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Why Is Critical Thinking Important? A Survival Guide

Updated: December 7, 2023

Published: April 2, 2020

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Why is critical thinking important? The decisions that you make affect your quality of life. And if you want to ensure that you live your best, most successful and happy life, you’re going to want to make conscious choices. That can be done with a simple thing known as critical thinking. Here’s how to improve your critical thinking skills and make decisions that you won’t regret.

What Is Critical Thinking?

You’ve surely heard of critical thinking, but you might not be entirely sure what it really means, and that’s because there are many definitions. For the most part, however, we think of critical thinking as the process of analyzing facts in order to form a judgment. Basically, it’s thinking about thinking.

How Has The Definition Evolved Over Time?

The first time critical thinking was documented is believed to be in the teachings of Socrates , recorded by Plato. But throughout history, the definition has changed.

Today it is best understood by philosophers and psychologists and it’s believed to be a highly complex concept. Some insightful modern-day critical thinking definitions include :

  • “Reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.”
  • “Deciding what’s true and what you should do.”

The Importance Of Critical Thinking

Why is critical thinking important? Good question! Here are a few undeniable reasons why it’s crucial to have these skills.

1. Critical Thinking Is Universal

Critical thinking is a domain-general thinking skill. What does this mean? It means that no matter what path or profession you pursue, these skills will always be relevant and will always be beneficial to your success. They are not specific to any field.

2. Crucial For The Economy

Our future depends on technology, information, and innovation. Critical thinking is needed for our fast-growing economies, to solve problems as quickly and as effectively as possible.

3. Improves Language & Presentation Skills

In order to best express ourselves, we need to know how to think clearly and systematically — meaning practice critical thinking! Critical thinking also means knowing how to break down texts, and in turn, improve our ability to comprehend.

4. Promotes Creativity

By practicing critical thinking, we are allowing ourselves not only to solve problems but also to come up with new and creative ideas to do so. Critical thinking allows us to analyze these ideas and adjust them accordingly.

5. Important For Self-Reflection

Without critical thinking, how can we really live a meaningful life? We need this skill to self-reflect and justify our ways of life and opinions. Critical thinking provides us with the tools to evaluate ourselves in the way that we need to.

Woman deep into thought as she looks out the window, using her critical thinking skills to do some self-reflection.

6. The Basis Of Science & Democracy

In order to have a democracy and to prove scientific facts, we need critical thinking in the world. Theories must be backed up with knowledge. In order for a society to effectively function, its citizens need to establish opinions about what’s right and wrong (by using critical thinking!).

Benefits Of Critical Thinking

We know that critical thinking is good for society as a whole, but what are some benefits of critical thinking on an individual level? Why is critical thinking important for us?

1. Key For Career Success

Critical thinking is crucial for many career paths. Not just for scientists, but lawyers , doctors, reporters, engineers , accountants, and analysts (among many others) all have to use critical thinking in their positions. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, critical thinking is one of the most desirable skills to have in the workforce, as it helps analyze information, think outside the box, solve problems with innovative solutions, and plan systematically.

2. Better Decision Making

There’s no doubt about it — critical thinkers make the best choices. Critical thinking helps us deal with everyday problems as they come our way, and very often this thought process is even done subconsciously. It helps us think independently and trust our gut feeling.

3. Can Make You Happier!

While this often goes unnoticed, being in touch with yourself and having a deep understanding of why you think the way you think can really make you happier. Critical thinking can help you better understand yourself, and in turn, help you avoid any kind of negative or limiting beliefs, and focus more on your strengths. Being able to share your thoughts can increase your quality of life.

4. Form Well-Informed Opinions

There is no shortage of information coming at us from all angles. And that’s exactly why we need to use our critical thinking skills and decide for ourselves what to believe. Critical thinking allows us to ensure that our opinions are based on the facts, and help us sort through all that extra noise.

5. Better Citizens

One of the most inspiring critical thinking quotes is by former US president Thomas Jefferson: “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” What Jefferson is stressing to us here is that critical thinkers make better citizens, as they are able to see the entire picture without getting sucked into biases and propaganda.

6. Improves Relationships

While you may be convinced that being a critical thinker is bound to cause you problems in relationships, this really couldn’t be less true! Being a critical thinker can allow you to better understand the perspective of others, and can help you become more open-minded towards different views.

7. Promotes Curiosity

Critical thinkers are constantly curious about all kinds of things in life, and tend to have a wide range of interests. Critical thinking means constantly asking questions and wanting to know more, about why, what, who, where, when, and everything else that can help them make sense of a situation or concept, never taking anything at face value.

8. Allows For Creativity

Critical thinkers are also highly creative thinkers, and see themselves as limitless when it comes to possibilities. They are constantly looking to take things further, which is crucial in the workforce.

9. Enhances Problem Solving Skills

Those with critical thinking skills tend to solve problems as part of their natural instinct. Critical thinkers are patient and committed to solving the problem, similar to Albert Einstein, one of the best critical thinking examples, who said “It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” Critical thinkers’ enhanced problem-solving skills makes them better at their jobs and better at solving the world’s biggest problems. Like Einstein, they have the potential to literally change the world.

10. An Activity For The Mind

Just like our muscles, in order for them to be strong, our mind also needs to be exercised and challenged. It’s safe to say that critical thinking is almost like an activity for the mind — and it needs to be practiced. Critical thinking encourages the development of many crucial skills such as logical thinking, decision making, and open-mindness.

11. Creates Independence

When we think critically, we think on our own as we trust ourselves more. Critical thinking is key to creating independence, and encouraging students to make their own decisions and form their own opinions.

12. Crucial Life Skill

Critical thinking is crucial not just for learning, but for life overall! Education isn’t just a way to prepare ourselves for life, but it’s pretty much life itself. Learning is a lifelong process that we go through each and every day.

How to Think Critically

Now that you know the benefits of thinking critically, how do you actually do it?

How To Improve Your Critical Thinking

  • Define Your Question: When it comes to critical thinking, it’s important to always keep your goal in mind. Know what you’re trying to achieve, and then figure out how to best get there.
  • Gather Reliable Information: Make sure that you’re using sources you can trust — biases aside. That’s how a real critical thinker operates!
  • Ask The Right Questions: We all know the importance of questions, but be sure that you’re asking the right questions that are going to get you to your answer.
  • Look Short & Long Term: When coming up with solutions, think about both the short- and long-term consequences. Both of them are significant in the equation.
  • Explore All Sides: There is never just one simple answer, and nothing is black or white. Explore all options and think outside of the box before you come to any conclusions.

How Is Critical Thinking Developed At School?

Critical thinking is developed in nearly everything we do. However, much of this important skill is encouraged to be practiced at school, and rightfully so! Critical thinking goes beyond just thinking clearly — it’s also about thinking for yourself.

When a teacher asks a question in class, students are given the chance to answer for themselves and think critically about what they learned and what they believe to be accurate. When students work in groups and are forced to engage in discussion, this is also a great chance to expand their thinking and use their critical thinking skills.

How Does Critical Thinking Apply To Your Career?

Once you’ve finished school and entered the workforce, your critical thinking journey only expands and grows from here!

Impress Your Employer

Employers value employees who are critical thinkers, ask questions, offer creative ideas, and are always ready to offer innovation against the competition. No matter what your position or role in a company may be, critical thinking will always give you the power to stand out and make a difference.

Careers That Require Critical Thinking

Some of many examples of careers that require critical thinking include:

  • Human resources specialist
  • Marketing associate
  • Business analyst

Truth be told however, it’s probably harder to come up with a professional field that doesn’t require any critical thinking!

Photo by  Oladimeji Ajegbile  from  Pexels

What is someone with critical thinking skills capable of doing.

Someone with critical thinking skills is able to think rationally and clearly about what they should or not believe. They are capable of engaging in their own thoughts, and doing some reflection in order to come to a well-informed conclusion.

A critical thinker understands the connections between ideas, and is able to construct arguments based on facts, as well as find mistakes in reasoning.

The Process Of Critical Thinking

The process of critical thinking is highly systematic.

What Are Your Goals?

Critical thinking starts by defining your goals, and knowing what you are ultimately trying to achieve.

Once you know what you are trying to conclude, you can foresee your solution to the problem and play it out in your head from all perspectives.

What Does The Future Of Critical Thinking Hold?

The future of critical thinking is the equivalent of the future of jobs. In 2020, critical thinking was ranked as the 2nd top skill (following complex problem solving) by the World Economic Forum .

We are dealing with constant unprecedented changes, and what success is today, might not be considered success tomorrow — making critical thinking a key skill for the future workforce.

Why Is Critical Thinking So Important?

Why is critical thinking important? Critical thinking is more than just important! It’s one of the most crucial cognitive skills one can develop.

By practicing well-thought-out thinking, both your thoughts and decisions can make a positive change in your life, on both a professional and personal level. You can hugely improve your life by working on your critical thinking skills as often as you can.

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Global Cognition

Critical thinking in everyday life.

by Winston Sieck updated September 19, 2021

critical thinking in everyday life

Have you ever been listening to one of your teacher’s lessons and thought that it had no relevance to your own life?

You’re not alone. Just about every student has felt the same way.

Sure, you use critical thinking skills in the classroom to solve word problems in math, write essays in English, and create hypotheses in science.

But how will you use critical thinking in everyday life?

First, keep in mind that critical thinking is simply a “deliberate thought process.”

Basically, it means that you are using reason and logic to come to a conclusion about an issue or decision you are tangling with.

And clear, sound reasoning is something that will help you every day.

To help you make the leap from classroom to real world, here are 3 concrete examples of critical thinking in everyday life.

Fake News vs. Real News

Take a moment to reflect on your media skills. Do you think you have what it takes to sort out a real news source from a piece of clever advertising?

According to a recent study from Stanford University, a whopping 82% of the teens surveyed could not distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a legitimate news story.

Part of the problem may come from schools cutting back on formal instruction of critical thinking skills and an assumption that today’s “digital native” teens can automatically tell the difference without practice or instruction.

You are good at lots of things. But, you know, you’ve practiced those things you’re good at. So, how can you practice telling fact from fiction?

One way (outside of school) is to chat with your family and friends about media sources. Find out how they stay informed, and why they choose those outlets. Ask each other routine questions for evaluating sources .

Do your Friends Know Everything?

It’s tempting to believe that the world begins and ends with your friends. Don’t get me wrong. Friends are definitely important. However, it pays to reflect a little on how a group influences our lives.

To practice critical thinking in everyday life, take a close look at your group of friends. Are there things that are “forbidden” in your social circle? Are you expected to act a certain way, dress a certain way?

Think a certain way?

It’s natural that when a group defines something as “cool”, all the people in the group work to fit into that definition. Regardless of what they individually believe.

The problem is that virtually every situation can be defined in multiple ways. What is “dumb” to one person may be “cool” to another.

Develop your ability to redefine the way you see the world around you. On your own terms.

Find a time when your friend group sees the negative in a situation. Is there a positive way to view it instead? Or at least a way that makes it seem not quite so bad?

You may not be ready to speak up with your independent view. And that’s ok. Just practice thinking differently from the group to strengthen your mind.

Critical Thinking in the Driver’s Seat

One of the core critical thinking skills you need every day is the ability to examine the implications and consequences of a belief or action. In its deepest form, this ability can help you form your own set of beliefs in everything from climate change to religion.

But this skill can also save your life (and your car insurance rate) behind the wheel.

Imagine you are cruising down the freeway when your phone alerts you to an incoming text message. The ability to examine your potential actions and their accompanying consequences will help you make the best choice for how to handle the situation.

Do you look at the text and risk getting into an accident? Do you wait and risk not responding to an urgent matter? Or do you pull over to look at the text and risk being late for your appointment?

The same skill can be applied when you are looking for a place to park, when to pull onto a busy street, or whether to run the yellow light.

Better yet, the more practiced you are at looking at the implications of your driving habits, the faster you can make split second decisions behind the wheel.

Why Critical Thinking in Everyday Life Matters

Literally everyone can benefit from critical thinking because the need for it is all around us.

In a philosophical paper , Peter Facione makes a strong case that critical thinking skills are needed by everyone, in all societies who value safety, justice, and a host of other positive values:

“Considered as a form of thoughtful judgment or reflective decision-making, in a very real sense critical thinking is pervasive. There is hardly a time or a place where it would not seem to be of potential value. As long as people have purposes in mind and wish to judge how to accomplish them, as long as people wonder what is true and what is not, what to believe and what to reject, strong critical thinking is going to be necessary.”

So, in other words, as long as you remain curious, purposeful, and ambitious, no matter what your interests, you’re going to need critical thinking to really own your life.

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About Winston Sieck

Dr. Winston Sieck is a cognitive psychologist working to advance the development of thinking skills. He is founder and president of Global Cognition, and director of Thinker Academy .

Reader Interactions

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July 27, 2019 at 7:20 am

Wonderful article.. Useful in daily life… I have never imagined the way critical thinking is useful to make judgments

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December 9, 2020 at 9:38 pm

My name is Anthony Lambert I am student at miller Motte. Critical Thinking is one my classes. I thank you for giving me the skills of critical thinking.

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Why is critical thinking important?

What do lawyers, accountants, teachers, and doctors all have in common?

Students in the School of Literatures, Languages, Cultures, and Linguistics give a presentation in a classroom in front of a screen

What is critical thinking?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines critical thinking as “The objective, systematic, and rational analysis and evaluation of factual evidence in order to form a judgment on a subject, issue, etc.” Critical thinking involves the use of logic and reasoning to evaluate available facts and/or evidence to come to a conclusion about a certain subject or topic. We use critical thinking every day, from decision-making to problem-solving, in addition to thinking critically in an academic context!

Why is critical thinking important for academic success?

You may be asking “why is critical thinking important for students?” Critical thinking appears in a diverse set of disciplines and impacts students’ learning every day, regardless of major.

Critical thinking skills are often associated with the value of studying the humanities. In majors such as English, students will be presented with a certain text—whether it’s a novel, short story, essay, or even film—and will have to use textual evidence to make an argument and then defend their argument about what they’ve read. However, the importance of critical thinking does not only apply to the humanities. In the social sciences, an economics major , for example, will use what they’ve learned to figure out solutions to issues as varied as land and other natural resource use, to how much people should work, to how to develop human capital through education. Problem-solving and critical thinking go hand in hand. Biology is a popular major within LAS, and graduates of the biology program often pursue careers in the medical sciences. Doctors use critical thinking every day, tapping into the knowledge they acquired from studying the biological sciences to diagnose and treat different diseases and ailments.

Students in the College of LAS take many courses that require critical thinking before they graduate. You may be asked in an Economics class to use statistical data analysis to evaluate the impact on home improvement spending when the Fed increases interest rates (read more about real-world experience with Datathon ). If you’ve ever been asked “How often do you think about the Roman Empire?”, you may find yourself thinking about the Roman Empire more than you thought—maybe in an English course, where you’ll use text from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra to make an argument about Roman imperial desire.  No matter what the context is, critical thinking will be involved in your academic life and can take form in many different ways.

The benefits of critical thinking in everyday life

Building better communication.

One of the most important life skills that students learn as early as elementary school is how to give a presentation. Many classes require students to give presentations, because being well-spoken is a key skill in effective communication. This is where critical thinking benefits come into play: using the skills you’ve learned, you’ll be able to gather the information needed for your presentation, narrow down what information is most relevant, and communicate it in an engaging way. 

Typically, the first step in creating a presentation is choosing a topic. For example, your professor might assign a presentation on the Gilded Age and provide a list of figures from the 1870s—1890s to choose from. You’ll use your critical thinking skills to narrow down your choices. You may ask yourself:

  • What figure am I most familiar with?
  • Who am I most interested in? 
  • Will I have to do additional research? 

After choosing your topic, your professor will usually ask a guiding question to help you form a thesis: an argument that is backed up with evidence. Critical thinking benefits this process by allowing you to focus on the information that is most relevant in support of your argument. By focusing on the strongest evidence, you will communicate your thesis clearly.

Finally, once you’ve finished gathering information, you will begin putting your presentation together. Creating a presentation requires a balance of text and visuals. Graphs and tables are popular visuals in STEM-based projects, but digital images and graphics are effective as well. Critical thinking benefits this process because the right images and visuals create a more dynamic experience for the audience, giving them the opportunity to engage with the material.

Presentation skills go beyond the classroom. Students at the University of Illinois will often participate in summer internships to get professional experience before graduation. Many summer interns are required to present about their experience and what they learned at the end of the internship. Jobs frequently also require employees to create presentations of some kind—whether it’s an advertising pitch to win an account from a potential client, or quarterly reporting, giving a presentation is a life skill that directly relates to critical thinking. 

Fostering independence and confidence

An important life skill many people start learning as college students and then finessing once they enter the “adult world” is how to budget. There will be many different expenses to keep track of, including rent, bills, car payments, and groceries, just to name a few! After developing your critical thinking skills, you’ll put them to use to consider your salary and budget your expenses accordingly. Here’s an example:

  • You earn a salary of $75,000 a year. Assume all amounts are before taxes.
  • 1,800 x 12 = 21,600
  • 75,000 – 21,600 = 53,400
  • This leaves you with $53,400
  • 320 x 12 = 3,840 a year
  • 53,400-3,840= 49,560
  • 726 x 12 = 8,712
  • 49,560 – 8,712= 40,848
  • You’re left with $40,848 for miscellaneous expenses. You use your critical thinking skills to decide what to do with your $40,848. You think ahead towards your retirement and decide to put $500 a month into a Roth IRA, leaving $34,848. Since you love coffee, you try to figure out if you can afford a daily coffee run. On average, a cup of coffee will cost you $7. 7 x 365 = $2,555 a year for coffee. 34,848 – 2,555 = 32,293
  • You have $32,293 left. You will use your critical thinking skills to figure out how much you would want to put into savings, how much you want to save to treat yourself from time to time, and how much you want to put aside for emergency funds. With the benefits of critical thinking, you will be well-equipped to budget your lifestyle once you enter the working world.

Enhancing decision-making skills

Choosing the right university for you.

One of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life is what college or university to go to. There are many factors to consider when making this decision, and critical thinking importance will come into play when determining these factors.

Many high school seniors apply to colleges with the hope of being accepted into a certain program, whether it’s biology, psychology, political science, English, or something else entirely. Some students apply with certain schools in mind due to overall rankings. Students also consider the campus a school is set in. While some universities such as the University of Illinois are nestled within college towns, New York University is right in Manhattan, in a big city setting. Some students dream of going to large universities, and other students prefer smaller schools. The diversity of a university’s student body is also a key consideration. For many 17- and 18-year-olds, college is a time to meet peers from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds and learn about life experiences different than one’s own.

With all these factors in mind, you’ll use critical thinking to decide which are most important to you—and which school is the right fit for you.

Develop your critical thinking skills at the University of Illinois

At the University of Illinois, not only will you learn how to think critically, but you will put critical thinking into practice. In the College of LAS, you can choose from 70+ majors where you will learn the importance and benefits of critical thinking skills. The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at U of I offers a wide range of undergraduate and graduate programs in life, physical, and mathematical sciences; humanities; and social and behavioral sciences. No matter which program you choose, you will develop critical thinking skills as you go through your courses in the major of your choice. And in those courses, the first question your professors may ask you is, “What is the goal of critical thinking?” You will be able to respond with confidence that the goal of critical thinking is to help shape people into more informed, more thoughtful members of society.

With such a vast representation of disciplines, an education in the College of LAS will prepare you for a career where you will apply critical thinking skills to real life, both in and outside of the classroom, from your undergraduate experience to your professional career. If you’re interested in becoming a part of a diverse set of students and developing skills for lifelong success, apply to LAS today!

Read more first-hand stories from our amazing students at the LAS Insider blog .

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Critical & Creative Thinking

importance of critical thinking to human existence

Key Concepts

This chapter will prepare you to:

  • Explain the concepts of critical thinking.
  • Evaluate the merits of the questions, not just the answers.
  • Evaluate the origins of our values.
  • Discuss the implications of perceptions and stereotypes as they relate to an individual.
  • Identify historical, geographical, and cultural contexts.

In the Introduction , we presented the idea of metacognition, which is the first step in applying critical and creative thinking to our study of the humanities. We all view the world through a lens; one shaped by our personal experiences. So, to objectively analyze a news story, cartoon, painting, photograph, essay, song, or any number of ways we express our human experience, we begin by being aware of how our brain works.

You may hear the phrase “critical thinking” used many times in a humanities course. In the context of humanities, critical thinking is the process of reflection about our personal values, paradigms, and experiences. Creative thinking is another important tool for studying the humanities. By “creative thinking,” we mean challenging what you think you know and asking you to think outside the box. Creative thinking also acknowledges and explores how other people may see or experience the world differently from us.

Throughout this book are Questions for Critical & Creative Thinking . These questions may present novel situations or be tough to answer. They are designed to help you reflect on why you perceive the world the way you do and perhaps why someone else might see things differently. Some questions may prompt you to expand your personal perspective.

The Looking Exercises and Listening Exercises included at the end of this chapter will help you practice these approaches to critical and creative thinking.

Creative Approaches to Critical Thinking

What is critical thinking.

A key component of critical thinking is analyzing a person or event from multiple perspectives . The opposite of critical thinking would be characterizing a group of people based on a singular experience with one individual. Not only does this limited perspective interfere with critical and creative thinking, but it may also lead us to treat people or situations with unrealistic expectations.

Credit: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “ The Danger of a Single Story .” TEDGlobal 2009. July 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the damage caused by people’s limited perceptions. She starts by sharing her perceptions of people from her childhood in Nigeria. She then moves on to other people’s perceptions of her and Nigerian culture when she was a student in the United States.

Questions for Critical & Creative Thinking

  • Have you ever been subjected to a stereotype?
  • Where do you think the basis of this assumption came from? Is there any truth to the idea?
  • Do you feel like these stereotypes limit you or encourage you?

What Do We Know?

Our reaction to information—whether it comes via images, sound, or words—is informed by our value systems. Our value systems, in turn, are shaped by personal experience and learned knowledge.

Consider something as fundamental as clothing. The sight of a man wearing a skirt in Salt Lake City would be unusual enough that he would probably elicit some stares. However, maybe not from people living in Scotland or the Pacific islands. This is an example of a response informed by cultural context. In this case, about what is regarded as normal or acceptable attire for men to wear in public. There are also historical imperatives. In present-day society, men and women frequently wear jeans or pants. However, 100 years ago, a woman wearing pants was neither a common nor acceptable fashion statement.

Can you choose which of the following historical factors were at play to allow women in the United States the freedom to wear “men’s” clothing?

  • The suffrage movement for women’s right to vote
  • World War I and World War II (Hint: military conscription of men necessitated a female workforce.)
  • The birth control pill

Think about what people considered normal in earlier historical settings and reflect on your own reaction.

  • Do you think they are silly? Funny?
  • Or were their standards acceptable because they were based on the information available at the time?

Let us look at another example, this time a symbol most likely associated with negative reactions. The swastika symbol was adopted by the Nazi party during World War II. Because of this, most people perceive the swastika as a symbol of murder and destruction.

importance of critical thinking to human existence

The origins of this symbol reach back much further than 20 th -century Germany. The oldest known swastika is estimated to be about 15,000 years old , which puts it in the Paleolithic Period (Stone Age). Throughout history, the swastika was used in regions all over the world, including China, Japan, India, and southern Europe. It has been used to represent good luck, prosperity, and the sun. If not equipped with this knowledge before traveling abroad, it would be easy to assume that Nazi sympathizers had lived in these countries.

importance of critical thinking to human existence

Questions to Critical & Creative Thinking

  • Prior to reading about the history of the swastika, what conclusions might you have reached if you visited a building displaying a swastika on the wall?
  • A swastika symbol on Japanese maps indicates the location of a Buddhist temple. In preparation for the 2020 Olympics, Japan’s national mapmaking department is considering changing the map symbol to something else. Do you think they should or should not change the symbol? Why or why not? Can you think of another way to resolve this issue?

What Is a Creative Approach to Critical Thinking?

As you might imagine from the swastika example, challenging long-held values or beliefs can cause conflict among people, and perhaps discomfort for an individual person. However, it is important to remember that critical and creative thinking does not require you to change your mind but rather, evaluate how you got there. One way to look at it is to imagine that critical thinking is like taking something apart, while creative thinking is like recycling or repurposing something. In the end, you may still end up with the same beliefs. Or you may discover you have acquired some new values.

Again, the goal is to get you thinking about how you think. In an early scene from the movie, The Matrix (1999) , the character Orpheus offers the protagonist Neo a blue pill and a red pill.

“You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Likewise, by encouraging you to think critically and creatively, this course offers you a similar choice. You can superficially engage with the various artifacts presented throughout this book, skip the critical and creative thinking questions, and finish the book with your points of view pretty much unchanged. Or you can accept occasionally feeling uncomfortable as you delve deeper into how people across the centuries and around the world have tried to make sense of the human condition. Blue pill or red pill? You choose!

How to Approach an Artifact

Another critical thinking tool is the use and analysis of artifacts. A humanities artifact could be a piece of writing, music, painting, drawing, sculpture, dance, film, or any number of created works. In her article “ A Method for Reading, Writing, & Thinking Critically ,” Kathleen McCormick explains that we should consider the historical and cultural context when analyzing an artifact of written text. Additional contexts for approaching any type of artifact include economic, political, geographical, social, and religious, to name a few. These contextual pieces offer clues as to what may have motivated a person to compose or create an artifact. Analyzing context can also help us to determine how relevant an artifact is to our contemporary experiences.

In addition to considering context, it is important to ask a series of questions when approaching an artifact of the humanities. Critical and creative thinking encourages us to be actively engaged with a piece of text, music, or art. Some questions you should be asking yourself as you engage with the artifacts presented in this chapter, as well as the rest of the book include:

  • Who is the author or creator of the artifact?
  • What do we know about the artifact’s historical context, i.e., what was happening when the artifact was created?
  • What was the inspiration or motivation for creating this artifact? For example, was it a commissioned piece or spontaneous creation?
  • For written text, is there a narrative voice? If so, is it first person or third?
  • Does who is speaking make a difference for a narrative?
  • What is the main message the author or creator is trying to convey?
  • Who, if any, is the author or creator’s intended audience?
  • Does this artifact present a familiar concept or message? Is it something new for you?
  • Does the author or creator’s message align or conflict with your values?

When we engage with humanities artifacts and then apply critical and creative thinking, we are not merely going through a process of decoding. Hopefully, this book helps you understand that analyzing the humanities using this approach is a sincere thoughtful process that helps broaden your understanding of what the humanities are and why understanding them is so important.

Looking Exercises: Architecture and Painting

These exercises will help you practice using critical and creative analysis of a humanities artifact through a couple of visual examples: building architecture and political painting.

The visual arts are a broad umbrella encompassing artifacts that are appreciated by looking at them. These arts include painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, photography, video, printmaking, crafts, architecture, textiles, and much more. These artifacts are the result of people trying to make sense of their physical and inner worlds, and conveying that understanding to other people.

An important first question to ask when considering a visual arts artifact is, was the work commissioned? Meaning, was the piece created at the request of someone else, such as a government, individual, nonprofit group, political group, or otherwise? Naturally, the sentiment embodied in the artifact and the intended audience will likely align with the values of the group or person who commissioned it rather than the artist who created it.

Other important questions might include, when was the piece created? What political issues were prominent at the time? What historical events were happening? By gathering as much contextual information as possible about the artifact, we are better equipped to interpret the artifact’s message or intention.

Architecture

The built environment reflects the age and cultural context in which it was produced. Architecture gives us easy access to visual arts artifacts for analysis. Some contextual questions we can ask:

  • What does the style of architecture in my city tell me about the cultural influences of my society?
  • Is there a philosophical influence?
  • How old is the city?
  • Does it maintain some of the influence of the original settlers? If so, how and where did that influence come from?

Architecture may also reflect a building’s function. Public buildings tend to be open and inviting. Some buildings may be designed to deflect attention. The nondescript architecture of homeless shelters helps conceal the vulnerable people living there. This kind of architecture is known as hostile architecture.

For this exercise, use the contextual questions listed above (as well as ones of your own) to analyze the architectural artifact presented by the White House in Washington DC, which was built in 1792. And compare it with Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, built in Los Angeles in 2003.

importance of critical thinking to human existence

Looking at a piece of art, we can ask whether what we see relates to our contemporary setting. Sometimes, in order to fully understand an artifact, we must be familiar with the historical, political, or social context surrounding its creation.

The painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso was first displayed in Paris on May 1, 1937. He painted it during the midst of the Spanish Civil War (July 1936–April 1939) as an artistic reaction to the Nazi’s bombing of the Basque town on April 26, 1937 . The painting is monochromatic, to show the misery inflicted by the aerial bombardment. The images in the painting present the tragedy and suffering of the war: a dismembered soldier and nurse; an all-seeing eye; and the Spanish symbols of a bull and a horse.

One contextual question to ask is, does Picasso’s painting only hold relevance to the Spanish Civil War? Two examples of contemporary situations demonstrate that this painting can be relevant beyond what Picasso may have originally intended. In fact, this artifact presents timeless relevancy to the perception, interpretation, and expression of our human experiences during a war.

On February 28, 1974 , Tony Shafrazi entered the Museum of Modern Art in New York  City, and red-spray painted the words “Kill Lies All” over the Guernica. Shafrazi said this was “ a protest against the release on bail of the lieutenant later convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War.”  The red paint was easily removed, as Guernica was heavily varnished.

On February 5, 2003, Colin Powell delivered a speech at the United Nations (UN) headquarters to make the case for war with Iraq. He was standing in front of a tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica, which hangs in the UN as a reminder of the horror of war and the need for diplomacy first. The tapestry was covered with a blue sheet.

Reports of the UN’s position behind this action vary and the organization did not release an official statement. However, using contextual information, such as the painting’s history, we can deduce some logical reasons. The New York Times reported the UN started covering the tapestry because they were afraid a horse’s screaming head would be visible next to chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix while he spoke.  The article offered an alternative reason , “Mr. Powell can’t very well seduce the world into bombing Iraq surrounded on camera by shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses.”

An article in the Toronto Star ran the quote , “A [un-named] diplomat stated that it would not be an appropriate background if the ambassador of the United States at the U.N. John Negroponte, or Powell, talk about war surrounded with women, children and animals shouting with horror and showing the suffering of the bombings.”

Listening Exercises: Songs and Music

These two exercises apply to how our values shape our listening choices, both in conversations and songs. As described, we prefer listening to speech and music that agree with our values and ideas. In other words, we gravitate to news channels, influential people, and song lyrics that support our world view. This tendency to seek out similar viewpoints ends up reinforcing our world view rather than expanding it.

There are several reasons for this behavior:

  • Consensual validation: When we meet people who share similar attitudes, it makes us feel more confident about our world view. For example, if you love jazz music, meeting a fellow jazz lover confirms that your love of jazz is OK and maybe even virtuous.
  • Cognitive evaluation: We naturally form positive or negative impressions of other people by generalizing from the information we acquire through experience or absorption. When a person has common interests with us, we assume that we must also share other positive characteristics with that person.
  • Certainty of being liked: We assume that someone who shares common interests and viewpoints will probably like us. In turn, we tend to like people if we think they like us.
  • Preference for enjoyable interactions: It is just more fun to hang out with someone when you have a lot in common.
  • Opportunity for self-expansion: We benefit from new knowledge and experiences as the direct result of spending time with someone else. Oddly, people seeking self-expansion will gravitate toward people who are similar to them, even though a person with dissimilar perspectives would likely provide greater opportunities for self-expansion.

Listen to 15 minutes of news on a network that represents viewpoints contrary to yours.

  • How did you feel while listening to a contrary opinion?
  • Did you find yourself responding, such as thinking of rebuttals to contradict the information you were hearing?
  • Did you learn something new?

The same behaviors influence how we listen to music. Music presents an artifact with many contextual facets. Some people listen to music for entertainment value. Others listen to find meaning in either the music or lyrics, or both. Very often, we attach meanings to music depending on where we were or what was happening when we heard it. Composers will have an inspiration or recall their personal experiences when creating music. Therefore, when analyzing music, it is important to consider the context that includes our personal response, the composer’s motivation, and perhaps outside influences, such as historical events or political movements.

There are fundamental questions we can ask regardless of musical genre:

  • When did the artist compose the music?
  • How does the genre of music impact its meaning?
  • Does the tempo make us feel a certain way, such as sad, energized, relaxed, or irritated? How about the lyrics?
  • Who do you think the music was written for? The musician? The listener?
  • What do you think is the message is? Is meaning fluid or changeable?
  • Does your musical taste change over time? As you get older? Due to events in your life?

Modern Song Lyrics

The two examples in this exercise present music artifacts from very different genres. The first is “ Blurred Lines ,” a song written by Pharell Williams and Robin Thicke. Released on March 26th, 2013, it was immediately involved in a legal dispute. Marvin Gaye’s family sued on the grounds that the song was “ noticeably ripped off ” from Marvin Gaye’s song “ Got To Give It Up .” The plaintiffs won their case and were awarded $5.3 million dollars in damages and 50% of royalties from future sales.

Furthermore, the song was criticized for promoting rape culture . Critics said the “blurred lines” in the title and lyrics were an assault on someone’s right to control sexual consent and the song’s message promoted the objectification of women as sexual objects.

Here are the song lyrics :

I hate these blurred lines I know you want it I hate them lines I know you want it I hate them lines I know you want it But you’re a good girl The way you grab me Must wanna get nasty Go ahead, get at me
  • After reading the lyrics, do you think the song is controversial?
  • After watching the video clip, does the meaning of the song change for you?

The song faced further controversy when Miley Cyrus joined Robin Thicke on stage at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Cyrus performed twerking dance moves in close contact with Thicke and made sexual gestures using a foam finger. Her dance performance was regarded as an endorsement of the song’s message. (Time marker 04:10)

Credit: Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus. “Miley Cyrus VMA 2013 with Robin Thicke SHOCKED.” MTV Video Music Awards 2013. Juan Manuel Cruz . YouTube. YouTube. Fair Use of worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to access content. https://youtu.be/LfcvmABhmxs.

Classical Instrumental Music

https://soundcloud.com/chicagosymphony/beethoven-symphony-no-6-2

Credit: Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Neeme Järvi, conductor. “ Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 .” SoundCloud. Fair Use of limited, personal, non-exclusive, revocable, non-assignable and non-transferable right and license to use the Platform to view Content. https://soundcloud.com/chicagosymphony/beethoven-symphony-no-6-2.

A very different example of a musical artifact is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 , written in 1808. (Making it a slightly older piece than “Blurred Lines.”). Historical context is important for analyzing the message in Beethoven’s composition. For example, what made No. 6 different from his other symphonies? A clue resides in the title Beethoven gave to this piece of music, Pastoral Symphony . According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, pastoral means “of, relating to, or composed of shepherds or herdsmen.” This suggests an agricultural theme. This is one of only two symphonies titled by the composer, rather than someone else. Beethoven had a lifelong appreciation of nature and frequently took walks in the countryside. For the premiere, he described this composition as having “ more an expression of feeling than painting .”

Listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 and pay attention to how the music makes you feel.

  • How does the music affect your mood?
  • What images appear in your mind as you listen?
  • Can you interpret a message conveyed in the music despite there being no lyrics?

Try practicing your analytical listening skills on other instrumental pieces, such as the movie score to Fantasia , Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus , or The Lord of the Rings .

As you move through this book, you may discover information that is already familiar to you. Those cases are an opportunity to put on your critical and creative thinking cap and use it to reflect on your existing world views and values. Observe, and then, ask yourself lots of questions!

  • Does your gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic status inform your interpretation of an artifact?
  • What was happening historically when you read, listened to, or observed the artifact?
  • Are (or were) there external circumstances, such as laws or events, that may have informed your interpretation of an artifact?
  • Do you have acquired knowledge that helps deepen your appreciation or understanding of an artifact?
  • Do you agree or disagree with an artist or creator’s message? If you disagree, can you appreciate why they felt compelled to create their message?

Remember, these questions are not intended to force you to shift your ideology. However, they do require you to consider how your personal perspective affects your interpretation of artifacts. And hopefully, these questions will encourage you to look at things from a different perspective than the one you are used to using.

The examples, questions, and descriptions in this book are designed to help teach you to:

  • See and interpret patterns in people’s behavior.
  • View situations from a variety of different perspectives.
  • Realize that there may not be definitive answers to questions that arise from the human experience.

For our last example, use your critical and creative thinking skills to reflect on the following quote by Lawrence Wright :

“We prefer an ordered world, regular patterns, familiar forms, and when flaws or distortions occur, provided they are not too gross, our mind’s eye tidies them up. We see what we want or expect to see.”
  • Do you agree with Wright? Do you prefer to categorize contemporary and historical events so they fit in with your world view?
  • If you disagree, in what way?
  • Is it possible that you could be misinterpreting information? Is it possible you do not have possession of all the facts?
  • Do you operate in a clearly defined narrative within a clearly defined paradigm?
  • Could you possibly change your mind?

The Human Experience: From Human Being to Human Doing Copyright © 2020, Edition 1 by Claire Peterson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Why Critical Thinking Is Important (& How to Improve It)

Last updated May 1, 2023. Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC . Written by Deane Alban .

By improving the quality of your thoughts and your decisions, better critical thinking skills can bring about a big positive change in your life. Learn how.

The quality of your life largely depends on the quality of the decisions you make.

Amazingly, the average person makes roughly 35,000 conscious decisions every day! 

Imagine how much better your life would be if there were a way to make better decisions, day in and day out?

Well, there is and you do it by boosting a skill called critical thinking .

Learning to master critical thinking can have a profoundly positive impact on nearly every aspect of your life.

What Exactly Is Critical Thinking?

The first documented account of critical thinking is the teachings of Socrates as recorded by Plato. 

Over time, the definition of critical thinking has evolved.

Most definitions of critical thinking are fairly complex and best understood by philosophy majors or psychologists.

For example, the Foundation for Critical Thinking , a nonprofit think tank, offers this definition:

“Critical thinking is 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.”

If that makes your head spin, here are some definitions that you may relate to more easily.

Critical thinking is “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.”

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Or, a catchy way of defining critical thinking is “deciding what’s true and what you should do.”

But my favorite uber-simple definition is that critical thinking is simply “thinking about thinking.”

6 Major Benefits of Good Critical Thinking Skills

Whether or not you think critically can make the difference between success and failure in just about every area of your life.

Our human brains are imperfect and prone to irrationality, distortions, prejudices, and cognitive biases .

Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of irrational thinking.

While the number of cognitive biases varies depending on the source, Wikipedia, for example, lists nearly 200 of them ! 

Some of the most well-known cognitive biases include:

  • catastrophic thinking
  • confirmation bias
  • fear of missing out (FOMO)

Critical thinking will help you move past the limitations of irrational thinking.

Here are some of the most important ways critical thinking can impact your life.

1. Critical Thinking Is a Key to Career Success

There are many professions where critical thinking is an absolute must.

Lawyers, analysts, accountants, doctors, engineers, reporters, and scientists of all kinds must apply critical thinking frequently.

But critical thinking is a skill set that is becoming increasingly valuable in a growing number of professions.

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Critical thinking can help you in any profession where you must:

  • analyze information
  • systematically solve problems
  • generate innovative solutions
  • plan strategically
  • think creatively
  • present your work or ideas to others in a way that can be readily understood

And, as we enter the fourth industrial revolution , critical thinking has become one of the most sought-after skills.

chart showing the increase in demand for enterprise skills

According to the World Economic Forum , critical thinking and complex problem-solving are the two top in-demand skills that employers look for. 

Critical thinking is considered a soft or enterprise skill — a core attribute required to succeed in the workplace . 

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  • Provides the building blocks to create new brain cells and brain chemicals
  • Helps increase resilience to stress to avoid mental burnout
  • Supplies the brain with the fuel it needs for mental energy

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According to The University of Arizona, other soft skills include : 

  • interpersonal skills
  • communication skills
  • digital literacy

Critical thinking can help you develop the rest of these soft skills.

Developing your critical thinking can help you land a job since many employers will ask you interview questions or even give you a test to determine how well you can think critically.

It can also help you continually succeed in your career, since being a critical thinker is a powerful predictor of long-term success.

2. Critical Thinkers Make Better Decisions

Every day you make thousands of decisions.

Most of them are made by your subconscious , are not very important, and don’t require much thought, such as what to wear or what to have for lunch. 

But the most important decisions you make can be hard and require a lot of thought, such as when or if you should change jobs, relocate to a new city, buy a house, get married, or have kids.

At work, you may have to make decisions that can alter the course of your career or the lives of others.

Critical thinking helps you cope with everyday problems as they arise.

It promotes independent thinking and strengthens your inner “BS detector.”

It helps you make sense of the glut of data and information available, making you a smarter consumer who is less likely to fall for advertising hype, peer pressure, or scams.

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3. Critical Thinking Can Make You Happier

Knowing and understanding yourself is an underappreciated path to happiness. 

We’ve already shown how your quality of life largely depends on the quality of your decisions, but equally as important is the quality of your thoughts.

Critical thinking is an excellent tool to help you better understand yourself and to learn to master your thoughts.

You can use critical thinking to free yourself from cognitive biases, negative thinking , and limiting beliefs that are holding you back in any area of your life.

Critical thinking can help you assess your strengths and weaknesses so that you know what you have to offer others and where you could use improvement.

Critical thinking will enable you to better express your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs.

Better communication helps others to understand you better, resulting in less frustration for both of you.

Critical thinking fosters creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that can be applied to any area of your life.

It gives you a process you can rely on, making decisions less stressful.

4. Critical Thinking Ensures That Your Opinions Are Well-Informed

We have access to more information than ever before .

Astoundingly, more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of mankind. 

Critical thinking can help you sort through the noise.

American politician, sociologist, and diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked , “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” 

Critical thinking ensures your opinions are well-informed and based on the best available facts.

You’ll get a boost in confidence when you see that those around you trust your well-considered opinions.

5. Critical Thinking Improves Relationships

You might be concerned that critical thinking will turn you into a Spock-like character who is not very good at relationships.

But, in fact, the opposite is true.

Employing critical thinking makes you more open-minded and better able to understand others’ points of view.

Critical thinkers are more empathetic and in a better position to get along with different kinds of people.

Critical thinking keeps you from jumping to conclusions.

You can be counted on to be the voice of reason when arguments get heated.

You’ll be better able to detect when others:

  • are being disingenuous
  • don’t have your best interests at heart
  • try to take advantage of or manipulate you

6. Critical Thinking Makes You a Better, More Informed Citizen

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

This quote has been incorrectly attributed to Thomas Jefferson , but regardless of the source, these words of wisdom are more relevant than ever. 

Critical thinkers are able to see both sides of any issue and are more likely to generate bipartisan solutions.

They are less likely to be swayed by propaganda or get swept up in mass hysteria.

They are in a better position to spot fake news when they see it.

5 Steps to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Some people already have well-developed critical thinking skills.

These people are analytical, inquisitive, and open to new ideas.

And, even though they are confident in their own opinions, they seek the truth, even if it proves their existing ideas to be wrong.

They are able to connect the dots between ideas and detect inconsistencies in others’ thinking.

But regardless of the state of your critical thinking skills today, it’s a skill set you can develop.

While there are many techniques for thinking rationally, here’s a classic 5-step critical thinking process . 

How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills

Clearly define your question or problem.

This step is so important that Albert Einstein famously quipped:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Gather Information to Help You Weigh the Options

Consider only the most useful and reliable information from the most reputable sources.

Disregard the rest.

Apply the Information and Ask Critical Questions

Scrutinize all information carefully with a skeptic’s eye.

Not sure what questions to ask?

You can’t go wrong starting with the “5 Ws” that any good investigator asks: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Then finish by asking “How?”

You’ll find more thought-provoking questions on this Critical Thinking Skills Cheatsheet .

Consider the Implications

Look for potential unintended consequences.

Do a thought experiment about how your solution could play out in both the short term and the long run.

Explore the Full Spectrum of Viewpoints

Examine why others are drawn to differing points of view.

This will help you objectively evaluate your own viewpoint.

You may find critical thinkers who take an opposing view and this can help you find gaps in your own logic.

Watch the Video

This TED-Ed video on YouTube elaborates on the five steps to improve your critical thinking.

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  • Improve your mental clarity and focus.
  • Boost your memory and your ability to learn.
  • Increase your capacity to think critically, solve problems, and make decisions.

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Curtis Silver

The Importance of Logic and Critical Thinking

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"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." - Francis Bacon (1605)

As parents, we are tasked with instilling a plethora of different values into our children. While some parents in the world choose to instill a lack of values in their kids, those of us that don't want our children growing up to be criminals and various misfits try a bit harder. Values and morality are one piece of the pie. These are important things to mold into a child's mind, but there are also other items in life to focus on as well. It starts with looking both ways to cross the street and either progresses from there, or stops.

If you stopped explaining the world to your children after they learned to cross the street, then perhaps you should stop reading and go back to surfing for funny pictures of cats. I may use some larger words that you might not understand, making you angry and causing you to leave troll-like comments full of bad grammar and moronic thought processes. However, if you looked at the crossing the street issue as I did – as a logical problem with cause and effect and a probable solution – then carry on. You are my target audience.

Or perhaps the opposite is true, as the former are the people that could benefit from letting some critical thinking into their lives. So what exactly is critical thinking? This bit by Linda Elder in a paper on CriticalThinking.org pretty much sums it up:

Through critical thinking, as I understand it, we acquire a means of assessing and upgrading our ability to judge well. It enables us to go into virtually any situation and to figure out the logic of whatever is happening in that situation. It provides a way for us to learn from new experiences through the process of continual self-assessment. Critical thinking, then, enables us to form sound beliefs and judgments, and in doing so, provides us with a basis for a 'rational and reasonable' emotional life. — Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Winter, 1996. Vol. XVI, No. 2.

The rationality of the world is what is at risk. Too many people are taken advantage of because of their lack of critical thinking, logic and deductive reasoning. These same people are raising children without these same skills, creating a whole new generation of clueless people.

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To wit, a personal tale of deductive reasoning:

Recently I needed a new transmission for the family van. The warranty on the power train covers the transmission up to 100,000 miles. The van has around 68,000 miles on it. Therefore, even the logic-less dimwit could easily figure that the transmission was covered. Well, this was true until the dealership told me that it wasn't, stating that because we didn't get the scheduled transmission service (which is basically a fluid change) at 30,000 and 60,000 miles the warranty was no longer valid. Now, there are many people that would argue this point, but many more that would shrug, panic, and accept the full cost of repairs.

I read the warranty book. I had a receipt that said the fluid was checked at 60,000 but not replaced. A friend on Twitter pointed out the fact that they were using 100,000 mile transmission fluid. So logically, the fluid would not have to be replaced under 100,000 miles if it wasn't needed, right? So why the stipulation that it needed to be replaced at 60,000 and the loose assumption that not doing that would void the warranty? So I asked the warranty guy to show me in the book where the two items are related. Where it explicitly says that if you don't get the service, the transmission isn't covered. There were portions where it said the service was recommended, but never connecting to actual repairs. Finally the warranty guy shrugged, admitted I was right and said the service was covered.

In this case, valid logic equaled truth and a sound argument. I used very simple reasoning and logic to determine that I was being inadvertently screwed. I say "inadvertently" because I truly believe based on their behavior that they were not intentionally trying to screw me. They believed the two items were related, they had had this argument many times before and were not prepared to be questioned. While both the service manager and the warranty guy seemed at least junior college educated, proving my argument to them took longer than it should have between three adults.

However, valid logic does not always guarantee truth or a sound argument. This is where it gets a little funky. Valid logic is when the structure of logic is correct in the way of syntax and semantics rather than truth. Truth comes from deductive reasoning of said logic. For example:

All transmissions are covered parts. All covered parts are free. Therefore, all transmissions are free. This logic is technically valid, and if the premises are true, then of course the conclusion must be true. You can see here however that it's not always true, though in some situations it could be. While the logic is valid, not all transmissions are free, only those covered by the warranty. So based on that, saying all transmissions are free is not sound logic.

To take it one step further:

All Daleks are brown. Some brown things are Cylons . Therefore, some Daleks are Cylons. Sci-fi fan or not, you probably know that this is not true. The basic lesson here is that, while the logic above might seem valid because of the structure of the statement, it takes a further understanding to figure out why it's not necessarily true: That is, based on the first two statements it's possible that some Daleks are Cylons, but it's not logically concludable. That's where deductive reasoning comes on top of the logic. The underlying lesson here is not to immediately assume everything you read or are told is true, something all children need to and should learn.

This is the direct lesson that needs to be passed on to our children: that of not accepting the immediately visible logic. While not all problems are complex enough to require the scientific method, some of them need some deduction to determine if they are true. Take the example above — how many kids would immediately be satisfied with the false conclusion? Sure, it's a bit geeky with the examples, but switch out bears for Daleks and puppies for Cylons. That makes it easier, and takes the actual research out of it (to find out what Daleks and Cylons are respectively) but many people would just accept that in fact some bears are puppies, if presented with this problem in the context of a textbook or word problem.

Maybe I'm being paranoid or thinking too doomsday, whatever, but I think this is an epidemic. Children are becoming lazier and not as self sufficient because their parents have a problem with watching a three year old cry after they tell her to remove her own jeans, or ask her to put away her own toys (yes, organizational logic falls under the main topic). These are the same parents who do their kid's science project while the kid is playing video games. These kids grow up lacking the simple problem solving skills that make navigating life much easier. Remember when you were growing up and you had the plastic stacking toys ? Well, instead of toys for early development like that, parents are just plopping their kids down in front of the television. While there is some educational type programming on television, it's just not the same as hands-on experience.

My father is an engineer, and he taught me logic and reasoning by making me solve simple, then complex, problems on my own. Or at least giving me the opportunity to solve them on my own. This helped develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, something a lot of children lack these days. Too often I see children that are not allowed to solve problems on their own; instead their parents simply do it for them without argument or discussion. Hell, I am surrounded by adults every day that are unable to solve simple problems, instead choosing to immediately ask me at which point I have to fill the role that their parents never did and – knowing the solution – tell them to solve it themselves, or at least try first.

One of the things I like to work on with my kids is math. There is nothing that teaches deductive reasoning and logic better than math word problems. They are at the age where basic algebra can come into play, which sharpens their reasoning skills because they start to view real world issues with algebraic solutions. Another thing is logic puzzles , crossword puzzles and first person shooters. Actually, not that last one. That's just the reward.

Since I weeded out the folks that don't teach their kids logic in the first two paragraphs, as representatives of the real world it's up to the rest of us to spread the knowledge. It won't be easy. The best thing we can do is teach these thought processes to our children, so that they may look at other children with looks of bewilderment when other children are unable to solve simple tasks. Hopefully, they will not simply do the task for them, but teach them to think. I'm not saying we need to build a whole new generation of project managers and analysts, but it would be better than a generation of task-oriented mindless office drones with untied shoelaces, shoving on a door at the Midvale School for the Gifted .

h/t to @aubreygirl22 for the logical conversation. Image: Flickr user William Notowidagdo. Used under Creative Commons License.

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On Being and Becoming: An Existentialist Approach to Life

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2 A Philosophy for Human Existence

  • Published: October 2020
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This chapter identifies the classical philosophical concepts with which existentialism is concerned—being, non-being, and becoming, existence, and essence. It shows how existentialist philosophers transform these abstract ideas to consider the concrete existence of the human individual from a subjective point of view. Starting from Whitman’s recognition of the here and now, and proceeding through Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Beauvoir, it is demonstrated how traditional philosophical categories first conceived by ancient philosophers echo through the existentialist movement. Kierkegaard’s rejection of idealist rationalism, Nietzsche’s retrieval of Heraclitus’s theory of becoming, Heidegger’s understanding of the human being as Dasein or “being there,” Sartre’s notion of “existence precedes essence,” and Beauvoir’s comparison of existentialist conversion to the phenomenological reduction are discussed in light of existentialist affirmation of the transience and particularity of the human self.

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A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking

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Why critical thinking is so important.

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

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What Is Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is 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 its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

Value of Critical Thinking

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The Crucial Role of Logic in Everyday Life

ogic is an essential component of human cognition that underpins our ability to reason, make sound judgments, and arrive at informed decisions. It serves as a guiding framework for critical thinking, enabling us to analyze information, evaluate arguments, and draw valid conclusions. While logic is commonly associated with academic disciplines like mathematics and philosophy, its relevance extends far beyond these realms. In fact, logic plays a fundamental role in our everyday lives, shaping our interactions, problem-solving abilities, and overall cognitive development. This article explores the importance of logic and its practical applications, highlighting how its mastery can enhance our capacity for rational thinking and decision making.

Logic is an essential component of human cognition that underpins our ability to reason, make sound judgments, and arrive at informed decisions.

Logical Analysis and Problem Solving

In our daily lives, we are constantly faced with various challenges and problems that demand effective solutions. Logic provides us with a systematic approach to analyze these problems, break them down into manageable components, and develop logical pathways towards resolution. By employing logical reasoning, we can identify the root causes of an issue, evaluate possible solutions, and select the most viable course of action. Logic helps us in recognizing patterns, detecting inconsistencies, and making well-informed decisions based on evidence rather than personal biases or emotions. Whether it’s troubleshooting a technical glitch, managing personal finances, or resolving interpersonal conflicts, logical thinking empowers us to tackle problems with clarity and precision.

Enhanced Decision Making

Decision making is an integral part of our lives, from choosing a career path to deciding what to have for dinner. Logical thinking plays a critical role in this process, enabling us to evaluate alternatives, weigh pros and cons, and assess potential outcomes. By applying logical principles such as deductive and inductive reasoning, we can navigate complex decision-making scenarios more effectively. Logic encourages us to consider relevant information, question assumptions, and avoid fallacious reasoning, leading to more informed and rational choices. Whether it’s determining the best investment option, evaluating political arguments, or selecting a product from a range of options, logical thinking helps us make decisions that are grounded in reason and evidence.

Logic provides us with a systematic approach to analyze problems, break them down into manageable components, and develop logical pathways towards resolution.

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Effective Communication

Clear and coherent communication is vital for success in both personal and professional domains. Logic plays a pivotal role in fostering effective communication by enabling us to structure our thoughts, express ideas coherently, and construct persuasive arguments. When we communicate logically, we present information in a well-organized manner, support our claims with evidence, and anticipate counterarguments. Logical communication not only enhances our ability to convey our thoughts accurately but also promotes active listening and constructive dialogue. By engaging in logical discussions, we can critically evaluate information, challenge misconceptions, and arrive at shared understandings, fostering meaningful connections and facilitating collaborative problem solving.

importance of critical thinking to human existence

Conflict Resolution

Disagreements and conflicts are an inevitable part of human interactions. Logic provides us with a valuable framework for navigating conflicts and finding mutually agreeable solutions. By employing logical reasoning, we can separate emotions from facts, engage in rational discussions, and avoid common cognitive biases that hinder conflict resolution. Logic enables us to critically evaluate differing perspectives, identify areas of common ground, and build logical arguments that address the underlying issues. Moreover, logical thinking promotes empathy, allowing us to understand others’ viewpoints and engage in respectful and constructive dialogue. By applying logic to conflict resolution, we can transcend personal biases, foster understanding, and promote harmonious relationships.

Logic enables us to critically evaluate differing perspectives, identify areas of common ground, and build logical arguments that address the underlying issues.

n conclusion, logic serves as a cornerstone of our everyday lives, providing us with the tools to think critically, make informed decisions, and engage in effective communication. By cultivating logical thinking skills, we enhance our problem-solving abilities, improve our decision-making processes, and promote constructive interactions with others. In a world where information is abundant and complexity is prevalent, logic equips us with the means to navigate uncertainty, make sense of the world, and lead more rational and fulfilling lives. Embracing logic as an essential aspect of our cognitive toolkit empowers us to approach life’s challenges with clarity, reason, and intellectual integrity.

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Humanities and the Importance of Critical Thinking

importance of critical thinking to human existence

In the late 1970’s, two psychologists, Dr. Daniel Kahneman and Dr. Amos Tversky , set out to understand why “we” were failing ourselves in the rise (or fall) to Homo economicus – some semblance of a consistently rational, self-interested being capable of pursuing optimal decisions based on individual goals. It seems reasonable, right? Who doesn’t think of themselves as a more or less rational person able to make clear decisions? Or more accurately, who wants to openly admit to never really understanding why they make one decision over another going through life like a leaf in the wind? But the reality of the situation is much more complicated. Kahneman and Tversky’s work would take decades to unravel. Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 2002, six years after Tversky died, and nearly ten years later in 2011 Kahneman published Thinking, Fast and Slow , an almost 500-page manuscript explaining the complex nature of a very simple concept – critical thinking.

We’ve all heard the phrase “slow down and think about it” or some disambiguation thereof, but it’s not always this simple. Kahneman details our fast thinking process, System 1, and slower, more critical process, System 2 , not as consistent adversaries but each serving a distinct purpose. Both have strengths and weaknesses: Our fast system relies on heuristics and bias (note that not all bias in inherently bad), while the other is slower, more compete, but needs more energy. Kahneman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, and though the plethora of news stories about the rise of the NY Times Best-Seller List in 2011-12 are available all over the internet, his rise to fame appears to have quieted. So why now, in 2018, do we bring it up?

For starters let’s look at the current investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica . People are outraged – well, they were but they’re not ( it’s hard to tell ) – over the collection of data and use (some call manipulation or abuse) during the last election. But why? What Facebook did, and still does, is nothing new – we visited this topic earlier . We spoke about critically evaluating new stories as well with the all-important caveat that we’re probably the cause of fake news .

Everything you buy or use, more or less, comes with terms and conditions or user agreements but have you ever read one? In 2005, PC Pitstop included a line in their End-User License Agreement (EULA) which would award $1,000 to the first person to read the line and contact the company . That was it: read the contract you are “Agreeing” to, get paid $1,000. After thousands of downloads, it still took four months for anyone to claim the money. In the U.K., a Wi-Fi hotspot provider recently pulled a similar stunt but included wording that anyone using their service would be required to perform 1,000 hours of community service . The company never tried to enforce this clause, but users did agree unknowingly because there is a real problem with people not reading EULAs. So, why does this problem exist? Who wants to read the EULA or terms and conditions on every webpage they visit? Who has time? Next month the General Data Protection Regulation in the E.U. goes into effect to simplify this situation – for the E.U. And this presents an interesting paradox for the U.S. We are disgusted with the use of our data and simultaneously with regulation and laws. The simple solution is more critical thinking. Rather than automatically hopping on the latest app or website to join our friends in some digital mash-up, we need to think about what we are sharing and ask, what does the company do with what I give it? Mark Zuckerberg’s answer to U.S. Sen. Orin Hatch that Facebook sells ads to make money was comical to some as it demonstrated Sen. Hatch’s complete lack of technological savvy, but Zuckerberg’s answer beguiled the truth as well. Facebook does not only “sell ads” to make money, they clearly collect and sell data . But let’s move away from the digital world; we can only beat a dead horse for so long.

This critical thinking skill, the engagement of System 2, forces us to reconsider new or other perspectives, historical events, and new information: the humanities. This manifests in myriad ways that surface daily on our nightly news. Just recently, Nike faced an upheaval of executives at the highest level who were challenged by the women in its employ . After years of a “boy’s club” mentality and a toxic culture, the #metoo movement caught not one or two but numerous male executives at Nike. How do situations like this evolve? Heuristics and bias, our fast-thinking System 1. Critical thinking does not arrive at the conclusion with evidence to support the idea that demeaning anyone is “OK.” “Because it’s always been this way,” “everyone else does it,” or “Joe gets away with it,” is heuristical decision-making at its best.

Two Black men recently settled a case against the city of Philadelphia and Starbucks after they were forcibly removed from the store while waiting for friend – a hueristical decision made with race as a bias (Racism). On the same day, two Native American men were briefly apprehended by Colorado State University Police on campus because a parent was “nervous” . Nervousness, or fear, the unknowing, is a key trigger for our Fast System 1 processes – it is our flight or fight response and initial reaction to any given situation.

We constantly talk about diversity, inclusion, acceptance, and equality, whether it is different cultural backgrounds, gender, race, religious beliefs, gender orientation, etc. but is this superficial? Could we be more critical of our biases and aware of the implications this has on racism to address the truth of situation? From Black Lives Matter to a Day Without Women, a Day Without Immigrants to #Neveragain, we see these protests and rallies come and go but Amy Alexander from NPR argues perhaps we are unwilling to engage in the “ tough work required to address the hard, cold facts of gender and racial inequality ” rather it is all too easy to rely on our immediate reactions and move on.

And how can we truly understand these problems if we are not willing to engage in the hard work of critical thinking? How can a middle-class suburban individual understand the plight a low-income urban family living in subsidized housing? How might a non-Native American person truly feel the pain and anguish of two centuries of demonization as the “savage?” How can a normal American male understand the gender norming and degradation of women in the workplace with ever having experience it? How can we in Wyoming, a relatively safe state all-around understand the fear of violence and missing essentials of life, like clean water in Flint, MI? We may not be able to experience this, but we empathize if we are willing to engage in the hard work of critical thinking about the situation and facts not readily presented in our 30-second news stories.

When we watch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, do we see the parallels in our own political and cultural rhetoric about women’s rights, the environment, and civil disobedience or do we only focus on the totalitarian government in place and react with disgust? If we play games like Far Cry 5 , do we understand the very real consequences and appeal of fundamentalist religions misrepresenting a larger body of beliefs or do we react only to the idea of Americans being portrayed as evil ? When we enjoy the movie Black Panther do we consider the powerful implications discussed in Afro-Futurism and the opportunities this success brings to future African-American people, or do we only see yet another Marvel movie ? Moving from our initial reactions to see the deeper implications is tough. Critical thinking can be mentally exhausting when all we want to do is tune in and veg out, but it can be much more rewarding.

We are not yet Homo economicus , we are emotional, fraught with complex decisions and a lack of information, and imperfect in our processes. But there is hope; we have the ability to overcome this if we choose to so. It is our choice to rely on our biases and reactions in decision making, but we elevate our thinking and the outcomes by engaging in critical thinking. Done with intent, this is the purpose of the humanities and our humanity: to reflect without bias (or with a clear understand and admission of it), critically on the matter at hand. To read, watch, engage, and converse in matters of our daily lives and move past our reactions to consideration of information which does not readily present itself.

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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment. Political and business leaders endorse its importance.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o'clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68-69; 1933: 91-92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot's position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Morevoer, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69-70; 1933: 92-93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond line from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on the subsequent emotive response (Siegel 1988).

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in frequency in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the frequency of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Critical thinking dispositions can usefully be divided into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started) (Facione 1990a: 25). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), and Black (2012).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work.

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? Abrami et al. (2015) found that in the experimental and quasi-experimental studies that they analyzed dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), and Bailin et al. (1999b).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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  • Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking (AILACT)
  • Center for Teaching Thinking (CTT)
  • Critical Thinking Across the European Higher Education Curricula (CRITHINKEDU)
  • Critical Thinking Definition, Instruction, and Assessment: A Rigorous Approach (criticalTHINKING.net)
  • Critical Thinking Research (RAIL)
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  • The Nature of Critical Thinking: An Outline of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities , by Robert H. Ennis

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ScienceDaily

Brain imaging study reveals connections critical to human consciousness

Human consciousness requires arousal (i.e., wakefulness) and awareness. Brain imaging studies over the last decade have produced connectivity maps of the cortical networks that sustain awareness, but maps of the subcortical networks that sustain wakefulness are lacking, due to the small size and anatomic complexity of subcortical structures such as the brainstem. In a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study that integrated high-resolution structural and functional connectivity data, researchers mapped a subcortical brain network that is believed to integrate arousal and awareness in human consciousness.

In a paper titled, "Multimodal MRI reveals brainstem connections that sustain wakefulness in human consciousness," published today in Science Translational Medicine , a group of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system, and Boston Children's Hospital, created a connectivity map of a brain network that they propose is critical to human consciousness.

The study involved high-resolution scans that enabled the researchers to visualize brain connections at submillimeter spatial resolution. This technical advance allowed them to identify previously unseen pathways connecting the brainstem, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal forebrain, and cerebral cortex.

Together, these pathways form a "default ascending arousal network" that sustains wakefulness in the resting, conscious human brain. The concept of a "default" network is based on the idea that specific networks within the brain are most functionally active when the brain is in a resting state of consciousness. In contrast, other networks are more active when the brain is performing goal-directed tasks.

To investigate the functional properties of this default brain network, the researchers analyzed 7 Tesla resting-state functional MRI data from the Human Connectome Project. These analyses revealed functional connections between the subcortical default ascending arousal network and the cortical default mode network that contributes to self-awareness in the resting, conscious brain.

The complementary structural and functional connectivity maps provide a neuroanatomic basis for integrating arousal and awareness in human consciousness. The researchers released the MRI data, brain mapping methods, and a new Harvard Ascending Arousal Network Atlas, to support future efforts to map the connectivity of human consciousness.

"Our goal was to map a human brain network that is critical to consciousness and to provide clinicians with better tools to detect, predict, and promote recovery of consciousness in patients with severe brain injuries," explains lead-author Brian Edlow, MD, co-director of Mass General Neuroscience, associate director of the Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery (CNTR) at Mass General, an associate professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and a Chen Institute MGH Research Scholar 2023-2028 .

Dr. Edlow explains, "Our connectivity results suggest that stimulation of the ventral tegmental area's dopaminergic pathways has the potential to help patients recover from coma because this hub node is connected to many regions of the brain that are critical to consciousness."

Senior author Hannah Kinney, MD, Professor Emerita at Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, adds that "the human brain connections that we identified can be used as a roadmap to better understand a broad range of neurological disorders associated with altered consciousness, from coma, to seizures, to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)."

The authors are currently conducting clinical trials to stimulate the default ascending arousal network in patients with coma after traumatic brain injury, with the goal of reactivating the network and restoring consciousness.

  • Brain-Computer Interfaces
  • Brain Injury
  • Neuroscience
  • Intelligence
  • Learning Disorders
  • Spirituality
  • Disorders and Syndromes
  • Neocortex (brain)
  • Human brain
  • Conflict resolution
  • Psychedelic drug
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Brain damage

Story Source:

Materials provided by Massachusetts General Hospital . Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference :

  • Brian L. Edlow, Mark Olchanyi, Holly J. Freeman, Jian Li, Chiara Maffei, Samuel B. Snider, Lilla Zöllei, J. Eugenio Iglesias, Jean Augustinack, Yelena G. Bodien, Robin L. Haynes, Douglas N. Greve, Bram R. Diamond, Allison Stevens, Joseph T. Giacino, Christophe Destrieux, Andre van der Kouwe, Emery N. Brown, Rebecca D. Folkerth, Bruce Fischl, Hannah C. Kinney. Multimodal MRI reveals brainstem connections that sustain wakefulness in human consciousness . Science Translational Medicine , 2024; 16 (745) DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.adj4303

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