THINKING IS DRIVEN BY QUESTIONS, NOT ANSWERS – PART 5 CRITICAL THINKING SERIES: WHAT QUESTIONS DO THE BEST CRITICAL THINKERS ASK?
Disclaimer: Good Day, Readers. WealthBuildingPowers blog is a financial literacy/competency blog and does not provide specific investment recommendations.
I have no particular talent. I am merely extremely inquisitive. Albert Einstein
I suffered from insomnia most of my adult life. When I am pondering critical decisions, I often tell people I will sleep on them. Translation- I will wake up at some early morning hour (typically between two and three AM) and think through dozens of questions about the topic. The questions move me closer to a decision. Sometimes the answer is much more research is required. Sometimes these questions show me the answer. My questions are not nearly as logical as the below examples, but this methodology has benefited me for decades.
My advice, skip insomnia – BE INQUISITIVE!
CRITICAL THINKING SERIES – PART 5. What questions do the best Critical Thinkers ask?
Jim Leemann, Ph.D.
Questions? Questions? Questions? Questions are the lifeblood of Critical Thinking and learning. All of us ask questions throughout the day to navigate life. Although, more often than not, we do not ask enough questions or the questions we ask fail to surface the answers we are seeking. As Drs. Richard Paul and Linda Elder describe in their Critical Thinking – Learn the Tools the Best Thinkers Use, “Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions.”
Part 5: What questions do the best Critical Thinkers ask?
In this blog we will explore the importance of questions in thinking, questioning your questions, “Dead Questions,” categories of questions, and how to become a Socratic questioner.
The Importance of Questions in Thinking
It is safe to say when a field of study stops asking or allowing questions and pursuing answers, ultimately, the field becomes extinct or paralyzed in its current state. For example, we have witnessed over the past two and a half years the marginalization and even cancelation of individuals who have questioned the efficacy of the COVID vaccines and boosters. Even though we keep being told to “follow the science,” the only science we were allowed to follow is that which was promulgated by the National Institutes of Health. Not only is this not “science,” this is not Critical Thinking. More questions, not less questions, should have been asked. Failing to allow for more questions has resulted in tens of thousands of physicians and medical science researchers continually defending the propaganda answers they have been giving to the public. So, what is the price we will pay for the censorship of legitimate questions after learning the answers to questions that were not allowed to be asked or answered? The price we will pay will come in the next epidemic or pandemic that comes to our shores when a significant percentage of Americans refuse to listen to their physicians or public health professionals. Herein lies the importance of asking questions and allowing robust answers to be debated.
Questioning Your Questions
The questions you ask are a reflection of yourself and the topic, person, or issue you are questioning. Think back to the last time you met someone for the first time. What were the questions you asked of this person(s). What exactly did you want to know about this person? Your questions reveal a great deal about your values and perspectives as Drs. Paul and Elder posit.
Different questions serve different purposes. Drs. Paul and Elder provide the following series of questions to explore our understanding of the elements of reasoning and intellectual standards in questioning or questions.
- Questions about purpose force us to define our task.
- Questions about information force us to look at the sources and quality of the information.
- Questions about interpretation force us to examine how we organize or give meaning to information and to consider alternative ways of giving meaning.
- Questions about assumption force us to examine what we are taking for granted.
- Questions about implication force us to follow where our thinking is leading us.
- Questions about point of view force us to examine our point of view and to consider other relevant points of view.
- Questions on relevance force us to decide what does and does not bear on a question.
- Questions about accuracy force us to evaluate and test for truth and correctness.
- Questions about precision force us to give details and be specific.
- Questions about consistency force us to examine our thinking for contradictions.
- Questions about logic force us to consider how we are capturing the whole of our thinking such that it adds up and makes sense within a reasonable system.
In light of the significance and importance of the decision to go to college, one would do well to use these questions to question one’s questions.
According to Drs. Paul and Elder, Dead Questions are those questions we ask that fail to provoke any stimulating thoughts. Typically, Dead Questions reveal the person asking the question is not thinking or lacks questioning ability. Questioning is what stimulates our thinking and learning. Failing to do so, indicates that one’s mind is not thinking.
Categories of Questions
Prior to discussing how to question deeply, here is a framework you can use to categorize questions into questions of Fact, Preference, or Judgment. By categorizing questions, this allows you to figure out the reasoning you will use to answer the question.
Questions of Fact
Questions of Fact require evidence and reasoning within a system, which leads to one right answer that produces knowledge. A disagreement over Facts can usually be resolved quickly by turning to the source or reference and agreeing on the answer. Questions of Fact involve what is or is not true, what happened or did not happen, what exists or does not exist.
Questions of Preference
Questions of Preference result in as many answers as there are human preferences and typically involve answers of subjective opinion. Questions of Preference seek a level of agreement, frequency, importance, or likelihood from who is responding to the question. Questions of Preference can often involve asking for what one would prefer among a range of answers.
Questions of Judgment
Questions of Judgment require an element of reasoning, but unlike questions of Fact, they may have more than one defensible answer. Because of the range of answers found in these types of questions, we want to seek the best answer within the range of possibilities. Judgment questions require the individual to consider alternative ways of reasoning and to provide supporting evidence of their answer.
How to Become a Socratic Questioner
Socrates was a famous Greek philosopher who developed an education approach by using a disciplined series of questions that allowed his students to discover answers by examining different ideas more closely and evaluating the validity of the topic. Drs. Paul and Elder state that one of the primary goals of Critical Thinking is to establish a disciplined approach that presents a powerful inner voice of reasoning to monitor, assess, and repair our thinking, feelings, and actions. Socratic questioning allows our inner voice to flourish.
Drs. Paul and Elder present five ways to generate Socratic questions systematically. The five ways include using your knowledge of the elements of thought, types of questions, universal intellectual standards of thought, of prior questions, and of disciplines and domains.
Elements of Thought
Using your knowledge of the elements of thought to focus on questions based on: Purpose, Information, Inferences, Concepts, Assumptions, Implications, Point of View, and the Question.
All of our thoughts reflect an agenda or purpose. Questions that focus on purpose in thinking include:
- What are you trying to accomplish in stating this?
- What is your central aim in this line of thinking?
All of our thoughts presuppose an information base. Questions that focus on information in thinking include:
- On what information are you basing your line of thinking?
- How do we know this information is accurate?
- Have we left out any important information that needs consideration?
All of our thoughts require the making of inferences. Questions that focus on inferences in thinking include:
- How did you reach that conclusion?
- Please explain your reasoning.
- Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?
- With all these facts, what is the best possible conclusion?
All of our thoughts involve the application of concepts. Questions that focus on concepts in thinking include:
- What is the primary idea you are using in your reasoning?
- Please explain that idea.
- Are we using our concepts justifiably?
All of our thoughts rest upon other thoughts, which are taken for granted or assumed. Questions that focus on assumptions in thinking include:
- What are you taking for granted here?
- Why are you assuming that?
- Should I question the assumptions I am making?
All of our thoughts are headed in a direction or have implications. Questions that focus on implications in thinking include:
- What are you implying when you make that statement?
- What is likely to happen if we do X versus doing Y?
All of our thoughts take place within a point of view. Questions that focus on a point of view in thinking include:
- From what point of view are you looking at this?
- Is there another point of view we should be considering?
- Which of these points of view make the best sense in this situation?
All of our thoughts are responsive to a question. Questions that focus on the question in thinking include:
- Please explain the question you are asking.
- Is this question the best one to focus on at this point in time?
- Is there a more pressing question we should consider?
Types of Questions
Approaching questions systematically allows you to realize all thought has three functions according to Drs. Paul and Elder: to express a subjective preference, to establish an objective fact within a well-defined system, or to determine the best of competing answers using reasoned judgment. Questions you can use to determine the type of question at hand include:
- Is the question looking for a subjective or personal choice?
- Is the question looking for one correct answer or definite procedure?
- Is the question one that would be answered differently within different points of view?
- Is the question looking for the best answer?
- Is the question of judgment being treated as a question of preference? In other words, the questioner does not think he needs to give his reasoning when actually he does.
- Is the question being treated as a question of judgment when there is only one right answer?
Universal Intellectual Standards of Thought
Approaching questions systematically, you should recognize whether you or those you are working with are failing to use the universal intellectual standards of thinking. Questions you can use to specifically target the universal intellectual standards of thought include:
Recognize that thinking is always more or less clear. Questions that focus on clarity in thinking include:
- Please elaborate on what you are saying.
- Please give me an example or illustration of your point.
- Hearing you say “X,” am I hearing you correctly or am I missing your point?
Recognize that thinking is more or less precise. Questions that focus on precision in thinking include:
- Please give me more details about your thought.
- Please be more specific.
- Please specify your allegations more fully.
Recognize that thinking is always more or less accurate. Questions that focus on accuracy in thinking include:
- How could we check that to see if it is true?
- How could we verify these alleged facts?
- Can we trust the accuracy of these data given the questionable source of these data?
Recognize that thinking is always capable of straying from the relevant task, problem, or issue under consideration. Questions that focus on relevancy in thinking include:
- Failing to understand what you said bears on the question at hand, please show me how it is relevant.
- Please explain what you think the connection is between your question and the question we are focusing on.
Recognize that thinking can remain at the surface or can probe the depth required for the question at hand. Questions that focus on depth in thinking include:
- Is this a simple or complex question?
- Is the question an easy or difficult question?
- What makes this question complex?
- How are we dealing with the complexities inherent in the question?
Recognize that thinking can be more or less broad or narrow-minded and that breath of thinking requires the thinker to reason within more than one point of view. Questions that focus on the breath in thinking include:
- What other points of view are relevant to our issue?
- Are there any points of view we have ignored?
- Are we failing to consider opposing points of view because we don’t want to change our point of view?
When faced with a complex question that seems insurmountable, it can be beneficial to think backward by asking yourself questions that need to be answered before you can tackle the complex question. These questions are known as “Prior” questions. Constructing a list of prior questions begins with writing down the complex question and then crafting as many questions as you can that need to be answered before you can answer the complex question. As you prepare the prior question, be sure to remain focused on the original complex question. The key to your prior questions is to gain insight into how to think through addressing the complex question.
Disciplines and Domains of Thinking
Complex questions more often than not will cross over into multiple domains and disciplines. Drawing upon your prior questions, explore the domains and disciplines you have encountered in answering those questions. Domains and disciplines you might encounter could include Economic, Political, Social/Sociological, Psychological, Biological, Educational, Religious, Cultural, etc. Questions that focus as an example on these domains and disciplines in thinking include:
- What economic impact will occur in answering our question?
- What can be done to minimize the economic impact?
- Are there any political implications that might surface from our work and, if so, how should we address them?
- What are the sociological factors that we need to take into account if we succeed or if we fail?
- Will our work have any psychological impacts on our volunteers and, if so, how should we address them?
- Will our work cause any health issues in the community and, if so, how should we address them?
- What plans do we have in place to communicate to our customers the outcomes of our work?
- Will our use of animals in our research interfere with any religions and, if so, how should we address them?
- What considerations do we need to account for with respect to the native cultures we are encountering in the vicinity of our project?
Therefore, when undertaking a complex question open yourself up to the various domains and disciplines that need to be targeted and addressed. The above domains and disciplines are simply a sampling of what you might encounter when addressing a complex question.
In closing, questions are essential to your practice of Critical Thinking. As Drs. Paul and Elder state, “you think only as well as the questions you ask.”
For a deeper understanding of Critical Thinking, I invite you to explore the following reference sources by Drs. Richard Paul and Linda Elder, published by Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD:
- Critical Thinking – Learn the Tools the Best Thinkers Use (Concise Edition).
- The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking – Concepts and Tools.
- The Foundation for Critical Thinking https://www.criticalthinking.org/
Bio: Jim Leemann, Ph.D.
Dr. Leemann has had a 45-year career that has included being in the forefront of the safety, occupational health, and environmental fields in both the private and public sector. In addition, for 22 of those years, Dr. Leemann was an adjunct assistant professor teaching a variety of environmental and public health courses in the country’s oldest school of public health. In addition to holding a bachelor’s degree in microbiology master’s degrees in industrial hygiene and environmental engineering, his doctorate is in systemic management, which he has used to apply systems thinking methods to address organizational management problems.
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