Critical Thinking, the Series: Learning to ask “Why?” again

If intentional collaboration is the productive exchange of big ideas, then philosophy is an important foundation. From Socrates to Aristotle to Kant to Kuhn to Senge (and a host of others in between) there is a rich heritage of thought on the pursuit of understanding, with a host of cognitive models to help us work on the hardest problems.

For those willing to do the work – and it truly is work, no silver bullets to be found here – improving how we search for knowledge is central to all manners of collaborative solutions, framed alternatively as innovation (in the commercial context), or emergent outcomes (in the context of complexity). That puts intentional collaboration on the critical path to solving virtually all critical social, commercial and public sector issues.

The stakes are high.

Ultimately it comes down to a decision: are we willing to embrace and foster the hard work of critical thinking?

I’m neither philosopher, nor academic. But if Socrates, arguably the father of critical thought, were to give a guest lecture at a local college, I’d be on the front row with my laptop, taking notes.

At some level, I think I’ve always had a hunger to understand.

But even with a healthy bias for learning, it’s easy to lapse into a mode of passive acceptance. We’re deluged with so much information, it seems increasingly natural to tune much of it out. But where do we draw the line? Are we losing our intellectual edge? What legacy are we leaving for future generations?

Critical thinking may be our last line of defense. We need to unpack it and understand it, and frankly, we need to get better at it.

Let me offer a working definition:

“Critical thinking is the skill set we use to challenge our initial, surface observations of a topic or insight, enabling a rigorous understanding of root causes, relationships and meaning.”

The rigor that goes into critical thinking is among the main reasons we struggle with it so. It’s hard work. And it takes more time. Deep learning requires more than just surface observation or memorization of fact, which has implications in many important areas, ranging from business to education.

Let’s recap some subject domains – past and present – where critical thinking plays a key role. This list will serve as a guide for subsequent posts, as I did in my 2010 culture series. I’ll update this outline and add links as we go in the months ahead.

  1. Philosophy (posted 5/21). How we think. Our rational minds use principals of logic every day to solve problems, but we pay little heed to the dynamics of reason, and the role our mental filters play. Tracing the heritage through Socrates, Aristotle, .. (ok, it’s a long list).
  2. Language (posted 8/16). How we communicate. Language is the essential foundation for framing our inquiries and our proposed solutions. Our words matter greatly, but we give them so little thought. Foundations in Wittgenstein.
  3. Metaphor (posted 8/31). How we find common ground. The power of metaphor in story and discourse has been central to our social learning process since we began to converse with our parents. Are we trained in the art of story telling? Is the intentional use of metaphor a lost art? A look at Lakoff on an important topic.
  4. Knowledge Frameworks (10/31). How we attack ‘the problem of knowledge’. This post will trace two evolutionary threads over the last 2500 years. Both are rooted in antiquity, but their most recognizable branches are empirical science and rationalist philosophy. The two roads diverged some time ago. Can we contemplate the paths coming back together?
  5. 21st Century Kant: Complexity (1/22). How we adapt. We’ve learned some behaviors of complex systems, but how can critical thinkers make sense of what seem to be increasingly unsolvable problems?  Can a new semantic analysis of Kan’t Categorical Framework provide any insight?
  6. Public Education. How we learn. This is doubtless the most fertile ground for this discussion in the modern day. Few argue the importance of teaching critical thinking, but to what degree are teachers able to foster it? What level of command should high school graduates possess?
  7. Business. How we innovate. There’s a raft of challenges in the commercial space, where inertia from our past successes has led to an endemic lack of critical thinking. What skills must executives employ to get ahead of the curve? (I’ve expanded on approaches for workplace at Talent Culture, and found a useful innovation frame started by Pat Lefler at Blogging Innovation).
  8. Thought Leadership. How we inspire. From academia to corporate enterprise to the political realm, our leaders want us to follow them. But do their messages makes sense to us at a cognitive level, or are we simply responding to emotional appeals?
  9. Collaboration. How we engage. We need to unlock new ways to interact in teams, bringing the potential of networked critical thinkers to bear on difficult problems. How do we get there? (see also Design Thinking)

No wonder there’s energy on critical thinking from all sides. There’s enough research in this framing for the balance of 2011. At this point, we will definitely spill over into 2012.

As we explore the depths and the many dimensions of this topic, we’ll need care to navigate the chasm between keeping it simple (aka accessible) versus the demands of academic rigor. Both are important.

Challenge me to strike the right balance.

As always, your comments and tweets will help expand and enrich the conversation. I look forward to them.

19 thoughts on “Critical Thinking, the Series: Learning to ask “Why?” again

  1. First week assignment in high school freshmen computer class: We discuss definitions of three words — Fact, Rumor, Opinion. Then students search online for examples of each in the news or in entertainment.

    Interesting — I have many students who are good at rote learning and used to getting A’s. Many of them struggle with this. However, for certain D-F students who have street smarts, this assignment turns out to be an easy A. (It’s also a great opportunity to toss a paper back to some school troublemaker at the start of the year and say, “Now you can’t give me any bull about this class being too tough for you. I know how smart you are.”)

    Does a grade of A in most high school classes reflect an ability to think critically?

    • Outstanding feedback. I love your approach for getting students thinking right out of the shoot with the “fact, rumor, opinion” exercise.

      I found the idea expanded on your blog.

      Your A student v. D-F student observation is important. It shows how intuitive street smarts can trump memorization for simple real-world problem solving.

      That helps underscore the case for critical thinking in education.

      And speaking of the web, a challenge of social media (and now journalism in general) is that traditional editorial controls that enforced reliable sources and verifiable facts are easily bypassed or ignored. The boundaries have blurred for much content on the web.

      That forces the rest of us to be ever smarter about discerning the difference.

      Again, super insights on many levels. Thanks for sharing them.

  2. Can’t wait to see more of your posts on critical thinking. You’re right…it’s so hard to balance the applied with the philosophical foundation. In my blog we usually focus on the applied side. Hope to reference your posts soon.

  3. Spot on! Wonderful post. In the age of rote learning kids have been spoonfed information without ever thinking and questioning for themselves. Thank you for championing this ‘critical’ skill!

    • Michael, Breanne,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m excited about what we’re already starting to uncover. It’s a topic that’s often held up as an issue, but from what I’ve found, it’s rarely explored in depth.

      Both conceptual and applied aspects are important, so we’ll cover both.

      Let’s see where we can take it. Hope you’ll stay with us.


  4. While critical thinking might be hailed by many, have you also seen it used as a source of power? If a player can shoot down a great idea, then the player can lift up his own. Too often it has been used as critical attack rather than critical thinking and as such it can disempower good insights and ideas.

    On the other hand, what can happen if we truly value opposing views? Ellen Weber, PhD, @ellenfweber, advocates using opposing views through the use of lateral thinking. This values what people offer and adds to what they say or helps to solve problems, rather than criticizing them.

    • Several good points, Robyn. Let me respond to them –

      I’d say ‘critical’ in the learning context describes objective, fact based thinking, or getting to the underlying meaning .. as opposed to ‘being critical’ in the context of negative or condescending behavior, as in “he was critical of my idea”. Clearly a misuse of power is a barrier to productive exchange of insights. We’ll discuss that further in the collaboration thread.

      Establishing semantics is key to understanding or to be understood, which we’ll explore more deeply, though I posted on that in 2009, linked above.

      I definitely think Ellen is onto a key aspect of group learning dynamics, namely, the value of interplay between those who are thinking critically AND ALSO bringing diverse perspectives to a debate. That is the essence of productive collaboration and unpacking complexity, and we’ll come back to that as well.

      Many great insights, Robyn, much appreciated.


  5. I look forward to your exploration of this central topic. What I think I’ve learned is that the corruption of language plays a central role.

    A good place to start is with Orwell

    My own viewpoint is that much the language that is used cloaks reality instead of clarifies it. It’s often been a problem that plain language is “impolite.”

    In that framework, I think it’s fair to say that the problem of “critical thinking” can be seen as a finely tuned bs detector. It speaks to the notion of signal v noise filters that are often most attuned with “D-level- students.

    I think it’s fair to say that the internet is challenging information assymetry. In plain language that means it’s the beginning of the end of bs as a viable method of discourse.

    Also important to note that this is not a “new” problem. It can be seen as an uber trend in human history. Technology continues to evolve to spread information. Books at the beginning, printing accelerated. We’re looking at the same trend accelerating quickly in our lifetimes.

    Another Important place to look is Henry Frankfort’s On BS. An invaluable read.

    I look forward to seeing where this path will take you and being able to help in whatever way I can.

    • Hey Michael –

      I see language as a rich and powerful tool, but one that cuts both ways. It can clarify, or obscure, as you indicate.

      Critical thinking takes us in the direction of clarification, certainly the intent of the ancient Greeks who laid the foundation.

      Public Education will influence, over time (and we’re talking generations) the collective pool of cognitive skills to drive critical thinking in the real world – whether it’s public (political, social) discourse (per Orwell) or much needed commercial innovation.

      It’s the cultural imperative that I think we’ve let slip – an imperative that, to me, starts both in the home and in the school. That’s the ecosystem aspect, definitely a future topic at #EcoSys.

      More soon. Thanks for posting.


      • You might want to consider that it may not take generations to see the underlying forces at work. Consider the recent events in Egypt. We agree that it is a generational issue, but once a new generation comes of age things can change remarkably quickly.

        My perspective is that as the boomer generation is starting to leave the active social stage, the cohort that are their offspring has now entered.

        Obama is merely the leading edge of a generation born after the Civil Rights movement abolished Apartheid in the United States. A generation that benefited from the work of the early Women’s Rights movement is just now coming to power.

        Behind them are the twenty/thirty somethings. We see top college grads now competing for places in Teach For America. The children of Baby Boomers. Who came of age with the Internet as a given. Not a big deal.

        And right behind them we have the grade school kids to whom an iPad, a GUi, the web is something that has always been there.

        I’m pretty sure you and I share a view of where it’s going and the problems that we are facing. I do have a feeling that we might differ on how long real change may take.

        Thank you again for this thoughtful conversation.

  6. Lovely thought provoking post. I like all the questions that you ask and love the reminder that it is the questions that are essential as how we answer them will change over time.

    These questions are as relevant today as they will be in the year 2020.

    As I foster and teach critical thinking, I like to distringuish between “input” and “strategy.”

    “Input” is where you are learning and put new information into you awaress.

    “Strategy” is where you take what is already within your thinking cap–and make sense of the complexity.

    I see people all the time that tell me that have time for strategy–and in truth they have time for learning.

    Critical thinking requires time alone with you, yourself and you without date, without books, without internet– what do YOU think? How did you deduce/induce/produce x ?

    I think with so many educated experts available to us, we somehow forget that we have internal wisdom that can help us navigate complexity and add value.

    My best to you and all those interested in this conversation!

    • Hey Jenn,

      Thanks for your kind words, and for your reflections.

      I’m glad you brought focus to finding “time alone” because, as a practical matter that’s a huge barrier. Time. We are buried with inputs and demands for new decisions, with scarce time to reflect more deeply.

      You may have noticed the original post went up at 1:40a.m., and that I’m responding to comments in the wee hours. Not so much by design. But I WILL say I tend to think most clearly between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m. Too bad that’s when we’re supposed to be sleeping!

      My favorite new hashtag is #midnightoil :)

      More soon –


  7. The Critical Thinking Consortium ( is composed of school districts, universities and teachers’ associations in Canada. it works in Canada, the US and India – including reviewing scripts for Sesame Street – to improve critical thinking and the teaching of critical thinking. Its methods have been developed and honed in thousands of classrooms over more than a decade. I can’t offer you a really snappy definition, but you may want to look at the introductory materials at which describe the model used to operationalize critical thinking in the classroom. TC2 publishes a free monthly newsletter, which is available through this site at The April edition includes a short video clip that describes critical thinking in ways relevant to your post.

    • Excellent input, Bruce. Highly relevant indeed. The CT resources you’re providing are precisely the sort we hope to surface and expose using social media – creating a network of best practices that can be shared broadly – in this case, globally.

      You may not be aware – a group of social innovators under the #ecosys hashtag meets each week 9pET to talk challenges and ideas in the public education space. I’ll be sure to post the links to the CT Consortium on our wiki, as well as RT them.

      Our wiki is

      The group may also have interest in featuring the CT Consortium as a “bright spot” in upcoming weeks.

      Thanks again for sharing your resources with us. Very much appreciated.

  8. Chris – Allow me to mutter, if only to create a paper trail.

    What came to mind when I scanned your list … loving every minute of it … was the delight I experienced when I returned to U in my mid-40s … 1998, Dalhousie, cog-psych. What a delight! Gone was the behavoristic ratromorphism I so loathed in the 70s!

    My expressed goal was to do 4 years and get paper as a clinician. My deepest goal was to see if western learning aligned / resonated / contradicted abhidharma. My aim was to drill down into the formation of individual’s opinions and how that ramifies up and manifests as public policy. That’s foundational to my “participatory deliberation” project, and how I came to read Habermas so closely. (Sidebar: #OpenAccess … google John Willinsky, then UBC, now mmmm Stanford? His “If Only We Knew” on access to publicly funded scholarship is rock solid.)

    Since you prime me with mention of Lakoff, I frame my project by asking the question, “Why does it matter?” Works at the level of Zen, but also energizes an appreciation of realpolitik. (You mention “pragmatism; I think “political realism”, recall Henry K, and feel a shiver run up my spine. *G*)

    there … I’m tired … that’s a start

    –ben aka @bentrem | @ITGeek

    • Such a deep response, Ben, with many facets. So it’s now over a week later, and I’m still reflecting ..

      Well done.

      I launched into a deep dive with Lakoff (of course with hat tips to Wittgenstein, referenced here and Noam Chomsky too) in “Metaphors We Live By” and have accumulated a rich set of notes and ideas to tackle in that space. I’m mulling now how to attack it (“semantics”?). Stay tuned.

      I also have come across some very interesting material that I’ve tagged “mental heuristics” ..

      All feeding into a conversation on how we achieve global collaboration ..

      I see our ability to team and co-create as a central theme in driving sustainability in our social ecosystems, broad slices of society where complexity is raising the bar, in areas ranging from business to government to the economy to education.

      If you must ask “Why does it matter?” .. and I will certainly start with “which ‘it’ are you referring to here?” .. but if you mean my “Critical Thinking” series, the point is that we seem to have lost touch with our love of learning, and I think we need to get it back. We’ve outsourced the hard work of deep thought to scientists, engineers and lawyers, and we seem content to surf cable and web destinations that are generally a waste of time.

      In the balance, we lose our ability to discern at many levels, and that spells trouble to our our ability to solve problems (knowledge) and to the integrity of our value systems (ethics, spirituality).

      To me, that matters greatly.

      Does that help set the context?

      Thanks for challenging me. Keep it up. I could (and likely will) go on an on :)

      Chris @sourcepov

      • I have to write at least a bit more. It looks like I gave your “we lose our ability to discern at many levels” short shrift.
        My tactic is to engage pedestrian concerns without re-framing (i.e. to do justice to the particulars of that specific subjective narrative, the individual’s communicative gesture) but to stream that into the form of discourse, producing formal dialectic on one side and … I hope … substantial / meaningful exchange of a more conversational sort on the other side. The superficial and trite and hackneyed are winnowed out. My thinking is that we learn to discern only by engaging the existential. And we do that only when engaged with / by what matters.

  9. What resonates immediately is your “how to attack it”. With some glee I just moments ago tweeted, as though in a moment of accomplishment, having advanced my personal nomenclature I click on the ratchet, i.e. in context of “communications strategy” we can consider blog (post and comments), wiki, Twitter (tweets, replies, DMs), Disqus (comment threads), FB (assorted) etc as “tactics”, no? This to evidence that very nearly superstitious (paranoid?) when it comes to rigour. (When climbing I checked my knots 3 times.) But more likely this resonates because I think “how to attack / proceed” is at the heart of praxis. And thereby, I suggest, at the heart of techne. (I can’t expect break-through by concentrating on low-hanging fruit. That’s just silly.) So, decades ago (since AUG76) I have attacked the grand problematic of communications and realpolitik (i.e. in a situation where sophistry is a valid strategem) by focusing on discourse in general and decision making in particular. Or heh on decision making in general and the discourse component of that in particular. ;-)

    So I greet your, “All feeding into a conversation on how we achieve global collaboration” with, “Yes, but what remains is to operationalize that over-arching goal”. Which, if I may presume, is what I’ve done.

    Sidebar: “where complexity is raising the bar” … what do we call the error when it seems that a disease is more frequent but actually it’s that we’ve become more aware of it? I’m not sure that complexity is expressing itself more, now. Perhaps we’re testing our egos more? we’re experiencing more often our finite nature? bruised egos? :-)

    “Why does it matter?” “Which it?” What have you avoided, really, except the nut of the question? How about this: think of an it that matters … let’s work with that one. Works for you?” heh *G*
    But my question wasn’t rhetorical. Social-psych 101 (or abdhidharma, in case that might please you as it does me) … fascinating stuff, no less so for the fact of being complex but not infinite. Subtle, yet earthy. Fractal, nae?
    We can speak to why things matter, why people are moved to approach this and evade that. However modernity has confusticated things, those ultimate motives are timeless. (Here cog- and social-psych mesh.)

    So I applied that to my prime mandate: public policy. Why does this policy placate while that policy inspires passionate indignation?
    We propagated apples … and tulips … and cannabis. For the sake of sweetness, and beauty, and *REDACTED*. Timeless motives, not half of which are conscious.

    “we lose our ability to discern at many levels” … last week I picked up @FGossieaux’s “Hyper-Social Organization”. I had it ordered by my …

    ooops. I screwed up changing from Twitter to WP login and lost the end of this along with a longish postscript. dang. HeyHo. Perhaps I’ll finish it somewhere, sometime. Insha’allah,


  10. Looking forward to your series.

    I think an important aspect of critical thinking is to understand how our minds work…self-examination, etc…

    An example of this is cognitive biases and the rest of them (biases) getting in the way of our critical thinking…the more we understand these biases (as well as at the group level) the more clarity in our critical thinking.

    And then there’s motivated reasoning…” It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade” “Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views”

    I also like Joe Firestone’s posts on critical thinking and Fallibilism
    “In animals lacking consciousness, mistakes are eliminated, when the animal receives negative reinforcement from the environment for selecting the wrong solution.” “Often the wrong choice means that the animal making the choice is eliminated along with its mistake” “We can eliminate errors and learn by testing our solutions through the surrogate processes of criticism, controlled testing, and comparative analysis, before we take a decision.”

    He also says:
    ““Since justification and certain proof is not attainable, the obligation to find a method that will produce certainty does not exist” “What remains is the problem of selecting among our tentative solutions, “our guesses” according to a method that is open to us.”

    He sums it up here:
    “…that knowledge needs neither to be justified nor to be true, but only needs to survive our best efforts at criticism, testing, and evaluation […] we test competing knowledge claims”

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