What is Critical Thinking anyway?

Critical thinking is a lot more than problem solving and thinking deeply

Peter Ellerton Peter Ellerton Feb 3, 2020

There are many different definitions of critical thinking. Some definitions suggest it's just about being able to solve problems or puzzles. Other definitions suggest that critical thinking really shines in complex discipline contexts. In other words, those people who are able to crack difficult problems must be good critical thinkers.

Because of this perceived connection between critical thinking and complex subject matter, there are also some definitions that equate expertise with critical thinking. It is possible, however, to be working in quite sophisticated areas without necessarily employing much critical thinking at all. Critical thinking is not just about thinking in context, it's also about making your thinking itself an object of study.

The thing that critical thinkers are most critical about the quality of their thinking. While it's true they may be thinking about their subject area, they are also aware of the inferences they are drawing, of the need to develop broader perspectives, of the desire for clarity, accuracy and precision in their work, of needing information to be both relevant and significant and so on.

Cognitive Skills

Cognitive skills include justification, analysis, interpretation, synthesis, evaluation, explanation and identify. They also include creative skills such as, speculate, generate and hypothesise. it's important to realise that things such as problem-solving and decision-making are not cognitive skills as such. These things are processes that require cognitive skills, but are in themselves something different. To effectively solve problems or make decisions, we need skills such as analysis, evaluation and justification. Problem-solving and decision-making are processes in much the same way that creativity is a process.

Teaching students how to use these cognitive skills requires much more than providing them with the definition of the skill. It even requires more than simply giving them examples of these skills action. We need to think of the teaching of cognitive skills as more like coaching than either defining or illustrating. In other words, we need to get students to do these skills so that we can feedback on how well they are being done.

Affective Dispositions or virtues

A disposition is a tendency to behave in certain ways under certain circumstances. Our hope is that our students that will develop a range of dispositions, or habits of mind, that make critical thinking a more reflexive action. But I would argue that dispositions or habits of mind are not enough. I do not want my students to simply be reactive or habitual. I wish them to behave in ways that sometimes may go against their dispositions or habits because they know that is how they ought to behave. Knowing why one ought to behave, or think, in a certain way best describes a virtue.

Critical thinkers are virtuous thinkers. The virtues we wish to create include open-mindedness, perseverance, tolerance of other ideas, resilience, intellectual honesty, intellectual humility and intellectual integrity. But how do we create these virtues through our everyday interaction with students in the classroom. This is a critical question that Teaching for Thinking aims to answer.

Values of Inquiry

The things that we value about something give us the means of constructing criteria for evaluation. Value is the root of the word evaluation. But what do we value ineffective thinking? One way to answer this question is to realise that inquiry and thinking are inseparable. When we are thinking we are inquiring and when we are inquiring we are thinking. What we value in thinking is therefore what we value in inquiry. The things that we value in inquiry include values such as clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, breath, depth and coherence.

Metacognitive Evaluation

There are, arguably, two criteria that must be met if we are to say that someone is thinking critically, or at least is capable of doing so. The first criteria is that we must be able to think about our thinking, to be aware of the kind of thinking we are doing. This is generally what we mean in education when we speak of "metacognition". But it's not enough that we are aware of our thinking or simply give it some attention for our thinking to be called critical. We must also have the means to evaluate that thinking. We must be able to apply some kind of criteria or standards about what makes for good thinking and recognise bad thinking.

Critical thinking then is both metacognitive and evaluative.