclusions and develop new theories.

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