Metacognition and critical thinking

Let me further explore the relationship between metacognition and critical thinking, and consider also the cognitive skills so often associated with the latter.

The American Philosophical Association developed, through a commissioned systematic inquiry, an expert consensus on what skills and affective dispositions are constitutive of critical thinking known as the Delphi Report. Cognitive skills and subskills agreed upon in this report include (see Facione 1990 for a summary):

  • 1. Interpretation (categorizing, decoding, clarifying)
  • 2. Analysis (examining, identifying)
  • 3. Evaluation (assessing claims and arguments)
  • 4. Inference (querying evidence, conjecturing alternatives, drawing conclusions)
  • 5. Explanation (stating, justifying, presenting)
  • 6. Self-regulation (self-examination and correction).

While the practice of all these skills may be considered as, or at the least to characteristically involve, the manipulation of mental representations, I contend that the last of the cognitive skills, self-regulation, recognizes the necessity of metacognition in critical thinking. Self-examination (a subskill of self-regulation) without metacognition seems untenable under the ME model so far described, considering the things to be examined are mental representations and their relationships.

I also propose that the remaining skills are best enacted in a metacognitive mode. In other words, metacognition is categorically distinct from these other skills, being more a type of thinking, or mode of cognition. Recall that, for our purposes, metacognition involves consciously attending to mental representations. The cognitive skills 1-5 above require working with these representations, even as they themselves are mental representations. Cognitive skills can be processed algorithmically, even the skill of evaluation, as feedback loops on flowcharts show, and while a thinker may be well versed in applying such skills, such application need not be beyond the capacity of a computer program. It seems critical thinking, inasmuch as we wish to distinguish it from algorithmic thinking, is metacognitive. Moreover, it is metacognitively evaluative, since good critical thinkers should presumably be adept at continually monitoring and evaluating the selection and application of their cognitive skills. It is the evaluative component that addresses the issue of "correction" in point 6 above, for one must both evaluate and then correct with a standard in mind.

As for the issue of consciously directed thinking, I make the point that consciously evaluating and consciously directing our representations are not exclusive, indeed they are necessary and sufficient for each other. To evaluate thinking is to compare it to a standard, the application of which requires directed representation. To consciously direct thinking is to work toward an end, the choice of which, and the path to it, being something that requires evaluation. Hence, to be metacognitively evaluative is also to direct, to some degree, one's thinking.

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