Critical Thinking on the Hoof

This posting is a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s an issue that’s been on my mind lately. The more I write about critical thinking, the more I think it needs rebranding. Here are three reasons for my call to action.

  1. It’s an opaque term. No one could ever guess what it means without already knowing what it means. That’s called the COIK factor—Clear Only If Known. So it already has a transparency problem. It’s like trying to market a black box. What’s inside?, people would ask. The only people who know are the ones who already know. That opacity problem is closely related to the fact that . . .
  2. . . . it also sounds inert, like ‘photograph’ or ‘tree,’ when in fact, critical thinking occurs and can only occur as one is thinking, hence the title of this blog. There’s no verb for it. Yes we have to think critically,’ but what does that mean? To think critically is the result of a lot of mental activity. For example, students must reflect on their understanding of the material, ask questions of each other, write dialogs between two characters discussing both sides of an issue—and on and on, i.e., it means you must be active mentally. As philosopher Richard Paul put it, critical thinking is “the awakening the mind to the study of itself.” You don’t awaken your mind by sitting around eating Ho Hos. Gotta dig and dig deep for that to go on. I think it would be helpful to coin a term that captures that action. The noun phrase critical thinking sounds as if it arises out of nowhere,like the answers on an 8-ball. Consider how a movie director would direct a scene to show someone critically thinking. Hmmm… biting on a pencil? Scratching one’s head? I’d probably show Einstein writing formulas on a chalkboard and then stepping back to ponder the implications while rubbing his chin. I think you can see the problem here.
  3. The third reason for rebranding is that as yet there is no agreed-upon definition. Critical thinking is like pornography—everyone knows it when they see it, but most people can’t define it. Is that because the term itself is too opaque? Too inert?

My Rx—let’s create a new verb! Something that’s more descriptive and that kids will think is cool. How about ‘to power think’ or ‘to kaboom’ or ‘to brain bust’?

Teacher: OK, kids. Let’s bust our brains over this problem of global warming.

Kids: Yay!!!!!

What about ‘to hots’ (from Higher Order Thinking Skills—HOTS):

        I HOTS

        You HOTS

        S/He HOTSES . . .

It would be the first verb that is all caps. That would make people sit up and take note.

Language changes slowly, but I think this term is ripe for a makeover. It’s just begging to become a transparent term describing the dynamic process that it is, not just the end result. Maybe then the definition won’t be so hard to agree on.

Published by Nancy Burkhalter

I am in love with words. Trained as a linguist, journalist and researcher, I write, teach writing, and research everything about writing, especially how writing aids critical thinking. I've taught around the world, including three years in Kazakhstan, and a year each in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

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