4. Critical Thinking within a Field of Study

Critical Thinking Within a Field of Study
Every course in a field of study has a central question that it revolves around. A
way to understand every item in a course, to see how all things fit together, is to
understand it in terms of the central question. The central question of this reading is How
can you learn to think critically in a field or discipline?
Thinking in terms of central questions can change your whole understanding of a
course. While this may seem easy, it is actually quite difficult. The goal is to use the
central question in your thinking at every point in the course. Doing so, takes practice and
focused attention.
Example of central questions:
Chemistry: How are you and the world around you created by chemicals?
Composition: What is it to write an effective essay?
Economics: How is society shaped by the decisions people make on the basis of
expected costs and benefits?
Philosophy: How can you make sense of your life and of the world around you?
Write down the central question of the courses you are taking. Write down four versions
of the central question. Approach each version as if it were the one and only central
question of the course. When you have four different questions written down, each
attempting to capture the most central question – choose the one that, in your opinion,
captures it best. (You may choose a different version at a later time.) Write a response to
the central question: try to answer it in a paragraph or two. Write another response to the
question again near mid-term and another response at semester’s end. Compare how the
responses you’ve given have changed and deepened.
Reformulate the question from time to time. Remind yourself of the question, especially
when feeling stressed or overwhelmed, or find yourself just going through the motions.
Push the envelope. Ask yourself, “How is the question important for my life beyond the
classroom?” As your education and understanding increase, the depth with which you
answer that question will also increase.
Critical Thinking In American History
Being able to distinguish between a statement of fact, an opinion or an inference is an
important skill to critical thinking. It involves knowing what can be proven directly, what
is a legitimate implication derived from the facts, and what is fair to conclude from the
historical record.
Historians typically interweave statements of fact, inferences they derive from the facts,
and statements of their own opinion into a seamless historical narrative. Critical thinkers
must be able to distinguish among these three types of communication.
FACT: reports information that can be directly observed or can be verified or
checked for accuracy.
OPINION: expresses an evaluation based on a personal judgment or belief which
may or may not be verifiable.
INFERENCE: a logical conclusion or a legitimate implication based on factual
Generally, facts are constants in historical study. But a compendium of facts is inevitably
incomplete and deathly dull to read. Historians construct history by closing the gaps in
their knowledge about the past, enlarge our under- standing, and enliven their narrative
by drawing logical inferences from their assembled facts. Often, they then use their
expertise to arrive at a considered judgment about the wisdom or significance of past
decisions and events.
Distinguishing statements of fact, opinion, and inference may at first seem difficult to do.
That is because they are often closely interwoven. Develop your own critical thinking
abilities by placing an "F" before each factual statement, an "O" before each opinion,
and an "I" before each inference in the practice exercise below.
This type of critical thinking exercise is used often in quizzes and tests.
_____ 1. The real rulers of the "black Republican" governments of the South were white
"scalawags" and "carpetbaggers."
_____2. Scalawags were by far the more numerous of the two.
_____3. Blacks lacked experience in politics and were mostly poor and uneducated.
_____4. That blacks should fail to dominate southern governments is certainly
_____5. Graft and callous disregard of the public interest characterized government in all
regions and at every level during the decade after Appomattox.
_____6. However, the corruption must be seen in perspective.
_____7. The New York City Tweed Ring probably made off with more money that all
the southern thieves, black and white, combined.
_____8. The evidence does not justify southern corruption.
_____9. The evidence suggests that the unique features of Reconstruction politics do not
explain it either.
____10. In fact, Radical southern governments accomplished much.
Define the problem/consider alternative explanations
Critical thinking is akin to creative thinking. Thinking creatively means viewing
problems or questions in novel, unusual, or untypical ways. It means looking at things
from a different perspective, "seeing" in ways that are not bound by custom, norms, or
habit. Thinking critically about behavior may benefit from any effort we make to expand
our creative thinking abilities.
The exercises below are most valuable when we first consider them on our own, then
discuss them or share them with others to see how others have defined the problem or
have taken a different view.
1. Draw a circle ( or a square, or a triangle, or a squiggly line, etc.) on a piece of paper or
a blackboard. Given five minutes, list all the things that you can think of that this picture
could represent.
2. Consider a common object, such as a rubber band, tennis ball, newspaper, video
cassette case, empty soft drink or beer can, Styrofoam "peanuts", plastic milk carton,
brick, paper clip, etc. Given five minutes, list all the things that you can think of that this
thing, by itself or in quantity, could be used for.
3. List all the things that you can think of that come in pairs ( harder: sets of three, four,
five, or more)
4. Starting with a polysyllabic word like " incorrigible ", "transparency ",
"understanding", or "compassionate ", make as many words as you can from the letters
contained in the chosen word.
5. Imagine that you own a very valuable diamond that you refuse to turn over to a bank or
other agency for safekeeping. Where would you hide it so that it is difficult for anyone to
find it?
6. Traffic jams in you city, particularly at rush hours with commuters going to work, have
gotten horrible. What are some ways you can think of to alleviate these traffic problems?
7. A friend of yours is a real cheapskate, a relentless penny-pincher. Then one day, he
starts behaving just the opposite, spending money recklessly, buying lavish gifts for all
around him, etc. Think of explanations that might account for this change of behavior.
8. Start with a word that describes something abstract and intangible, such as
consciousness, infinity, or pride. Without using the word or any variation of the word,
how would you describe what the word means to someone who is unfamiliar with it.
9. Think of a common object or plant, such as a light bulb, pencil, apple, potato, etc. Now
list as many adjectives as you can think of that could be used to describe this thing.
10. List as many improvements as you can think of for some common device:
automobile, VCR, airport, shopping cart, computer, etc.
11. Start with something that people normally throw away. (Examples: the hair on the
barber shop/beauty salon floor, grass clippings, newspapers, plastic six-pack retainers,
used staples, fish scales, etc...) What are some useful things that could be done with this
12. List all the means of transportation that you can think of.
13. A psychotherapist has a patient who is afraid of ___________. (Suggestions : worms,
butterflies, scotch tape, flies, fish, the color pink, silk clothing, the smell of mown grass,
etc.) Think of as many possible explanations as you can for the patients fear.
14. If we had at least one eye in the back of our heads, as well as the normal two in front,
what would some implications be of that?
15. You have good reason to believe that you may soon be abducted by aliens. You want
to convey to them the essential elements of life on earth and its people. Since books
might not be useful if the aliens cant read our languages, what could you pack in a
suitcase that would be useful to convey what we earthlings are like?
16. If you were going on a trip in the wilderness, and you were concerned that you might
get lost and have to survive indefinitely on your own, what would you take with you
other than clothes and food?
17. What can we do to reduce the amount of trash that is generated in the world
18. You lose your voice, perhaps permanently. Think of as many potentially good things
about this as you can think of . Substitutions: you suddenly go irreversibly bald; you lose
your job; you wake up having been transformed into a member of the opposite sex; you
wake up ten years older (or younger); you have no memory of anything in your life.
19. Make as many four-word sentences as you can in which all the words in the sentence
start with the same letter of the alphabet.
20. This one takes some preparation: Cut some little pieces of cardboard, about 1/2 inch
high and 1 1/2 inches long. About fifty to a hundred will do. Write some common parts
of speech on each card, being sure to include some nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives,
adverbs, etc. When finished, use the words to compose poems or make sentences. For
extra difficulty, require that the poem or sentence relate to some selected topic or theme.
21. Think of as many ways as possible to promote creative thinking processes. Write
them down, find a publisher, make a million dollars, and retire early.
Copyright © 1996 Andrew Geoghegan,
Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum Project