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Critical Thinking: Definition and Introductory Information

Updated on May 26, 2014

Why is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking strategies may be employed to challenge assumptions. The critical thinking process may be used as a means to help individuals pay more attention to what is being thought, how it is being thought about and perhaps most importantly, critical thinking may be a helpful process to help correct and improve thoughts.

What is critical thinking?

There are several ways to explain critical thinking but I have found the most inclusive related to the classroom to be: critical thinking is a learned process where one employs rational, logic-based problem solving skills to examine and analyze evidence to produce ideas, solutions/outcomes.

Critical thinking is for all ages

Children can learn critical thinking by doing fun, hands-on activities. Ask questions, point out differences, say and do activities that will encourage critical thinking.
Children can learn critical thinking by doing fun, hands-on activities. Ask questions, point out differences, say and do activities that will encourage critical thinking.

Types of critical thinking

There are several types of thinkers, according to The Critical Thinking Foundation. The first, The naive thinker is unaware of his/her own thinking. In my assessment, this would be the person who is unconcerned about his/her thinking and oblivious to whether or not he/she is engaging in rational, logic-based thinking. The second type of thinker that is identified is the selfish critical thinker. This type of thinking is where an individual has a strong ability to think but does so in an unfair manner. In other words, the thinker may come to conclusions or develop solutions based on bias, preconceived notions or assumptions without the ability and/or the desire to be fair during the process or in developing the outcome. The final type of thinker worth mentioning is the fair minded critical thinker. According to The Critical Thinking Foundation, this type of critical thinker represents what one might deduce from the name, the thinker is good at thinking and also fair minded. So, whereas the selfish critical thinker is good at thinking, he/she is unfair and disregards his/her own biases, the fair minded critical thinker has the ability and desire to challenge biases, preconceived notions and assumptions. A truly effective critical thinker will employ logic and rational thinking skills to think through problems, evaluate situations and develop solutions or come to conclusions that are meant to be an improvement rooted in fairness.

A process of critical thinking

Knowing the process that should take place in order for one to think critically is important. There are several steps in the critical thinking process. For example, perhaps the learners in a college English course have been assigned a research paper. It is not only helpful for instructors to be aware of the steps involved in critical thinking but also helpful to teach learners the process. I have found in my own instruction that a quick review of the critical thinking process can get the ball rolling so-to-speak.

The First Steps for Critical Thinking

The first step of the learner or any individual should be to establish a goal or purpose. One might write a short statement of purpose or a list of questions being asked about a problem or a research subject. Once purpose is established, questions that might be asked about that topic should be posed. Writing down a list of related questions can be extremely helpful. Keep in mind, not all questions have to be answered but can serve as a guide or starting point for gathering information. For example, perhaps a learner is interested in doing research on whether or not Waldorf or Montessori schools make it easier or more difficult for students to enter the public school system due to the looser structure used in instructional methods. If this is the purpose of the research then the questions to be asked would be next step in the process.

Perhaps a learner/student might ask:

What are the learning methods used for Waldorf and Montessori?

What types of activities are used, student-led, instructor-led, both?

What level of independence is allowed in each and at what age?

Apply each of the previous questions to the public school system.

Gathering Information & Putting It All Together

Gathering information is an important element of critical thinking. This is the part of the critical thinking process where personal bias and preconceived notions may be challenged. The fair minded critical thinker may be more apt at recognizing information contrary to personal beliefs. During the gathering of information and the process of producing the end product (research and conclusions), a learner/student should attempt to do several things:

  • Ask if there may be another way to interpret the information being found on the subject.
  • Ask how conclusions have been reached and what they were based on.
  • Question assumptions made during the research process (initially and after the research is completed).
  • Explore the opposing views during the process of the research.
  • Give strong consideration for one's own point of view as well as the point of view of the writer of any researched materials.

These are a few of many ways to become more aware by using critical thinking skills. This list is not a conclusive list but may serve as a starting point. Questioning as one does research can ensure quality in the end product and can lead one to logic-based conclusions.

Evaluate your own and others' ability to think critically

Being able to look at others' and one’s own reasoning ability can lead to improved critical thinking skills. Using questions to clarify one’s own purpose or to clarify another author's purpose is necessary in order to begin evaluation of the critical thinking process used. Questions of relevance, clarity, fairness and importance should be considered whether critically analyzing one’s own self or others writings.

When evaluating one’s own or others' writing (articles, research or even oral presentations), clarifying the main points and the level of fairness of those points can help identify assumptions and biases. This is important in becoming a fair minded critical thinker and can assist in identifying reasoning toward a solution or conclusion.

Finally, when evaluating any work including one’s own, recognizing possible implications, outcomes and even consequences that may result from the research conclusions is very important. Some research and resulting conclusions may have wide spread negative consequences so paying close attention to this aspect of research is extremely important.

A useful critical thinking skills video

Additional information on critical thinking

This video explores critical thinking in a way that emphasizes the importance of critical thinking and explains it in an easy-to-understand way. It is meant to demystify and to supplement information on the critical thinking process.


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