Getting in the Mood to Critically Think: The Seven Dispositions of a Critical Thinker

I just finished reading a very important article about critical thinking. It’s titled “Teaching thinking dispositions: from transmission to enculturation” by Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay and D.N. Perkins, a 1993 article still relevant today (Theory into Practice, 32(3), pp.147-53). I found an excerpt on Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/harvard-says-best-thinkers-7-182227176.html?soc_src=mediacontentstory, published Oct. 10, 2014).

The Tishman et al. article is noteworthy because people don’t usually think of someone’s disposition – i.e., tendency to do something – as a part of critical thinking. But I believe it is a crucial aspect and easily overlooked. Here are the seven dispositions:

  1. The disposition to be broad and adventurous: The tendency to be open-minded, to explore alternative views; an alertness to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  2. The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity: The tendency to wonder, probe, find problems, a zest for inquiry; an alertness for anomalies; the ability to observe closely and formulate questions.
  3. The disposition to clarify and seek understanding: A desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to unclarity and need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  4. The disposition to be planful and strategic: The drive to set goals, to make and execute plans, to envision outcomes; alertness to lack of direction; the ability to formulate goals and plans.
  5. The disposition to be intellectually careful: The urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  6. The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons: The tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  7. The disposition be metacognitive: The tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one’s own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

Interestingly, even if you have the ability to think critically but fail to do so, then you cannot rightly call yourself a critical thinker. That is because you don’t just turn them on and off. They should be used at all times in what are called “uncued conditions” (p. 5 of https://learnweb.harvard.edu/alps/thinking/docs/article2.html). This means you are a critical thinker not only at test time or during class but also when you read about a dangerous epidemic in the newspaper, hear a report about Afghanistan on TV, play a fun video game, listen to a sermon, or even read this article about dispositions – all the time and everywhere.

The authors also explain why dispositions cannot be taught through the transmission model, i.e., memorization. One cannot memorize one’s way into critical thinking. Critical thinking is a process that requires actively examining claims, scrutinizing support, and weighing data. We must never swallow anything whole, as is often the case when teachers lecture and students take notes. This teaching/learning model will not stand if a culture is to progress and make informed decisions.

I plan to write more about this, especially about cultures that may teach critical thinking but lack these critical dispositions.