During the first week of each class I teach I ask, “Have you heard of critical thinking?” In response, nearly every hand goes up. Next, I ask, “Have any of your professors used the term ‘critical thinking’ in classes?” Most hands go up. Finally, I ask students to write their own, best definition of critical thinking in their notes without looking up anything on the Internet. Then I call on individuals to read their definitions. Most or all are at a loss to say anything specific.
My point is that the term “critical thinking” is often used but seldom defined and it becomes a “buzz word” like terms including as “green” and “ethically sourced.” Yet, critical thinking skills are essential for any participant in our society, and the importance of critical thinking is magnified by the fact that it is essential to the practice of ethical behavior. (For discussion of this symbiotic relationship, see The Thinker’s Guide to Ethical Reasoning: Based on Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.) Therefore, I am writing this essay to provide ground for our conversations with students, colleagues, and friends. I will begin with an introductory definition and give some of the most essential characteristics and practices of critical thinkers.
Defining critical thinking
There is no succinct, globally recognized definition of the term "critical thinking." Recently, I referred to critical thinking in an on-line class in which I participate each week, and a fellow participant asked me “What is critical thinking?” I responded with a brief statement about common characteristics of critical thinking and practices of critical thinkers that I share in discussion with my students. Upon reflection, I realized that it would be helpful for students and others if I were to address the question in writing. So, that is the objective of this essay. As background for my perspective, I have read a several books about it and taken a weeklong workshop on critical thinking with Dr. Richard Paul, founder of the of the Center and Foundation for Critical Thinking.