Using Critical Thinking In Social Work

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Eileen Gambrill, PhD, is Hutto Patterson Professor of Child and Family Studies, University of California, Berkeley.  Leonard Gibbs, Phd (1943-2008), was Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.  Together they wrote, Critical Thinking for Helping Professionals: A Skills-Based Workshop, 3rd edition, which is designed to engage readers as active participants in honing their critical thinking skills, mastering a coherent decision-making process, and integrating the evidence-based practice process into their work with clients.  In the excerpt below the authors introduce what issues require critical thinking and what questions should arise.

Consider the following scenarios. A professor tells you: “some people who have a problem with alcohol can learn to be controlled drinkers; abstinence is not required for all people.” Will you believe her simply because she says so? If not, what information will you seek and why? How will you evaluate data that you collect?

Your supervisor says “Refer the client to the Altona Family Service Agency. They know how to help these clients.” Would you take her advice? What questions will help you decide?

A case record you are reading states, “Mrs. Lynch abuses her child because she is schizophrenic. She has been diagnosed schizophrenic by two psychiatrists. Thus, there is little that can be done to improve her parenting skills.” What questions will you ask? Why?

An advertisement for a residential treatment center for youth claims, “We’ve been serving youth for over fifty years with success.” Does this convince you? If not, what kind of evidence would you seek and why?

You read an article stating that “grassroots community organization will not be effective in alienated neighborhoods.” What questions would you raise?

Finally, a social worker tells you that because Mrs. Smith recalls having being abused as a child, insight therapy will be most effective in helping her to overcome her depression and anger. Here too, what questions would you ask?

If you thought carefully about these statements, you engaged in critical thinking. Critical thinking involves the careful examination and evaluation of beliefs and actions. It requires paying attention to the process of reasoning, not just the product.

Paul (1993) lists purposes first as one of nine components of critical thinking…If our purpose is to help clients, then we must carefully consider our beliefs and actions. Critical thinking involves the use of standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, and completeness. It requires evaluating evidence, considering alternative views, and being genuinely fair-minded in accurately presenting opposing views. Critical thinkers make a genuine effort to critique fairly all views, preferred and unpreferred using identical rigorous criteria. They value accuracy over “winning” or social approval. Questions that arise when you think critically include the following:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. Is it true?  How good is the evidence?
  3. Who said the claim was accurate?  What could their motives be?  How reliable are these sources?  Do they have vested interests in one point of view?
  4. Are the facts presented correct?
  5. Have any facts been omitted?
  6. Have critical tests of this claim been carried out?  Were these studies relatively free of bias?  What samples were used?  How representative were they?  What were the results?  Have the results been replicated?
  7. Are there alternative well-argued views?
  8. If correlations are presented, how strong are they?
  9. Are weak appeals used, for example, to emotion or special interests?

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