Monday, December 12, 2011

The Five Traditions of Critical Thinking

Continuing with the work of Stephen Brookfield (1), he notes that there are five main traditions regarding critical thinking. These are:

1. Analytic philosophy and logic. He notes that this is the most influential tradition informing how we teach and understand critical thinking. It is a process of constructing and deconstructing arguments, and is a daily part of instruction in US schools. It translates as being able to provide reasons for the opinions, conclusions or statements that a student makes. A classic example would be to show the calculations that led to the correct answer of a math problem, not just the answer itself. Brookfield notes that it is necessary for individuals involved in this form of analysis to be conversant in language, because language can be used to mislead and deceive student. To Brookfield, this smacks of propaganda, and it is necessary for students to be able to perceive language tricks- and we see tricks all the time in our literature, particularly our political literature related to chiropractic. We need to teach our students to see such tricks when they occur, so that they will not be so easily misled.

2. Natural science. This is essentially the hypothetic-deductive model and it is this model which informs the scientific method. Here, we posit a hypothesis, and we then create an experiment to test whether or not we get the expected results our hypothesis generates. We end up either corroborating or falsifying the hypothesis; if the latter, we then generate new hypotheses. Initially, this was espoused by Francis Bacon back in the 1600’s, but in science was expanded upon by Karl Popper, who developed the principle of falsifiability. To be scientific is to be falsifiable. And as a result, in this model the critical thinker is one who is open to having his or her opinions revised as new evidence is available. This is, sadly, not always the case with students, whether in chiropractic or not. Knowledge is provisional and always subject to revision.

3. Pragmatism. Brookfield says this about pragmatism: “Pragmatism emphasizes the importance of continual experimentation to bring about better (in pragmatist terms, more beautiful) social forms.” To build a democratic society, we need to experiment and change constantly in order to make democracy work better. The model here is to experiment, learn from mistakes, and deliberately seek out new information and possibilities. The concept of pragmatism arose from early political philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey, though today it means something radically different from how it applies to critical thinking; to be pragmatic is to take advantage of situations which occur so as to benefit yourself. In education, pragmatism involves a willingness to question dogma and to always be open to revision. This is again not always the case in chiropractic education. Many voices need to be heard so that the learner can question their own assumptions in light of others’ point of view. We might apply a pragmatic approach by offering an activity based on a current situation and allowing student to offer their own approach to resolving the situation.

4. Psychoanalysis. This is the least well understood of the five approaches because it delves into psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. And it is seen in courses that put student experience as the central focus of the curriculum, so it is seen more in social work, nursing and general education (obviously, it is central to clinical psychology). It is based on the concept that each us has a core identity that wants to be realized. In higher education, this forms the basis for what is known as transformative learning, associated with Jack Mezirow. And the approach looks to see how childhood inhibitions interfere with our full development as an adult person.

5. Critical theory. This is an overtly political theory, which grew out of a Marxist approach to education, and which is tied to social justice and uncovering power inequities. It has a core set of assumptions: that western societies are unequal and have inherent discrimination (racial, economic, social), that this is seen as normal and inevitable by dissemination of the dominant ideology, and that critical theory helps to understand this so that change can occur. This may sound esoteric, but consider how chiropractic is positioned in American society compared to the dominant ideology of allopathic medicine. It looks for hegemony (such as is the case for medicine) in order to change it and to effect social action. Our students do recognize this. For example, they are cognizant that the progression of disease and how it is treated may be explained by how pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies structure health care. But they may not recognize it in other areas.

I highly recommend a read through Brookfield’s book, which is fascinating to me and I hope will be to you.

1. Brookfield S. Teaching for critical thinking. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons, 2012:1

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