Critical Thinking

What if you were asked the question (with thanks to Tina Ahlgrim): “If your world only used 20 words, what would they be?”

How would you even begin to think of an answer?

Let’s see if critical thinking can help.

According to The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools

by Richard Paul and Linda Elder, a well cultivated critical thinker does four specific things. We will take each in turn to see if it leads us to our twenty questions.

1. “Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely.”

What vital questions can we ask ourselves? How about:

“What do we need to express in words that we cannot express in any other way (such as through nonverbals, sounds, physical demonstrations, or simply pointing at something)?” or

“What words are most important in our daily lives?”

Okay, we have our questions. Now we need guidance in how to answer them.

2. “Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively, coming to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards.”

What “relevant information” do we have? Well, we know that words can be categorized in at least two general ways:

a. Words can be nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives and prepositions. [This isn’t particularly helpful, is it?]

b. Words can be categorized by topic, such as communication, emotions, employment, and family. [This seems more promising.]

What “abstract ideas” can we use to interpret word categories? Existence, survival, and relationships are pretty abstract.

If we use existence in the abstract to interpret our word categories, our “conclusions and solutions” might be that the twenty words should be directly related to existing as a human being.

What “relevant criteria and standards” can we use to test that conclusion?

If the standard is that there are only 20 words to help us live in that world, then words related to human existence make sense.

3. “Thinks open mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences.”

What assumptions might we have that would affect our choice of words?

We would certainly have assumptions about what existence means and, consequently, what we would need to live in our world.

For example, existence to some might mean survival, while to others it might mean thriving and succeeding.

Even if we define existence as survival, we may still have different assumptions about what we need to live. Some might say we need food, clothing, and shelter- while others might say we need language, community, and norms to live by.

Each assumption has definite implications, all of which cannot be addressed in twenty words.

Notice that critical thinking has simultaneously deepened our understanding of and added complexity to the original question.

4. “Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.”

At this point, you can see how important it would be to discuss these conclusions and assumptions with others. After all, we would not be living alone in our world of twenty words.

When Tina used this as an activity, the groups were able to determine their words in less than 10 minutes. Clearly, we need the society of others to work this through.

How would you go about determining these twenty essential words to live by? What criteria would you use?

What would your twenty words be?