What does "critical thinking" mean?
A simple definition
According to Oxford Languages, Critical thinking (CT) is "the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment." And according to Google, "Oxford’s English dictionaries are widely regarded as the world’s most authoritative sources on current English."
OK, there you go. That's the answer. You can close the browser window now.
You're still here? You must be genuinely interested in critical thinking. Keep going, then, and you will get to know the real meaning of the phrase "critical thinking."
To start, let's analyze the root. "Critical" comes from the same root as "critic," both of which derive from the ancient Greek κρίνειν (krínein), meaning to judge or to decide. So it's clear that CT involves judgment, just as Oxford told us. In fact, this is the most basic and obvious part of the phrase. So then, we just make sure our judgment is based on objective analysis and evaluation and we're there, right?
The Oxford people did a great job of paring down this broadly-used term to a narrow definition. But there's no way a one-line definition can capture the real-world meaning of this phrase. To really answer this question, we'll need to get meta and apply critical thinking to the concept of "critical thinking."I did something similar with the very relevant Six Hats framework developed by Edward De Bono et al.
Before we get into the finer points, let's consider an extreme example. Critical thinking has become a buzzphrase that can even be used to mean the opposite ("doublespeak"). In his piece Let’s stop trying to teach students critical thinking, Dennis Hayes opined,
“Critical thinking” means indoctrination. When teachers talk about the need to be “critical” they often mean instead that students must “conform”. It is often actually teaching students to be “critical” of their unacceptable ideas and adopt the right ones. Having to support multiculturalism and diversity are the most common of the “correct ideas” that everyone has to adopt. Professional programmes in education, nursing, social work and others often promote this sort of “criticism”. It used to be called “indoctrination”.
If we fail to critically analyze the phrase itself, we risk letting others use it against us.
The Skillsyouneed.com Critical Thinking Skills page acknowledges, "Critical thinking has been the subject of much debate and thought since the time of early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates." The author also points out, "None of us think critically all the time." This is an important point. No one can become a master of CT because we are not capable of exercising critical thought every moment of our lives. But there are great benefits to learning more about CT and putting into practice what we learn.
Once you start looking at the measurement of critical thinking, [...] you’ve got to specify what critical thinking actually is. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus, except that sometimes experts get together and form a consensus among themselves, but that turns out to not be a consensus.
Embedded in that paragraph is a link to a paper that turns out to be very useful for answering this very question, that is, just what is critical thinking? According to the author Martin Davies, professor at the University of Melbourne, it depends on who you ask. But he doesn't stop there.
Davies created a framework to classify the views of various experts on the subject.Davies, M. (2014). A Model of Critical Thinking in Higher Education. In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research (pp. 41–92). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-12835-1_2 Through it, we can gain a unified, high-level understanding. Next time someone speaks about critical thinking, we'll have a much easier time determining what they mean.
Davies studied the views of experts in the field and categorized them by how broad or narrow their views are. Then he illustrated this with a series of concentric circles.
The core circle is labeled Individuals. As the circles expand outward they are labeled Individuals And Dispositions; Individuals And Others; Individuals, Others, Social Relations; and finally Individuals, Others, Social Relations And Creativity. Then he places the expert theories each within the smallest circle that can describe all features of the theory. Inside the Individuals circle is another circle, the smallest. It is labeled Cognitive skills (Argumentation) and the Individuals circle also shares the label Cognitive skills (Argumentation and judgments).
Davies' analysis is complex and, for our purposes, it isn't necessary to fully understand everything he considers in order to create his framework. A few points are useful, though:
- In its narrowest and most basic form, CT refers to cognitive skills, argumentation, and reflection.
- CT can involve skills (like a tool that is used when needed) and propensities (a person habitually applies it).
- Some view CT as an important tool for social change (“critical pedagogy”).
- A hybrid of these views is known as "criticality." Proponents of this view advocate trying to adopt CT in all aspects of one's life, including knowledge, self-reflection, and action.Dunne, G. (2015). Beyond critical thinking to critical being: Criticality in higher education and life. International Journal of Educational Research, 71, 86–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijer.2015.03.003
Let's start making sense of the diagram above.
The inner circles
Davies cites Robert H. Ennis as the foremost example of the thinkers he places in the smallest circle, those who define CT narrowly as "Cognitive skills (Argumentation)," although he notes that Ennis and colleagues are also sympathetic to the dispositional approach. I'll be considering this topic further in this series.If you want to learn more about Ennis you may want to start with the paper Ennis, R.H. (1985). A Logical Basis for Measuring Critical Thinking Skills. Educational Leadership, 43, 44-48.
Davies uses Matthew Lipman as an example of a thinker in the slightly larger "Cognitive skills (Argumentation and judgments)" circle that still falls within those who think of CT as a primarily individual activity.A seminal work authored by Lipman is Lipman, M. (1987). Critical Thinking–What Can It Be? Analytic Teaching, 8.
Davies places Richard Paul solidly on the border between an individual-centered and a social view of CT. He was the founder of The Foundation for Critical Thinking, which foundation's website seems to come up at the top of the search results for pretty much anything involving the keyphrase. Interestingly, the foundation now uses the following as their definition:
Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.
This sounds entirely individual-oriented to me. Pending a deeper investigation, I'm inclined to conclude that the foundation has become more individualistic in its thinking.A seminal work of Paul is Paul, R. (1992). Critical thinking: What, why, and how. New Directions for Community Colleges, 1992, 3-24.
Socially-oriented critical thinking
Barnett and Johnston appear in Davies' next outer circle as representatives of the “criticality” movement circle. They are committed to educating others to participate in the world as critical, engaged citizens. He is careful to note that these thinkers neither want to fully adopt a radical politico-social agenda (as those in the outer circle do), nor to reduce CT to argumentation, judgments and disposition, as inner circle thinkers are inclined.
In the next outer circle he places "the social pedagogues, Friere, Grioux, McLaren and others," adding, "They are firmly located in the circle that commits to social relations being an essential part of radical critical thinking." To them, CT only exists in a wider, social context and individual application is less important.
What about creativity?
Is creativity an integral part of CT? According to Davies, Nicholas Burbules and Rupert Berk would think so. But Davies asserts, "This account of critical thinking in higher education, however, is highly speculative and undeveloped at this point."
How does your current understanding of creative thinking match up with the concentric circle concept above? Have you pictured CT as a narrow, individual-centered activity, or have you mostly encountered it in a group setting? In either case, you would likely find one of the experts above who shares your views.
What it is, what it is not, and what it does
It should be obvious by now that there can be as many definitions of the phrase as there are experts. Should we despair of ever being able to truly wrap our minds around the concept? I don't believe so. The most popular definitions among the experts tend to have certain commonalities.
I won't subject you to a long analysis of the various academic definitions of CT. Instead, I've done it for you, and I'll share the terms that are common among them.
Of course, "judgment" is commonly used, as the etymology of the phrase attests. Other common nouns used to describe CT include:
That last one surprised me a bit but it shouldn't have. Anything that strives for higher quality, as CT does, must have standards.
Other nouns that often appear in such definitions are knowledge, evaluation, intellectual capacity, pattern, decision, rationality, and logic. Adjectives used include reflective, novel, self-directed, and effective.
With such broad meaning, it's often easier to say what it is not rather than what it is. Davies masterfully illustrated this by comparing CT to similar concepts. I've separated these concepts into categories to help us keep track of them. We'll look at contrasting concepts; closely connected, but not identical concepts; concepts with an asymmetrical relationship with "critical thinking"; and elements that are broader or narrower in scope.
CT is not purposeless thinking, random thinking, accidental or unintentional thinking, or any kind of thinking in which you simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to.
Asymmetrically related concepts
Good thinking and independent thinking may include CT, but they are not the same. Likewise, rational thinking is not the same as critical thinking. although CT is a facet of what it means to be “rational.” Problem-solving and CT often occur together but neither is intrinsic to the other. Likewise with decision making.
Higher-order thinking is an even broader, more vaguely defined term. While it clearly includes CT, the two should not be confused.
Logical, reflective, or metacognitive thinking are all components of creative thinking. A part, obviously, does not equal the whole.
As discussed above, some experts, but not most, consider creative thinking to be integral to CT. However, creativity involves generating ideas, while CT is associated with analyzing and appraising those ideas.
Finally, Davies cites ‘Intuitive’ thinking as another example of an ambiguous term that is not the same as critical thinking.
To round out our consideration of the facts of creative thinking, here are some things that experts describe as the results:
Creative thinking allows people to logically process sophisticated information while viewing an issue from many sides. It enables conclusions that are more solidly based. The thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking. In the minds of some, CT is a cornerstone of individual civic engagement and economic success.
To be continued
Now you are as well-equipped as an expert to discuss the height and depth and breadth of creative thinking. But in order to really benefit from this knowledge, we'll need to answer a couple more questions.
Future blog posts will consider the questions: