Critical Thinking

By Nathan Woods

Humans are not always good thinkers. We discriminate against ‘others’, conform, blindly obey, exaggerate our own good intentions, and see evil in those who disagree with us. However, we also have the potential to take control of our thinking – to examine it and improve it. By learning to think critically we can use our intelligence to create a better world, and to prevent suffering. .  

The Components of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is not, as it is often portrayed, a negative or destructive form of thinking aimed at finding fault in others’ ideas; rather it is a way of strengthening and improving thinking in order to develop accurate and reliable knowledge  (Lipman, 1988; Paul, 2005; Van-Gelder, 2005). Critical thinking is purposeful and reflective – it involves thinking about thinking in order to analyze it, evaluate it, and improve it (Kuhn, 1999; Paul, 2005). Critical thinkers reflect on all aspects of their thinking: its purposes; the contexts in which it occurs; and the extent to which it meets relevant intellectual standards. Critical thinkers draw on a range of intellectual resources and dispositions. They are fair and open-minded, honest, autonomous, and courageous. Good critical thinkers apply a range of thinking skills, such as reasoning, analysing, evaluating, and synthesising information. Critical thinkers are also knowledgable – they know how to draw on their knowledge, how to examine it and extend it, and how to think with and through it (Bailin, Case, Coombs et al., 1999; Facione, 1998; Siegel, 1999; Villalba, 2011).

What standards apply to critical thinking?

According to Paul and Elder (2010) there are eight universal intellectual standards that apply to critical thinking: clarity; accuracy; precision; relevance; depth; breadth; logic; and, fairness. These standards measure a thinker’s ability to put their intellectual resources to good use. The standards work together, so the presence of one may be undermined by the absence of another (Paul & Elder, 2010). For instance, an argument might be accurate, but lack depth, and be one-sided (and therefore unfair). Critical thinkers are aware of these standards and use them to monitor the quality of their thinking. For example, the claim that “there were two civilian casualties after a missile exploded into a crowded school” is clear enough, and precise, but possibly inaccurate. In encountering such a statement a critical thinker would be prompted to think again and to seek evidence to substantiate the claim. According to Paul and Elder (2010), other standards are often inappropriately conflated with critical thinking standards. For example, a politician’s ability to speak emotively or persuasively might be confused with his or her ability to think broadly and deeply.

Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking skills are cognitive processes that underlie the performance of critical thinking tasks (Bailin, Coombs et al., 1999; Facione, 1998; Siegel, 1985). Some of the thinking skills that are cited frequently in the literature include: explanation; analysis; interpretation; evaluation; and reasoning (Facione, 1998). The skills of informal logic are also key components of critical thinking (Ennis, 1993; Robinson, 2010). Fogelin (1978) described informal logic as the close and systematic analysis and evaluation of arguments, as they are expressed in rich, complex, and diverse language acts. Courses in informal logic often incorporate practice in analyzing the soundness, truth and validity of arguments, as well as practice in identifying logical fallacies, such as ad hominems, and appeals to authority (Fogelin, 1978).

However, the word ‘skill’, in the context of critical thinking, describes the product of cognitive processes rather than the processes themselves (Bailin, Case, & Daniels, 1999). It is impossible to peer inside someone’s head while he or she is thinking and describe what an analysis or an evaluation actually looks like. Rather, when an analysis or an evaluation is produced we infer that some corresponding physical process has taken place. This is an important distinction as one of the more enduring controversies in the domain of critical thinking relates to the nature of cognitive skills – what they are, how they interact with knowledge, and whether or not they can be transferred form one context to another (Davies, 2006; Ennis, 1993; McPeck, 1990; Moore, 2004; Perkins, Jay, & Tishman, 1993; Robinson, 2010). This controversy is discussed later.

Critical Thinking Dispositions

Critical thinking dispositions (sometimes referred to as attitudes, or habits of mind) are enduring tendencies that motivate thinkers to think critically (Bailin, Coombs et al., 1999; Crick, 2008; Facione & Giancarlo, 1996; Perkins et al., 1993; Siegel, 1999). In the same way that a glass has a disposition to shatter when struck by a hammer, individual humans possesses certain dispositions that motivate them to think critically when presented with intellectual challenges. Some of the thinking dispositions that are frequently cited in the literature include: curiosity, open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, intellectual honesty, courage and independence. During the 1990s instructional efforts emphasizing thinking dispositions became increasingly popular, as experts began to realize that critical thinking skills alone would not lead to critical thinking if individuals were not motivated to use them.

Knowledge and Critical Thinking

Knowledge plays an important role in critical thinking – it provides a lens through which a person ‘sees’ what is relevant and what is possible in relation to a particular thinking challenge (Kuhn, 1999; Paul & Elder, 2010; Willingham, 2008). According to Paul (2005), teaching students to think well requires helping them to acquire substantial knowledge. Paul defined ‘substantial’ knowledge as knowledge that is “foundational, significant, and useful” (2005, p. 31) within a particular domain of inquiry. He suggested that, “Acquiring substantial knowledge is equivalent to acquiring effective organizers for the mind that enable us to weave everything we learn into a tapestry, a system, an integrated whole” (2005, p. 31). For example, when evaluating the strength of an economic policy, a critical thinker will draw on his or her knowledge of economic theories, historical context, and human nature. Obviously, background knowledge that is inaccurate, or biased can have a detrimental impact on critical thinking (Willingham, 2008).

According to Willingham (2008), relevant background knowledge enables experts in a particular domain to become familiar with the “deep structures” (2008, p. 22) of particular problem types. Whereas a novice may be distracted, or overwhelmed, by differences in the surface features of problems, an expert will more easily identify a problem’s deep structure and therefore be able to deploy “the right type of thinking at the right time” (Willingham, 2008, p. 22).

According to Kuhn and Felton (2007), meta-knowing, knowing about one’s own and others knowing”, is fundamental to critical thinking. Kuhn (1999) identified three components of meta-knowing: meta-strategic knowing; meta-cognitive knowing; and epistemological knowing. Meta-strategic knowledge involves having knowledge of the cognitive strategies one uses – what they are and when it is best to deploy them. Meta-cognitive knowing involves knowing about one’s knowledge – what one knows, and the relationships between one’s beliefs and the evidence that supports them. Epistemological knowledge involves knowledge about knowledge – what it is and how it is acquired (Kuhn, 1999).

Kuhn (1999) suggested that epistemological knowledge was particularly important to critical thinking because a person’s epistemological understandings can influence his or her attitudes (or dispositions) towards critical thinking. She identified four distinct developmental phases related to epistemological understanding: a pre-absolutist phase where assertions are equated with reality; the absolutist phase where knowledge is seen to be located in the external world, awaiting discovery and knowable through direct apprehension; the multiplist phase where beliefs are seen as relative, subject to personal experience and not open to objective criticism; and the evaluative phase where it is understood that some views are more right than others, and that judgment, evaluation, and reasoned debate is the path to informed understanding (Kuhn, 1999). Reaching the evaluative stage is conducive to critical thinking because when one believes it is possible to arrive at better, more reliable knowledge through critical thinking, one is more likely to value such knowledge and want to acquire it.

Is Critical Thinking: General or Specific?

A point of contention in the literature is whether critical thinking should be viewed as a domain-general or domain-specific ability (Ennis, 1993; McPeck et al., 1989; Moore, 2004; Robinson, 2010). Scholars have generally agreed that background knowledge is required for critical thinking to occur; however, the extent to which domain-specific knowledge and critical thinking skills can be separated has been hotly debated.

Ennis (1993) claimed that there are important and powerful critical thinking skills that transcend specific domains of knowledge. He pointed out that in ‘real life’ situations people often think critically about things of which they have little subject-specific knowledge. This, he believed, indicated the existence of general critical thinking abilities (1993).

In contrast, McPeck (1990) argued that critical thinking is a broad term incorporating diverse forms of thinking. McPeck acknowledged there were some generic critical thinking abilities; however, the more general a thinking ability was the more “trivially obvious” (1990, p. 12) he thought it was, whereas the more “suggestive” (1990, p. 12), and “useful” (1990, p. 12), thinking skills were “limited to specific domains or narrower areas of application” (1990, p. 12). McPeck (1990) criticized courses that taught general critical thinking skills on the grounds that it was not clear what students would learn from such a course: would it enable them “to solve mathematics or physics problems without having learned mathematics or physics?” .

Recently, several key thinkers in the field of critical thinking have argued that the domain-specific versus domain-general debate is misconceived (Davies, 2006; Dean & Kuhn, 2003; Siegel, 1999). Davies suggested that the debate rested upon a “fallacy of the false alternative” (2006, p. 179). He pointed out that both points of view, domain-general and domain-specific, were “complementary and alternative means to understanding ‘critical thinking’” (2006, p. 179). To suggest that critical thinking must either be domain-general or domain-specific was comparable to asking someone if they would prefer either milk or sugar in their coffee, ruling out the possibility that they could have both.

Siegel (1999) argued that to think critically students needed to understand both general and field-specific criteria of reason assessment, otherwise they would “have only the most shallow epistemology of the subject – here we regard this sort of thing as a good reason, without understanding why this sort of thing should count as a good reason here” (1999, p. 76). Kuhn (1999) suggested that a new, “situated-cognition perspective” (1999, p. 26) had moved the debate on, so that it was no longer about a set of “mental competencies that reside in individual heads”; rather, it was now a discussion that understood “intellectual skills as social practices exercised and shared within a community” .

Why Is Critical Thinking Important?

Critical thinking is important because it provides a means for individuals to exercise their right to self-determination. According to Siegel, “to foster critical thinking in students is the only way in which students are treated with respect as persons…[This means that] we strive to enable them to think for themselves, competently and well, rather than to deny them the fundamental ability to determine for themselves, to the greatest extent possible, the contours of their own minds” (1999, p. 143).Likewise, Facione pointed out the critical thinking helped people to “accomplish their purposes” (1998, p. 23), it led them “away from naïve acceptance of authority” (1998, p. 23) and “above self-defeating relativism” (1998, p. 23).

Critical thinking is an intrinsic good; it enables a person to resist intellectual coercion and manipulation, and therefore helps them to maintain their intellectual freedom and autonomy. Critical thinking also enables people to become successful, contributing members of society. Paul and Elder (2010), pointed out that, “When intellectual virtues are actively and explicitly taught across the academic institution, students develop as fair-minded critical thinkers, ultimately leading to fair-minded critical societies” (2010, p. 30). Facione (1998) suggested that in order to participate in democratic processes, citizens needed to deliberate on “what to believe and what to reject” (1998, p. 23). Therefore, “in a society that does not liberate it citizens to think critically, it would be madness to advocate democratic forms of government” (1998, p. 23).Furthermore, in the workplace, employees and business owners who are able to go beyond following orders, agreeing with what they are told, or relying on old solutions to new problems, are more likely to make a valuable contribution to their companies, and to society in general.

Finally, critical thinking helps people to be academically successful (Peter Facione, 1998; Siegel, 1985). According to Siegel, the academic traditions “incorporate and rely upon critical thinking; mastering or being initiated into the former both requires, and is basic to the fostering and enhancement of the later” (1985, p. 143). Facione argued that “people who are weak critical thinkers, who lack the dispositions and skills [of critical thinking]…cannot be said to be liberally educated, regardless of the academic degrees they may hold” (1998, p. 22). True academic success is about more than simply becoming familiar with the tools and concepts of particular disciplines; it is about understanding and utilizing those tools and concepts critically. A person who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of a discipline cannot be considered academically successful if he or she can only repeat others’ ideas without thinking critically about them.

Conclusion

There are many important aims of education – well-being, creativity, confidence, empathy – but it is crucial that we place critical thinking at the heart of New Zealand’s education policy. Rapid changes in social and cultural conditions, combined with our rapidly advancing technological capability provides exciting opportunities, as well as great dangers – dangers that place us on the brink of social, economic, and environmental catastrophe. We must learn to think critically if we wish to prevent suffering on a scale never before seen in human history. Human minds are not naturally good or bad, rational or irrational; rather, they are complex and multifaceted and it is up to us to make the most of them. The human capacity to think clearly and critically is a powerful force. It helps us to see beneath the surface of things, to understand the world as it is, and to imagine how it could be. Educators need to understand critical thinking – what it is, how it is fostered, and why it is important.

References

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Robinson, S. (2010). Teaching logic and teaching critical thinking: revisiting McPeck. Higher Education Research & Development, 30(3), 275-287. Siegel, H. (1985). Educating reason. Informal Logic, 7(2), 69-81.

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