Critical Thinking: More than Words?

Ryan Bretag, LeaderTalk / Education Week, Feb 21, 2011
Commentary by Stephen Downes

"We hear it all the time," writes Ryan Bretag. "Critical thinking. We educators let it roll off our tongues with great ease and leverage it as a clear target of our educational philosophy, goals, vision, etc." But what, he asks, is critical thinking? Whe you press for a definition, things become much less clear. Bretag gives us a daunting chart of more than 100 concepts from more than 20 sources.

Looking at the list, it seems to me that most are process-oriented, either based on simple learning taxonomies such as Bloom's, or a wider range of "21st century skills." The different sorts of literacies, such as the visual literacy competency standards, pictured above, are similar. But I don't think simply enumerating a series of processes is illuminating (as Plato would say, you cannot define 'clay' by pointing to clay pots, clay images, and other instances of clay).

From my perspective, critical literacies consist of six domains of expertise (not merely skills or practice, and not merely facts or knowledge either):
- syntax - detecting and using forms, rules, operations, patterns and similarities
- semantics - sensing and referencing, interpreting, associating and deciding
- pragmatics - speaking, acting, expressing, declaring, asking, meaning, using
- cognition - description, definition, argument, explanation
- context - theorizing, framing, identifying possibilities, environment, reference space, ontologies and categorization
- change - relation and connection, flow, historicity, directionality, progression, logic, games, scheduling, events and activities, See more here. Each of these works across language, not just text-based language, but visual languages, metaphoric languages, and 'skills' generally - performance, simulation, appropriation (all of which are interpretable as languages).
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