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The Art of Critical Thinking: Beyond Solving Problems

The Art of Critical Thinking: Beyond Solving Problems

This is the second in a four part series on “The Four C’s: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Communication” by long-time arts integration practitioner, Josh Batenhorst – Enterprise and Development Manager for ArtSpace Charter School, and Teaching Fellow for the A+ Schools Program of the North Carolina Arts Council.

In my last post “Creativity: The MacGyver of 21st Century Skills” I discussed the Bloom’s Taxonomy and its revision which placed “Creativity” above “Evaluation” in the pecking order of higher order thinking skills.  I also discussed the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.p21.org) and its role in shaping a framework for thinking about learning in the modern world – particularly in the modern economy – and the skill required to succeed.  Today, while recognizing the vitality of these efforts in shaping current trends in education, I am going to challenge those notions a bit as we take a deeper dive into thinking about “critical thinking” and how involvement in the arts helps to shape a student’s capacity to think critically.  

First of all, let’s try to define “critical thinking” by looking at some sources.  First, our good friend Google tells us that critical thinking “is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”  Interesting.  Google seems to think that critical thinking has those four components: objectivity, analysis, evaluation, and judgment.  

Our friends at p21.org go a little further and break the “critical thinking skills” into component parts which include 1.) reasoning effectively (using various types of reasoning as appropriate to the situation); 2.) Using systems thinking (analyzing how parts interact in complex systems); 3.) Making judgments and decisions based on rational analysis and reflection; and 4.) Solving problems and asking questions that lead to solutions.  You can see more here.

As education has evolved alongside industry in the 21st century, we have heard more and more about the huge need for workers skilled in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  Through non-profit partners such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, industry leaders have made it abundantly clear they need workers skilled in those technical capacities.  However, they also said they are looking for workers who can not only plug in and manage STEM applications, but also apply them to broad problems through the application of the 4 C’s – Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Creativity.  Where and how are students to gain those skills?

In the 21st century, students need to be able to not only solve a problem through creative MacGyvering (and yes, “MacGyver” has now made it into the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb), but they must also be able to evaluate the solution, the processes that created the solution, and its impact on larger systems.  Critical Thinking, then, not only provides solutions but holds those solutions to account.  Creativity can build a robot with artificial intelligence, but critical thinking asks whether that robot will proliferate and ensure the annihilation of the human species.  In other words, critical thinking is asking, “Is this a good idea?”

ArtSpace students create robots. Will they take over the world???

ArtSpace students create robots. Will they take over the world?


The arts serve as a rich foundation for building critical thinking skills.  Artists must employ their own capacity for and at the same time react to critical response.  In the performing arts, the outside critical eye (pre-performance) comes in the guise of a director, conductor or choreographer.  In the visual arts, this important role is often filled by an important teacher, master artist or mentor.  Through the practice and engagement in their art form, artists learn to make their own choices, but also respond to the feedback provided by their critical co-creators – directors, conductors or choreographers, who are themselves, practicing artists.  This conversation, at its best, results in fulfilling performances and works of art that challenge both artist and audience.

However, the arts not only provide space for the “critical feedback loop” described above, but are themselves the most powerful tool that humans have developed for critical expression.  Through the lens of the arts, artists are able to capture and express judgment on what Shakespeare called the “age and body of the time.”  Movies, novels, documentaries, plays, statues, even buildings and cathedrals – these are the tools through which artists critically comment on the world around them.

The Jefferson Monument.

The Jefferson Monument.

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Tidal Basin in Washington DC, with its incredible monuments to three giants of “critical thinking” – Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Each of these men used art – particularly the art of elocution through the written and spoken word – to world-changing effect.  The monuments to each of these men, as well, spoke, each in its own way, to the incredible impact of these men and their words.  The Jefferson Memorial, with its grand Ionic columns and portico and giant inscription of the Declaration of Independence speaks volumes about the man it tributes.  FDR’s monument is an interplay of water, bronze and granite that greets

Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

the visitor in multiple parts referencing the many phases of his three-term presidency – the depression, the civil works authorized in response, and the second world war.  It also includes an impressive tribute to Eleanor, the constant companion and standard-bearer of the Roosevelt legacy after the president’s death.  

The most impressive of the three to me, though, was the monument to Dr. King.  Out of a towering wall of granite in the background, King’s figure emerges as if driven through the precipice with John Henry’s hammer – the insignia “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope” emblazoned on the statue’s side.   Surrounding the enormous figure of King are multiple quotes from his speeches.  While each of these monuments features inscriptions of the words of their subject, the Inscription Wall of

A Stone of Hope.

A Stone of Hope.

the MLK monument challenges the visitor.  As he or she reads each quote, the great figure of the man seems to grow in the viewer’s mind.  You can read the quotes for yourself here.

It is important to note, that art also instructs us and gives us more to appreciate when it is given more context. Critical thinking, in this way, is inspired by and made more pleasurable by a great work of art. I am blessed to have been given a rich education that included robust instruction in history and a sensitive treatment of the civil rights movement, giving me context to appreciate this monument.  The monument enriched that understanding and the understanding enriched the experience of the monument.  In this way, art gilds the lily of critical thinking with appreciation and understanding.

In creating art, students are challenged to imagine their audiences and how they might be moved by the creative work.  They interact with critical feedback to their work through teachers, directors, choreographers, etc.  They respond and re-create their work so that it can achieve its greatest effect.   Then, on the other side of art, as audience members who experience and respond to art work, students are challenged and transported by the work to imagine the world and its many systems in different ways.  Their curiosity is sparked so that they can learn more about where the art comes from, what it means, and how it compares to other works – thereby gaining a greater understanding of their world and a critical context for its appreciation and understanding.

I worry that, in an educational landscape that is focusing more and more on delivering skilled STEM workers to an economy thirsty for labor, we are side-stepping the lessons in ‘the humanities’ – history, language and rhetoric – that provide the context needed to truly employ the Critical Thinking part of the “4 C’s” and full appreciation of the arts. The arts, when pursued with critical response in mind, are a rich and engaging way to teach critical thinking skills.  However, without the broad context that the humanities provide, these skills are diminished in their capacity.  

In a world hyper-focused on acquiring STEM skills, it is easy to ignore the big picture and avoid asking the big questions. In this context, critical thinking skills tends to simply be employed in order to solve the immediate problem at hand.  The arts, though, taught in critical context of history can inspire and encourage us to approach those problems once more.  To this extent, the arts are a great tool for the acquisition of critical thinking skills – but without an appreciation of the humanities they are diminished.
No doubt Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics are important tools and give us incredible skills for solving big problems.  If employers and educators really want true critical thinking — big picture critical thinking — they will look to the arts alongside and in context with the study of the humanities.  In fact, I think you can go so far as to say there can be no true critical thinking without them.