Conceptualizing critical thinking

Judging by the attention given to critical thinking in educational journals and in the official documents of governing agencies, support for teaching critical thinking at all levels of education is extremely strong in North America and the UK. But, agreement about teaching critical thinking persists only so long as theorists remain at the level of abstract discussion and permit their use of the term to remain vague. As soon as they begin to spell out in more concrete terms what critical thinking consists in, what educational attainments are required if one is to be a critical thinker, and what means are likely to be efficacious in teaching persons to think critically, that is to say, as soon as they interpret the term in such a way as to provide a clear conception of critical thinking, agreement evaporates.

Developing a conception of critical thinking

Any defensible conception must construe critical thinking in such a way as to capture most of what people have in mind when they claim that developing critical thinking is an important goal of education. That is to say, it must be true to the core meaning of the educator’s basic concept of critical thinking. Should it fail in this regard, it is largely irrelevant to educators concerned with developing critical thinking. What, then, do critical thinking advocates generally have in mind when they talk about critical thinking? Perhaps the best way of approaching this question is to consider what sorts of thinking educators typically would and would not judge to be critical thinking. They would not regard daydreaming, musing and wool-gathering as forms of critical thinking. This suggests that thinking regarded as critical thinking must be directed toward some end or purpose, such as answering a question, making a decision, solving a problem, resolving an issue, devising a plan, or carrying out a project.

Roughly speaking, thinking that serves such purposes can be characterized as thinking aimed at forming a judgement, i.e. making up one’s mind about what to believe or do. Not just any thinking aimed at deciding what to believe or do can count as critical thinking, however. If the thinking is sloppy, superficial, careless, rash or naive, most advocates of critical thinking would not agree that it is critical thinking. For example, someone who comes to believe on the basis of poor or irrelevant reasons, on the authority of someone whose credibility is questionable, or without attempting to assess the evidence relevant to the truth of the belief, would not usually be regarded as thinking critically. This suggests that thinking about what to believe or do must meet appropriate standards if it is to be regarded as critical thinking. Moreover, these standards cannot be met merely by accident or happenstance. If someone were inadvertently to fulfill relevant standards in their thinking, but had not intentionally attempted to fulfill them, they would not generally be regarded as having engaged in critical thinking. To be engaged in critical thinking one must be aware that there are such standards and must be striving to fulfill them. This is not to say, of course, that a person engaged in thinking critically is necessarily able to state or verbally explicate the relevant standards.

To summarize, critical thinking, as it is typically understood by educators, has at least these three features:

  1. it is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do; •
  2. the person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking; and•
  3. the thinking fulfils the relevant standards to some threshold level.

Fulfilling relevant standards in thinking is, of course, not an all or nothing a€ air. This being the case, we sometimes talk about good and poor critical thinking to indicate the degree of fulfillment of relevant standards. When someone’s thinking is very poor we may simply say that the person is not thinking critically, even though he or she may be striving to fulfill the relevant standards. This basic concept of critical thinking possesses several kinds of vagueness. It is vague with respect to the range of judgements that can be the subject of critical thinking, the nature of the standards that must be met by critical thinking, and the nature of the activities, operations or procedures through which these standards may be fulfilled. Because of this vagueness, developing a conception of critical thinking requires a number of decisions. One important decision concerns how to describe what a person does in thinking critically, i.e. the `activities’ such thinking involves. Currently, popular conceptions suggest three possible choices: following a particular procedure, using specific mental processes, and accomplishing certain intellectual tasks. In our earlier paper in this issue of JCS, we argued that critical thinking cannot be adequately described in terms of the use of specific mental processes or the following of a particular procedure. In our view, critical thinking must be described in terms of adequately accomplishing certain intellectual tasks if we are to do justice to the fact that our basic concept of critical thinking is essentially a normative notion, i.e. that critical thinking is in some sense good thinking. It is the quality of the thinking, not the processes of thinking, which distinguishes critical from uncritical thinking. In addition to deciding how to describe critical thinking activities and standards, we need to decide the boundaries of critical thinking, i.e. what sorts of tasks we see critical thinking as encompassing. Critical thinking is sometimes contrasted with problem solving, decision-making, issue analysis and inquiry. Terms such as `problem solving’ and `decision-making’ designate rather general kinds of thinking tasks. But, carrying out these tasks typically requires one to make a number of judgements, and the thinking that leads to these judgements can either fulfill or fail to fulfill relevant standards of good thinking. One may solve a problem in a critical or an uncritical manner. So, problem solving, decision making, etc., are best seen as arenas in which critical thinking should take place rather than as other kinds of thinking to be contrasted with critical thinking.  Some conceptions of critical thinking portray critical and creative thinking as not only different, but mutually exclusive kinds of thinking. We believe there are very good reasons for not adopting such a view. One may be engaged in thinking, the purpose of which is to make up one’s mind about what to do in creating a poem, a play or a painting, and at the same time be striving to meet the standards appropriate to such thinking. It is a historical fact that although novel ideas may occasionally arise through accident, for the most part scientific discoveries, technological inventions and artistic performances require the exercise of judgement based on critical thought. In other words, one may think critically while engaged in creative thinking. Similarly, one may need to be creative in thinking critically about problems and issues. Critical thinking often requires imagining possible consequences, generating original approaches and identifying alternative perspectives. Thus, creativity plays an important role in thinking critically.


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