Critical thinking is an important issue in education today
The movement to the information age has focused attention on good thinking as an important element of life success (Huitt, 1993; Thomas & Smoot, 1994). These changing conditions require new outcomes, such as critical thinking, to be included as a focus of schooling. Old standards of simply being able to score well on a standardized test of basic skills, though still appropriate, cannot be the sole means by which we judge the academic success or failure of our students.
The purpose of this brief overview is to review what we know about critical thinking, how it might be differentiated from creative thinking, and to suggest future research and implementation activities
Definition has changed over the past decade
The definition of critical thinking has changed somewhat over the past decade. Originally the dominion of cognitive psychologists and philosophers, behaviorally-oriented psychologists and content specialists have recently joined the discussion. The following are some examples of attempts to define critical thinking:
- ...the ability to analyze facts, generate and organize ideas, defend opinions, make comparisons, draw inferences, evaluate arguments and solve problems (Chance,1986, p. 6);
- ...a way of reasoning that demands adequate support for one's beliefs and an unwillingness to be persuaded unless support is forthcoming (Tama, 1989, p. 64);
- ...involving analytical thinking for the purpose of evaluating what is read (Hickey, 1990, p. 175);
- ...a conscious and deliberate process which is used to interpret or evaluate information and experiences with a set of reflective attitudes and abilities that guide thoughtful beliefs and actions (Mertes,1991, p.24);
- ...active, systematic process of understanding and evaluating arguments. An argument provides an assertion about the properties of some object or the relationship between two or more objects and evidence to support or refute the assertion. Critical thinkers acknowledge that there is no single correct way to understand and evaluate arguments and that all attempts are not necessarily successful (Mayer & Goodchild, 1990, p. 4);
- ...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 (Scriven & Paul, 1992);
- reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1992).
Contributions to our thinking about critical thinking
Each of the separate groups has made significant contributions to our understanding of critical thinking. Contributors from the area of cognitive psychology (such as Paul Chance and Richard Mayer) delineate the set of operations and procedures involved in critical thinking. They work to establish the differences between critical thinking and other important aspects of thinking such as creative thinking.
Contributors from the area of philosophy (such as Richard Paul) remind us that critical thinking is a process of thinking to a standard. Simply being involved in the process of critical thinking is not enough; it must be done well and should guide the establishment of our beliefs and impact our behavior or action.
Contributors from the area of behavioural psychology help to establish the operational definitions associated with critical thinking. They work to define the subtasks associated with final outcomes and the methodologies teachers can use to shape initial behaviors towards the final outcomes. They also demonstrate how educators can establish the proper contingencies to change behavior.
Content specialists (such as Hickey and Mertes) demonstrate how critical thinking can be taught in different content areas such as reading, literature, social studies, mathematics, and science. This is an especially important contribution because it appears that critical thinking is best developed as students grapple with specific content rather than taught exclusively as a separate set of skills.