During the first week of class each semester, 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 definition of critical thinking in
their notes without looking up anything on
the Internet, and 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 such as “green,” "natural," 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 conversations about it. I will begin with an introductory definition and discuss several essential characteristics and practices of critical thinkers.
Defining critical thinking
Recently, a friend asked me “What is critical thinking?”, and I responded with a brief statement about its characteristics while acknowledging that I cannot give a succinct, universally-recognized definition. Upon reflection, I decided that it would be helpful to respond to her question in an essay. As background for my perspective, I have read a several books and taken a weeklong workshop about critical thinking with Dr. Richard Paul, founder of the of the Center and Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Intellectual Standards Practiced by Critical Thinkers:
Critical thinkers adhere to some commonly recognized standards. The list I use comes from the work of Dr. Richard Paul who spoke of universal intellectual standards requiring the pursuit of that which is clear, accurate, precise, relevant, broad, in-depth, logical, significant, and fair. https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/richard-paul-memorial/1231. Of course, Dr. Paul recognized that this list is not a comprehensive list.. Yet, it provides a solid starting point. Therefore, I include the list on the syllabus for each class I teach, and I remind students that I use these standards as I evaluate their papers and answers on exams.
Characteristics of Critical Thinkers' Thoughts, Speech, and Writing:
In addition to adhering to intellectual standards, critical thinkers exhibit common characteristics in their thinking, speaking, and writing. Here are three important ones: [i]
First, a critical thinker is intellectually humble. This aligns with what I have learned in life: “The more I know, the more I know that I don’t know.” The concept has been attributed to Aristotle and, later, to Einstein and others. (See https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/46282/did-aristotle-say-the-more-you-know for a discussion of the origins of this phrase and similar phrases.). When we acknowledge that we don’t know, we broaden our lenses and are open to more learning. Moreover, we avoid overconfidence in our knowledge an abilities.[ii]
Second, a critical thinker avoids mere opinion and considers multiple perspectives before reaching a well-reasoned judgment. Here are two examples of practices I use in class to encourage students to do that. First, I assign only a few articles that I have written, because I want students to consider the perspectives of others. I have never written a textbook to sell to my students because, in using it, I would be missing the opportunity to expose students to differing perspectives. Similarly, instead of using a textbook by one author, we use articles and books by multiple authors. I add my viewpoint through lectures and class discussion.
Another tool that promotes critical thinking is my use of “informed contributions.” After reading a book for our class, each student finds a current news article to provide additional background. That article can support or contest the assertions made in the book, or it can provide an update on a topic raised in the book. The student writes a short paper summarizing the article, explaining its relevance to our class, and critiquing it. In class discussion, the student gives a brief summary of his or her paper. Thus, students choose materials for learning, and everyone learns about the perspectives of multiple authors. By hearing about what classmates have read studied, I am encouraging students to avoid relying on one person, radio or television station, newspaper, website, or similar.
Third, a critical thinker “Asks the right questions.” That means he or she knows enough about an issue or topic to be able to ask questions that will elicit the information needed to reach a well-reasoned judgment. (To explore this concept see Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, by Stuart M. Keeley and M. Neil Browne.)
As a teacher, I strive to help my students develop critical thinking skills that they can use throughout life. In this essay, I have introduced four concepts to help learners understand the nature of critical thinking. To begin, a critical thinker adheres to widely recognized intellectual standards. Additionally, a critical thinker exhibits at least three characteristics in their thinking. First, a critical thinker is intellectually humble. Second, the critical thinker avoids mere opinion and examines multiple perspectives before reaching a well-reasoned judgment. Third, the critical thinker “asks the right questions” to elicit relevant information that enables the thinker to reach that well-reasoned judgment.
I have written this article because many people use the term “critical thinking” without having a clear definition. Therefore, this essay provides a common a starting point for discussion.
Copyright ©2022, for the photo and words by Paulette L. Stenzel, Professor Emerita, Michigan State University.
P.S. I cannot always find a photo that addresses the topic of my blog post, so this one is "for fun." The rowboat is part of an art installation in Douglas, Michigan as of June 2022.
[i] Just as there is no one precise definition of critical thinking, there is no universally recognized list of traits. For example, here is a link to list of traits of a critical thinker compiled by Lee Crockett of Future Focused Learning: http://blog.futurefocusedlearning.net/7-characteristics-effective-critical-thinkers
[ii] The Dunning-Kruger effect is relevant here. It “is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills.” See https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dunning-kruger-effect for discussion of the Dunning Kruger effect.