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What is critical thinking?

August 26, 2011

What is critical thinking?  How do we intentionally teach critical thinking skills?  How do we know that students are mastering critical thinking skills?  What will it look like in the classroom and for the graduate when students have mastered the skills?  How should we effectively assess the critical thinking skills we say we value?  Finally, what does a school look like and feel like when they (all the faculty) focus on teaching and assessing critical thinking at a high level?

I think these are important questions to answer as we (schools) consider how to evaluate and redesign curriculum and support faculty professional development in this area.

Critical Thinking: A Path to College and Career is a video about KIPP King Collegiate, a high school in CA, that builds its reputation on an instructional approach focusing on developing good critical thinking skills.  After watching the video, I was left with many questions, most of which are articulated in the first paragraph of my blog entry.  The video was a marketing tool more than it was an instructional video on how the school accomplishes its goal.  I would much rather have watched a 15 minute version that directly answered some of these questions.

So I went hunting for some answers and came up with The Critical Thinking Community.  This website really spells out in some detail what we collectively mean by critical thinking.  They provide an excellent foundation.  Here is a section of their response to the question: what is critical thinking?

Why Critical Thinking?

The Problem
Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

A Definition
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Result
A well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought,recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.  (Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008).

Earlier in the article, they write about critical thinking in this way:

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components:

1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills; and

2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior.

They go on to write:

It is thus to be contrasted with:

1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated;

2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and

3) the mere use of those skills (“as an exercise”) without acceptance of their results.

For me, clarity is brought to the question when they contrasted what critical thinking is versus what is is not.  Is this a lens for teachers to use when reflecting on whether their instructional approaches facilitate students learning critical thinking skills and strategies.

Finally, I am very fond of Susan Brookhart’s book, How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom.  In chapter 2, she discusses how to go about assessing analysis, evaluation and creation, three types of critical thinking.  She uses a modified Bloom’s Taxonomy to frame her discussion of critical thinking and how to go about assessing the skills.  In summarizing her thoughts she writes:

Many curriculum documents and instructional materials use a cognitive taxonomy to ensure that higher-order thinking is taught and assessed, that students can transfer their knowledge to new situations.

There in lies the challenge.  Once we have taught critical thinking skills, fostered students using the skills, and designed effective strategies for assessing whether students have mastered the skills, are there opportunities in our curriculum for students to use and apply critical-thinking skills in novel and authentic ways?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2011 2:11 pm

    Good definitions of critical thinking. One of my favorites is from John McPeck: critical thinking reflects a “certain skepticism” about what to believe and/or do. This requires, as Paul indicates above, asking good questions that challenge sources, evidence, assumptions, definitions and bias of specific claims such as “New Yorkers live longer.” As a native New Yorker, I’m hoping whoever made this claim is accurate.
    On the note of assessment, we can gather data on students’ improving in this most important element of 21st century capacities, without using standardized tests. I’ve had the pleasure of working with outstanding educators during the past three years to observe students getting better at inquiry, problem solving, critical/creative thinking and uses of current technologies.
    To be published by Corwin Press in January, 2012, HOW DO WE KNOW THEY’RE GETTING BETTER? ASSESSMENT FOR 21ST CENTURY MINDS, K-8, presents case studies of students’ growth not only in critical thinking but also in the other 21st century capacities. What these excellent educators are using are all varieties of students’ work products, journals, wiki/google postings, reflections,interviews and their own observations to observe growth in students’ thinking processes.

    John Barell
    http://www.morecuriousminds.com
    http:/www.morecuriousminds.blogspot.com

    http://antarcticdreams.com

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