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Learn the process of examining, analyzing, questioning, and challenging situations, issues, and information of all kinds.


  • What is critical thinking?

  • Why is critical thinking important?

  • Who can (and should) learn to think critically?

  • How do you help people learn to think critically?

Suppose an elected official makes a speech in which he says, "The government doesn't need to be involved in cleaning up pollution from manufacturing. Business can take care of this more efficiently." What's your reaction?

There are a lot of questions you can be asking here, some of which you may already know the answers to. First, what are the assumptions behind this person's statement? How does he view the job of government, for instance? What's his attitude toward business? Does he believe pollution is a real threat to the environment?

Next, you might want to consider the official's biases. What party does this politician belong to, and what's that party's position on pollution regulation? What state is he from -- one with a lot of industry that contributes to acid rain and other pollution? What's his voting record on environmental issues? Is he receiving contributions from major polluters? Does he live in a place that's seriously affected by pollution? What does he know about the science involved? (What do you know about the science involved?) Does he have any knowledge or expertise in this area at all?

Finally, you might want answers to some questions about the context of the statement. What's the record of private industry over the last 10 years in cleaning up its own pollution without government intervention, for instance? What does pollution look like now, as compared to before the government regulated it? For that matter, when did government regulation start? What effect did it have? Perhaps even more important, who will benefit if these ideas are accepted? Who will lose? What will the result be if things are changed in the direction this politician suggests? Are those results good for the country?

If you ask the kinds of questions suggested here when you see new information, or consider a situation or a problem or an issue, you're using critical thinking. Critical thinking is tremendously important in health, human service, and community work because it allows you to understand the actual issues involved, and to come up with an approach that is likely to address them effectively.

What is critical thinking?

There are many definitions of critical thinking. Some see it as a particular way of handling information. Others look at it as a specific set of skills and abilities. People interested in political and social change see it as challenging and providing alternatives to the generally accepted beliefs and values of the power structure. They're all right to an extent: critical thinking is all of these things, and more.

Critical thinking is the process of examining, analyzing, questioning, and challenging situations, issues, and information of all kinds. We use it when we raise questions about:

  • Survey results
  • Theories
  • Personal comments
  • Media stories
  • Our own personal relationships
  • History
  • Scientific research
  • Political statements
  • And (especially) conventional wisdom, general assumptions, and the pronouncements of authority

Critical thinking is an important tool in solving community problems and in developing interventions or initiatives in health, human services, and community development.

Elements of critical thinking

There are a number of ways to look at the process of critical thinking. Brookfield presents several, with this one being perhaps the simplest.

  • Problem/goal identification: What is the real issue here?
  • Diagnosis: Given all the information we have, what's the best way to deal with this issue?
  • Exploration: How do we do what we decided on, and who will make it happen?
  • Action: Do it!
  • Reflection: Did it work? If so, how can it work better? If not, what went wrong, and how can we fix it? What have we learned here that might be valuable in the future?

Reflection leads you to the consideration of another problem or goal, and the cycle begins again.

Critical thinking involves being thrown into the questioning mode by an event or idea that conflicts with your understanding of the world and makes you uncomfortable. If you allow yourself to respond to the discomfort -- that's partially an issue of personal development -- you'll try to figure out where it comes from, and to come up with other ways to understand the situation. Ultimately, if you persist, you'll have a new perspective on the event itself, and will have broken through to a more critical understanding.

Goals of critical thinking

  • Truth: to separate what is true from what is false, or partially true, or incomplete, or slanted, or based on false premises, or assumed to be true because "everyone says so."
  • Context: to consider the context and history of issues, problems, or situations.
  • Assumptions: to understand the assumptions and purposes behind information or situations.
  • Alternatives: to create ways of approaching problems, issues, and situations that address the real, rather than assumed or imagined, factors that underlie or directly cause them -- even when those factors turn out to be different from what you expected.

The word "critical" here means approaching everything as if you were a critic -- questioning it, analyzing it, putting it in context, looking at its origins. The aim is to understand it on its deepest level. "Everything" includes yourself: thinking critically includes identifying, admitting, and examining your own assumptions and prejudices, and understanding how they change your reactions to and your interpretation of information. It also means being willing to change your ideas and conclusions -- and actions -- if an objective view shows that they're wrong or ineffective.

This last point is important. In health, human service, and community work, the main goal of thinking critically is almost always to settle on an action that will have some desired effect. Critical examination of the situation and the available information could lead to anything from further study to organizing a strike, but it should lead to something. Once you've applied critical thinking to an issue, so that you understand what's likely to work, you have to take action to change the situation.

Why is critical thinking important?

Without thinking critically, you're only looking at the surface of things. When you come across a politician's statement in the media, do you accept it at face value? Do you accept some people's statements and not others'? The chances are you exercise at least some judgment, based on what you know about the particular person, and whether you generally agree with her or not.

Knowing whether or not you agree with someone is not necessarily the same as critical thinking, however. Your reaction may be based on emotion ("I hate that guy!"), or on the fact that this elected official supports programs that are in your interest, even though they may not be in the best interests of everyone else. What's important about critical thinking is that it helps you to sort out what's accurate and what's not, and to give you a solid, factual base for solving problems or addressing issues.

Specific reasons for the importance of critical thinking:

  • It identifies bias. Critical thinking identifies both the bias in what it looks at (its object), and the biases you yourself bring to it. If you can address these honestly, and adjust your thinking accordingly, you'll be able to see the object in light of the way it's slanted, and to understand your own biases in your reaction to it.

A bias is not necessarily bad: it is simply a preferred way of looking at things. You can be racially biased, but you can also be biased toward looking at all humans as one family. You can be biased toward a liberal or conservative political point of view, or toward or against tolerance. Regardless of whether most of us would consider a particular bias good or bad, not seeing it can limit how we resolve a problem or issue.

  • It's oriented toward the problem, issue, or situation that you're addressing. Critical thinking focuses on analyzing and understanding its object. It eliminates, to the extent possible, emotional reactions, except where they become part of an approach or solution.

It's just about impossible to eliminate emotions, or to divorce them from your own deeply-held assumptions and beliefs. You can, however, try to understand that they're present, and to analyze your own emotional reactions and those of others in the situation.

There are different kinds of emotional reactions. If all the evidence points to something being true, your emotional reaction that it's not true isn't helpful, no matter how badly you want to believe it. On the other hand, if a proposed solution involves harming a particular group of people "for the good of the majority", an emotional reaction that says "we can't let this happen" may be necessary to change the situation so that its benefits can be realized without harm to anyone. Emotions that allow you to deny reality generally produce undesirable results; emotions that encourage you to explore alternatives based on principles of fairness and justice can produce very desirable results.

  • It gives you the whole picture. Critical thinking never considers anything in a vacuum. Its object has a history, a source, a context. Thinking critically allows you to bring these into play, thus getting more than just the outline of what you're examining, and making a realistic and effective solution to a problem more likely.
  • It brings in other necessary factors. Some of the things that affect the object of critical thought -- previous situations, personal histories, general assumptions about an issue -- may need to be examined themselves. Critical thinking identifies them and questions them as well.

During the mid-90's debate in the United States over welfare reform, much fuss was made over the amount of federal money spent on welfare. Few people realized, however, that the whole entitlement program accounted for less than 2% of the annual federal budget. During the height of the debate, Americans surveyed estimated the amount of their taxes going to welfare at as much as 60%. Had they examined the general assumptions they were using, they might have thought differently about the issue.

  • It considers both the simplicity and complexity of its object. A situation or issue may have a seemingly simple explanation or resolution, but it may rest on a complex combination of factors. Thinking critically unravels the relationships among these, and determines what level of complexity needs to be dealt with in order to reach a desired conclusion.
  • It gives you the most nearly accurate view of reality. The whole point of critical thinking is to construct the most objective view available. 100% objectivity may not be possible, but the closer you can get, the better.
  • Most important, for all the above reasons, it is most likely to help you get the results you want. The closer you are to dealing with things as they really are, the more likely you are to be able to address a problem or issue with some hope of success.

In more general terms, the real value of critical thinking is that it's been at the root of all human progress. The first ancestor of humans who said to himself, "We've always made bone tools, but they break awfully easily. I bet we could make tools out of something else. What if I tried this rock?" was using critical thinking. So were most of the social, artistic, and technological groundbreakers who followed. You'd be hard pressed to find an advance in almost any area of humanity's development that didn't start with someone looking at the way things were and saying "It doesn't have to be that way. What if we looked at it from another angle?"

Who can (and should) learn to think critically?

The answer here is everyone, from children to senior citizens. Even small children can learn about such things as cause and effect -- a specific event having a specific result -- through a combination of their own experimentation and experience and of being introduced to more complex ideas by others.

Accepted wisdom, perhaps dispensed by a teacher or other authority figure, is, however, often the opposite of critical thinking, which relies on questioning. In many schools, for example, critical thinkers are, if not punished, stifled because of their "disruptive " need to question (and thereby challenge authority). Interestingly enough, the more a school costs -- whether it's a well-funded public school in an affluent community, or an expensive private school -- the more apt it is to encourage and teach critical thinking. Such schools see themselves, and are seen by their students' parents, as trainers of leaders...and leaders need to know how to think.

Many adults exercise critical thinking as a matter of course. Many more know how, but for various reasons -- fear, perceived self-interest, deeply held prejudices or unexamined beliefs -- choose not to. Still more, perhaps a majority, are capable of learning to think critically, but haven't been taught or exposed to the experiences that would have allowed them to learn on their own.

It is this last group that is both most in need of, and most receptive to, learning to think critically. It often includes people with relatively low levels of education and income who see themselves as powerless. Once they grasp the concept of critical thought, it can change their whole view of the world. Often, the experience of being involved in a community initiative or intervention provides the spur for that learning.

Critical thinking requires the capacity for abstract thought. This is the ability to think about what's not there -- to foresee future consequences and possibilities, to think about your own thinking, to imagine scenarios that haven't yet existed. Most people are capable of learning to think in this way, if given the encouragement and opportunity.

How do you help people learn to think critically?

Learning to think critically is more often than not a long process. Many people have to learn to think abstractly -- itself a long process -- before they can really apply the principles of critical thinking. Even those who already have that ability are often slowed, or even stopped, by the developmental and psychological -- and sometimes the actual -- consequences of what they're being asked to do. Often, it takes a crisis of some sort, or a series of negative experiences to motivate people to be willing to think in a different way.

Even then, developing the capacity for critical thinking doesn't necessarily make things better. It can alter family relationships, change attitudes toward work and community issues, and bring discord into a life where none was recognized before. Learning it takes courage.

The point of all this is that, although there's a series of what we believe are effective how-to steps laid out in this section, teaching critical thinking is not magic. The reason we keep using the words "develop" and "process" is that critical thinking, if it takes root, develops over time. Don't be frustrated if many people don't seem to get it immediately: they won't.

Helping others learn to think critically can take place in a classroom -- it's essentially what higher education is all about -- but it's probably even more common in other situations. Community interventions of all kinds provide opportunities for learning, both because participants are usually involved over a period of time, and because they are often experiencing difficulties that make it clear to them that their world view isn't adequate to solve the problems they face. Many are ready to change, and welcome the chance to challenge the way things are and learn new ways of thinking.

By the same token, learning to think critically can be a frightening process. It leads you to question ideas that you may have taken for granted all your life, and to challenge authority figures whom you may have held in awe. It may push you to tackle problems you thought were insoluble. It's the intellectual equivalent of bungee jumping: once you've leaped off the bridge, there's no going back, and you have to trust that the cord will hold you.

As a result, facilitating critical thinking -- whether formally or informally -- requires more than just a knowledge of the process. It demands that you be supportive, encouraging, and honest, and that you act as role model, constantly demonstrating the process as you discuss it.

There are really three aspects of helping people develop critical thinking: how to be a facilitator for the process; how to help people develop the "critical stance," the mindset that leads them to apply critical thinking all the time; and how to help people learn to apply critical thinking to dealing with community problems and issues.

How to be a critical thinking facilitator

Stephen Brookfield has developed a 10-point guideline for facilitators of critical thinking that focuses both on the learner and the facilitator herself.

  1. Affirm learners' self-worth. Critical thinking is an intellectual exercise, but it is also a matter of confidence and courage. Learners need to have the self -esteem to believe that authority figures or established beliefs could be wrong, and to challenge them. Facilitators need to encourage that self-esteem by confirming that learners' opinions matter and are worthy of respect, that they themselves have and deserve a voice.
  2. Listen attentively to learners. Repeat back their words and ideas, so they know they've been heard. What they say can reveal hidden conflicts and assumptions that can then be questioned.
  3. Show your support for critical thinking efforts. Reward learners for challenging assumptions, even when they're your own.
  4. Reflect and mirror learners' ideas and actions. That will help to identify assumptions and biases they may not be aware of.
  5. Motivate people to think critically, but help them to understand when it's appropriate to voice critical ideas and when it's not. The wrong word to the boss could get a learner fired, for example. It's important that he understand the possible consequences of talking about his conclusions before he does it.
  6. Regularly evaluate progress with learners. Critical thinking involves reflection as well as action, and part of that reflection should be on the process itself.
  7. Help learners create networks of support. These can include both other learners and others in the community who are learning to or who already practice and support critical thinking.
  8. Be a critical teacher. Model the critical thinking process in everything you do (particularly, if you're a teacher, in the way you teach), encourage learners to challenge your assumptions and ideas, and challenge them yourself.
  9. Make people aware of how they learn critical thinking. Discuss learning and thinking styles, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, learning methods, the role of previous experience, etc. The more conscious you can make people of their preferred ways of learning, the easier it will be for them to understand how they're approaching ideas and situations and to adjust if necessary.
  10. Model critical thinking. Approach ideas and situations critically and, to the extent possible, explain your thinking so learners can see the process you've used to arrive at your conclusions.

How to encourage the critical stance

Developing the critical stance -- the generalized ability and disposition to apply critical thinking to whatever you encounter -- is a crucial element in teaching critical thinking. It includes recognizing assumptions -- your own and others' -- applying that recognition to questioning information and situations, and considering their context.

Recognize assumptions. Each of us has a set of assumptions -- ideas or attitudes or "facts" we take for granted -- that underlies our thinking. Only when you're willing to look at these assumptions and realize how they color your conclusions can you examine situations, problems, or issues objectively.

Assumptions are based on a number of factors -- physical, environmental, psychological, and experiential -- that we automatically, and often unconsciously, bring to bear on anything we think about. One of the first steps in encouraging the critical stance is to try to make these factors conscious. Besides direct discussion, role plays, discussions of hypothetical or relatively non-threatening real situations, and self -revelation on the facilitator's part ("Some of my own assumptions are...") can all be ways to help people think about the preconceptions they bring to any situation.

Sources of assumptions are numerous and overlapping, but the most important are:

  • Senses. The impact of the senses is so elemental that we sometimes react to it without realizing we're doing so. You may respond to a person based on smells you're barely aware of, for instance.
  • Experience. Each of us has a unique set of experiences, and they influence our responses to what we encounter. Ultimately, as critical thinkers, we have to understand both how past experience might limit our thinking in a situation, and how we can use it to see things more clearly.
  • Values. Values are deeply held beliefs -- often learned from families, schools, and peers -- about how the world should be. These "givens" may be difficult even to recognize, let alone reject. It further complicates matters that values usually concern the core issues of our lives: personal and sexual relationships, morality, gender and social roles, race, social class, and the organization of society, to name just a few.
  • Emotion. Recognizing our emotional reactions is vital to keeping them from influencing our conclusions. Anger at child abusers may get in the way of our understanding the issue clearly, for example. We can't control whether emotions come up, but we can understand how we react to them.
  • Self interest. Whether we like it or not, each of us sometimes injects what is best for ourselves into our decisions. We have to be aware when self interest gets in the way of reason, or of looking at the other interests in the situation.
  • Culture. The culture we grew up in, the culture we've adopted, the predominant culture in the society -- all have their effects on us, and push us into thinking in particular ways. Understanding how culture acts upon our and others' thinking makes it possible to look at a problem or issue in a different light.
  • History. Community history, the history of our organization or initiative, and our own history in dealing with particular problems and issues will all have an impact on the way we think about the current situation.
  • Religion. Our own religious backgrounds -- whether we still practice religion or not -- may be more powerful than we realize in influencing our thinking.
  • Biases. Very few of us, regardless of what we'd like to believe, are free of racial or ethnic prejudices of some sort, or of political, moral, and other biases that can come into play here.
  • Prior knowledge. What we know about a problem or issue, from personal experience, from secondhand accounts, or from theory, shapes our responses to it. We have to be sure, however, that what we "know" is in fact true, and relevant to the issue at hand.
  • Conventional wisdom. All of us have a large store of information "everybody knows" that we apply to new situations and problems. Unfortunately, the fact that everybody knows it doesn't make it right. Conventional wisdom is often too conventional: it usually reflects the simplest way of looking at things. We may need to step outside the conventions to look for new solutions.

This is often the case when people complain that "common sense" makes the solution to a problem obvious. Many people believe, for instance, that it is "common sense " that sex education courses for teens encourage them to have sex. The statistics show that, in fact, teens with adequate sexual information tend to be less sexually active than their uninformed counterparts.

Examine information for accuracy, assumptions, biases, or specific interests. Helping learners discuss and come up with the kinds of questions that they need to subject information to is probably the best way to facilitate here. Using current examples -- comparing various newspaper and TV news stories, for instance, to see what different aspects are emphasized, or to see how all ignore the same issues -- can also be a powerful way of demonstrating what needs to be asked. Some basic questions are:

  • What's the source of the information? Knowing where information originates can tell you a lot about what it's meant to make you believe.
  • Does the source generally produce accurate information?
  • What are the source's assumptions about the problem or issue? Does the source have a particular interest or belong to a particular group that will allow you to understand what it believes about the issue the information refers to?
  • Does the source have biases or purposes that would lead it to slant information in a particular way, or to lie outright? Politicians and political campaigns often "spin" information so that it seems to favor them and their positions. People in the community may do the same, or may "know" things that don't happen to be true.
  • Does anyone in particular stand to benefit or lose if the information is accepted or rejected? To whose advantage is it if the information is taken at face value?
  • Is the information complete? Are there important pieces missing? Does it tell you everything you need to know? Is it based on enough data to be accurate?

Making sure you have all the information can make a huge difference. Your information might be that a certain approach to this same issue worked well in a similar community. What you might not know or think to ask, however, is whether there's a reason that the same approach wouldn't work in this community. If you investigated, you might find it had been tried and failed for reasons that would doom it again. You'd need all the information before you could reasonably address the issue.

  • Is the information logically consistent? Does it make sense? Do arguments actually prove what they pretend to prove? Learning how to sort out logical and powerful arguments from inconsistent or meaningless ones is perhaps the hardest task for learners. Some helpful strategies here might include mock debates, where participants have to devise arguments for the side they disagree with; analysis of TV news programs, particularly those like "Meet the Press," where political figures defend their positions; and after-the-fact discussions of community or personal situations.

Just about anyone can come up with an example that "proves" a particular point: There's a woman down the block who cheats on welfare, so it's obvious that most welfare recipients cheat. You can't trust members of that ethnic group, because one of them stole my wallet.

Neither of these examples "proves" anything, because it's based on only one instance, and there's no logical reason to assume it holds for a larger group. A former president was particularly fond of these kinds of "proofs", and as a result often proposed simplistic solutions to complex social problems. Without information that's logically consistent and at least close to complete, you can't draw conclusions that will help you effectively address an issue.

  • Is the information clear? Do you understand what you're seeing?
  • Is the information relevant to the current situation? Information may be accurate, complete, logically consistent, powerful...and useless, because it has nothing to do with what you're trying to deal with.

An AIDS prevention initiative, for instance, may find that a particular neighborhood has a large number of gay residents. However, if the HIV-positive rate in the gay community is nearly nonexistent, and the real AIDS problem in town is among IV drug users, the location of the gay community is irrelevant information.

  • Most important, is the information true? Outright lies and made-up "facts" are not uncommon in politics, community work, and other situations. Knowing the source and its interests, understanding the situation, and being sensibly skeptical can help to protect learners from acting on false information.

Consider the context of the information, problem, or issue. Examining context, in most instances, is easier to approach than the other elements of the critical stance. It involves more concrete and "objective" information, and, at least in the case of community issues, it is often information that learners already know.

Facilitating techniques might include brainstorming to identify context elements; discussing how context issues affected real situations that learners are familiar with; and asking small groups of learners to make up their own examples. The real task is making sure that they include as many different factors as possible. Some areas to be examined in considering a community issue, for instance, are:

  • The nature of the community. A big city is likely to present different solutions to a problem than a small town, and both differ from a suburb or a rural area. Understanding the resources, challenges, and peculiarities of a community is important to addressing its issues.
  • The social situation. A community may be divided among several mutually hostile ethnic or political groups, or among groups that simply have different ideas about how things should be done. There may be class, race, or other issues to deal with.
  • Individuals. Individuals can strongly influence the workings of a community, often in ways that aren't immediately apparent. People can spread or squelch rumors, create harmony or dissension, lead others toward constructive solutions or toward disorganization and ineffectiveness.
  • Cultures. Cultures -- which can be based on ethnic ties, religion, class, or other factors (think of the jocks, preppies, punks, skaters, and other groups in a high school)-- can create alliances or divisions, and heavily influence how different groups see an issue and its implications.
  • Physical environment. A trash-filled, crumbling urban neighborhood can breed despair and fear. Changing the face of that neighborhood may do a great deal to change the situation of people who live there as well, giving them hope and pride of ownership, as well as diminishing violence and crime by increasing light and accessibility. The role of the physical environment is one that has to be examined in any community issue.
  • History. It's crucial to examine the history of a problem or issue, as well as efforts to deal with it. The perfect solution you just came up with may have already ended in disaster five years ago. The person you depend on to explain the situation may have been prominent on one side of a huge conflict, and her presence may alienate anyone who was on the other. Bad feelings over real or perceived slights or dishonesty can persist for decades, and if you don't know about them, they can suddenly rise up, seemingly out of nowhere. Not only getting the history, but getting it from a number of different perspectives, is necessary to success in dealing with any problem or issue.

A group trying to bring public transportation to a rural area started by arranging a meeting between the select boards of the towns involved and the local regional transit authority. What the group didn't know was that, several years before, a small non -profit transportation company -- the chair of whose board was a revered local figure -- had been put out of business through some shady dealings by the regional transit authority. As a result, the towns refused to deal with the transit authority, even though it was now under completely new -- and ethical -- management.

  • The interests involved. If there is a conflict, what are the needs and aims of the various factions? Who stands to gain, and who stands to lose? What are the best interests of the community -- or can you determine that at all?

Facilitating problem solving using critical thinking

Actually using critical thinking to solve problems and address issues is, of course, the reason for learning it. Brookfield suggests one problem-solving sequence that can be used in many situations involving community issues. Once people have learned the critical stance, they can apply its principles using this sequence.

Identify the assumptions behind the problem. By asking people to clarify their statements, and by probing for specifics, you can help them look at what is behind their thinking. Some clarifications that you can ask for, accompanied by some of the questions you might ask:

There are actually two sets of assumptions that are important here. One is the set of assumptions that each of us brings to any problem or information, those described above under "How to encourage the critical stance." The other is the set of assumptions about the particular problem -- what the situation is, what the problem consists of, what a solution would look like, and how to achieve that solution.

In fact, those two sets of assumptions are inseparable, and both need to be considered. The emphasis in what follows is on the second set of assumptions, that which refers to the problem itself. One of the assumptions of the Tool Box, however, is that you'll deal with both in a real situation.

  • The current situation. What exactly do you mean when you say things are bad? What things? How are they bad? What would be happening if they were good?
  • The problem itself. Can you describe another situation in which the same problem existed? What was happening then? Can you describe a situation in which things were good, and the problem didn't exist? What was happening then? What are the differences here?
  • Potential solutions to the problem. If we were able to solve this problem, what would that look like? What would be happening? Who would be involved?
  • Actions that would lead to the solution. How would what you're suggesting lead to a solution? What exactly would happen?

Challenge those assumptions. Once you've clarified the assumptions, everyone needs to question them.

  • The current situation. Are you sure that everything is bad? Are there good aspects to the situation? What about it specifically do you think is bad? Could that be interpreted in another way? Who might interpret it differently? Why? Are we even looking at the right aspects of the situation? Are we missing something important?
  • The problem itself. What exactly is the problem we're talking about? Are you sure that's really the problem? Could the problem be defined in another (this other) way? What's the actual concern here?
  • Potential solutions to the problem. What are the actual results we need here? (If we're trying to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in the community, for instance, are we aiming to provide a particular number of teens with information about birth control? With condoms and other birth control devices? Or are we aiming at an actual reduction in the teen pregnancy rate within a particular period...say, two years?)
  • Actions that would lead to the solution. Would what you're proposing actually accomplish what you expect it to? Would it really make a difference even if it did?

Imagine alternatives to what you started with. There are a number of ways you can construct different ways to deal with the problem. Two are:

  • Brainstorming. Everyone comes up with every alternative she can think of, no matter how silly it seems at the time. After all the ideas have been recorded, the group goes through them, and sorts out what seems worth pursuing. Sometimes the ideas that seem totally silly at first turn out to be the most valuable, which is why it's important to encourage people to blurt out whatever they think of.
  • Starting with the ideal endpoint. Determine what everything would look like if the ideal solution were achieved, then work backward from there to understand what you'd have to do to get there.

In dealing with teen pregnancy again, for instance, the ideal might be a community in which there were no teen pregnancies because all youth clearly understood the physical and emotional consequences of having sex; had adequate sexual information and access to birth control; and felt valued and empowered enough to respect one another and to maintain control over their own bodies. You might determine that that situation would require that there be sex education available through a variety of sources; that condom dispensers should be placed in various public places, and that pharmacies and convenience stores display birth control devices in ways attractive to teens; that every teen needed to have at least one caring adult in his or her life; and that the community valued youth and their contributions.

In order for those things to happen, there might need to be a community education process, mechanisms for youth to become more integrated into the community as contributing members, as well as a group of adult volunteers who would act as mentors and friends to youth who had no positive relationships with adults. In order for those things to happen, you'd need to identify teens who had no positive adult role models...etc. If you followed all of this through to its end, you'd have a picture of the ideal solution to the problem and a road map telling you how to get there.

Critique the alternatives. Develop criteria on which you can judge the alternative solutions you've come up with. Some possibilities:

  • Costs
  • Benefits
  • Effectiveness
  • Feasibility
  • Consistency with community needs
  • Consistency with the values of the group
  • Inclusiveness

Once you've selected criteria, another critical thinking exercise is to decide which are most important. In a particular situation, cost might have to be the most important factor. In another, you may be able to weight costs, benefits, and effectiveness together. In others, other criteria may be weighted more heavily.

Finally, apply the criteria to the alternatives you've come up with, and decide which is most likely to achieve the results you want.

Reframe the problem and solution. At this point, learners have come up with a solution. The point of reframing is to look at the problem in the light of all the work they've done. They've perhaps discovered that it was different from what they first thought, or that they needed to view it differently. Reframing solidifies that mindset, and ensures that they approach the problem as they've found it to be in actuality, rather than as they initially saw it.

  • The current situation. Start by restating the current situation, as you understand it after critical analysis, in the clearest and most specific terms possible.
  • The problem itself. Restate the actual problem as you now understand it.
  • Potential solutions to the problem. Explain what changes a solution would bring about, and what things would be like with the problem solved.
  • Actions that would lead to the solution. Lay out the alternative you've arrived at.

By and large, people learn critical thinking best when they're approaching real problems that affect their lives in real ways. That's one reason why community interventions and initiatives provide fertile ground for the development of critical thinking.

In Summary

Critical thinking is a vital skill in health, human service, and community work. It is the process of questioning, examining, and analyzing situations, issues, problems, people (in hiring decisions, for instance) and information of all kinds -- survey results, theories, personal comments, media stories, history, scientific research, political statements, etc.-- from every possible angle. This will give you a view that's as nearly objective as possible, making it more likely that you'll be able to interpret information accurately and resolve problems and issues effectively.

Teaching critical thinking, whether formally or informally, requires a supportive and encouraging presence, and a willingness to both model and be the subject of critical analysis. It entails teaching the critical stance -- how to recognize and analyze your own and others' assumptions, question information, and examine the context of any information, situation, problem, or issue. Finally, it requires helping people to apply the critical stance to a problem and learn how to come up with a solution that is effective because it addresses the real issues involved. Once learners can do that, they're well on their way to successfully addressing the concerns of their communities.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. Internal and external resources on critical thinking from Longview Community College, Lee's Summit, MO.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking. Articles, references, links, lesson plans, etc. School and college oriented, but lots of good general material.

Mission Critical, an on-line course in critical thinking from an English professor at San Jose (CA) State University.

Print Resources

Brookfield, Stephen D. (1991). Developing Critical Thinkers, Reprint Edition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Brookfield, Stephen D. (2012). Teaching for Critical Thinking, San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.