I’m a pretty good driver. How do I know? I can observe other drivers and compare their skills to mine. I see them making silly mistakes. I (usually) avoid those mistakes myself. QED: I must be a better-than-average driver. I’d like to stay that way and that motivates me to practice my driving skills.
Using observation and comparison, I can also conclude that I’m not a very good basketball player. I can observe what other players do and compare their skills to mine. They’re better than I am. That may give me the motivation to practice my hoops skills.
Using observation and comparison I can conclude that I’m better at driving the highway than at driving the lane. But how do I know if I’m a good thinker or not? I can’t observe other people thinking. Indeed, according to many neuroscientists, I can’t even observe myself thinking. System 1 thinking happens below the level of conscious awareness. So I can’t observe and compare.
Perhaps I could compare the results of thinking rather than thinking itself. People who are good thinkers should be more successful than those who aren’t, right? Well, maybe not. People might be successful because they’re lucky or charismatic, or because they were born to the right parents in the right place. I’m sure that we can all think of successful people who aren’t very good thinkers.
So, how do we know if we’re good thinkers or not? Well, most often we don’t. And, because we can’t observe and compare, we may not have the motivation to improve our thinking skills. Indeed, we may not realize that we can improve our thinking.
I see this among the students in my critical thinking class. Students will have varying opinions about their own thinking skills. But most of them have not thought about their thinking and how to improve it.
Some of my students seem to think they’re below average thinkers. In their papers, they write about the mistakes they’ve made and how they berate themselves for poor thinking. They can’t observe other people making the same mistake so they assume that they’re the only ones. Actually, the mistakes seem fairly commonplace to me and I write a lot of comments along these lines, “Don’t beat yourself over this. Everybody make this mistake.”
Some of my students, of course, think they’re above average thinkers. Some (though not many) think they’re about average. But I think the single largest group – maybe not a majority but certainly a plurality – think they’re below average.
I realized recently that the course aims to build student confidence (and motivation) by making thinking visible. When we can see how people think, then we can observe and compare. So we look at thinking processes and catalog the common mistakes people make. As we discuss these patterns, I often hear students say, “Oh, I thought I was the only one to do that.”
In general, students get the hang of it pretty quickly. Once they can observe external patterns and processes, they’re very perceptive about their own thinking. Once they can make comparisons, they seem highly motivated to practice the arts of critical thinking. It’s like driving or basketball – all it takes is practice.