Friday, June 13, 2014

What is critical thinking?

It seems we are constantly having conversations--and for good reason--about the importance of critical thinking and discussing ways to increase the critical thinking for our students. We all just seem to readily accept that we understand what we mean when we use the term, yet if you stop to think about how to define what critical thinking is, it's kind of hard to do. It's much easier to give examples of critical thinking skills. We understand what it means to infer, to compare, or to classify for example.

But let's try to identify what critical thinking is without going to exemplars. First, critical thinking is a mental act. We cannot just look at a product a student creates and determine if critical thinking occurred. Since there is a mental act underlying the product, we must ask questions of the student to learn the thinking behind what they have created or developed.

Another important aspect of critical thinking is revealed in the meaning of the word critical, indicating that it is a type of thinking, or a type of mental act, that is of high importance to knowing or understanding. There are lots of mental acts that are rote or automatic to the extent they can't be considered a critical thought. For instance, 2+2=4 or Jefferson City is the capital of Missouri. But critical thinking allows us to make judgments about the truth or reality of new knowledge against a convergence of knowing that is widely accepted as what is true or real.

Next, critical thinking is not limited to a content area or learning discipline. Critical thinking can be generalized across all disciplines. This characteristic is one of the reasons critical thinking is so important to our students. Whereas content specific knowledge is requisite to understanding a subject, critical thinking can help us to understand all subjects.

And finally, critical thinking can be developed through practice and through quality instruction. Some educators seem to believe, if not outwardly expressed, that students' abilities to think critically are just a part of intelligence that is fixed. Clearly, this is not the case. As we have learned from Carol Dweck, critical thinking and intelligence can be developed through practice and hard work.

Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP:

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