Defining critical thinking

Lots of people toss around the term critical thinking, assuming a shared definition. But even the experts can’t agree on one, and believe me, they can get pretty convoluted. Here are my two (short) favorites: Richard Paul’s1

Critical thinking is the art of thinking while thinking to make thinking better. It involves three interwoven phases: It analyzes thinking, it evaluates thinking, and it improves thinking.

And Matthew Lipman’s2

Critical thinking is skillful, responsible thinking that is conducive to good judgment because it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting.”

For me, critical thinking is a promise to doggedly question, weigh, measure, compare everything that’s presented to us. That includes, radio shows, photos, podcasts, newscasts, even what our cat says. Facts and figures and opinions come at us at a furious pace. We have a choice. We can either swallow them whole or construct some sort of filter, i.e., a habit of mind, i.e., critical thinking, to slow our thinking down and consider the information in a dispassionate manner since emotion and critical thinking don’t mix. We must commit to persistently questioning our conclusions and assumptions, regardless of the context or subject. It’s a forever apprenticeship.

Speaking about emotion undoing critical thinking, I am especially vulnerable when I go to the doctor. White coats, diplomas, strange-looking equipment—it’s all very intimidating that can easily shut down my critical thinking mechanism. Just the other day, I went in to get a sore foot X-rayed. The doctor showed me the films as he announced, with that tone of certainty docs always use, that I’d have to have two bones fused. I was suddenly immobilized, imagining dragging a lame foot behind me for the rest of my life. I completely disengaged from my critical thinking skills and never asked crucial questions. A few days later, I came to and solved the problem without surgery, at least for now. Lesson learned about critical thinking being a rather fragile skill that can be upended by circumstances. As I said, it’s a lifelong pursuit.

What’s your definition?

For more definitions and information, you will find a lot to read and cogitate over at the Foundation for Critical Thinking. Lots to see and think about there. Remember – don’t swallow that whole either!

Nosich (2012, p. 2). Thinking things through. Boston: Pearson. He reports this is the definition Dr. Paul uses in informal settings.

2 As quoted in Nosich, p. 2.

Published by Nancy Burkhalter

I am in love with words. Trained as a linguist, journalist and researcher, I write, teach writing, and research everything about writing, especially how writing aids critical thinking. I've taught around the world, including three years in Kazakhstan, and a year each in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.

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