This blog is an op-ed piece written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher for The Drawing Board.
I don’t think I need to explain the importance of critical thinking – every teacher you’ve come across since you were six years old has probably asked you to do it, and nearly every blog post floating around your Facebook feed is probably telling you why to do it. So instead, here are some ways you can learn how to do it, do it more frequently, or get better at doing something you already do all the time.
Make Up Alternate Stories: This is my personal favourite thing to do with pop songs. Remember that “Rude” song by Magick? Well, listen to that song and imagine that the man singing is brutally abusive to his partner. Now, erase that story, and imagine that he’s actually part of an interracial relationship. Are you finding your opinion about the song changing as you go along? Good.
Be aware of power language: Have you ever heard of “THE feminists”? As if there is only one type of feminist? Have you ever heard people make big blanket statements, saying that “Organic food is better” without allowing for nuance, exceptions, or different experiences? How about claims of things being ancient, or being first? What about subtle ways of discrediting someone, such as mentioning their age, appearance, or their hygiene? These things are important to notice, because they are tiny ways that voices can be eliminated, people can be silenced, and audiences can be convinced. This is also a really excellent way to look at your own biases. Change the person in the news story to a different gender, a different age, a different race. Does your opinion change? If it does, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might be fruitful to examine why it changes.
Look for what’s not necessary. I recently saw a post saying that a 12-year old girl had scored higher on a Mensa test than Albert Einstein. Does it matter that she’s a girl? I think, to be totally honest, that I would be impressed just that any human could score that well on a Mensa test, because I can’t figure out those little flash cards to save my life. If that person is particularly young, then perhaps that adds to the impressiveness of the achievement. But the gender? I don’t think so. If men and women are expected to perform equally on tests, then that shouldn’t matter at all
Put yourself in their shoes. Something I see a lot when people discuss children is that the perspectives presented are often those of the parents, or the adults, but not often of the children themselves. Try to think about these issues from all angles – what if you were the child? What if you were the parent? What if you were the teacher? What if you were a casual observer?
In the case of the Syrian refugees, put yourself in their shoes and think about the decisions they are making in incremental steps. What would it take for you to sell your home and move to another country? Probably a solid job, at least, and the reassurance that you could come back for frequent visits. Now what would it take for you to move to a non-English speaking country and learn the new language? What would they have to pay you? What demands would you have? Now think about what would cause you to leave your home and most of your belongings to pack yourself and your children onto a tiny boat to sail for the first available country with no reassurance that you’ll arrive alive, let alone cross the border, get a job, and learn the language. How would you feel if you had managed to grab and keep track of your iPhone, only to be penalized for owning such a piece of luxury when you’re supposedly in need? How would it feel to have someone scorn your child for having a DS when it’s their one comfort in their new life of sleeping on mats in school gymnasiums?
Look for differing opinions. It doesn’t do anything to just talk to people you agree with all the time, and you can easily get only one side of the story when you only read one article. When you feel strongly about something, learn all that you can about it. Read the work of people that disagree with you. Try to find holes in your own argument and then try to fill those holes. Look for reliable sources and then challenge them.
Give credit where credit is due. Being critical can cause a lot of stress, so it’s important to appreciate good work and solid opinions when you find them. Stay skeptical but be careful not to fall into cynicism – it’s not good for your own well being to doubt integrity regardless of any evidence presented.
Be willing to change your mind. If you love science, or love debate, or love learning, or just want to be a conscientious individual, this is crucial. If someone presents you with good evidence, or if you’re shown how your views are hypocritical, you have to be able to admit you’re wrong, and change your mind. I’m not saying go out without a fight – challenging views and debating things is a wonderful way to learn – but there’s a point where that fight ends, and you say, “Oops. I’m completely wrong.”
I know it’s hard at first, and it can feel humiliating, but just keep picturing it from the other side – if you convinced someone to reconsider, you wouldn’t be embarrassed for that person, you’d probably respect them for being open-minded. Plus, the more often you change your mind, admit you’re wrong, and ask people to teach you more, the easier it gets, and the more it feels graceful and enlightening.