A Brief Intro to Critical Thinking

critical thinking as a scaffold

In the world of college composition, critical thinking means a lot of things. It means reflecting on what a text is showing or saying; it means examining it from a range of different perspectives; it means considering its underlying assumptions and unspoken implications; and it means assessing its impact on the wider world. This is why it is so important to approach critical thinking as a process: a series of steps or stages that give you ever greater insight into and control over whatever you are reading, seeing, or hearing.  

What follows below is a framework that outlines what this process looks like. We call this the “Critical Thinking Scaffold,” since it organizes critical thinking into five basic stages, a little bit like the rungs on a ladder, or on a scaffold.  Each stage, or rung, is comprised of a number of more specific, individual critical thinking “moves”–mental or psychological “moves” that critical thinkers make, and “moves” which you can name and practice. 

While the exact number of these “moves” varies from one activity or assignment to the next, the Critical Thinking Scaffold’s overall framework can be applied to any topic or text, any scenario or situation.

For our purposes, when we talk about encountering or reading a “text,” we don’t just mean a work made out of a bunch of printed words. Rather, for the purposes of critical thinking, a text can be anything that was constructed by someone (who we’ll call the “author” or “producer”) for the purpose of being consumed–seen, read, heard, experienced–by another person, or people (the audience).  In this way, when we refer to “reading” a text, we really just mean consuming the text in whatever way it was meant to be consumed. A television show can be read as a “text” simply by watching it, for example. A song can be “read” by listening to it.

Preliminary Assessment – Whenever you encounter a text, one of the first things to do is to take stock of where you stand yourself. Whether it be an article or an essay, a movie or a song, a blog or a post, we always come to a text equipped with assumptions, expectations, and biases that influence how we respond. So you need to ask yourself: What am I dealing with here? What do I already know about this topic? What are my experiences and associations? How do these things shape what I expect (or want) to see?

Encounter and Engagement – In any encounter with a text, a key early step is to determine exactly what is being shown or said. What particular elements stand out? Which seem most noteworthy, interesting, or important? How do I organize these elements into discernible definitions and categories? Answering these kinds of questions sets the stage for the deeper, more reflective analysis to come.  

Analysis and Synthesis – This stage is where you move from characterizing a text’s formal elements to analyzing and evaluating how these elements actually work. Analysis work includes such critical thinking moves as: extrapolating the key concepts or ideas a text is presenting; identifying patterns among different concepts or ideas; considering the strategies being used to present each concept or idea; and assessing the rhetorical or persuasive power of these strategies.

Perspective and Context – There’s a time in every encounter with a text when it becomes important to look up and look around, to place a text in different (social, civic, cultural) contexts, or to address a text from a perspective other than your own. Doing so enables you to understand how a text relates to other similar (or dissimilar) things, and how it relates to the world at large.

Reflection and Transfer – Thinking critically is an ongoing process. That is why it is essential to consistently look back and reflect upon the critical thinking moves you have just executed. What did I learn? How did I change? How can this knowledge be transferred to other circumstances? Answering these kinds of questions–in effect, thinking about your own thinking process–helps you become more deliberate and intentional about the choices you make, and offers you the best way to continue learning.