Reevaluate Your Stage Of Development In Critical Thinking

With Implications for Instruction

Linda Elder with Richard Paul

Though most teachers aspire to make critical thinking a primary objective of their instruction, most also do not realize that, to develop as thinkers, students must pass through stages of development in critical thinking. That is, most teachers are unaware of the levels of intellectual development that people go through as they improve as thinkers. We believe that significant gains in the intellectual quality of student work will not be achieved except to the degree that teachers recognize that skilled critical thinking develops, only when properly cultivated, and only through predictable stages.

In this paper we shall set out a stage theory based on the nearly twenty years of research of the Center for Critical Thinking and explain some of the theory’s implications for instruction. We shall be brief, concise, and to the point in our explanation with minimal theoretical elaboration. Furthermore, we believe that the “practicality” of the theory we explain here is best tested in the classroom and in everyday life. The reader should be expressly aware that we are approaching the human mind exclusively from an intellectual standpoint — not from a psychological standpoint. Each stage of intellectual development will be explained in terms of the following variables:

  1. Defining Feature
  2. Principal Challenge
  3. Knowledge of Thinking
  4. Skill in Thinking
  5. Relevant Intellectual Traits
  6. Some Implications for Instruction

Due to space limitations, we have made no attempt to be exhaustive with respect to any stage, nor to answer the many questions that might be raised concerning the development, reliability or validity of the stages. The basic intention is to provide a practical organizer for teachers interested in using a conceptual map to guide student thinking through developmental stages in the process of becoming critical thinkers. Once the stages are explained, and stage-specific recommendations are given, we close with some global implications for instruction.

We make the following assumptions: (1) that there are predictable stages through which every person who develops as a critical thinker passes, (2) that passage from one stage to the next is dependent upon a necessary level of commitment on the part of an individual to develop as a critical thinker, is not automatic, and is unlikely to take place “subconsciously,” (3) that success in instruction is deeply connected to the intellectual quality of student learning, and (4) that regression is possible in development.

Before moving to the stages themselves, a brief overview of what we mean by critical thinking is in order. Our working definition is as follows: We define critical thinking as:

the ability and disposition to improve one’s thinking by systematically subjecting it to intellectual self-assessment.

It is important to recognize that on this view, persons are critical thinkers, in the fullest sense of the term, only if they display this ability and disposition in all, or most, of the dimensions of their lives (e.g. as a parent, citizen, consumer, lover, friend, learner, and professional). We exclude from our concept of the critical thinker those who think critically in only one dimension of their lives. We do so because the quality of one’s life is dependent upon high quality reasoning in all domains of one’s life, not simply in one dimension.

The stages we will lay out are as follows:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker
Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker
Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker
Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker
Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker
Stage Six: The Accomplished Thinker

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker

Defining Feature: Unreflective thinkers are largely unaware of the determining role that thinking is playing in their lives and of the many ways that problems in thinking are causing problems in their lives. Unreflective thinkers lack the ability to explicitly assess their thinking and improve it thereby.

Knowledge of Thinking: Unreflective thinkers lack the knowledge that high quality thinking requires regular practice in taking thinking apart, accurately assessing it, and actively improving it. In fact, unreflective thinkers are largely unaware of thinking as such, hence fail to recognize thinking as involving concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc. Unreflective thinkers are largely unaware of the appropriate standards for the assessment of thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc.

Skill in Thinking: Unreflective thinkers may have developed a variety of skills in thinking without being aware of them. However, these skills are inconsistently applied because of the lack of self-monitoring of thought. Prejudices and misconceptions often undermine the quality of thought of the unreflective thinker.

Some Implications for Instruction: We must recognize that in the present mode of instruction it is perfectly possible for students to graduate from high school, or even college, and still be largely unreflective thinkers. Though all students think, most students are largely unaware of how their thinking is structured or how to assess or improve it. Thus when they experience problems in thinking, they lack the skills to identify and “fix” these problems. Most teachers do not seem to be aware of how unaware most students are of their thinking. Little is being done at present to help students "discover" their thinking. This emphasis needs shifting.

Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker

Defining Features: Thinkers move to the “challenged” stage when they become initially aware of the determining role that thinking is playing in their lives, and of the fact that problems in their thinking are causing them serious and significant problems.

Principal Challenge: To become initially aware of the determining role of thinking in one’s life and of basic problems that come from poor thinking.

Knowledge of Thinking: Challenged thinkers, unlike unreflective thinkers are becoming aware of thinking as such. They are becoming aware, at some level, that high quality thinking requires deliberate reflective thinking about thinking (in order to improve thinking). They recognize that their thinking is often flawed, although they are not able to identify many of these flaws. Challenged thinkers may develop an initial awareness of thinking as involving concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc., and as involving standards for the assessment of thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc., though they have only an initial grasp of these standards and what it would take to internalize them. Challenged thinkers also develop some understanding of the role of self-deception in thinking, though their understanding is limited. At this stage the thinker develops some reflective awareness of how thinking operates for good or ill.

Skill in Thinking: Most challenged thinkers have very limited skills in thinking. However like unreflective thinkers, they may have developed a variety of skills in thinking without being aware of them, and these skills may (ironically) serve as barriers to development. At this stage thinkers with some implicit critical thinking abilities may more easily deceive themselves into believing that their thinking is better than it actually is, making it more difficult to recognize the problems inherent in poor thinking. To accept the challenge at this level requires that thinkers gain insight into the fact that whatever intellectual skills they have are inconsistently applied across the domains of their lives.

Relevant Intellectual Trait: The fundamental intellectual trait at this stage is intellectual humility, in order to see that problems are inherent in one’s thinking.

Some Implications for Instruction: We must recognize the importance of challenging our students — in a supportive way — to recognize both that they are thinkers and that their thinking often goes awry. We must lead class discussions about thinking. We must explicitly model thinking (e.g., thinking aloud through a problem). We must design classroom activities that explicitly require students to think about their thinking. We must have students examine both poor and sound thinking, talking about the differences. We must introduce students to the parts of thinking and the intellectual standards necessary to assess thinking. We must introduce the idea of intellectual humility to students; that is, the idea of becoming aware of our own ignorance. Perhaps children can best understand the importance of this idea through their concept of the "know-it-all," which comes closest to their recognition of the need to be intellectually humble.

Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker

Defining Feature: Those who move to the beginning thinker stage are actively taking up the challenge to begin to take explicit command of their thinking across multiple domains of their lives. Thinkers at this stage recognize that they have basic problems in their thinking and make initial attempts to better understand how they can take charge of and improve it. Based on this initial understanding, beginning thinkers begin to modify some of their thinking, but have limited insight into deeper levels of the trouble inherent in their thinking. Most importantly, they lack a systematic plan for improving their thinking, hence their efforts are hit and miss.

Principal Challenge: To begin to see the importance of developing as a thinker. To begin to seek ways to develop as a thinker and to make an intellectual commitment to that end.

Knowledge of Thinking: Beginning thinkers, unlike challenged thinkers are becoming aware not only of thinking as such, but also of the role in thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc. Beginning thinkers are also at some beginning stage of recognizing not only that there are standards for the assessment of thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc., but also that one needs to internalize them and thus begin using them deliberately in thinking. They have a beginning understanding of the role of egocentric thinking in human life.

Skill in Thinking: Beginning thinkers are able to appreciate a critique of their powers of thought. Beginning thinkers have enough skill in thinking to begin to monitor their own thoughts, though as “beginners” they are sporadic in that monitoring. They are beginning to recognize egocentric thinking in themselves and others.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: The key intellectual trait required at this stage is some degree of intellectual humility in beginning to recognize the problems inherent in thinking. In addition, thinkers must have some degree of intellectual confidence in reason, a trait which provides the impetus to take up the challenge and begin the process of active development as critical thinkers, despite limited understanding of what it means to do high quality reasoning. In addition, beginning thinkers have enough intellectual perseverance to struggle with serious problems in thinking while yet lacking a clear solution to those problems (in other words, at this stage thinkers are recognizing more and more problems in their thinking but have not yet discovered how to systematize their efforts to solve them).

Some Implications for Instruction: Once we have persuaded most of our students that much of their thinking — left to itself — is flawed and that they, like all of us, are capable of improving as thinkers, we must teach in such a way as to help them to see that we all need to regularly practice good thinking to become good thinkers. Here we can use sporting analogies and analogies from other skill areas. Most students already know that you can get good in a sport only if you regularly practice. We must not only look for opportunities to encourage them to think well, we must help them to begin to understand what it is to develop good HABITS of thinking. What do we need to do regularly in order to read well? What must we do regularly and habitually if we are to listen well? What must we do regularly and habitually if we are to write well. What must we do regularly and habitually if we are to learn well? We must recognize that students are not only creatures of habit, but like the rest of us, they are largely unaware of the habits they are developing. They are largely unaware of what it is to develop good habits (in general), let alone good habits of thinking. If our students are truly “beginning” thinkers, they will be receptive to the importance of developing sound habits of thought. We must emphasize the importance of beginning to take charge of the parts of thinking and applying intellectual standards to thinking. We must teach students to begin to recognize their native egocentrism when it is operating in their thinking.

Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker

Defining Feature: Thinkers at this stage have a sense of the habits they need to develop to take charge of their thinking. They not only recognize that problems exist in their thinking, but they also recognize the need to attack these problems globally and systematically. Based on their sense of the need to practice regularly, they are actively analyzing their thinking in a number of domains. However, since practicing thinkers are only beginning to approach the improvement of their thinking in a systematic way, they still have limited insight into deeper levels of thought, and thus into deeper levels of the problems embedded in thinking.

Principal Challenge: To begin to develop awareness of the need for systematic practice in thinking.

Knowledge of Thinking: Practicing thinkers, unlike beginning thinkers are becoming knowledgeable of what it would take to systematically monitor the role in their thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc. Practicing thinkers are also becoming knowledgeable of what it would take to regularly assess their thinking for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc. Practicing thinkers recognize the need for systematicity of critical thinking and deep internalization into habits. They clearly recognize the natural tendency of the human mind to engage in egocentric thinking and self-deception.

Skill in Thinking: Practicing thinkers have enough skill in thinking to critique their own plan for systematic practice, and to construct a realistic critique of their powers of thought. Furthermore, practicing thinkers have enough skill to begin to regularly monitor their own thoughts. Thus they can effectively articulate the strengths and weaknesses in their thinking. Practicing thinkers can often recognize their own egocentric thinking as well as egocentric thinking on the part of others. Furthermore practicing thinkers actively monitor their thinking to eliminate egocentric thinking, although they are often unsuccessful.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: The key intellectual trait required to move to this stage is intellectual perseverance. This characteristic provides the impetus for developing a realistic plan for systematic practice (with a view to taking greater command of one’s thinking). Furthermore, thinkers at this stage have the intellectual humility required to realize that thinking in all the domains of their lives must be subject to scrutiny, as they begin to approach the improvement of their thinking in a systematic way.

Some Implications for Instruction: What are the basic features of thinking that students must command to effectively become practicing thinkers? What do they need to do to take charge of their thinking intellectually, with respect to any content? We must teach in such a way that students come to understand the power in knowing that whenever humans reason, they have no choice but to use certain predictable structures of thought: that thinking is inevitably driven by the questions, that we seek answers to questions for some purpose, that to answer questions, we need information, that to use information we must interpret it (i.e., by making inferences), and that our inferences, in turn, are based on assumptions, and have implications, all of which involves ideas or concepts within some point of view. We must teach in such a way as to require students to regularly deal explicitly with these structures (more on these structure presently).

Students should now be developing the habit — whenever they are trying to figure something out — of focusing on: purpose, question, information, inferences, assumptions, concepts, point of view, and implications. The result of this emphasis in instruction is that students begin to see connections between all the subject matter they are learning. In studying history, they learn to focus on historical purposes and questions. When studying math, they clarify and analyze mathematical goals and problems. When studying literature, they reflect upon literary purposes and questions. They notice themselves making historical, mathematical, and literary assumptions. They notice themselves tracing historical, mathematical, and literary implications. Recognizing the "moves" one makes in thinking well is an essential part of becoming a practicing thinker.

Students should be encouraged to routinely catch themselves thinking both egocentrically and sociocentrically. They should understand, for example, that most of the problems they experience in learning result from a natural desire to avoid confusion and frustration, and that their inability to understand another person’s point of view is often caused by their tendency to see the world exclusively within their own egocentric point of view.

Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker

Defining Feature: Thinkers at this stage have now established good habits of thought which are “paying off.” Based on these habits, advanced thinkers not only actively analyze their thinking in all the significant domains of their lives, but also have significant insight into problems at deeper levels of thought. While advanced thinkers are able to think well across the important dimensions of their lives, they are not yet able to think at a consistently high level across all of these dimensions. Advanced thinkers have good general command over their egocentric nature. They continually strive to be fair-minded. Of course, they sometimes lapse into egocentrism and reason in a one-sided way.

Principal Challenge: To begin to develop depth of understanding not only of the need for systematic practice in thinking, but also insight into deep levels of problems in thought: consistent recognition, for example, of egocentric and sociocentric thought in one’s thinking, ability to identify areas of significant ignorance and prejudice, and ability to actually develop new fundamental habits of thought based on deep values to which one has committed oneself.

Knowledge of Thinking: Advanced thinkers are actively and successfully engaged in systematically monitoring the role in their thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc., and hence have excellent knowledge of that enterprise. Advanced thinkers are also knowledgeable of what it takes to regularly assess their thinking for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc. Advanced thinkers value the deep and systematic internalization of critical thinking into their daily habits. Advanced thinkers have keen insight into the role of egocentrism and sociocentrism in thinking, as well as the relationship between thoughts, feelings and desires.

They have a deep understanding of the powerful role that thinking plays in the quality of their lives. They understand that egocentric thinking will always play a role in their thinking, but that they can control the power that egocentrism has over their thinking and their lives.

Skill in Thinking: Advanced thinkers regularly critique their own plan for systematic practice, and improve it thereby. Practicing thinkers regularly monitor their own thoughts. They insightfully articulate the strengths and weaknesses in their thinking. They possess outstanding knowledge of the qualities of their thinking. Advanced thinkers are consistently able to identify when their thinking is driven by their native egocentrism; and they effectively use a number of strategies to reduce the power of their egocentric thoughts.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: The key intellectual trait required at this stage is a high degree of intellectual humility in recognizing egocentric and sociocentric thought in one’s life as well as areas of significant ignorance and prejudice. In addition the thinker at this level needs: a) the intellectual insight and perseverance to actually develop new fundamental habits of thought based on deep values to which one has committed oneself, b) the intellectual integrity to recognize areas of inconsistency and contradiction in one’s life, c) the intellectual empathy necessary to put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, d) the intellectual courage to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints toward which one has strong negative emotions, e) the fair-mindedness necessary to approach all viewpoints without prejudice, without reference to one’s own feelings or vested interests. In the advanced thinker these traits are emerging, but may not be manifested at the highest level or in the deepest dimensions of thought.

Some Implications for Instruction: For the foreseeable future most of our students will not become advanced thinkers — if at all — until college or beyond. Nevertheless, it is important that they learn what it would be to become an advanced thinker. It is important that they see it as an important goal. We can help students move in this direction by fostering their awareness of egocentrism and sociocentrism in their thinking, by leading discussions on intellectual perseverance, intellectual integrity, intellectual empathy, intellectual courage, and fair-mindedness. If we can graduate students who are practicing thinkers, we will have achieved a major break-through in schooling. However intelligent our graduates may be, most of them are largely unreflective as thinkers, and are unaware of the disciplined habits of thought they need to develop to grow intellectually as a thinker.

Stage Six: The Accomplished Thinker

Defining Feature: Accomplished thinkers not only have systematically taken charge of their thinking, but are also continually monitoring, revising, and re-thinking strategies for continual improvement of their thinking. They have deeply internalized the basic skills of thought, so that critical thinking is, for them, both conscious and highly intuitive. As Piaget would put it, they regularly raise their thinking to the level of conscious realization. Through extensive experience and practice in engaging in self-assessment, accomplished thinkers are not only actively analyzing their thinking in all the significant domains of their lives, but are also continually developing new insights into problems at deeper levels of thought. Accomplished thinkers are deeply committed to fair-minded thinking, and have a high level of, but not perfect, control over their egocentric nature.

Principal Challenge: To make the highest levels of critical thinking intuitive in every domain of one’s life. To internalize highly effective critical thinking in an interdisciplinary and practical way.

Knowledge of Thinking: Accomplished thinkers are not only actively and successfully engaged in systematically monitoring the role in their thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc., but are also regularly improving that practice. Accomplished thinkers have not only a high degree of knowledge of thinking, but a high degree of practical insight as well. Accomplished thinkers intuitively assess their thinking for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc. Accomplished thinkers have deep insights into the systematic internalization of critical thinking into their habits. Accomplished thinkers deeply understand the role that egocentric and sociocentric thinking plays in the lives of human beings, as well as the complex relationship between thoughts, emotions, drives and behavior.

Skill in Thinking: Accomplished thinkers regularly, effectively, and insightfully critique their own use of thinking in their lives, and improve it thereby. Accomplished thinkers consistently monitor their own thoughts. They effectively and insightfully articulate the strengths and weaknesses inherent in their thinking. Their knowledge of the qualities of their thinking is outstanding. Although, as humans they know they will always be fallible (because they must always battle their egocentrism, to some extent), they consistently perform effectively in every domain of their lives. People of good sense seek out master thinkers, for they recognize and value the ability of master thinkers to think through complex issues with judgment and insight.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: Naturally inherent in master thinkers are all the essential intellectual characteristics, deeply integrated. Accomplished thinkers have a high degree of intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual autonomy, intellectual responsibility and fair-mindedness. Egocentric and sociocentric thought is quite uncommon in the accomplished thinker, especially with respect to matters of importance. There is a high degree of integration of basic values, beliefs, desires, emotions, and action.

Some implications for Instruction: For the foreseeable future the vast majority of our students will never become accomplished thinkers — any more than most high school basketball players will develop the skills or abilities of a professional basketball player or student writers the writing skills of a published novelist. Nevertheless, it is important that they learn what it would be to become an accomplished thinker. It is important that they see it as a real possibility, if practicing skills of thinking becomes a characteristic of how they use their minds day to day.


Humans are capable of developing into rational beings. This is our ultimate assumption. At some level all of us want to effectively analyze and solve our problems. We want to live significant, meaningful lives. We want to be persons of integrity. We did not consciously choose to be selfish and egocentric, any more than we consciously chose to think unclearly, inaccurately, irrelevantly, superficially, narrow-mindedly, or illogically. Nevertheless, we often think and behave egocentrically. We often think unclearly, inaccurately, irrelevantly, superficially, narrow-mindedly, and illogically.

In this paper, we focus on one multi-faceted tool — a theory of the stages required for rational development. We can use it to think less egocentrically and irrationally in our personal lives. If we can understand where we are in our own development, if we can envision a series of stages through which we can imagine ourselves moving, we will be more likely to develop along those lines. If we can more concretely and realistically conceptualize how to go about acquiring the knowledge, skills, and dispositions which characterize highly developed critical thinkers, then, we will more effectively gain that knowledge and acquire those skills and dispositions.

Stage One

We Begin as Unreflective Thinkers

We all begin as largely unreflective thinkers, fundamentally unaware of the determining role that thinking is playing in our lives. We don’t realize, at this stage, the many ways that problems in thinking are causing problems in our lives. We unconsciously think of ourselves as the source of truth. We assume our own beliefs to be true. We unreflectively take in many absurd beliefs merely because they are believed by those around us. We have no intellectual standards worthy of the name. Wish fulfillment plays a significant role in what we believe. Whatever we want, we believe we should have. We create and maintain pleasant illusions. If it feels good to believe something, we believe it.

At this stage, we may think well intuitively within certain domains of our lives. For example, we may have high quality thinking skills with respect to our work, or we may be good at balancing our personal budget, etc. But when there are problems in our thinking, we usually fail to recognize them as such. We have no knowledge of the "moves" our minds are making. Therefore, we cannot correct its errors.

We begin to move beyond this stage when we develop real insight into the "flawed" nature of our own thinking. This insight, to be effective, must be concrete and specific. Virtually everyone will agree in the abstract that they have some "prejudices" and that their thinking is "not perfect." But these unelaborated admissions have no functional value to those who concede them. They are not based on any real knowledge of the nature of thinking. They are not based on a realistic sense of the skills they would need to develop to improve. They are not based on an accurate appraisal of the kinds of motivation they would have to develop to improve over an extended period of time.

Stage Two

We Reach the Second Stage When We Are Faced w
ith The Challenge
Of Recognizing the Low Level at Which We and Most Humans Function as Thinkers

We cannot solve a problem we do not admit to. We cannot deal with a condition we deny. Without some knowledge of our ignorance we cannot seek the knowledge we lack. Without some knowledge of the skills we need to develop, we cannot develop those skills. When we develop through this stage, we begin to become aware of the fact that as thinkers we routinely and inevitably make assumptions, use information, make inferences, generate implications, define problems, use concepts, reason within a point of view, and that, given that, we are capable of making many "mistakes" in thinking. For example, we are capable of making false assumptions, using erroneous information, or jumping to unjustifiable conclusions. This knowledge of our fallibility as thinkers is connected to the emerging awareness that somehow we must learn to routinely identify, analyze, and assess our thinking.

The hallmark of the second stage, then, is that we are faced with a crucial challenge to our development. We are confronted with the idea that our thinking is often flawed, and that if we are to improve the quality of our thinking and of our lives, we must become serious students of our minds and how they operate. The important question at this stage is: Will we take up, or back away from this challenge? Put another way, will we squarely face the fact that our thinking is often unsound. Will we take seriously the implications of that fact? Or will we retreat into that comfortable self-complacency that is "natural" to the human mind? Are we ready to begin the process of long-term development as thinkers? Or will we rationalize our way around it?

To fail to recognize the value of developing as rational persons, to deny the fact that our thinking is flawed in many directions, has the consequent that we remain at the unreflective thinker stage. 

Stage Three

We Reach the Third Stage When We
Accept the Challenge and Begin to Explicitly Develop Our Thinking

Having actively decided to take up the challenge to grow and develop as thinkers, we become "beginning" thinkers, i.e., thinkers beginning to take thinking seriously. We are in the preparatory stage of taking explicit command of thinking. We realize that we know very little about the constituents of thinking, very little about how to analyze thinking for its soundness, very little about how to upgrade and improve thinking. Yet we have begun to see the necessity of learning how to take charge of our thinking.

As "beginning" thinkers, we recognize the egocentric nature of our thinking in one or more contexts of our lives. For example, we may sometimes catch ourselves trying to dominate others to get our way, or, alternatively, acting out the role of submitting to others (for the gains that submission will bring). We may begin to notice the powerful role that conformity to group norms and values plays in our lives.

As novices, we are beginning to analyze the logic of situations and problems we face, beginning to question our purposes and goals, beginning to struggle to express clear and precise questions when addressing a problem. We are beginning to see that whenever we gather information to address problems, we need to check that information for accuracy and relevance. We are beginning to understand the difference between raw information and our interpretation of it, beginning to question our conclusions, beginning to recognize assumptions guiding our inferences. We are beginning to recognize prejudicial and biased beliefs and how they lead us to unjustifiable conclusions about people. We are beginning to notice that we often misuse words and fail to follow out implications. We are beginning to recognize that whenever we reason, we think within a point of view, and that our viewpoint is often biased toward our selfish interests. We are beginning to recognize that we often think without giving due consideration to the rights and needs of others.

Thus, as beginning thinkers we are becoming aware of how to deal with the constituents of our thoughts (i.e. our purposes, questions, information, interpretations, etc.). We are beginning to appreciate the value of consistently applying intellectual standards––standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, precision, logicalness, justifiability, breadth and depth in reasoning.

To reach this stage, our values must begin to shift. We must experience some sense of the importance of intellectual humility. For if we do not come to value knowledge of our own ignorance, we will not be motivated to gain that "knowledge." What is more, as "beginning" thinkers we must find ourselves developing some confidence in reason. In other words, we must become persuaded that developing our skill in reasoning is crucial to solving our problems, and that we are capable of developing that skill. We notice ourselves talking more to others about the importance of reason and reasoning, and noticing more the negative consequences of those who fail to value them. We find ourselves struggling to develop some intellectual perseverance. We notice ourselves being quick to give up as soon as a problem becomes difficult. We have not yet found a way to systematically and successfully develop the skills and the dispositions that we now want to develop. Even though our ability to reason well may still be greatly limited, our values are beginning to shift. We are learning to want what is rational to want. In short, the foundation is beginning to form on which we can re-build our identity and character. 

Stage Four

We Reach the Fourth Stage When We Begin to Develop
A Systematic Approach to Improving Our Ability to Think

If the hallmark of the third stage is beginning to take thinking seriously, although without a successful plan for achieving what we now want, the hallmark of the fourth stage is the development of just such a plan. In this stage, we move from an unorganized to an organized approach to the improvement of our thinking.

At this stage, we now know that simply wanting to change is not enough, nor is episodic and irregular "practice." We recognize now the need for real commitment, for some regular and consistent way to build improvement of thinking into the fabric of our lives. We realize now that a hit-and-miss approach to developing our thinking abilities will not result in our learning to live a rational life.

Although the manner in which regular practice designed to improve our thinking might take many different forms, it may be useful to look at some possible components of a reasonable plan. Consider the following strategies:

  • Begin to ask yourself "fundamental" questions about the character and nature of your life. If someone were to follow you around for a year and knew absolutely everything that you were thinking, feeling, and doing, what would that person say are your fundamental values and beliefs? To what extent would that person conclude that you unconsciously conform to group-imposed values? To what extent would that person conclude that you pursue your desires at the expense of the rights and needs of others? To what extent would that person conclude that you fail to empathically enter the point of view of others? To what extent would that person conclude that you are committed to living your life as a rational person would? To what extent would that person conclude that you are often guided by irrational emotions?
  • Begin to keep an "intellectual" journal in which you record your analysis in the following way. Describe only situations that are emotionally significant to you (that is, that you deeply care about). Describe only one situation at a time. Then describe (and keep this separate) what you did in response to that situation. Be specific and exact. Then analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation. Dig beneath the surface. Then assess the implications of your analysis. What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could re-live the situation?
  • Whenever you feel some negative emotion, systematically ask yourself: What, exactly, is the thinking leading to this emotion? How might this thinking be flawed?" What am I assuming? Should I? What information is my thinking based on? Is that information reliable? . . . and so on.
  • Whenever you have a complex problem, a problem that you need to think seriously about, take the time to analyze the elements of thinking through the problem. Figure out your purpose for addressing the problem (be precise). Write out, clearly, the exact question you are trying to answer. Write down the information you need to address the problem rationally. Do you have that information? Where can you get it? Think of alternative ways a reasonable person might interpret that information. Restrain yourself from jumping to a conclusion. Identify the main assumptions you are making. Analyze and evaluate those assumptions. Focus on the key concepts you are using in your thinking. Explicitly state the point of view from which you are approaching the problem. Consider some alternative points of view. Examine the possible consequences that might follow if you make this or that decision. Check to see if you are considering all the plausible alternative possible decisions.
  • Look closely at your behavior to determine how you use, and relate to, "power" in your life. See if you can isolate some common events in which you use egocentric thinking to get others to do what you want. For example, systematically analyze your behavior to determine whether, as a general rule, you tend to "dominate" others in order to get your way, or whether you tend to "submit" to them to get what you want.
  • Notice how you react in situations when you don’t get what you want. What exactly are your emotions? What exactly do you do? If you find that you act in a dominating or submissive way, you will be alerted to the fact that you are thinking egocentrically. You can then work to replace your egocentric thought with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection. What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what you did? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved you are probably engaging in self-deception.)
  • Closely analyze the behavior that is encouraged, and discouraged, in the groups to which you belong. For any given group, what are you "required" to believe? What are you "forbidden" to do? If you conclude that your group does not require you to believe anything, or has no taboos, then conclude that you have not deeply analyzed that group. Review some introductory text in Sociology to gain insight into the process of socialization and group membership.
  • Target the key areas in your life where you are experiencing difficulties or where you need to think through significant issues with potentially long-term implications. Ask yourself what "strategies" you are presently employing in those areas. How did you come up with those strategies? What strategies did you consider and reject? On what grounds? If you find that you have trouble answering these questions, entertain the hypothesis that your thinking about these areas of your life may not be very deep.

These are a few of the many things that we might do in seeking a systematic approach to the development of our thinking and rationality. We are not in the stage we call "the practicing thinker" until we are engaged in activities analogous to what is suggested above. When in the practicing thinker stage, we devise specific strategies which we believe will prove useful in cultivating our own development as a thinker. We act on those strategies and assess their viability for us. If one set of strategies does not work, we devise another. The key is that we devise some strategies, that we embody them for a reasonable time in our behavior, and we assess how well they are working. We continually monitor those strategies to make them more and more effective. When a given strategy proves ineffective we abandon it and seek another. In other words, we routinely re-evaluate the methods we are using, assessing them, and altering them when necessary so that we continue the slow but steady process of development.

Stage Five

We Reach the Fifth Stage When We Have Established
Good Habits of Thought Across the Domains of Our Lives

We know that we are reaching the stage we call the Advanced Thinker stage when we find that our regimen for rational living is paying off in significant ways. We are now routinely identifying problems in our thinking, and are working successfully to deal with those problems rationally. We have successfully identified the significant domains in our lives in which we need to improve (e.g. professional, parenting, husband, wife, consumer, etc.), and are making significant progress in all or most of them. We find that it is no longer a strain to aspire to reasonability. We continue to find evidence of egocentricity in our thoughts, emotions, and behavior, but we are also finding that we can often, if not usually, overcome those thoughts and emotions and shift our behavior accordingly. We no longer find it difficult to admit when we are wrong. We are attracted to people who give us constructive criticism.

We are now enjoying the process of observing our minds in action. We enjoy entering into the points of view of others. We take satisfaction from learning from the thinking of those with which we may have significant differences. We now see assumptions in our thinking in every direction we look. We are no longer concerned with the "image" we maintain, are largely indifferent to what others may think of us, are comfortable standing up in opposition to popular beliefs in the groups to which we belong.

We find the process of assessing our behavior, motivations, and feelings in order to determine the extent to which they result from faulty thinking a satisfying and fulfilling process. We continue to find many ways in which we need to "correct" our thinking and "shift" our feelings. We continue to make many mistakes, but we are rarely so ego-identified with those mistakes that we cannot "abandon" them and admit we were wrong. Since we have used our thinking as the leverage point for changing our feelings, desires and action on many occasions, we now find ourselves doing so intuitively, and without significant effort.

We have come to understand, through routine analysis of our behavior and thoughts, the havoc that egocentricity and sociocentricity play in human lives. We have personally experienced that havoc in our own lives. We find ourselves continually assessing our effectiveness in living in accordance with our deepest values. We now have deep insight into the fact that our development is directly dependent on the extent to which we are successful at decreasing the role of egocentric thinking in our daily lives. We have come to understand the conditions under which we tend to use "domination" or "submission" to get what we want.

We now know what types of behavior on the part of others tend to elicit our dominating or submissive ego. We know whether we tend to more predominantly rely upon submissive or dominating behavior. But most important, we recognize that egocentric thinking is never a reasonable mode of thinking--however "natural" it might be. Thus, at the advanced stage we become skilled in identifying our egocentric thoughts, and we refuse to make use of the rationalizations we could easily concoct to justify them.

We are now skilled not only in detecting egocentric thinking in ourselves, we are also skilled in identifying it in the behavior of others. We now routinely figure out the logic of the thinking of other people, and frequently recognize when others are operating from egocentric thinking. We recognize when others are attempting to inappropriately manipulate us into submission, or when they are trying to force us to back down through domination.

At the advanced stage, we are now skilled at monitoring the role in thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, questions, purposes, and information. We routinely and often intuitively assess our thinking for clarity, accuracy, relevance, logicalness, depth and breadth. We often engage in dialogue with ourselves in an attempt to check our thinking and upgrade it. This type of internal dialogue might be "represented" in the following examples:

"I’m not clear about what this person is trying to communicate to me. I need to ask questions of clarification so that I can understand what she means. I should ask her to elaborate on her point. I think I need an example of what she is talking about to understand her better."

"I am trying to figure out whether what she is saying is relevant to the issue at hand, whether her information is relevant to the question we are trying to solve, whether her question is relevant to the question which is the focus of this meeting."

"It seems that there is something illogical about the way I have interpreted this situation. Perhaps I have jumped to some conclusions before gathering all the relevant information. Perhaps I have come to this conclusion based on inaccurate information. Perhaps my interpretation is based strictly on my self-interest. It could be that my egocentric mind does not want to rethink my conclusion because then I will be forced to consider another person’s feelings and desires and I will not get what I want in the situation."

"I am beginning to realize that I don’t want to hear what this other person is saying because then I will have to rethink my position. Whenever I feel this type of defensiveness I know that I am being egocentric, that my mind is not allowing me to enter the other person’s point of view because if I think within his or her view, I will have to alter my self-indulgent position. My mind will recognize its absurdity in pursuing its own desires at the expense of other’s needs and desires. I must force myself to rationally consider this opposing position, to operate in good faith rather than try to hide from something my egocentric mind doesn’t want to see."

I see what my mind is doing. Instead of trying to resolve a conflict, I am trying to force this other person to accept my views. I want to make him do exactly what I say, even if that means I must hurt him to do so. I detect my dominating ego at work, and I know that whenever I am thinking within this logic I am being irrational, and I am likely to hurt someone. I must recognize my dominating ego as a hurtful mode of thinking and reject it in any form."

"I wonder why I am allowing this person to intimidate me. I feel like I must submit to his will in order to function. Whenever I am being submissive, I need to ask myself what I am trying to achieve in the situation. What is it that I want from this other person? Why do I let him treat me like this? Why do I think I must be submissive, instead of being rational, in this circumstance? Perhaps I am not willing to admit that I am simply manipulating him to get what I want. If I told him the truth would I still be able to get what I want, or would I detect absurdity in my desires?

In the advanced stage we are becoming skilled at this sort of inner dialog, and we understand its value, although it is not yet completely intuitive to us. We recognize that we must give active voice to what is going on in our minds because of our natural tendency toward deception. We routine write down our thoughts so that we can better analyze them. We articulate our thoughts to other rational people as a check to ensure that we are not illogically interpreting the situation, to ensure against our unconsciously thinking in a self-centered manner.

Because the mind is tremendously complex, to reach this stage of development normally takes many years of practice. The more committed the person, the more active the practice, the more likely, and more quickly, we are to move to this advanced stage.

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