The 3 Levels of Critical Thinking Skill

While I was still a boy, I came to the conclusion that there were three grades of thinking; and since I was later to claim thinking as my hobby, I came to an even stranger conclusion — namely, that I myself could not think at all.William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies

Sometime back reader Sara pointed me to this fascinating essay by William Golding about the nature of critical thinking. Golding explains his intellectual development (including a personal encounter with Albert Einstein) and classifies critical thinking skill in three grades.

Grade-Three Critical Thinking

Grade-Three thought is often full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance and hypocrisy. It will lecture on disinterested purity while its neck is being remorselessly twisted towards a skirt. Technically, it is about as proficient as most businessmen’s golf, as honest as most politicians’ intentions, or –to come near my own preoccupation — as coherent as most books that get written. It is what I came to call grade-three thinking, though more properly, it is feeling, rather than thought.

Grade-Two Critical Thinking

Grade-two thinking is the detection of contradictions. Grade-two thinkers do not stampede easily, though often they fall into the other fault and lag behind. Grade-two thinking is a withdrawal, with eyes and ears open. It became my hobby and brought satisfaction and loneliness in either hand. For grade-two thinking destroys without having the power to create. It set me watching the crowds cheering His Majesty and King and asking myself what all the fuss was about, without giving me anything positive to put in the place of that heady patriotism…Grade-two thinking, though it filled life with fun and excitement, did not make for content.

Grade-One Critical Thinking

I found that grade two was the power to point out contradictions. It took the swimmer some distance from the shore and left him there, out of his depth. I decided that Pontius Pilate was a typical grade-two thinker. “What is truth?” he said, a very common grade-two thought, “but one that is used always as the end of an argument instead of the beginning”. There is still a higher grade of thought which says, “What is truth?” and sets out to find it.

This essay illustrates the most important reason to read — to clarify your own thoughts. We’ve all observed the three grades of thinking before, but Golding defines them perfectly. Having your thoughts confirmed by a renowned thinker builds confidence and strengthens the belief that nothing is truly original.

It also gives us perspective. I used to believe that the present was a terrible time to be born for creative thinkers. The more I read, the more I understand that grade-three thinkers always have and always will hold the majority. While this isn’t the cheeriest realization, it lead me to stop making excuses and start utilizing modern advantages like the internet.

Golding’s development is remarkably similar to my personal experience; starting at blind acceptance, moving to contradiction and cynicism, and finally reaching creative thought. I’m inclined to believe the development of all thoughtful people follows this pattern and I’d be curious to hear about other experiences.

For anyone interested in this subject I recommend reading the full essay. The quotes I’ve chosen fail to do justice to Golding’s elegant, humorous, and insightful writing.

24 Responses to The 3 Levels of Critical Thinking Skill

  1. Kyle Murphy says:

    You sure do get an early start! I was just returning to read some of your articles, i found the site a couple of hours ago… and here you go already with the thinking… its friggin early, man! I’ve been awake since 2 tryin to look up a complete guide to concrete work … i was glad to come across your website though. It was a nice break and i enjoy your writing. Thanks for, i’ll be trying to read everything on it over the next week or so. I, too, consider thinking to be a hobby of mine…

  2. John Wesley says:

    Haha, I actually don’t get up that early, Kyle. I wrote this post a couple days ago and scheduled it to appear automatically this morning. I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the blog though, and thanks for your comments.

  3. ZHereford says:

    John, your article addresses where I’m at right now with my website and objective. Thinking has become a lost art – I mean, of course, the critical kind. One can’t sashay through life on whim, chance or good looks. Maybe we can start a ‘thinking revolution’.

  4. Chris B. Behrens says:

    I second this analysis…particularly the “what is truth” comment. I found a lot of what I was looking for in the Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle.

  5. Sara says:

    Hey, cool! :)

    Chris, you may enjoy Schopenhauer.

  6. Will Canard says:

    It seems so that “everyone” thinkith they are the master.

  7. ianmack says:

    thanks for pointing out this excellent essay. it crystallized what i’ve long thought about my most cynical friends – cynicism is a dead end. you can delight in pointing out hypocrisy, but eventually, unless you discover the hidden doorway of creativity, you’re stuck. and it’s a lonely hole.

  8. Paul says:

    If you want to move beyond grade 2, take something you’re highly critical of and make it into something that works for you.

    The trick is that you absolutely must start with something you’re dissatisfied with before trying to flip it, otherwise you’re just an optimist at heart, along with the rest of grade 3.

    Good luck all.

  9. Chessiq says:

    One of my chess friends once said that you don’t improve until you start asking the right questions, and then you don’t become noticeable until you start providing solutions (annotating another’s games or creating your own lines of play).

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  14. Justin Nyangor says:

    I read this essay today and i was completely astounded that there were others like me. I too have long felt like a grade 2 thinker trapped in a grade 3 world. I have tried to progress to a grade one thinker, tried to capture that interest which has eluded me for many years. I seem to focus hard on the randomness of the grade 3 thinkers and the emotions that they stir among one another. I thought that i hated the masses, i thought i despised their inability to think. But i think what i hated/despised was the wasted potential, and also the self pity that has been festering and growing within me due to my realization. They say “ignorance is bliss” but they also say “knowledge is beauty”. As i read this essay the part that spoke volumes to me was near the ending, when he encountered the small man in the hat. They conversation or (lack of) was amazing to read, like a ray of hope i felt the warm light of understanding. Even if we wander through the darkness of this world alone there are others that we can trust to be grade one thinkers. Even if we can’t communicate the knowledge alone gives hope to the grade two thinkers in the depths of despair. I would rather open my eyes to the possibilities of beauty, than live blind in the impossibility of bliss.
    Thank you John, thank you Mr. Golding, and most of all thank you to all the grade one thinkers out there. may we have the pleasure of encountering one another someday. For that possible encounter is what keeps me going in life

  15. Jeff Njeru Mbaka says:

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  16. MAYIM says:

    I think that most of you are all very eager to jump onto the Golding thinking train, but when does he leave room for growth. While reading it I felt as if his own essay belonged in his grade 3 thinking. All his examples where highly emotionally based and from personal experiences. Perhaps I misunderstood, but thinking doesn’t seem like definable thing, just something we “know”, like consciences or time.

  17. Chris B. Behrens says:

    Well, it might be more useful to use the term “ratiocination”, or more prosaically, “reasoning”, than “thinking”.

    I also think you just have to sign up for the reality that something like 75% of humanity is going to be grade 3 thinkers, and 100% is going to be grade 3 on certain intellectual blind spots. It’s the job of the other two levels to try to communicate their insights to them, and try to persuade.

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  19. prom gowns says:

    I wanted to thank you for this great read!!

  20. Mary says:

    I read this essay in class too, and the teacher told us to write a paper on the three levels of teaching with these guidelines:

    1. Provide clear and identifiable examples of all three grade levels. Your examples should be individuals or organizations and all be drawn from the same activity or profession (i.e. comparing boxers to boxers, drivers to drivers, authors to authors, characters to characters, etc.)

    2. You should provide detailed description of what qualifies each example as representing Grade 3, Grade 2, or Grade 1 of their respective pursuite or profession.

    3.Your details should be a mix of both concrete and abstract (both physically observable and recognizable through their qualities, reception by others, or the impression they give.

    I wa wondering if you could give me a few examples for each. i tried searching on Google, but nothing came up. thanks. :]

  21. Shivam says:

    Even I started to pursue thinking as a hobby a couple of years ago. :)
    I have started a blog as well. Can the author please let me know how am I doing ??

  22. Shivam says:

    Even I started to pursue thinking as a hobby a couple of years ago.
    I have started a blog as well. Can the author please let me know how am I doing ??

  23. Sweetpes12 says:

    Can someone please explain the levels of thinking in depth I have to write a paper on this and I for some reason can not grasp it.. HELP !

  24. Ben says:

    I want to say that my thinking is mainly grade two, but I’m not entirely sure. I believe in “Don’t wait for something to happen. Make it happen,” and although I’m not as bad as some, I don’t practice what I preach. I may well even be a grade 3, but I hope not, and I won’t confirm what grade I am until I’m 100% sure.

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