Interpolation Between 3 Values Of Critical Thinking


Putting the 1997 Conference intoHistorical Perspective

By Richard Paul


Understanding Substantive Critical Thinking

Avoiding the Growing List of Counterfeits

It is now generally conceded that the art of thinking critically is a major missing link in education today, and that effective communication and problem-solving skills, as well as mastery of content, require critical thinking. It is also generally recognized that the ability to think critically becomes more and more important to success in life as the pace of change continues to accelerate and as complexity and interdependence continue to intensify. It is also generally conceded that some major changes in instruction will have to take place to shift the overarching

emphasis of instruction from rote memorization to effective critical thinking (as the primary tool of learning).


It is not so clear to most educators how to affect the shift, nor what that shift essentially should effect in. All too often the phrase "critical thinking" is nothing more than a vague place-holder for any of a miscellany of changes and/or conceptions of change. All too often, the phrase is used so imprecisely that no one knows exactly what is being said nor how to assess its unclarified effect. Critical thinking is too important, the reforms it makes possible too essential, to leave the concept to helter-skelter intuitive use.


There are three "waves" of critical thinking research that can be identified since the early 70's. The three waves represent, in essence, different research agendas and point to different emphases in application. Each wave has its committed adherents, and each therefore represents an important choice in laying the foundation for future work in the field. The third wave can accomplish its goals only through a mastery of the most basic insights of the first two waves.


The first wave—based on a focus of the theory of logic, argumentation, and reasoning—has become a field unto itself, dominated by philosophers. First wave theorists tend to focus only on those instances of thinking in which persuasion and argumentation are explicit, and they tend to analyze them with a minimum of background context. They tend to view reasoning and logic in a relatively narrow and technical fashion, ignoring the broad family of related uses of the word 'logic' which one would find in any dictionary of the English Language. The notion of critical thinking as providing the tools for a broad analysis and assessment of thinking in a full range of the contexts in which thinking is at work in human feelings and behavior is not a core notion in the writings of most informal logicians. The result is that they do not take command of the logic of language and the logic of questions-key components of critical thinking. If one views "logical structures" as omnipresent in virtually all human thought, emotion, and behavior, the framework and writings of most informal logic theorists strikes one as generally narrow and specialized.


The second wave, lacking grounding in any one field of study, represents a loose conglomeration of interested persons, producing work of mixed quality, developed from many different standpoints. This diversity of standpoints gives to second wave research a scattered character. It includes some working on critical thinking from the standpoint of cognitive psychology, some from the standpoint of "critical pedagogy," some from the standpoint of feminism, a variety of others from the standpoint of particular disciplines (such as critical thinking in biology, business, or nursing), and yet others, from the standpoint of some element purportedly

missing from first wave research agendas (such as emotion, intuition, imagination, creativity, etc.)


Taken collectively, therefore, second wave projects are more comprehensive than first wave projects, since second wave analysis looks at critical thinking typically outside the tradition of logic and rhetoric. Unfortunately, second wave work (lacking a shared intellectual tradition) is collectively far less integrated, less coherent, and often more "superficial". While exceptional work has been done during the second wave, the gain is too often vague comprehensiveness at the expense of depth and rigor.


The third wave represents a commitment to transcend the predominant weaknesses of the first two waves (rigor without comprehensiveness, on the one hand, and comprehensiveness without rigor, on the other). Third wave theorists are still relatively rare, though the work of a variety of intellectuals and scholars is relevant to third wave research agendas.


The principles and standards of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (NCECT) illustrate well an attempt to answer the need created by the limitations of the first two waves of critical thinking theory and practice and therefore represents a third wave phenomenon. The research projects based on these principles and standards are comprehensive in nature, going much beyond a narrow view of logic and critical thinking.


Still, the NCECT has found it difficult to "recruit" scholars and researchers with the breadth of background which third wave agendas call for. There are at present few scholars willing to internalize both first and second wave insights. The field is therefore at a crucial juncture, for if comprehensiveness and rigor are not combined in the work of the field, it is likely to split even further into a narrow technical field on the one hand, and a hodge-podge on the other. However, it is too early to tell whether and to what extent the need for both comprehensiveness and rigor will be answered by the full development of NCECT research agendas.


Unfortunately, third wave agendas cannot go forward without a general recognition of the importance of a deep and comprehensive theory that goes beyond the "narrowness" of most first wave research and the "superficiality" of much second wave research. It requires a willingness to think outside one's discipline or at least to think within one's discipline from the standpoint of a broader range of concerns. It requires, on the one hand, informal logicians who are willing not only to examine the problems posed by second wave theorists, but also to move to a broader conception of logic, one that recognizes that there is a logic to thinking within different disciplines, a logic to human emotions, a logic to human behavior, a logic, indeed, to every dimension of human life in which thinking is the driving force. On the other hand, it calls for those with second wave concerns to take seriously the insights of first wave research and not simply to grudgingly (and abstractly) admit some value to it.


In other words, while first wave researchers need to recognize the importance of broadening the sweep of their concerns, second wave researchers need to recognize the need to build on the theoretical rigor of the first wave, to internalize, not ignore, the insights of the first wave, and to build on them. Only out of a real marriage of first and second wave concerns, only by a deep integration of insights, can the third wave fully develop. Those who would contribute significantly to the field of critical thinking research need to internalize the strengths of the first two waves.


The First Wave of Critical Thinking Research & Practice


Formal & Informal Logic Courses


First Wave Research Concerns:

  • the design of individual courses in critical thinking or informal logic
  • the critique of formal logic as a tool for the analysis and assessment of "real world" reasoning and argumentation
  • the development of theories of fallacies in thought
  • the development of theories of informal logic, reasoning, persuasion, rhetoric, and argumentation, etc.
  • the exploration of philosophical issues raised by theories developed to account for informal logic, reasoning, and argumentation


In the first wave of critical thinking practice, the dominant paradigm came from philosophy and logic and the dominant educational manifestation was a formal or informal logic course. The idea was to establish a basic course in critical thinking which would provide entering freshmen with the foundational intellectual skills they need to be successful in college work. Almost from the beginning, however, there was a contradiction between the concerns and ideals that gave rise to the theory and practice and actual classroom practice. The ideals were broad and ambitious. The practice was narrow and of limited success. For example, the State College and University System of California defined the goals of the critical thinking graduation requirement as follows:


Instruction in critical thinking is to be designed to achieve an understanding of the relationship of language to logic, which should lead to the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief. The minimal competence to be expected at the successful conclusion of instruction in critical thinking should be the ability to distinguish fact from judgment, belief from knowledge, and skills in elementary inductive and deductive processes, including an understanding of the formal and informal fallacies of language and thought.


On the one hand, we have a global comprehensive goal and on the other hand a fairly narrow and specialized way to meet that goal. Students do not in my experience achieve "an understanding of the relationship of language to logic" leading to "the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas"; they do not develop "the ability to distinguish fact from judgment" or "belief from knowledge" simply because they have been drilled in "elementary inductive and deductive processes" nor because they have been exposed to the theory of formal and informal fallacies.


The misfit between goal and means is obvious to anyone who takes the goals in the above paragraph seriously. One three unit course in critical thinking can at best open the door to the beginning of critical thinking, provide an opening framework. It cannot result in the students having deep notions like "an understanding of the relationship of language to logic" or sweeping abilities like "the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas."


No one or two isolated courses can change the basic habits of thought of anyone. Furthermore, as a practical matter, many of the courses established to accomplish the objective fell far short of the best design. Often, for example, a course in formal logic was allowed to qualify as a course in critical thinking even though such courses generally are confined to teaching only the mechanical manipulation of symbols in accord with rules for such manipulation, a practice that does not result in changing habits of thought. Students who have taken such courses demonstrate little sense of how to transfer their "manipulative" abilities (with the symbols of formal logic) into practical tools in everyday thought.


Substituting informal logic courses for formal ones was one of the earliest shifts in emphasis as more and more instructors recognized that the formal logic approach had little transfer effect. The emphasis in the informal logic approach to the improvement of thinking was a giant step in the right direction. In place of highly abstract and contrived "arguments" in symbolic form, the students had to read and analyze arguments that came from editorials and everyday speech and debate.


Unfortunately, the informal logic textbooks were often rich in vocabulary and sophisticated distinctions but, unfortunately, poor in fostering deep internalization. The distinctions were generally well thought out, but there were far too many distinctions for a one semester course, and furthermore, they were typically too narrow in their scope. Consequently, most students were rushed on to new distinctions and concepts before they had internalized the "old" ones. There was little emphasis on the construction—as against the critique—of reasoning. There was little done with the essential dispositions and values underlying critical thinking. The goals remained broad and profound; the means narrow and unrealistic.


Furthermore, the problem of transfer remained; it was still not clear to students how to transfer their analysis of bits and pieces of argumentation into learning what they were being taught in other courses, namely, sociology, psychology, biology, etc. So most students, once their critical thinking courses were finished, reverted to their established lower-order, survival skills—principally, rote memorization and cramming—to get by.


The problem of most first wave work is/both theoretical and pedagogical. Theoretically, little if anything was done to work out a comprehensive theory of "logic" sufficient to make sense of the logic of biology, the logic of sociology, the logic of anthropology, geography, literature, the arts, etc. The concept of logic implicit in informal logic research is too narrow to provide the basis for transfer of critical thinking from, in fact, informal logic courses (no matter how well designed) to the broader curriculum, nor into the complex problems of everyday life and thought (except in a narrow range of such problems).


Pedagogically, little was done to work out the practical problems of restructuring instruction and learning overall. After all, how is one to teach anyone anything in such a way as to foster their taking command of their thinking, so that they develop not only intellectual skills but the basic dispositions and values that underlie critical thinking? How are academic subjects to be taught such that students leave school with the intellectual skills necessary to adapt to incessant and accelerating change and complexity? How are we to teach so that students explicitly recognize that the work of the future is the work of the mind, intellectual work that demands global skills of reasoning and intellectual self-discipline? These questions must be addressed.


The Second Wave of Critical Thinking Research & Practice


Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum Across the Grades


Second Wave Research Concerns:

  • the development of a model for teaching critical thinking at some educational level or within some particular subject
  • the development of a theory of critical thinking within a given domain or subject
  • exploration of the relation of critical thinking to emotion
  • exploration of the relation of critical thinking to the media
  • exploration of the relation of critical thinking to problem-solving
  • exploration of the relation of critical thinking to creative thinking
  • exploration of the relation of critical thinking to sound business organization and management
  • exploration of the relation of critical thinking to parenting
  • exploration of the relation of critical thinking to political and ideological agendas
  • research in cognitive psychology

The second wave of critical thinking research and practice began when increasing numbers of educators and administrators began to recognize that one course in critical thinking at the college level does not a critical thinker make. The problem for these reformers was transformed from "How should one design an isolated critical thinking course for college students?" to "How can critical thinking be integrated into instruction across all subjects and all grade levels?" From "What is informal logic, reasoning, and argumentation?" to "What is the role of emotion—or intuition or culture or gender or problem solving or creative thinking or political and ideological positioning—in thinking?"


Unfortunately, many second wave reformers were not at all clear on how to integrate critical thinking into instruction across the curriculum or across grade levels. The concept of informal logic which had been developed in and for critical thinking and informal logic courses did not translate readily into the "logic" of the disciplines, let alone into the "logic" of everyday life. For though informal logicians were often clear and rigorous in the development of theory, the theory they developed was narrowly conceived. In other words, most informal logicians have never seriously considered the challenge of developing a theory of critical thinking adequate for the teaching of all subjects across all grade levels.


Informal logic was not conceived as applicable to virtually all human contexts. The theory of the informal logician remained the theory of a specialist thinking and writing for other specialists (about a subject of relatively narrow scope). It was not the thinking of a comprehensive educational thinker writing for educational reformers. It was not the thinking of a comprehensive mind considering broad and comprehensive problems.


From a third wave perspective, an adequate account of informal logic and critical thinking must shed significant light on the logic of everyday thinking as well as on the logic of the disciplines (if it is to attract the attention of educational reformers and those concerned with the application of critical thinking to everyday life). Problems in business, parenting, everyday relationships, politics, civics, and such, cannot easily be addressed within the framework of current theories of logic. And since critical thinking makes sense whenever and wherever thinking might go awry, the logic of critical thinking must be broad and encompassing, not narrow and specialized.


Unfortunately, second wave reformers did not set out to broaden the basis of informal logic and reasoning. Rather, some second wave reformers mistakenly rejected "logic" rather than worked to expand it. To some, logic constrained thinking, limited creativity, discounted intuition. Others seemed simply to ignore logic and focused instead on any of the various "discoveries" and popular theories of thinking. In fact, the field of "thinking" became, and still is, a veritable hodge-podge, some work bordering on charlatanism. Quick-fixes for teaching and understanding thinking became commonplace. Quick-fixes ruled, and still rule, reform efforts at all educational levels.


Otherwise respectable educational organizations sponsored approaches to thinking that were simplistic and glitzy. Big money began to move into the field, since there was much money to be made by quick-fix programs that implied that thinking could be quickly and painlessly upgraded by educators, even by those who had never themselves studied thinking and thought poorly themselves. Instant success was promised.


The phenomena of pseudo-critical thinking became common. States set up new testing strategies that were claimed to be higher order. California mounted a very expensive new testing system in reading and writing which was touted to be focused on critical thinking—when it in fact was simply subjective and poorly designed. The result was a political battle between the "liberals" who liked the test and "conservatives" who thought it advanced a liberal agenda. Eventually the governor vetoed the test.


Other second wave researchers—principally cognitive psychologists— have focused concern on the manner in which experts and novices think. They have developed various theories of "thinking" and "intelligence," however, this research and these theories often lack a philosophical foundation, regularly ignore the problem of the intellectual assessment of thinking, and, like first wave informal logic research, lack a clear connection to the comprehensive problem of teaching subject matter in a variety of fields. The "practical" suggestions developed were more often like a bag of tricks than a coherent pedagogy. The problem of long-term infusion was not significantly addressed.


Though second wave did not explicitly call for an abandonment of "logic" and additional attention was directed at explicating various subject areas in the light of some theory of critical thinking, there was little effort to marry the insights of the first wave with the needs of the second.


Little was done, for example, to explicate the logic of history, the logic of math, bio-logic, socio-logic, psycho-logic, the logic implicit in disciplined ways of thinking. After all, what does it mean to think historically, to think geographically, to think mathematically, to think philosophically, to think aesthetically, etc.? These are pressing second wave questions. However, since most subject matter specialists have not studied informal or formal logic, they are not well-positioned to integrate insights from logic into their concept of their field.


In short, the variety of attempts to reconstruct (with little background in informal logic or theory of critical thinking) the role of critical thinking within a domain, has tended to result in disjointed and sometimes superficial results. The upshot is often a hodge-podge of ideas, often superficial, usually incomplete, and in some cases, arbitrary. The phenomenon of instant-expert in critical thinking becomes commonplace.


Those who decide to write an article on critical thinking become in their minds an expert overnight. Programs are rushed into press to capitalize on the emerging market for critical thinking materials.


The Third Wave of Critical Thinking Research & Practice

1990-Present :

Depth & Comprehensiveness in Theory & Practice


Third Wave Research Concerns:

  • integrating the insights of first and second wave research
  • developing a theory of critical thinking that is rigorous and comprehensive
  • explicating intellectual standards that have general application both within and beyond academic environments
  • accounting for the appropriate role of emotion and values in thinking
  • understanding the leading role of thinking in the shaping of emotion and behavior
  • integrating the empirical work of cognitive psychology into critical thinking theory
  • establishing common denominator principles and standards within the field of critical thinking research and practice
  • developing effective assessment tools
  • identifying and critiquing pseudo-critical thinking models and programs


The third wave of critical thinking research and practice is only just now beginning to emerge. As yet there are few who see clearly the enormity of the task which the field faces. The success of the third wave can be achieved only with a growing recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of the first two waves. First wave research needs to bring its rigor and depth into a broader complex of concerns. Second wave research needs to integrate rigor and depth into its comprehensiveness. Theory of teaching and learning (based on theory of thinking, emotion, and action) need to be carefully integrated.


The field needs a comprehensive theory of thinking and critical thinking. It needs a clear set of intellectual standards. It needs an integrated set of dispositions. It needs a comprehensive concept of logic which accommodates the role of emotion, intuition, imagination, and values in thinking. It needs to make clear the leading role of thinking in the shaping of human feelings and behavior. It needs to provide a framework into which can be set integrated theories of teaching and learning in the widest variety of human contexts. It must provide both for the universal elements in reasoning and those which are domain and context-specific.

Critical Thinking Movement: 3 Waves


Intellectual Foundations: The Key Missing Piece in School Restructuring
Pseudo Critical Thinking in the Educational Establishment
Research Findings and Policy Recommendations
Why Students and Teachers Don’t Reason Well
Critical Thinking in the Engineering Enterprise: Novices typically don't even know what questions to ask
Critical Thinking Movement: 3 Waves

Most of us are not what we could be. We are less. We have great capacity. But most of it is dormant; most is undeveloped. Improvement in thinking is like improvement in basketball, in ballet, or in playing the saxophone. It is unlikely to take place in the absence of a conscious commitment to learn. As long as we take our thinking for granted, we don’t do the work required for improvement.

Development in thinking requires a gradual process requiring plateaus of learning and just plain hard work. It is not possible to become an excellent thinker simply because one wills it. Changing one’s habits of thought is a long-range project, happening over years, not weeks or months. The essential traits of a critical thinker require an extended period of development.

How, then, can we develop as critical thinkers? How can we help ourselves and our students to practice better thinking in everyday life?

First, we must understand that there are stages required for development as a critical thinker:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker (we are unaware of significant problems in our thinking)
Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker (we become aware of problems in our thinking)
Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker (we try to improve but without regular practice)
Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker (we recognize the necessity of regular practice)
Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker (we advance in accordance with our practice)
Stage Six: The Master Thinker (skilled & insightful thinking become second nature to us)

We develop through these stages if we:

  1) accept the fact that there are serious problems in our thinking (accepting the challenge to our thinking) and
2) begin regular practice.

In this article, we will explain 9 strategies that any motivated person can use to develop as a thinker. As we explain the strategy, we will describe it as if we were talking directly to such a person. Further details to our descriptions may need to be added for those who know little about critical thinking. Here are the 9:

  1. Use “Wasted” Time.
2. A Problem A Day.
3. Internalize Intellectual Standards.
4. Keep An Intellectual Journal.
5. Reshape Your Character.
6. Deal with Your Ego.
7. Redefine the Way You See Things.
8. Get in touch with your emotions.
9. Analyze group influences on your life.

There is nothing magical about our ideas. No one of them is essential. Nevertheless, each represents a plausible way to begin to do something concrete to improve thinking in a regular way. Though you probably can’t do all of these at the same time, we recommend an approach in which you experiment with all of these over an extended period of time.

First Strategy:Use “Wasted” Time. All humans waste some time; that is, fail to use all of their time productively or even pleasurably. Sometimes we jump from one diversion to another, without enjoying any of them. Sometimes we become irritated about matters beyond our control. Sometimes we fail to plan well causing us negative consequences we could easily have avoided (for example, we spend time unnecessarily trapped in traffic — though we could have left a half hour earlier and avoided the rush). Sometimes we worry unproductively. Sometimes we spend time regretting what is past. Sometimes we just stare off blankly into space.

The key is that the time is “gone” even though, if we had thought about it and considered our options, we would never have deliberately spent our time in the way we did. So why not take advantage of the time you normally waste by practicing your critical thinking during that otherwise wasted time? For example, instead of sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day flicking from channel to channel in a vain search for a program worth watching, spend that time, or at least part of it, thinking back over your day and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. For example, you might ask yourself questions like these:

When did I do my worst thinking today? When did I do my best? What in fact did I think about today? Did I figure anything out? Did I allow any negative thinking to frustrate me unnecessarily? If I had to repeat today what would I do differently? Why? Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals? Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values? If I spent every day this way for 10 years, would I at the end have accomplished something worthy of that time?

It would be important of course to take a little time with each question. It would also be useful to record your observations so that you are forced to spell out details and be explicit in what you recognize and see. As time passes, you will notice patterns in your thinking.

Second Strategy: A Problem A Day. At the beginning of each day (perhaps driving to work or going to school) choose a problem to work on when you have free moments. Figure out the logic of the problem by identifying its elements. In other words, systematically think through the questions: What exactly is the problem? How can I put it into the form of a question. How does it relate to my goals, purposes, and needs?

  1) Wherever possible take problems one by one. State the problem as clearly and precisely as you can.

2) Study the problem to make clear the “kind” of problem you are dealing with. Figure out, for example, what sorts of things you are going to have to do to solve it. Distinguish Problems over which you have some control from problems over which you have no control. Set aside the problems over which you have no control, concentrating your efforts on those problems you can potentially solve.

3) Figure out the information you need and actively seek that information.

4) Carefully analyze and interpret the information you collect, drawing what reasonable inferences you can.

5) Figure out your options for action. What can you do in the short term? In the long term? Distinguish problems under your control from problems beyond your control. Recognize explicitly your limitations as far as money, time, and power.

6) Evaluate your options, taking into account their advantages and disadvantages in the situation you are in.

7) Adopt a strategic approach to the problem and follow through on that strategy. This may involve direct action or a carefully thought-through wait-and-see strategy.

8) When you act, monitor the implications of your action as they begin to emerge. Be ready at a moment’s notice to revise your strategy if the situation requires it. Be prepared to shift your strategy or your analysis or statement of the problem, or all three, as more information about the problem becomes available to you.

Third Strategy:Internalize Intellectual Standards.
Each week, develop a heightened awareness of one of the universal intellectual standards (clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logicalness, significance). Focus one week on clarity, the next on accuracy, etc. For example, if you are focusing on clarity for the week, try to notice when you are being unclear in communicating with others. Notice when others are unclear in what they are saying.

When you are reading, notice whether you are clear about what you are reading. When you orally express or write out your views (for whatever reason), ask yourself whether you are clear about what you are trying to say. In doing this, of course, focus on four techniques of clarification : 1) Stating what you are saying explicitly and precisely (with careful consideration given to your choice of words), 2)Elaborating on your meaning in other words, 3)Giving examples of what you mean from experiences you have had, and 4)Using analogies, metaphors, pictures, or diagrams to illustrate what you mean. In other words, you will frequently STATE, ELABORATE, ILLUSTRATE, AND EXEMPLIFY your points. You will regularly ask others to do the same.

Fourth Strategy: Keep An Intellectual Journal. Each week, write out a certain number of journal entries. Use the following format (keeping each numbered stage separate):

1. Situation. Describe a situation that is, or was, emotionally significant to you (that is, that you deeply care about). Focus on one situation at a time.

2. Your Response. Describe what you did in response to that situation. Be specific and exact.

3. Analysis. Then analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation. Dig beneath the surface.

4. Assessment. Assess the implications of your analysis. What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could re-live the situation?

Strategy Five: Reshape Your Character.
Choose one intellectual trait---intellectual perseverance, autonomy, empathy, courage, humility, etc.--- to strive for each month, focusing on how you can develop that trait in yourself. For example, concentrating on intellectual humility, begin to notice when you admit you are wrong. Notice when you refuse to admit you are wrong, even in the face of glaring evidence that you are in fact wrong. Notice when you become defensive when another person tries to point out a deficiency in your work, or your thinking. Notice when your intellectual arrogance keeps you from learning, for example, when you say to yourself “I already know everything I need to know about this subject.” Or, “I know as much as he does. Who does he think he is forcing his opinions on me?” By owning your “ignorance,” you can begin to deal with it.

Strategy Six: Deal with Your Egocentrism. Egocentric thinking is found in the disposition in human nature to think with an automatic subconscious bias in favor of oneself. On a daily basis, you can begin to observe your egocentric thinking in action by contemplating questions like these: Under what circumstances do I think with a bias in favor of myself? Did I ever become irritable over small things? Did I do or say anything “irrational” to get my way? Did I try to impose my will upon others? Did I ever fail to speak my mind when I felt strongly about something, and then later feel resentment? Once you identify egocentric thinking in operation, you can then work to replace it with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection, thinking along the lines of: What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what I want to do? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved you are probably engaging in self-deception.)

Strategy Seven:Redefine the Way You See Things. We live in a world, both personal and social, in which every situation is “defined,” that is, given a meaning. How a situation is defined determines not only how we feel about it, but also how we act in it, and what implications it has for us. However, virtually every situation can be defined in more than one way. This fact carries with it tremendous opportunities. In principle, it lies within your power and mine to make our lives more happy and fulfilling than they are. Many of the negative definitions that we give to situations in our lives could in principle be transformed into positive ones. We can be happy when otherwise we would have been sad.

We can be fulfilled when otherwise we would have been frustrated. In this strategy, we practice redefining the way we see things, turning negatives into positives, dead-ends into new beginnings, mistakes into opportunities to learn. To make this strategy practical, we should create some specific guidelines for ourselves. For example, we might make ourselves a list of five to ten recurrent negative contexts in which we feel frustrated, angry, unhappy, or worried. We could then identify the definition in each case that is at the root of the negative emotion. We would then choose a plausible alternative definition for each and then plan for our new responses as well as new emotions. For example, if you tend to worry about all problems, both the ones you can do something about and those that you can’t; you can review the thinking in this nursery rhyme:
“For every problem under the sun, there is a solution or there is none. If there be one, think til you find it. If there be none, then never mind it.”

Let’s look at another example. You do not have to define your initial approach to a member of the opposite sex in terms of the definition “his/her response will determine whether or not I am an attractive person.” Alternatively, you could define it in terms of the definition “let me test to see if this person is initially drawn to me—given the way they perceive me.” With the first definition in mind, you feel personally put down if the person is not “interested” in you; with the second definition you explicitly recognize that people respond not to the way a stranger is, but the way they look to them subjectively. You therefore do not take a failure to show interest in you (on the part of another) as a “defect” in you.

Strategy Eight: Get in touch with your emotions: Whenever you feel some negative emotion, systematically ask yourself: What, exactly, is the thinking leading to this emotion? For example, if you are angry, ask yourself, what is the thinking that is making me angry? What other ways could I think about this situation? For example, can you think about the situation so as to see the humor in it and what is pitiable in it? If you can, concentrate on that thinking and your emotions will (eventually) shift to match it.

Strategy Nine:Analyze group influences on your life: Closely analyze the behavior that is encouraged, and discouraged, in the groups to which you belong. For any given group, what are you "required" to believe? What are you "forbidden" to do? Every group enforces some level of conformity. Most people live much too much within the view of themselves projected by others. Discover what pressure you are bowing to and think explicitly about whether or not to reject that pressure.

Conclusion: The key point to keep in mind when devising strategies is that you are engaged in a personal experiment. You are testing ideas in your everyday life. You are integrating them, and building on them, in the light of your actual experience. For example, suppose you find the strategy “Redefine the Way You See Things” to be intuitive to you. So you use it to begin. Pretty soon you find yourself noticing the social definitions that rule many situations in your life. You recognize how your behavior is shaped and controlled by the definitions in use:

  1. “I’m giving a party,” (Everyone therefore knows to act in a “partying” way)
  2. “The funeral is Tuesday,” (There are specific social behaviors expected at a funeral)
  3. “Jack is an acquaintance, not really a friend.” (We behave very differently in the two cases)

You begin to see how important and pervasive social definitions are. You begin to redefine situations in ways that run contrary to some commonly accepted definitions. You notice then how redefining situations (and relationships) enables you to “Get in Touch With Your Emotions.” You recognize that the way you think (that is, define things) generates the emotions you experience. When you think you are threatened (i.e., define a situation as “threatening”), you feel fear. If you define a situation as a “failure,” you may feel depressed. On the other hand, if you define that same situation as a “lesson or opportunity to learn” you feel empowered to learn. When you recognize this control that you are capable of exercising, the two strategies begin to work together and reinforce each other.

Next consider how you could integrate strategy #9 (“Analyze group influences on your life”) into your practice. One of the main things that groups do is control us by controlling the definitions we are allowed to operate with. When a group defines some things as “cool” and some as “dumb, ” the members of the group try to appear “cool” and not appear “dumb.” When the boss of a business says, “That makes a lot of sense,” his subordinates know they are not to say, “No, it is ridiculous.” And they know this because defining someone as the “boss” gives him/her special privileges to define situations and relationships.

You now have three interwoven strategies: you “Redefine the Way You See Things,” “Get in touch with your emotions,” and “Analyze group influences on your life.” The three strategies are integrated into one. You can now experiment with any of the other strategies, looking for opportunities to integrate them into your thinking and your life. If you follow through on some plan analogous to what we have described, you are developing as a thinker. More precisely, you are becoming a “Practicing” Thinker. Your practice will bring advancement. And with advancement, skilled and insightful thinking may becomes more and more natural to you.


Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Modified from the book by Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life.

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