Nurturing Critical Thinking

By the Duke Talent Identification Program

Each day hundreds of thoughts go through our heads. Some are simple questions like “How can I turn those chicken breasts into something interesting for dinner?” while others are profound inquiries like “What is the meaning of life?” Everyone thinks. The key is to cultivate our quality of thought. The Foundation for Critical Thinking states that “human thinking left to itself often gravitates toward prejudice, over-generalization, common fallacies, self-deception, rigidity, and narrowness.” But not to worry: good, sound reasoning can be nurtured. Critical thinking can be traced at least as far back as Socrates, who emphasized asking deep questions to cultivate thinking. The Socratic method, which exposes the logic of one’s thought, typically uses several forms of questioning:

  • Clarifying. What do you mean by _____ ? Could you put that another way? Can you say more about _____ ?
  • Examining assumptions. What are you assuming? Why have you based your reasoning on _____ rather than on _____?
  • Investigating reason and evidence. What would be an example? What other information do we need? What led you to believe _____ ? How did you come to that conclusion?
  • Exploring viewpoints or perspectives. How might other groups of people respond? Does anyone see this another way? How could you answer the objection
    that _____ would make?
  • Probing implications and consequences. What effect would _____ have? What are you implying by _____ ?
  • Questioning the question. How can we find out? What does the question assume? To answer this question, what other questions would we have to answer first?

This kind of inquiry helps us reach thoughtful and comprehensive conclusions, a skill that is an essential foundation for future problem solvers.

Kristen R. Stephens, PhD