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Critical Thinking: What is Critical Thinking?

Defining critical thinking

People have been trying to articulate a clear, concise definition of critical thinking for a long time.  Here is what some have said about it:

  • Francis Bacon, the great English philosopher, statesman and advocate of the scientific method, wrote In 1605, “Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture.”
  • Robert H. Ennis, who published a seminal paper on critical thinking in 1962, defines critical thinking as “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.” 
  • Philosopher and educator, Matthew Lipman, wrote in 1988 that critical thinking is “skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgement because it (1) relies upon criteria, (2) is self-correcting, and (3) is sensitive to context.”
  • At the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987, Richard Paul, an internationally recognized authority on critical thinking, and Michael Scriven, ex-President of the American Educational Research Association and of the American Evaluation Association,  presented a statement defining critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
  • In Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction (1990), more commonly cited as The Delphi Report , the American Philosophical Association defined critical thinking as “the process of purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based.”
  • Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and a prominent authority on critical thinking who is current president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking and Executive Director of the Center for Critical Thinking, writes, “Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.”

What does this Mean to the Educator?

So, what does this mean to the educator who has been informed that the instruction and assessment of critical thinking is now to be implemented in his or her course curriculum?  Most of these definitions seem credible; what do they have in common that can be applicable –and measurable—in our own classes?  In the simplest terms, we might say that critical thinking

  1. is a self-conscious, deliberate process,

  2. that is based on elements of reasoning,

  3. applied to universal intellectual standards,

  4. and produces some kind of result.

Certainly, the actual process of thinking is much more complex than can be expressed in a sentence or two. However, understanding the concept is vital and more useful for instruction than a single definition, and getting a handle on the idea is the first step in recognizing and encouraging the habits of critical thinking in ourselves and our students.    

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