Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking across the Disciplines / Edition 2

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Since the mid-1980s, Gerald Nosich has been committed to teaching Critical Thinking across the curriculum and throughout the disciplines. He believes that in the final analysis the only way for students to master content in any course is to think their way through it. And the only way to effectively control their own lives and choices is by learning to think more critically about them.

Built on Richard Paul's model of critical thinking, Learning to Think Things Through was written to help students engage in critical thinking within the discipline or subject matter they are studying. In addition, students will better appreciate the power of the discipline they are studying, see its connections to other fields and to their day-to-day lives, maintain an overview of the field so they can see the parts in terms of the whole, and become active learners rather than passive recipients of information. Learning to Think Things Through is ideal for instructors addressing the critical thinking component in composition courses, sciences, humanities, the professions—in any field.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780131141520
  • Publisher: Pearson
  • Publication date: 6/1/2004
  • Edition description: Older Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Dr. Gerald Nosich is a Professor at the University of New Orleans. He has given more than 150 national and international workshops on all aspects of teaching for critical thinking. He's also worked for the U.S. Department of Education on a project for a National Assessment of Higher Order Thinking Skills, served as the Assistant Director at the Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University, and been featured as a Noted Scholar at the University of British Columbia.


On a more personal note, he has at times exercised and not exercised good judgment: he has ridden a motorcycle to Baghdad (and to Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham); he has worked as an immigrant ditch-digger in Switzerland; been imprisoned by Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia; stowed away on a Sicilian ship to Algeria; sailed up the Nile with his family in a felucca; and lived with Maasai warriors in central Africa and in a Yurt in Mongolia. He currently lives in New Orleans with his son.

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Table of Contents

(NOTE: Each chapter concludes with a Some Outcomes section and Exercises.)

1. What Is Critical Thinking?

Some Definitions of Critical Thinking. Some Prominent Features of Critical Thinking. Three Parts of Critical Thinking. What Critical Thinking Is Not. Impediments to Critical Thinking. Deeper, More Pervasive Impediments to Critical Thinking. How Deep Is Our Need for Critical Thinking? The Experience of Learning to Think Things Through. An Overview of the Book That Lies Ahead.

2. The Elements of Reasoning.

The Nuts and Bolts of Critical Thinking. The Elements of Reasoning. Three Additional Elements of Reasoning. How to Analyze a Piece of Reasoning Using the Elements. Example: Thinking Through the Logic of Getting Married. Trusting the Process.

3. What Is Critical Thinking Within a Field or Discipline?

The Parts of Critical Thinking Within a Field. Thinking Biologically, Thinking Sociologically, Thinking Philosophically, Thinking Musically … The Logic of the Field or Discipline. Learning the Vocabulary of the Discipline. Fundamental and Powerful Concepts. The Central Question of the Course as a Whole. The Point of View of the Discipline. Impediments to Thinking Critically Within a Discipline. Trusting the Discipline.

4. Standards of Critical Thinking.

Clearness. Accuracy. Importance, Relevance. Sufficiency. Depth and Breadth. Precision. Understanding and Internalizing Critical-Thinking Standards. Additional Critical-Thinking Standards. Non-Critical-Thinking Standards. Evaluating Around the Circle. A Note on Reading as a Critical-ThinkingProcess.

5. Putting It All Together: Answering Critical-Thinking Questions.

The Core Process of Critical Thinking. How Do You Fit into the Picture: Becoming a Critical Thinker. Thinking Through Important Critical-Thinking Questions.

Responses to Starred Exercises.



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To the Instructor

This book is intended as a guide for learning to think critically in a discipline, a subject matter, an area, or a field of study. I use these terms more or less interchangeably throughout the book. The book applies to disciplines taught at any level of generality, at any educational level. This includes courses in humanities, social and natural sciences, business, arts, nursing, international studies, and so on. It includes multidisciplinary courses, but it is in no way confined to them.

I specifically mean to include courses that emphasize doing as well as understanding: composition courses stand out in particular. (There are exercises suitable for student writing, and the text promotes full integration of the composition course with other courses students are taking, across the curriculum.) But the book applies to any discipline that emphasizes mindful doing: physical education, nursing, business, math, veterinary science, agriculture, foreign languages. (In fact, in the purest sense, all courses emphasize doing: learning physics is learning to do physics—learning physics is learning how to engage actively in the process of thinking one's way through the physical world.)

Although this book was not written to be the main text in a course specifically in critical thinking, I have used it that way in my own courses, and many teachers of critical thinking have used Richard Paul's model in their courses (see p. ix).

In my critical-thinking courses, I have asked my students to use the model to analyze and evaluate newspaper editorials; to apply it to problems in their personal lives;to analyze their relationships with other people; to analyze, compare, and evaluate news sources and advertising; to evaluate their own study skills; to think through their own egocentric and sociocentric tendencies; to think through artworks and a wide variety of other topics. Several times I have taught my critical-thinking course where the only other texts required were the texts from other courses the student was taking. There, the goal was to help the students learn to think through the disciplines or subject matter they were studying in those other courses. What permits this diversity is the great flexibility of Paul's model of critical thinking.

Ts book is a guide to critical thinking in the curriculum and is intend to be inexpensive, so that it can be used economically as an adjunct text in a course. I have tried to keep it short enough so that students can be required to read it all the way through near the beginning of the semester. That way they can refer to it again and again, applying specific critical-thinking concepts to different parts of the subject matter as the course roves along, gradually coming to integrate those parts. Learning to Think Things Through works best, I believe, when used in a course in conjunction with subject-matter texts, including readings brought in by the teacher or the students. "Readings" can include video or audio material of any sort, chapters, specific problems, case studies, primary sources, journal articles, virtually any outside material. Many questions in this book direct students to apply critical-thinking concepts to the texts in the course.

Many teachers in a field or discipline want their students to learn to think critically about the subject matter they are studying, and to learn to think about the world in terms of that subject matter. They want their students not to be passive recipients of information absorbed from the teacher or the text. Rather, teachers want their students to become active learners who pay attention to crucial elements of reasoning, such as assumptions, purposes, implications, and consequences, and who do this in a way that meets high intellectual standards. This book is intended to help accomplish those goals.

Using Learning to Think Things Through in a Course

Teachers can use this book in a range of ways. I favor using the text as a highly integrated part of the course as a whole. The goal, again, is to keep students actively thinking their way through the course and the subject matter, rather than sinking back into being passive recipients.

As the teacher, I can have them identify key concepts of the discipline for each chapter, unit, lesson, lecture, and presentation. I can have them construct applications of the concepts from their own experience, integrate the concepts, and draw up concept maps. Students can be given frequent practice at formulating key questions, finding relevant information, evaluating its significance, and searching for alternatives. I can have the students analyze readings or important course material right from the beginning of the course.

In addition to giving students ongoing practice at thinking critically within the discipline, activities like these furnish the teacher with valuable insight into where exactly their students are in the course. These activities can be done in group work or individually, in class or as homework assignments, in written or oral form, with or without specific feedback from the teacher. Activities like these, and many others, are identified in Learning to Think Things Through, and there are exercises on such thinking activities at the end of each chapter.

There are any number of other ways this book can be used in courses. Teachers can have students work through the book on their own. Assigning exercises at the end of each chapter (some of which have suggested answers) can significantly help students in their critical thinking with minimal input from the instructor.

Many teachers find it valuable to devote some class time to helping students learn how to assess their own work and the work of fellow students, giving one another critical feedback on the thinking. The elements (Chapter 2) and standards (Chapter 4) are an ideal vehicle for this. Devoting this class time, even though it might seem at first glance to cut down on the amount of time devoted to teaching the discipline, allows teachers to give frequent short written assignments throughout the semester (shown to be highly effective in helping students retain and internalize the discipline) and to make sure students receive at least some feedback on them. Having students assess one another's work does this without increasing the amount of valuable time the teacher spends on reading and correcting student assignments. In my classes I often keep copies of student responses that apply a critical-thinking concept to a discipline. After getting permission from those students, I pass out their responses (anonymously) to students in subsequent classes. The brunt of learning is placed where it ought to be, as a responsibility of the students themselves. Teachers are then freer to become the resource and the facilitator of learning.

The elements, standards, and subject-matter concepts make this task of self-assessment focused and beneficial both for the student being assessed and the student doing the assessing. Both are engaged in doing critical thinking about the subject matter. This book contains exercises specifically on such self-focused assessments, and many more can be readily constructed from the elements and standards.

Consider a simple example. One of the elements is purpose, and one of the standards is clearness. In my courses, I give frequent written assignments. For each of them, I ask students to write down at the top what, in their best judgment, is the purpose of the assignment. This in and of itself helps students to focus their thinking (and to be aware that the assignments in fact have a purpose—that is sometimes a surprise!). Then I ask students, in pairs or in groups of four, to assess how clearly each statement of purpose was written. That gives students specific critical-thinking feedback on an important standard, and the clarity of their responses almost invariably improves. Similar feedback can be given from student to student about any of the elements and any of the standards.

One further note on using Learning to Think Things Through: the model presented here is a highly integrated model, and there is great, benefit in having students read the entire book near the beginning of the course, rather than piecing it out as the course progresses. The flexibility and comprehensiveness of the model are not as available to students when they learn one part at a time and then try to get a sense of the whole. After getting a sense of the whole, students can then work on those aspects that give them difficulty.

The Model

This book is built on Richard Paul's model of critical thinking. Learning to Think Things Through is intended as a short, connected presentation of this model suitable for use in a subject-matter course. Essential parts of it are set forth in Paul and Elder's Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life and in Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life. The model is the one Paul, Linda Elder, I, and a number of other workshop facilitators at the Center for Critical Thinking have used in workshops and academies over the years.

The model has quantitative empirical backing. Jennifer Reed, in her doctoral dissertation, tested Paul's model in history classes at the community college level. It fared well not just compared to a didactic course in history, but compared to an alternative model of critical thinking where the key concepts were taught implicitly rather than explicitly (with no significant differences in knowledge of history content).

Two parts of this model form the core of this book.

  1. Elements of reasoning. These are the central concepts of reasoning itself. Paul often describes them as the "parts" of thinking. When I reason through something, I may be trying to do any number of things: I may be trying to see the implications of holding a certain point of view, for example, or I may be trying to come to some conclusion, based on certain assumptions I start out with. I may be deciding that I need more information to decide this question at issue. I may simply wonder what my purpose is in a certain venture, and what alternatives there are. The elements of reasoning are an attempt to extract the common concepts from this virtually unlimited set of reasoning activities. Thus, to learn to reason is to come to mastery of concepts like implications, point of view, conclusions, assumptions, information, question at issue, and purpose. Concepts like these are elements of reasoning. Chapter 2 is devoted to the elements.
  2. Standards of critical thinking. It can be seriously misleading to say that critical thinking is learning how to think. Critical thinking is learning how to think well. It is thinking that meets high standards of quality. Again, there are many ways I can think through something well. I can figure out that one conclusion is more accurate than another. I can see implications more clearly than I saw them before. I can focus on the most important aspects of a problem. I can realize that I have thought through an issue sufficiently, and that now it is time to act. The standards are an attempt to formulate the heart of what constitutes the quality component in critical thinking. Like the elements, the standards are a set of concepts. I think through an issue well when I think it through accurately and clearly, when I focus on what is most important to deciding the issue, when I think it through sufficiently. To learn to reason well is to come to mastery both of the elements and of standards like accuracy, clearness, importance, and sufficiency. Concepts like these are standards of critical thinking. Chapter 4 is devoted to the standards.

    The general injunction, then, in Paul's model, is this:

    Take any problem, in any area, and think it out using the elements of reasoning and in accord with the standards of reasoning.

Developing a greater ability to think in terms of the elements and standards promotes a flexibility that is ideally useful, and maximally transferable, in teaching for critical thinking in a subject-matter course anywhere in the curriculum.

In Learning to Think Things Through, both elements and standards are applied to thinking within the discipline. Part of this, in any field, is learning to think the way someone in that discipline thinks. That means being able to think in terms of specific systems that are taught in the discipline (Chapter 5). More than that, it means being able to think in terms of those fundamental and powerful concepts and central questions that lie at the heart of the discipline, and to view the world at large from the point of view of the discipline. These are described in Chapter 3.

My presentation of Paul's model differs from his in a few respects. The most important of these is that I have added context and alternatives to his eight elements, and I have given only the briefest introduction to intellectual traits, such as intellectual courage and intellectual humility.

Putting It All Together

A general picture is presented in Chapter 5. It is a picture of the core process of critical thinking, of answering critical-thinking questions in the subject matter. It is tagged by the acronym QEDS. You begin by looking critically at the question being asked (Q). You think it through using the elements (E) and the central concepts and questions of the discipline (D). You assess and revise your thinking using the standards (S).

This core process, common to all areas of thinking, is what makes critical thinking transferable. By internalizing it in your course, students can learn to think more effectively in other courses, in the interconnections between disciplines, and in their lives as related to the disciplines.

The Second Edition

I've tried to make this new edition more up to date and more streamlined (e.g., in the treatment of the elements). In addition, there are several major changes:

  • I've reversed the order of Chapters 2 and 3. It is more orderly to teach the elements of reasoning (the new Chapter 2) before plunging into the discipline (the new Chapter 3). This way, students will have more of the critical-thinking tools in place before they start applying them within the discipline. (Teachers may decide to give students assignments in applying topics in Chapters 1 and 2 to the discipline so that students will immediately have the challenge of bringing critical thinking to the subject matter.)
  • In addition to fundamental and powerful concepts and the central question of the discipline.
  • I've added a section on seeing the world from the point of view of the discipline. I've added a short Outcomes section to each chapter. With that, students can now begin to assess the amount of critical thinking they have internalized. They are often directed to address those outcomes with their books and notes closed.
  • As part of the Outcomes sections, I have introduced, in a highly abbreviated way, some of the intellectual traits of being a critical thinker, traits such as intellectual perseverance and intellectual integrity. I always regretted leaving them out of the first edition. They are central to developing as a critical thinker. This is amplified in a new section of Chapter 5 on "How Do You Fit into the Picture? Becoming a Critical Thinker." The goal is to help students take seriously the idea that critical thinking in a discipline is not just about what you do (important as that is); it also starts to influence who you are.
A Note on the Exercises

A number of key guiding concepts run all the way through Learning to Think Things Through, and students can be assigned to apply them to the discipline again and again, in many different ways. There are exercises on each of them:

  • individual elements, or
  • the elements assembled into a circle
  • the standards individually, or
  • as a standards check
  • evaluating around the circle
  • f & p concepts
  • the central question
  • the point of view of the discipline
  • impediments to critical thinking
  • one-, no-, and multiple-system questions
  • raising good questions
  • reasoning things out
  • believing the results
  • intellectual traits of a critical thinker

Instructors can also, independently of the exercises, give students assignments that require them to apply these guiding concepts to anything they encounter in the course: to their writing, reading, experiences, theories, artworks, and so forth. These can be assigned at any point in the course, even before students have read about them in Learning to Think Things Through or long after they have finished reading it. (I myself would like to see questions based in these key guiding concepts as the central part of a capstone course, requiring students to bring together insights from courses across their whole educational experience.)

The exercises in each chapter have a section called Daily practice at incorporating critical thinking into your life and your learning (see the instructions on page 43). I've tried in these sections to address what I think is a difficult problem in student learning: to help students start to do the subtly hard work of generalizing these concepts and organizing their understanding of the world in terms of them, and to do this in an ongoing way that doesn't stop as soon as they leave the classroom.

Teachers of physics see forces and energy at work everywhere. Teachers of sociology see social forces at work everywhere. Both kinds of force are obvious, unavoidable. But I believe we sometimes underestimate how radically different that is from students' experience. This is not really a remark only about students. I believe it is a remark about almost all of us. Teachers of physics are not in the habit of seeing social forces at work all around them. Teachers of sociology are generally not explicitly noticing the physical forces that are omnipresent.

This is subtle because many students can often do this kind of generalizing if the instructor prompts them the right way: "Find three examples of social forces in your life." But that doesn't mean they will do the generalizing themselves unprompted. Many of the fundamental and powerful concepts in courses—and this includes critical-thinking concepts—are alien to students' experience in this sense: students have years of seeing families just as families, as if that category was sufficient in itself. If I'm teaching the social structure of the family, my hope is that they will start to see families in terms of social forces—and that they will do so on their own, in an ongoing way, unprompted by me except at the beginning. There is a sense in which, as a teacher, what I am aiming for is nothing less than a transformation, at least a small one, in the way they view their own experience. I want them to see the world in terms of critical thinking and the discipline. Thus, the "Daily Practice" sections are an attempt to ask students to spend some time each day doing whatever they ordinarily do-but to conceptualize it in terms of one of the guiding concepts listed above: to filter the world through the elements, standards, and concepts of the discipline.

In addition to those specific sections, there are some other exercises that work the same way. They can be assigned to students more than once during the course, thus fostering intellectual perseverance and allowing them to rethink earlier conclusions they came to, so their responses can change and deepen. These exercises can be applied at any time in the course (even, as a pre-test, before the appropriate reading has been done), to virtually any topic, in the discipline or to students' life outside school:

  • Exercises 1.1, 1.7, 1.10, 1.14, 1.18, 1.19;
  • 2.1-2.3; each of the exercises on individual elements: 2.4-2.13; 2.17, 2.18;
  • 3.4, 3.7, 3.9, 3.11, 3.15, 3.17, 3.19;
  • 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.7, 4.10-4.12; 4.14, 4.16;
  • 5.1 abcd;5.11,5.15,5.19.
To the Student

The aim of this book is to help you improve your critical thinking within the subject matter of the courses you are taking. A secondary goal, a byproduct of the first, is to help you improve your ability to think effectively in your life as a whole. The way you use this book is likely to be different from the way you use most books in courses.

First, this isn't a book you can just read through. You can't get stronger by reading about how to exercise. In the same way, you can't get better at critical thinking merely by reading about critical thinking—not even if you're very intelligent. You have to do it. You have to take problems or questions the text asks and actually think them out as you work your way through the book. At least some of them. In addition, it helps if you can get feedback on your thinking. You have to do this again and again.

That's because what the book teaches is not a body of information. If the book is successful for you, you will be learning to do something. That requires more than just learning information, more than just learning skills. It is not just about how to think critically—it is about actually thinking critically.

Learning to do something cannot be accomplished just by reading about it. You can't get thinner merely by reading about dieting; your basketball won't improve merely by hearing about how to shoot free throws. Your writing won't improve merely by learning that you have to consider your audience—you actually have to consider your audience. To improve the way you do something takes both instruction (in this case, reading the book, receiving feedback) and practice (doing it).

Second, depending on what your instructor says, you may need to read the book all the way through right near the beginning of the course, including doing the thinking work. That's because the book gives a unified overall model for critical thinking, and you have to see how the parts all fit together. In the model presented in this book, you think in terms of the elements of reasoning (Chapter 2), the subject you are studying (Chapter 3), the standards of reasoning (Chapter 4), and putting it all together (Chapter 5). You need a grasp of the whole model to think your way through questions in the discipline. In the end, the book promotes a different way of approaching the world—by thinking your way through it.

In some fields you proceed step by step, learning a skill well, and only then going on to the next skill (and hoping you don't forget the first one on the way). Critical thinking is different. A major goal of critical thinking is always to keep the whole in mind as you are working through the parts.

So, with this book, it is better to work all the way through to the end and get the big picture, even if there are some glaring gaps in your understanding. (If you ponder it for a while, you'll realize that's the way you learned almost all complex skilled activities, particularly those that are important in your life: you don't learn to drive by first mastering the gas pedal and only later starting to work on how to use the brakes. The same is true of shopping for groceries, learning to dance, raising children, understanding yourself and others: you engage in the process as a whole, gradually filling in gaps, improving, coming to insights within the process.)

Third, Learning to Think Things Through is not a book that you can work through once and then be done with. Instead, you'll have to refer back to it whenever problems arise for you. After working all the way through it the first time, there will be glaring gaps in your understanding of various aspects of critical thinking. When you have trouble with assumptions, for example, you need to reread the section on assumptions in Chapter 2. But also look in the index under "assumptions" for other passages that may help. Do some of the exercises on assumptions, especially those that are starred (*) and have suggested answers in the back of the book. At the end of the course, some parts will still be unclear and confusing. Even so, you can still use the model as a whole. It will still be practical: in the course you are taking, in other courses, and in decisions you have to make in your own life.

Fourth, this is a guide to thinking critically within the discipline you are studying: composition, geology, educational psychology, or business—any field or subject matter. Only a fraction, if any, of the examples in the text and exercises, however, will be from the discipline you are actually studying. It is still vitally important that you work your way through them. They have been selected so as to convey critical-thinking concepts across the curriculum, for all disciplines.

No technical knowledge is presumed in this book. Except for the discipline you are currently studying, you are not expected to know the specific field being discussed.

Critical thinking transfers. If you consciously learn critical-thinking techniques in one field, you may have those techniques available for another field. By the end you may find that your learning in your other 'courses becomes faster, more in your control, more lasting, and more beneficial for your life outside school.

Finally, in the end you will have to be the judge of whether using the mo el here improves your thinking. Certainly it won't be all or nothing. ,Critical thinking is a matter of degree. At the end of the course you should find yourself more often checking for accuracy, identifying assumptions, drawing relevant conclusions, thinking questions out in terms of the fundamental and powerful concepts of the discipline you are studying.

One way to think about the process is to imagine yourself in the hands of a good coach, a critical-thinking coach. This book is the manual the coach is asking you to follow, and the coach will give you feedback along the way.

Who is the coach? Well, in a way, it is your instructor. On a much deeper level, though, it is the healthy, thinking organism within you. In the end, you are going to accept processes and thinking guidelines only if they work for you. You will have to see them pay off—in your studies, in your grasp of the subject matter, in your understanding of your relations with other people—before you incorporate them into your life. But you first have to give them a chance to see if they do pay off.

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