Science of Learning: Rational Thinking

Rational thinking is the most difficult of the higher order thinking skills to define and work out how to foster within formal education. We are all rational beings, at least from the inside out. Rational thinking can be defined as aligning our thoughts and actions to our beliefs. If we do that, we are considered rational. At least in a very basic view of the world.

However, if we are to look at rational thinking as a higher order thinking skill, we must take into account the other higher order thinking skills. If we consider ourselves rational and believe that we have other higher order thinking skills, then our thoughts and actions need to align themselves with what our other higher order thinking skills contribute to our thinking.

As an example, a core aspect of critical thinking is the willingness to incorporate evidence into our thinking and be willing to change direction if the evidence contradicts our belief system. When we fail to do this, we are not engaging in critical thinking, and believing that we are critical thinkers while knowingly ignoring one of the central tenants of critical thinking means that our thinking is irrational. We are not aligning our thinking and actions with what we have been made aware of.

Since we all base our identities on being rational beings, there is a feeling of discomfort when our belief systems do not align with good evidenced reality. There are several ways that we tend to deal with this uneasy feeling (cognitive dissonance). The most common is to change the way we think. Ignore the evidence and rationalize it away with some kind of circular logic that allows us to maintain our internal belief that we are rational.

The second and a much more difficult thing to do is to change what we think and do so that our beliefs and actions harmonize with what we know or have learned. It is much easier to change our thought patterns through faulty reasoning in order to justify our belief systems than it is to change our actions.

The third course of action is to accept that there are parts of our belief systems that are irrational. This is an easy thing to say up-front, however, the danger is that our irrational beliefs might spill over into our rational beliefs and influence our thoughts and actions. A good example of this would be religious beliefs. From a perspective of reason, logic, and evidence, religious beliefs do not stand up to scrutiny. A person can have religious beliefs, and as long as they acknowledge that this belief system is irrational, and maintain it in a way that it does not interfere with their system of rationality, they can get along just fine. Not an easy thing to do, but it is achievable.

When applying this to our teaching, I know of no way to foster higher order rational thinking within our students on its own. I think that explaining what rational thinking is and how it works as an alignment of our personal belief system to our thoughts and actions is about as far as we can go.

Rationality, as a higher order thinking skill, has to arise out of the internal application of other higher order thinking skills that a person acquires. The better a person gets at critical thinking, applying reason, and using other higher order skills, the more these skills will influence their belief system. Because we are human and don’t want to become to Spock like, we are uncomfortable with the idea of allowing higher order thinking skills to become the only way we look at the world. My preference is to opt for the third way of dealing with discrepancies. I am quite comfortable with openly acknowledging that I have a completely irrational belief system.

I am a religious man with a set of religious beliefs that I know are completely irrational. They do not stand up to any reasonable arguments using logic and I don’t try to justify them with reason or any other higher order thinking skill that I have acquired. I make every effort, I believe quite successfully, in keeping my irrational belief system from influencing my professional life. By the same token, I refuse to allow others to try to “prove” religious tenants to me. This is an irrational belief system that I am comfortable with and I keep it completely separate (at least in my mind) from the rational thinking that I do as an academic.

To me, this is a good demonstration of how rational thinking is based on our internal belief systems. I believe in working to acquire higher order thinking skills and use them to understand the world around me. I also believe in a completely irrational group of religious tenants that I don’t pretend to myself, or anyone else, would stand up to any scrutiny based on reason, logic or evidence. Within myself, I am a completely rational person. My rationality is based on what is inside and not on some external measure imposed by society in the same way that other higher order thinking skills are.

When we reject ideas, like the evidence about lecturing found in the study of The Science of Learning, we should either change what we do, based on reason and evidence or acknowledge that what we are doing is irrational and would not stand up to scrutiny. Make this an irrational choice and be comfortable with it. It is not a reasonable choice to simply ignore the evidence and justify your actions based on some kind of faulty logic.

Because rational thinking is so reflective of our belief systems, I don’t know if there is any way that we can foster rational thinking as a higher order thinking skill in isolation.

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