CRITICAL THINKING DEFINED
Critical thinking as a specific area of study goes back at least to 1941 with Edward Glaser’s An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking. It may not be a coincidence that the rise of interest in independent critical thinking coincides with the chaos that was unleashed by aggressive, totalitarian governments.
Today, a number of definitions of thinking and of critical thinking in particular exist in academia. That multiple definitions exist is not unusual when one considers the field of inquiry. Over time at AMSC, we have used definitions from a number of authors; some relating to thinking in general (Rubinstein and Firstenberg 1987) (DeBono 1976) and some who were focused specifically on critical thinking (Brookfield 1987:7-11) (Ennis 1987) (Walters 1990) (Paul 1993). We also draw on Kuhn’s work (1970) for his discussions of paradigms, paradigm shift, and change as it relates to thinking.
One of the early difficulties we found in trying to work with the concepts involved in critical thinking at AMSC, was that it is very difficult to present multiple definitions to people who are encountering the deliberate examination of their thinking for the first time. Since our goals have always included the development of critical thinking as a lifelong habit, we were willing to forgo the rich variety of perspectives on thinking in exchange for something we could use successfully with our adult students.
- Is this a good idea or a bad idea?
- Is this belief defensible or indefensible?
- Is my position on this issue reasonable and rational or not?
- Am I willing to deal with complexity or do I retreat into simple stereotypes to avoid it?
- If I can’t tell if my idea or belief is reasonable or defensible, how can I have confidence in my thinking, or in myself?
- Is it appropriate and wise to assume that my ideas and beliefs are accurate, clear, and reasonable, when I haven’t really tested them?
- Do I think deeply or only on the surface of things?
- Do I ever enter sympathetically into points of view that are very different from my own, or do I just assume that I am right?
- Do I know how to question my own ideas and to test them?
- Do I know what I am aiming for? Should I?
- Effectively evaluating our own thinking and the thinking of others is a habit few of us practice. We evaluate which washing machine to buy after reading Consumer Reports, we evaluate which movie to go see after studying the reviews, we evaluate new job opportunities after talking with friends and colleagues, but rarely do we explicitly evaluate the quality of our thinking (or the thinking of our students).
But, you may ask, how can we know if our thinking is sound? Are we relegated to “trial and error” to discover the consequences of our thinking? Do the consequences always accurately tell the tale? Isn’t thinking all a matter of opinion anyway? Isn’t my opinion as good as anyone else’s? If what I believe is true for me, isn’t that all that matters? In our education and upbringing, have we developed the ability to evaluate, objectively and fairly, the quality of our beliefs? What did we learn about thinking during our schooling?
How did we come to believe what we do believe, and why one belief and not another? How many of our beliefs have we come to through rigorous, independent thinking, and how many have been down-loaded from the media, parents, our culture, our spouses or friends? As we focus on it, do we value the continuing improvement of our thinking abilities? Do we value the continuing improvement of our students’ thinking abilities? Important research findings indicate that we need to look closely at this issue. Mary Kennedy reports the findings on the opposite page in the Phi Delta Kappan, May, 1991, in an article entitled, “Policy Issues in Teaching Education.”
How can we improve our thinking without effective evaluation practices? Can we learn how to evaluate our thinking and reasoning objectively? Let’s look at one concrete example for clues into the elements of effective evaluation in a familiar field. In platform diving, there are criteria to be met to receive a score of “10” and standards that judges and competitors alike use to evaluate the dive. These standards guide the divers in each practice session, in each effort off the board. Without these criteria and standards, how would the diver and the judges know what was excellent and what was marginal? Awareness of the criteria and standards are alive in the divers’ and coaches’ minds. Do we have parallel criteria and standards as we strive to improve our abilities, our performances in thinking?
There is nothing more common than evaluation in the everyday world but for sound evaluation to take place, one must establish relevant standards, gather appropriate evidence, and judge the evidence in keeping with the standards.
There are appropriate standards for the assessment of thinking and there are specific ways to cultivate the learning of them. The research into critical thinking establishes tools that can help us evaluate our own thinking and the thinking of others, if we see their potential benefit and are willing to discipline our minds in ways that may seem awkward at first. This chapter briefly lays out those tools in general terms and acts as a map, so to speak, of their dimensions. We present examples of student thinking that demonstrate critical and uncritical thinking as we define those terms. In other chapters, we identify approaches to teaching critical thinking that are flawed, and explain why they undermine the success of those who attempt to use them.
Important Research Findings
First Finding: ...national assessments in virtually every subject indicate that, although our students can perform basic skills pretty well, they are not doing well on thinking and reasoning. American students can compute, but they cannot reason.... They can write complete and correct sentences, but they cannot prepare arguments.... Moreover, in international comparisons, American students are falling behind...particularly in those areas that require higher-order thinking.... Our students are not doing well at thinking, reasoning, analyzing, predicting, estimating, or problem solving.
Second Finding: ...textbooks in this country typically pay scant attention to big ideas, offer no analysis, and pose no challenging questions. Instead, they provide a tremendous array of information or ‘factlets’, while they ask questions requiring only that students be able to recite back the same empty list.
Third Finding: Teachers teach most content only for exposure, not for understanding.
Fourth Finding: Teachers tend to avoid thought-provoking work and activities and stick to predictable routines.Conclusion: “If we were to describe our current K–12 education system on the basis of these four findings, we would have to say that it provides very little intellectually stimulating work for students, and that it tends to produce students who are not capable of intellectual work.
Fifth Finding: ... our fifth finding from research compounds all the others and makes it harder to change practice: teachers are highly likely to teach in the way they themselves were taught. If your elementary teacher presented mathematics to you as a set of procedural rules with no substantive rationale, then you are likely to think that this is what mathematics is and that this is how mathematics should be studied. And you are likely to teach it in this way. If you studied writing as a set of grammatical rules rather than as a way to organize your thoughts and to communicate ideas to others, then this is what you will think writing is, and you will probably teach it so.... By the time we complete our undergraduate education, we have observed teachers for up to 3,060 days.
Implication: “We are caught in a vicious circle of mediocre practice modeled after mediocre practice, of trivialized knowledge begetting more trivialized knowledge. Unless we find a way out of this circle, we will continue re-creating generations of teachers who re-create generations of students who are not prepared for the technological society we are becoming.”
(Figure 1 condensed from “Policy Issues in Teaching Education” by Mary Kennedy in the Phi Delta Kappan, May, 91, pp 661–66.)
Critical Thinking: A Picture of the Genuine Article
Critical Thinking is a systematic way to form and shape one’s thinking. It functions purposefully and exactingly. It is thought that is disciplined, comprehensive, based on intellectual standards, and, as a result, well-reasoned.
Critical Thinking is distinguishable from other thinking because the thinker is thinking with the awareness of the systematic nature of high quality thought, and is continuously checking up on himself or herself, striving to improve the quality of thinking. As with any system, critical thinking is not just a random series of characteristics or components. All of its components - its elements, principles, standards and values - form an integrated, working network that can be applied effectively not only to academic learning, but to learning in every dimension of living.
Critical thinking’s most fundamental concern is excellence of thought. Critical thinking is based on two assumptions: first, that the quality of our thinking affects the quality of our lives, and second, that everyone can learn how to continually improve the quality of his or her thinking.
Critical Thinking implies a fundamental, overriding goal for education in school and in the workplace: always to teach so as to help students improve their own thinking. As students learn to take command of their thinking and continually to improve its quality, they learn to take command of their lives, continually improving the quality of their lives. Comprehensive Critical Thinking Has the Following Characteristics:
It is thinking which is responsive to and guided by Intellectual Standards, such as relevance, accuracy, precision, clarity, depth, and breadth. Without intellectual standards to guide it, thinking cannot achieve excellence. [Note: most so-called “thinking skill” educational programs and approaches have no intellectual standards.]
It is thinking that deliberately supports the development of Intellectual Traits in the thinker, such as intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual empathy, and intellectual self-discipline, among others. [Note: most “thinking skill” programs ignore fundamental intellectual traits.]
It is thinking in which the thinker can identify the Elements of Thought that are present in all thinking about any problem, such that the thinker makes the logical connection between the elements and the problem at hand. For example, the critical thinker will routinely ask himself or herself questions such as these about the subject of the thinking task at hand:
- What is the purpose of my thinking?
- What precise question am I trying to answer?
- Within what point of view am I thinking?
- What information am I using?
- How am I interpreting that information?
- What concepts or ideas are central to my thinking?
- What conclusions am I coming to?
- What am I taking for granted, what assumptions am I making?
- If I accept the conclusions, what are the implications?
- What would the consequences be, if I put my thought into action?
For each element, the thinker must be able to reflect on the standards that will shed light on the effectiveness of her thinking. [Note: Most “thinking skill” programs ignore most or all of the basic elements of thought and the need to apply standards to their evaluation.]
It is thinking that is ROUTINELY SELF-ASSESSING, SELF-EXAMINING, and SELF-IMPROVING. The thinker takes steps to assess the various dimensions of her thinking, using appropriate intellectual standards. [Note: Most “thinking skill” programs do not emphasize student self-assessment.] But what is essential to recognize is that if students are not assessing their own thinking, they are not thinking critically.
It is thinking in which THERE IS AN INTEGRITY TO THE WHOLE SYSTEM. The thinker is able, not only to critically examine her thought as a whole, but also to take it apart, to consider its various parts, as well. Furthermore, the thinker is committed to thinking within a system of interrelated traits of mind; for example, to be intellectually humble, to be intellectually perseverant, to be intellectually courageous, to be intellectually fair and just. Ideally, the critical thinker is aware of the full variety of ways in which thinking can become distorted, misleading, prejudiced, superficial, unfair, or otherwise defective. The thinker strives for wholeness and integrity as fundamental values. [Note: Most “thinking skills” programs are not well integrated and lack a broad vision of the range of thinking abilities, standards, and traits that the successful critical thinking student will develop. Many tend to instruct students with a technique such as mapping of ideas in diagrams or comparing two ideas, yet these ask little of the student and can readily mislead student and teacher to believe that such techniques will be sufficient.]
It is thinking that YIELDS A PREDICTABLE, WELL-REASONED ANSWER because of the comprehensive and demanding process that the thinker pursues. If we know quite explicitly how to check our thinking as we go, and we are committed to doing so, and we get extensive practice, then we can depend on the results of our thinking being productive. Good thinking produces good results. [Note: Because most “thinking skills” programs lack intellectual standards and do not require a comprehensive process of thinking, the quality of student response is unpredictable, both for the students and for the teacher.]
It is thinking that is responsive to the social and moral imperative to not only enthusiastically argue from alternate and opposing points of view, but also to SEEK AND IDENTIFY WEAKNESSES AND LIMITATIONS IN ONE’S OWN POSITION. When one becomes aware that there are many legitimate points of view, each of which—when deeply thought through—yields some level of insight, then one becomes keenly aware that one’s own thinking, however rich and insightful it may be, however carefully constructed, will not capture everything worth knowing and seeing. [Because most “thinking skills” programs lack intellectual standards, the students are unable to identify weaknesses in their own reasoning nor are they taught to see this as a value to be pursued.]
What Does Comprehensive Critical Thinking Look Like?
Critical Thinking at School
Critical thinking has an appropriate role in virtually every dimension of school learning, very little that we learn that is of value can be learned by automatic, unreflective processes. Textbooks, subject matter, classroom discussion, even relationships with classmates are things to be “figured out” and “assessed.” Let’s look at two students who are each “reading” a passage from a story and see if we can identify the consequences of critical and uncritical reading habits and abilities.
Are We Hitting the Target? Assessing Student Thinking in Reading
Consider the following example of two students engaging in reading the same story. This example is taken from an important article by Stephen Norris and Linda Phillips, “Explanations of Reading Comprehension: Schema Theory and Critical Thinking Theory,” in Teachers College Record, Volume 89, Number 2, Winter 1987. We are privy to conversations between each of the two students, Colleen and Stephen and an experimenter. We are thus invited to reconstruct, from the students’ responses, our own appraisal of the quality of their thinking. The utility of intellectual standards such as clarity, relevance, accuracy, consistency, and depth of thinking come into sharp focus once one begins to assess specific thinking for “quality.”
In what follows we will present episode-by-episode Stephen and Colleen’s thinking aloud as they work through the passage. The experimenter’s questions are given in brackets. We have chosen to make our example detailed, because we see this as the best route for providing specificity to otherwise vague generalizations about the relationship between reading and thinking. To simulate the task for you we present the passage without a title and one episode at a time as was done with the children.
With accelerating change and the increasing complexity of problems facing us at the dawn of the 21st Century, we are striving to compete within the new global economic realities. John Sculley, CEO of Apple Computer, Inc. reported to President-elect Clinton in December of 1992:
Most Americans see our largest corporations going through massive restructurings, layoffs, and downsizing. People know something has changed and they are scared because they don’t fully understand it and they see people they know losing their jobs.They also see their neighbors buying high-quality, lower-priced products from abroad, and they ask why can’t we build these same products or better ones here at home?
The answer is, we can. But only if we have a public education system that will turn out a world-class product. We need an education system that will educate all our students, not just the top 15–20 percent. A highly-skilled work force must begin with a world class public education system. Eventually, the New Economy will touch every industry in our nation. There will be no place to hide!
In the New Economy, low-skilled manual work will be paid less. The United States cannot afford to have the high-skilled work being done somewhere else in the world and end up with the low-wage work. This is not an issue about protectionism. It is an issue about an educational system aligned with the New Economy and a broad educational opportunity for everyone. Maximum flexibility.In the old economy, America had a real advantage because we were rich with natural resources and our large domestic market formed the basis for economies of scale.
In the New Economy, strategic resources no longer just come out of the ground (such as oil, coal, iron, and wheat). The strategic resources are ideas and information that come out of our minds. The result is, as a nation, we have gone from being resource-rich in the old economy to resource-poor in the New Economy almost overnight! Our public education system has not successfully made the shift from teaching the memorization of facts to achieving the learning of critical thinking skills. We are still trapped in a K–12 public education system which is preparing our youth for jobs that no longer exist.
Critical thinking is valuable not only in school but in the world beyond school as well. Increasingly, our ever-changing economy demands abilities and traits characteristic of comprehensive critical thinking. They enable us not only to survive but to thrive. They are essential to the new management structures to which successful businesses will routinely and increasingly turn. Consider the news item opposite, from a small town in Wisconsin. It illustrates well a trend which is going to grow enormously, and that is toward high productivity work-place organizations that “depend on workers who can do more than read, write, and do simple arithmetic, and who bring more to their jobs than reliability and a good attitude. In such organizations, workers are asked to use judgment and make decisions rather than to merely follow directions. Management layers disappear as workers take over many of the tasks that others used to do
Critical thinking cannot be seen, touched, tasted or heard directly, and thus it is readily subject to counterfeit, readily confused with thinking that sounds like, but is not critical thinking, with thinking that will not lead students to success in school and beyond. Critical thinking is readily falsified in the commercial world by those who seek to capitalize on its growing legitimacy. We increasingly need a regular Consumer Report that enables the reader to effectively recognize the counterfeits of good thinking, which are multiplying daily, to help us recognize the latest gimmick du jour. The characteristics of comprehensive critical thinking outlined in this chapter make available just a beginning set of criteria by which professionals and parents can evaluate educational resources in this field.
Educators, business and governmental leaders must begin to distinguish the genuine from the counterfeit, the legitimate from the specious, the incomplete from the comprehensive. Smooth, slick, and shallow thinking are everywhere around us, filled with promises of simple, quick, instant solutions, or misdirecting us into schemes that misspend our own or public monies. Other chapters of this book will provide many examples, principally from the field of education. The reader will doubtless be able to add other examples from his or her own experience.
That we need sound critical thinking to protect ourselves and the public good is intuitively obvious, once we are clear about what critical thinking is and what it can do. Identifying the target precisely, however, is the first step in facing the challenges ahead.
Here are three. These are not by any means the only ones, but they are very common, very basic, and very important.
First Basic Flaw —The lack or misuse of intellectual standardsThis is one of the most common flaws. It derives from the fact that though all of us think, and think continually, we have not been educated to analyze our thinking and assess it. We don’t have explicit standards already in mind to assess our thinking. We may then fall back on “mental process words” to talk about good thinking, words such as analyzing. Though all of us think, and think continually, we have not been educated to analyze our thinking and assess it.
identifying, classifying, and evaluating. These are words that name some of what thinking does. We use our thinking to identify things, to classify them, to analyze them, to apply them, and to evaluate them. It is tempting, then, to think of critical thinking as merely thinking engaged in identification, classification, analysis, application, evaluation, and the like. But it is important to remember that responsible critical thinking requires intellectual standards. Hence, it is not enough to classify, one must do it well, that is, in accord with the appropriate standards and criteria. Misclassification, though a form of classification, is not an ability. The same goes for analysis, application, and evaluation.
It might be helpful to remember that all critical thinking abilities have three parts: a process, an object, and a standard. Here are various critical thinking abilities which can serve as examples. As you read them see if you can identify the intellectual standard in each:
- the ability to evaluate information for its relevance
- the ability to accurately identify assumptions
- the ability to construct plausible inferences
- the ability to identify relevant points of view
- the ability to distinguish significant from insignificant information
The standards used in these examples are “relevance,” “accuracy,” “plausibility,” and “significance.” Each of these standards would, needless to say, have to be contextualized. Nevertheless — and this is the key point — there can be no critical thinking without the use of intellectual standards.
Hence, if an approach to teaching or thinking focuses on the use of mental processes without a critical application of standards to that use, and persuades many to do the same. There can be no critical thinking without the use of intellectual standards. Then, it is an example of pseudo critical thinking. There are in fact many such approaches in use in education today.
Second Basic Flaw — Misconceptions Built Into the System Flaws occur when thinking or an approach to thinking embodies a misconception about the nature of thinking or about what makes for excellence in it. I will explain just two of the most common misconceptions. The first involves confusing reasoned judgment (which is one of the most important modes of thinking leading to the possibility of knowledge) with subjective preference (which is not a basis for attaining knowledge). The second misconception involves confusing recall (which is a lower order use of the mind) with knowledge (which requires higher order thinking). Here are the explanations in brief. See if you can follow the examples and relate them to your experience.
Reasoned Judgment Confused with Subjective PreferenceMany pseudo critical thinking approaches present all judgments as falling into two exclusive and exhaustive categories: fact and opinion. Actually, the kind of judgment most important to educated people and the kind we most want to foster falls into a third, very important, and now almost totally ignored category, that of reasoned judgment. A judge in a court of law is expected to engage in reasoned judgment; that is, the judge is expected not only to render a judgment, but also to base that judgment on sound, relevant evidence and valid legal reasoning. A judge is not expected to base his judgments on his subjective preferences, on his personal opinions, as such. You might put it this way, judgment based on sound reasoning goes beyond, and is never to be equated with, fact alone or mere opinion alone.
Facts are typically used in reasoning, but good reasoning does more than state facts. Furthermore, a position that is well-reasoned is not to be described as simply “opinion.” Of course, we sometimes call the judge’s verdict an “opinion,” but we not only expect, we demand that it be based on relevant and sound reasoning.
Here’s a somewhat different way to put this same point. It is essential when thinking critically to clearly distinguish three different kinds of questions: 1) those with one right answer (factual questions fall into this category), 2) those with better or worse answers (well-reasoned or poorly reasoned answers), and 3) those with as many answers as there are different human preferences (a category in which mere opinion does rule). When questions that require better or worse answers are treated as matters of opinion, pseudo-critical thinking occurs.
Here are examples of the three types: 1) What is the boiling point of lead? 2) How can we best address the most basic and significant economic problems of the nation today? and 3) Which would you prefer, a vacation in the mountains or one at the seashore? Only the third kind of question is a matter of sheer opinion. The second kind is a matter of reasoned judgment — we can rationally evaluate answers to the question (using universal intellectual standards such as clarity, depth, consistency and so forth).
When questions that require better or worse answers are treated as matters of opinion, pseudo critical thinking occurs. Students come, then, to uncritically assume that everyone’s “opinion” is of equal value. Their capacity to appreciate the importance of intellectual standards diminishes, and we can expect to hear questions such as these: What if I don’t like these standards? Why shouldn’t I use my own standards? Don’t I have a right to my own opinion? What if I’m just an emotional person? What if I like to follow my intuition? What if I don’t believe in being “rational?” They then fail to see the difference between offering legitimate reasons and evidence in support of a view and simply asserting the view as true.
The failure to teach students to recognize, value, and respect good reasoning is one of the most significant failings of education today.
Recall Confused With Knowledge. A second common confusion which leads directly to pseudo critical thinking is recall confused with knowledge. As I suggested above this confusion is deeply embedded in the minds of many “educators.” It results from the fact that most instruction involves didactic lectures and most testing relies fundamentally on recall. Educators confuse students recalling what was said in the lecture with knowing the how and the why behind what was said. For example, a teacher might give you information, some of which is true and some of which is not, and you may not know which is which. Another way to see this point is to figure out why we don't think of parrots as gaining any knowledge when they learn to repeat words. Tape recorders get no credit for knowledge either. Do you see the point?
We tend to assume, to carry the point a bit further, that all information in a textbook is correct. Some, of course, is not. We attain genuine knowledge only when the information we possess is not only correct but, additionally, we know that it is and why it is. So, strictly speaking, I don’t know that something is true or correct if I have merely found it asserted to be so in a book. I need to have a greater understanding — for example, I need to know what supports it, what makes it true — to properly be said to know it.
significance of this distinction causes a lot of problems in schooling because many who teach do not really know their own subjects well enough to explain clearly why this or that is so, and why this or that is not so. They know what the textbook says, certainly, but not why the textbook says what it says, or whether what it says is so or not. Having knowledge (for such confused persons) is nothing other than remembering what the textbook said.
Third Basic Flaw — The Misuse of Intellect “Skilled” thinking can easily be used to obfuscate rather than to clarify, to maintain a prejudice rather than to break it down, to aid in the defense of a narrow interest rather than to take into account the public good. If we teach students to think narrowly, without an adequate emphasis on the essential intellectual traits of mind (intellectual humility, intellectual honesty, fairmindedness, etc.) the result can then be the inadvertent cultivation of the manipulator, the propagandist, and the con artist. We unknowingly end up, then, undermining the basic values of education and public service, properly conceived.
It is extremely important to see that intelligence and intellect can be used for ends other than those of gaining “truth” or “insight” or “knowledge.” One can learn to be cunning rather than clever, smooth rather than clear, convincing rather than rationally persuasive, articulate rather than accurate. One can become judgmental rather than gain in judgment. One can confuse confidence with knowledge at the same time that one mistakes arrogance for self-confidence. In each of these cases a counterfeit of a highly desirable trait is developed in place of that trait. There are many people who have learned to be. One can learn to be cunning rather than clever, smooth rather than clear, convincing rather than rationally persuasive, articulate rather than accurate.
skilled in merely appearing to be rational and knowledgeable when, in fact, they are not. Some of these have learned to be smooth, articulate, confident, cunning, and arrogant. They lack rational judgment, but this does not dissuade them from issuing dogmatic judgments and directives. They impress and learn to control others, quite selfishly. Unless we carefully design schooling to serve the “higher” ends of education, it can easily, as it now often does, degenerate into merely serving “lower” ends. When this happens, schooling often does more harm than good. It spreads the influence and resultant harm of pseudo critical thinking.
Intellectual Standards That Apply to Thinking in Every Subject Thinking that is: Thinking that is: Clear vs UnclearPrecise vs ImpreciseSpecific vs VagueAccurate vs InaccurateRelevant vs IrrelevantPlausible vs. ImplausibleConsistent vs InconsistentLogical vs IllogicalDeep vs SuperficialBroad vs NarrowComplete vs IncompleteSignificant vs TrivialAdequate (for purpose) vs InadequateFair vs Biased or One-Sided