What do experts mean when they talk about critical thinking?

Dave Kinkead Jun 8, 2020

Critical thinking is a trendy term at the moment. Well, as much as anything in academia can be trendy. Critical thinking is in high demand - employers demand it, HR managers select for it, and education systems try to develop it.

Perhaps critical thinking is in such demand precisely because there just isn't enough of it. But hold on a minute, if you've followed those links, you might now be wondering ... what bloody hell is critical thinking exactly?

The Cheshire Cat

Critical thinking has been called the Cheshire Cat of Education. It is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away.

Ask three academics to explain what critical thinking is and you are likely to get five different answers.

These definitions range from the long ...

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (Scriven and Paul 1987).

... to the short ...

“Reasonable inquiry and argument” (Kuhn 2015, p. 47).

... from something you do ...

“Skillful, responsible thinking that is conducive to good judgment because it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1988).

... to dispositions you have ...

"An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences" (Glaser 1941).

Now there's nothing wrong with any of these definitions by themselves. A problem arises however, when we try to talk to each other using the same word to mean different things. An even bigger problem arises when we try to teach or develop "critical thinking" but have different or conflicting definitions of it.

You can't learn to ride a bike by reading a book. Skills demand a different mode of education compared to content knowledge, and dispositions and virtues require a different mode again.

How we define critical thinking matters because it determines the nature of our pedagogy. And from the definitions above, it isn't clear how we should develop and teach critical thinking.

How "critical thinking" is used

To get some more clarity on the issue, we decided to dive deeper into the scholarly literature - to see what academics actually thought critical thinking was. We randomly sampled 100 peer-reviewed journal articles from a list of studies published in the last 10 years that contained the phrase 'critical thinking' in their title.

We then ran the definitions of critical thinking contained in these papers through some text analysis to identify some common themes and differences. When we look at a word cloud of these definitions, clear themes emerge.

Word cloud of critical thinking definitions

Amongst academics, critical thinking was primarily conceptualised as either a skill (33%), an ability (26%), a process (26%), or often a combination of these (15%). Critical thinking is concerned with information (29%) or knowledge (25%) which is evaluated (39%), analysed (36%), inferred from (28%) or otherwise judged (28%). Sometimes definitions required this to be purposeful (18%) and/or self-regulated (14%), and a few mentioned metacognition (3%).

Themes in critical thinking definitions

A critical thinking definition we can use

Like the blind men in the dark each of these definitions captures some essence of critical thinking but fails to adequately capture the whole of it. The problem as mentioned earlier, is that these definitions don't make it clear how we should develop and teach critical thinking.

Rather than debate the relative merits of these definitions, we're going to propose a pragmatic one - a usable definition of critical thinking that helps us teach and develop it in students.

So here it is ...

Critical thinking is metacognitive evaluation according to norms of rationality.

That's a bit of a mouthful so let's unpack it bit by bit. Cognition means thinking and meta means relating to itself so metacognition is just thinking about our thinking.

Evaluate means to make a judgment about merit. To judge, we need some kind of standard or criterion (the value in evaluate). That standard is rationality. And by rationality we just mean the classical idea of alignment of belief with action and belief with reasons for those beliefs.

So to be a critical thinker is to be someone who thinks about their thinking, about why they believe those things, about what standards are appropriate for believing those things are 'true' or 'correct', and evaluates their own thinking to see if their beliefs are justified.

This account of critical thinking makes the the job of teaching students to think critically much clearer. It means the first step is to help students become aware of what they are thinking using the language of cognition and values of inquiry.

The next step is to help students evaluate their thinking. This might involve argumentation, logic, dialogue, collaborative inquiry, psychology, and the nature of science. Importantly, it requires that students reflect on what counts as good reasons for belief so that they can justify their own beliefs to themselves and others.

We're pretty sure this won't be the final word what critical thinking is. But if we conceptualise critical thinking as simply metacognitive evaluation according to norms of rationality, then we can use this understanding to better teach it.