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2007 Update

Critical Thinking:
What It Is and Why It Counts
Peter A. Facione

George Carlin worked “critical Teach people to make good decisions and
thinking” into one of his monologue rants on you equip them to improve their own futures
the perils of trusting our lives and fortunes and become contributing members of
to the decision-making of a gullible, society, rather than burdens on society.
uninformed, and unreflective citizenry. The Becoming educated and practicing good
argument that higher education, while surely judgment does not absolutely guarantee a
both, is more of a public good than a private life of happiness, virtue, or economic
good, is beginning to be recognized. Is it not success, but it surely offers a better chance
a wiser social policy to invest in the at those things. And it is clearly better than
education of the future workforce, rather enduring the consequences of making bad
than to suffer the financial loses and endure decisions and better than burdening friends,
the fiscal and social burdens associated family, and all the rest of us with the
with economic weakness, public health unwanted and avoidable consequences of
problems, crime, and avoidable poverty? those poor choices.

Permission to Reprint
This essay is published by Insight Assessment. The original appeared in 1992, was updated in 1998, 2004, 2006, and again now as
we head toward 2007. Although the Author and the Publisher hold all copyrights, in the interests of advancing education and
improving critical thinking, permission is hereby granted for paper, electronic, or digital copies to be made in unlimited amounts,
provided that their distribution is free of charge and provided that whenever material from this essay is cited or extracted in whole or
in part that appropriate citation is made by indicating this essay’s full title, author’s name, publisher’s name, year, and page or
pages where it appears in this edition. For permission for reprints intended for sale contact Insight Assessment at 650-697-5628.

About the Author

Dr. Peter A. Facione and his co-investigators have been engaged in research and teaching about reasoning, decision-making, and
effective individual and group thinking processes since 1967. Over the years they developed instruments to measure the core skills
and habits of mind of effective thinking, these instruments are now in use in many different languages throughout the world. They
are available through are other reports and
teaching materials. Since 1992 Dr. Facione has presented hundreds of workshops about effective teaching for thinking and about
leadership, decision-making, leadership development, planning and budgeting, and learning outcomes assessment at national and
international professional association meetings and on college and university throughout the nation.

Dr. Facione, is former Provost at Loyola University Chicago and a Senior Scholar with the National Center for Science and Civic
Engagement. A philosopher, he earned his Ph.D. at Michigan State, chaired the Department of Philosophy at Bowling Green State
University, and served as Dean of the School of Human Development and Community Service at California State University,
Fullerton before joining Santa Clara University in 1990. At Santa Clara, he was Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and
Director of the Graduate Division of Counseling Psychology and Education for many years. Dr. Facione served as the President of
the American Conference of Academic Deans. He has been on many boards and panels, including the California Commission on
Teacher Credentialing and the ACE Presidents’ Task Force on Education. In 2005 he became Senior Director for Academic
Leadership with Keeling and Associates, a higher education consulting firm. He teaches at Loyola University Chicago.
Defining “Critical Thinking” Did you come up with a definition
that works? How do you know?
Yes, surely we have all heard
business executives, policy makers, civic What you just did with the
leaders, and educators talking about critical expression “offensive violence” is very much
thinking. At times we found ourselves the same as what had to be done with the
wondering exactly what critical thinking was expression “critical thinking.” At one level
and why is it considered so useful and we all know what “critical thinking” means —
important. This essay takes a deeper look at it means good thinking, almost the opposite
these questions. of illogical, irrational, thinking. But when
we test our understanding further, we run
But, rather than beginning with an into questions. For example, is critical
abstract definition – as if critical thinking thinking the same as creative thinking, are
were about memorization, which is not the they different, or is one part of the other?
case – give this thought experiment a try: How do critical thinking and native
Imagine you have been invited to a movie intelligence or scholastic aptitude relate?
by a friend. But it’s not a movie you want to Does critical thinking focus on the subject
see. So, your friend asks you why. You matter or content that you know or on the
give your honest reason. The movie process you use when you reason about
offends your sense of decency. Your friend that content?
asks you to clarify your reason by explaining
what bothers you about the film. You reply It might not hurt at all if you formed
that it is not the language used or the some tentative preliminary ideas about the
sexuality portrayed, but you find the questions we just raised. We humans learn
violence in the film offensive. better when we stop frequently to reflect,
rather than just plowing from the top of the
Sure, that should be a good enough page to the bottom without coming up for
answer. But suppose your friend, perhaps air.
being a bit philosophically inclined or simply
curious or argumentative, pursues the Fine. So how would you propose we
matter further by asking you to define what go about defining “critical thinking.” You do
you mean by “offensive violence.” not really want a definition plopped on the
page for you to memorize, do you? That
Take a minute and give it a try. would be silly, almost counterproductive.
How would you define “offensive violence” The goal here is to help you sharpen your
as it applies to movies? Can you write a critical thinking skills and cultivate your
characterization which captures what this critical thinking spirit. While memorization
commonly used concept contains? Take definitely has many valuable uses, fostering
care, though, we would not want to make critical thinking is not among them. So, let’s
the definition so broad that all movie look back at what you might have done to
violence would be automatically “offensive.” define “offensive violence” and see if we
And check to be sure your way of defining can learn from you. Did you think of some
“offensive violence” fits with how the rest of scenes in movies that were offensively
the people who know and use English violent, and did you contrast them with other
would understand the term. Otherwise they scenes that were either not violent or not
will not be able to understand what you offensively violent? If you did, good. That
mean when you use that expression. is one (but not the only) way to approach
the problem. Technically it is called finding
paradigm cases. Happily, like many things

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 2

in life, you do not have to know its name to first things they did was to ask themselves
do it well. the question: Who are the best critical
thinkers we know and what is it about them
Back to critical thinking. What might that leads us to consider them the best?
be some paradigm cases? How about the So, who are the best critical thinkers you
adroit and clever questioning of Socrates? know? Why do you think they are good
Or, what about police detectives, crime critical thinkers? Can you draw from those
scene analysts, or trial lawyers, as examples a description that is more
portrayed in TV dramas and movies? What abstract? For example, consider effective
about people working together to solve a trial lawyers, apart from how they conduct
problem? How about someone who is good their personal lives or whether their client is
at listening to all sides of a dispute, really guilty or innocent, just look at how the
considering all the facts, and then deciding lawyers develop their cases in court. They
what is relevant and what is not, and then use reasons to try to convince the judge and
rendering a thoughtful judgment? And jury of their client’s claim to guilt or
maybe too, someone who is able to innocence. They offer evidence and
summarize complex ideas clearly with evaluate the significance of the evidence
fairness to all sides, or a person who can presented by the opposition lawyers. They
come up with the most coherent and interpret testimony. They analyze and
justifiable explanation of what a passage of evaluate the arguments advanced by the
written material means? Or the person who other side.
can readily devise sensible alternatives to
explore, but who does not become Now, consider the example of the
defensive about abandoning them if they do team of people trying to solve a problem.
not work? And also the person who can The team members, unlike the courtroom’s
explain exactly how a particular conclusion adversarial situation, try to collaborate. The
was reached, or why certain criteria apply? members of an effective team do not
compete against each other. They work in
How Has CT Changed My Life? concert, like colleagues, for the common
goal. Unless they solve the problem, none
"Critical Thinking is my life, of them has won. When they find the way
to solve the problem, they all have won. So,
it's my philosophy of life.
from analyzing just two examples we can
It's how I define myself... I'm generalize something very important: critical
an educator because I think thinking is thinking that has a purpose
these ideas have meaning. (proving a point, interpreting what
I'm convinced that what we something means, solving a problem), but
believe in has to be able to critical thinking can be a collaborative,
stand the test of noncompetitive endeavor. And, by the way,
evaluation." even lawyers collaborate. They can work
together on a common defense or a joint
John Chaffee, author of Critical Thinking prosecution, and they can also cooperate
with each other to get at the truth so that
justice is done.
An international group of experts
was asked to try to form a consensus about
the meaning of critical thinking. One of the
Clurman (Eds.). Whitman Institute. San Francisco, CA.
1 1993.
The quotation from John Chaffee is from
Conversations with Critical Thinkers , John Esterle and Dan

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 3

We will come to a more precise Now, formulate a list of cases —
definition of critical thinking soon enough. people that are clearly good critical thinkers
But first, there is something else we can and clearly poor critical thinkers and some
learn from paradigm examples. When you who are on the borderline. Considering all
were thinking about “offensive violence” did those cases, what is it about them that led
you come up with any examples that were you to decide which were which?
tough to classify? Borderline cases, as it Suggestion: What can the good critical
were — an example that one person might thinkers do (what mental abilities do they
consider offensive but another might have), that the poor critical thinkers have
reasonably regard as non-offensive. Yes, trouble doing? What attitudes or
well, so did we. This is going to happen approaches do the good critical thinkers
with all abstract concepts. It happens with habitually seem to exhibit which the poor
the concept of critical thinking as well. critical thinkers seem not to possess?
There are people of whom we would say, on
certain occasions this person is a good “Very few really seek knowledge in
thinker, clear, logical, thoughtful, attentive to this world. Mortal or immortal, few
the facts, open to alternatives, but, wow, at really ask. On the contrary, they try
other times, look out! When you get this
to wring from the unknown the
person on such-and-such a topic, well it is
all over then. You have pushed some kind answers they have already shaped in
of button and the person does not want to their own minds – justification,
hear what anybody else has to say. The explanations, forms of consolation
person’s mind is made up ahead of time. without which they can’t go on. To
New facts are pushed aside. No other point really ask is to open the door to the
of view is tolerated. whirlwind. The answer may
annihilate the question and the
Do you know any people that might questioner.”
fit that general description?
Spoken by the Vampire Marius in
Good. What can we learn about Ann Rice’s book The Vampire Lestat
critical thinking from such a case? Maybe Ballantine Books. New York, NY. 1985.
more than we can learn from just looking at
the easy cases. For when a case is on the Critical Thinking Skills
borderline, it forces us to make important
distinctions. It confronts us and demands a Above we suggested you look for a
decision: In or Out! And not just that, but list of mental abilities and attitudes or
why? So, our friend who is fair-minded habits, the experts, when faced with the
about some things, but close-minded about same problem you are working on, refer to
others, what to do? Let’s take the parts we their lists as including cognitive skills and
approve of because they seem to us to dispositions. As to the cognitive skills here
contribute to acting rationally and logically is what the experts include as being at the
and include those in the concept of critical very core of critical thinking: interpretation,
thinking, and let’s take the parts that work analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation,
against reason, that close the mind to the and self-regulation. (We will get to the
possibility of new and relevant information, dispositions in just a second.) Did any of
that blindly deny even the possibility that the these words or ideas come up when you
other side might have merit, and call those tried to characterize the cognitive skills —
poor, counterproductive, or uncritical mental abilities — involved in critical
thinking. thinking?

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 4

Quoting from the consensus include examining ideas, detecting
statement of the national panel of experts: arguments, and analyzing arguments as
interpretation is “to comprehend and sub-skills of analysis. Again, can you come
express the meaning or significance of a up with some examples of analysis? What
wide variety of experiences, situations, data, about identifying the similarities and
events, judgments, conventions, beliefs, differences between two approaches to the
rules, procedures, or criteria.” Interpretation solution of a given problem? What about
includes the sub-skills of categorization, picking out the main claim made in a
decoding significance, and clarifying newspaper editorial and tracing back the
meaning. Can you think of examples of
interpretation? How about recognizing a
problem and describing it without bias? Core Critical Thinking Skills
How about reading a person’s intentions in
the expression on her face; distinguishing a
main idea from subordinate ideas in a text; ANALYSIS
constructing a tentative categorization or Critical EXPLANATION
way of organizing something you are
studying; paraphrasing someone’s ideas in Thinking
your own words; or, clarifying what a sign, EVALUATION
chart or graph means? What about SELF-REGULATION
identifying an author’s purpose, theme, or
point of view? How about what you did
above when you clarified what “offensive
violence” meant? various reasons the editor offers in support
of that claim? Or, what about identifying
Again from the experts: analysis is unstated assumptions; constructing a way
“to identify the intended and actual to represent a main conclusion and the
inferential relationships among statements, various reasons given to support or criticize
questions, concepts, descriptions, or other it; sketching the relationship of sentences
forms of representation intended to express or paragraphs to each other and to the main
belief, judgment, experiences, reasons, purpose of the passage? What about
information, or opinions.” The experts graphically organizing this essay, in your
own way, knowing that its purpose is to give
2 a preliminary idea about what critical
The findings of expert consensus cited or thinking means?
reported in this essay are published in Critical
Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for
Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. The experts define evaluation as
Peter A. Facione, principle investigator, The California meaning “to assess the credibility of
Academic Press, Millbrae, CA, 1990. (ERIC ED 315 statements or other representations which
423). In 1993/94 the Center for the Study of Higher
are accounts or descriptions of a person’s
Education at The Pennsylvania State University
undertook a study of 200 policy-makers, employers, perception, experience, situation, judgment,
and faculty members from two-year and four-year belief, or opinion; and to assess the logical
colleges to determine what this group took to be the strength of the actual or intended inferential
core critical thinking skills and habits of mind. The relationships among statements,
Pennsylvania State University Study, under the
direction of Dr. Elizabeth Jones, was funded by the
descriptions, questions or other forms of
US Department of Education Office of Educational representation.” Your examples? How
Research and Instruction. The Penn State study about judging an author’s or speaker’s
findings, published in 1994, confirmed the expert credibility, comparing the strengths and
consensus described in this paper.

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 5

weaknesses of alternative interpretations, related ideas into a coherent perspective.
determining the credibility of a source of How about this: after judging that it would
information, judging if two statements be useful to you to resolve a given
contradict each other, or judging if the uncertainty, developing a workable plan to
evidence at hand supports the conclusion gather that information? Or, when faced
being drawn? Among the examples the with a problem, developing a set of options
experts propose are these: “recognizing the for addressing it. What about, conducting a
factors which make a person a credible controlled experiment scientifically and
witness regarding a given event or a applying the proper statistical methods to
credible authority with regard to a given attempt to confirm or disconfirm an
topic,” “judging if an argument’s conclusion empirical hypothesis?
follows either with certainty or with a high
level of confidence from its premises,” Beyond being able to interpret,
“judging the logical strength of arguments analyze, evaluate and infer, good critical
based on hypothetical situations,” “judging if thinkers can do two more things. They can
a given argument is relevant or applicable explain what they think and how they
or has implications for the situation at arrived at that judgment. And, they can
hand.” apply their powers of critical thinking to
themselves and improve on their previous
Do the people you regard as good opinions. These two skills are called
critical thinkers have the three cognitive “explanation” and “self-regulation.”
skills described so far? Are they good at
interpretation, analysis, and evaluation? The experts define explanation as
What about the next three? And your being able to present in a cogent and
examples of poor critical thinkers, are they coherent way the results of one’s reasoning.
lacking in these cognitive skills? All, or just This means to be able to give someone a
some? full look at the big picture: both “to state and
to justify that reasoning in terms of the
To the experts inference means “to evidential, conceptual, methodological,
identify and secure elements needed to criteriological, and contextual
draw reasonable conclusions; to form considerations upon which one’s results
conjectures and hypotheses; to consider were based; and to present one’s reasoning
relevant information and to educe the in the form of cogent arguments.” The sub-
consequences flowing from data, skills under explanation are describing
statements, principles, evidence, methods and results, justifying procedures,
judgments, beliefs, opinions, concepts, proposing and defending with good reasons
descriptions, questions, or other forms of one’s causal and conceptual explanations
representation.” As sub-skills of inference of events or points of view, and presenting
the experts list querying evidence, full and well-reasoned, arguments in the
conjecturing alternatives, and drawing context of seeking the best understandings
conclusions. Can you think of some possible. Your examples first, please...
examples of inference? You might suggest Here are some more: to construct a chart
things like seeing the implications of the which organizes one’s findings, to write
position someone is advocating, or drawing down for future reference your current
out or constructing meaning from the thinking on some important and complex
elements in a reading. You may suggest matter, to cite the standards and contextual
that predicting what will happen next based factors used to judge the quality of an
what is known about the forces at work in a interpretation of a text, to state research
given situation, or formulating a synthesis of results and describe the methods and

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 6

criteria used to achieve those results, to self-correction. Examples? Easy — to
appeal to established criteria as a way of examine your views on a controversial issue
showing the reasonableness of a given with sensitivity to the possible influences of
judgment, to design a graphic display which your personal biases or self-interest, to
accurately represents the subordinate and check yourself when listening to a speaker
super-ordinate relationship among concepts in order to be sure you are understanding
or ideas, to site the evidence that led you to what the person is really saying without
accept or reject an author’s position on an introducing your own ideas, to monitor how
issue, to list the factors that were well you seem to be understanding or
considered in assigning a final course comprehending what you are reading or
grade. experiencing, to remind yourself to separate
your personal opinions and assumptions
Maybe the most remarkable from those of the author of a passage or
cognitive skill of all, however, is this next text, to double check yourself by
one. This one is remarkable because it recalculating the figures, to vary your
allows good critical thinkers to improve their reading speed and method mindful of the
own thinking. In a sense this is critical type of material and your purpose for
thinking applied to itself. Because of that reading, to reconsider your interpretation or
some people want to call this “meta- judgment in view of further analysis of the
cognition,” meaning it raises thinking to facts of the case, to revise your answers in
another level. But “another level” really view of the errors you discovered in your
does not fully capture it, because at that work, to change your conclusion in view of
next level up what self-regulation does is the realization that you had misjudged the
look back at all the dimensions of critical importance of certain factors when coming
thinking and double check itself. Self- to your earlier decision.
regulation is like a recursive function in
mathematical terms, which means it can The Delphi Method
apply to everything, including itself. You
can monitor and correct an interpretation The panel of experts we keep
you offered. You can examine and correct referring to included forty-six men and
an inference you have drawn. You can women from throughout the United States
review and reformulate one of your own and Canada. They represented many
explanations. You can even examine and different scholarly disciplines in the
correct your ability to examine and correct humanities, sciences, social sciences, and
yourself! How? It is as simple as stepping education. They participated in a research
back and saying to yourself, “How am I project that lasted two years and was
doing? Have I missed anything important? conducted on behalf of the American
Let me double check before I go further.” Philosophical Association. Their work was
published under the title Critical Thinking: A
The experts define self-regulation Statement of Expert Consensus for
to mean “self-consciously to monitor one’s Purposes of Educational Assessment and
cognitive activities, the elements used in Instruction. (The California Academic
those activities, and the results educed, Press, Millbrae, CA, 1990). You may
particularly by applying skills in analysis, download the executive summary of that
and evaluation to one’s own inferential report free. Visit
judgments with a view toward questioning,
confirming, validating, or correcting either
one’s reasoning or one’s results.” The two
sub-skills here are self-examination and

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 7

You might be wondering how such a to good critical thinking. Then we will note a
large group of people could collaborate on point of separation among the experts.
this project over that long a period of time
and at those distances and still come to The Disposition Toward Critical Thinking
consensus. Good question. Remember
we’re talking the days before e-mail. What kind of a person would be apt
to use their critical thinking skills? The
Not only did the group have to rely experts poetically describe such a person
on snail mail during their two-year as having “a critical spirit.” Having a critical
collaboration; they also relied on a method spirit does not mean that the person is
of interaction, known as the Delphi Method, always negative and hypercritical of
which was developed precisely to enable everyone and everything. The experts use
experts to think effectively about something the metaphorical phrase critical spirit in a
over large spans of distance and time. In positive sense. By it they mean “a probing
the Delphi Method a central investigator inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind, a
organizes the group and feeds them an zealous dedication to reason, and a hunger
initial question. [In this case it had to do or eagerness for reliable information.”
with how college level critical thinking Almost sounds like Supreme Court Justice
should be defined so that people teaching Sandra Day O’Connor or Sherlock Holmes
at that level would know which skills and The kind of person being described here is
dispositions to cultivate in their students.] the kind that always wants to ask “Why?” or
The central investigator receives all “How?” or “What happens if?”. The one key
responses, summarizes them, and transmits difference, however, is that in fiction
them back to all the panelists for reactions, Sherlock always solves the mystery, while
replies, and additional questions. in the real world there is no guarantee.
Critical thinking is about how you approach
Wait a minute! These are all well- problems, questions, issues. It is the best
known experts, so what do you do if people way we know of to get to the truth. But!
disagree? And what about the possible There still are no guarantees — no answers
influence of a big name person? Good in the back of the book of real life. Does
points. First, the central investigator takes this characterization, that good critical
precautions to remove names so that the thinkers possess a “critical spirit, a probing
panelists are not told who said what. They inquisitiveness, a keenness of mind...” fit
know who is on the panel, of course. But with your examples of people you would call
that is as far as it goes. After that each good critical thinkers?
experts’ argument has to stand on its own
merits. Second, an expert is only as good But, you might say, I know people
as the arguments she or he gives. So, the who have skills but do not use them. We
central investigator summarizes the cannot call someone a good critical thinker
arguments and lets the panelists decide if just because she or he has these cognitive
they accept them or not. When consensus skills, however important they might be,
appears to be at hand, the central because what if they just do not bother to
investigator proposes this and asks if apply them?
people agree. If not, then points of
disagreement among the experts are One response is to say that it is hard
registered. We want to share with you one to imagine an accomplished dancer who
important example of each of these. First never dances. After working to develop
we will describe the expert consensus view those skills it seems such a shame to let
of the dispositions which are absolutely vital them grow weak with lack of practice. But

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 8

dancers get tired. And they surrender to the what life would be like without the things on
stiffness of age or the fear of injury. In the this list and we think you will understand.
case of critical thinking skills, we might The approaches to life and living which
argue that not using them once you have characterize critical thinking include:
them is hard to imagine. It̓s hard to imagine
a person deciding not to think. * inquisitiveness with regard to a wide range of
Considered as a form of thoughtful * concern to become and remain well-informed,
judgment or reflective decision-making, in a * alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking,
very real sense critical thinking is * trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry,
pervasive. There is hardly a time or a * self-confidence in one’s own abilities to reason,
place where it would not seem to be of * open-mindedness regarding divergent world views,
potential value. As long as people have * flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions
purposes in mind and wish to judge how to * understanding of the opinions of other people,
accomplish them, as long as people wonder * fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning,
* honesty in facing one’s own biases, prejudices,
what is true and what is not, what to believe
stereotypes, or egocentric tendencies,
and what to reject, good critical thinking is
* prudence in suspending, making or altering
going to be necessary.
* willingness to reconsider and revise views where
And yet weird things happen, so it is
honest reflection suggests that change is
probably true that some people might let
their thinking skills grow dull. It is easier to
imagine times when people are just too
tired, too lax, or too frightened. But imagine What would someone be like who
it you can, Young Skywalker, so there has lacked those dispositions?
to be more to critical thinking than just the
list of cognitive skills. Human beings are It might be someone who does not
more than thinking machines. And this care about much of anything, is not
brings us back to those all-important interested in the facts, prefers not to think,
attitudes which the experts called mistrusts reasoning as a way of finding
“dispositions.” things out or solving problems, holds his or
her own reasoning abilities in low esteem, is
The experts were persuaded that close-minded, inflexible, insensitive, cannot
critical thinking is a pervasive and understand what others think, is unfair when
purposeful human phenomenon. The ideal it comes to judging the quality of arguments,
critical thinker can be characterized not denies his or her own biases, jumps to
merely by her or his cognitive skills but also conclusions or delays too long in making
by how she or he approaches life and living judgments, and never is willing to
in general. This is a bold claim. Critical reconsider an opinion. Not someone
thinking goes way beyond the classroom. prudent people would want to ask to
In fact, many of the experts fear that some manage their investments!
of the things people experience in school
are actually harmful to the development and The experts went beyond
cultivation of good critical thinking. Critical approaches to life and living in general to
thinking came before schooling was ever emphasize that good critical thinkers can
invented, it lies at the very roots of also be described in terms of how they
civilization. It is a corner stone in the approach specific issues, questions, or
journey human kind is taking from beastly problems. The experts said you would find
savagery to global sensitivity. Consider these sorts of characteristics:

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 9

“I hold off making decisions until I have
* clarity in stating the question or concern, thought through my options.”
* orderliness in working with complexity, “Rather than relying on someone else's
notes, I prefer to read the material myself.”
* diligence in seeking relevant information, “I try to see the merit in another’s opinion,
* reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria, even if I reject it later.”
* care in focusing attention on the concern at hand, “Even if a problem is tougher than I
* persistence though difficulties are encountered, expected, I will keep working on it.”
* precision to the degree permitted by the subject and “Making intelligent decisions is more
important than winning arguments.”
the circumstances.

A person with weak critical thinking

So, how would a poor critical thinker dispositions would probably disagree with
approach specific problems or issues? the statements above but be likely to agree
Obviously, by being muddle-headed about with these:
what he or she is doing, disorganized and
overly simplistic, spotty about getting the “I prefer jobs where the supervisor says
facts, apt to apply unreasonable criteria, exactly what to do and exactly how to do it."
easily distracted, ready to give up at the “No matter how complex the problem, you
least hint of difficulty, intent on a solution can bet there will be a simple solution.”
"I don't waste time looking things up."
that is more detailed than is possible, or “I hate when teachers discuss problems
being satisfied with an overly generalized instead of just giving the answers.”
and uselessly vague response. Remind you “If my belief is truly sincere, evidence to the
of anyone you know? contrary is irrelevant."
“Selling an idea is like selling cars, you say
whatever works."

Someone strongly disposed toward We used the expression “strong

critical thinking would probably agree with critical thinker” to contrast with the
statements like these: expression “weak critical thinker.” But you
will find people who drop the adjective
“strong” (or “good”) and just say that
The Disposition Toward Critical Thinking someone is a “critical thinker” or not. It is
like saying that a soccer (European
Inquisitive “football”) player is a “defender” or “not a
defender”, instead of saying the player’s
Systematic Judicious skills at playing defense are strong or weak.
People use the word “defender” in place of
the phrase “is good at playing defense.”
Analytical Similarly, people use “critical thinker” in
place of “is a good critical thinker” or “has
strong critical thinking skills.” This is not
Open-minded Confident In Reasoning only a helpful conversational shortcut, it
suggests that to many people “critical
thinker” has a laudatory sense. The word
can be used to praise someone at the same
“I hate talk shows where people shout their
opinions but never give any reasons at all.”
time that it identifies the person, as in “Look
“Figuring out what people really mean by at that play. That’s what I call a defender!”
what they say is important to me."
“I always do better in jobs where I'm
expected to think things out for myself.”

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 10

“If we were compelled to make a The large majority, however, hold
choice between these personal the opposite judgment. They are firm in the
attributes and knowledge about view that good critical thinking has nothing
to do with any given set of cultural beliefs,
the principles of logical
religious tenants, ethical values, social
reasoning together with some mores, political orientations, or orthodoxies
degree of technical skill in of any kind. Rather, the commitment one
manipulating special logical makes as a good critical thinker is to always
processes, we should decide for seek the truth with objectivity, integrity, and
the former.” fair-mindedness. The majority of experts
maintain that critical thinking conceived of
John Dewey, How We Think, 1909. Republished as as we have described it above, is,
How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of regrettably, not inconsistent with abusing
Reflective Thinking to the Educational Process. D. C. one’s knowledge, skills, or power. There
Heath Publishing. Lexington, MA. 1933.
have been people with superior thinking
skills and strong habits of mind who,
unfortunately, have used their talents for
We said the experts did not come to
ruthless, horrific, and immoral purposes.
full agreement on something. That thing
Would that it were not so. Would that
has to do with the concept of a “good critical
experience, knowledge, mental horsepower,
thinker.” This time the emphasis is on the
and ethical virtue were all one and the
word “good” because of a crucial ambiguity
same. But from the time of Socrates, if not
it contains. A person can be good at critical
thousands of years before that, humans
thinking, meaning that the person can have
have known that many of us have one or
the appropriate dispositions and be adept at
more of these without having the full set.
the cognitive processes, while still not being
a good (in the moral sense) critical thinker.
Any tool, any approach to situations,
For example, a person can be adept at
can go either way, ethically speaking,
developing arguments and then, unethically,
depending on the character, integrity, and
use this skill to mislead and exploit a gullible
principles of the persons who possess
person, perpetrate a fraud, or deliberately
them. So, in the final analysis the majority
confuse and confound, and frustrate a
of experts maintained that we cannot say a
person is not thinking critically simply
because we disapprove ethically of what the
The experts were faced with an
person is doing. The majority concluded
interesting problem. Some, a minority,
that, “what ‘critical thinking’ means, why it is
would prefer to think that critical thinking, by
of value, and the ethics of its use are best
its very nature, is inconsistent with the kinds
regarded as three distinct concerns.”
of unethical and deliberately
counterproductive examples given. They
find it hard to imagine a person who was
Perhaps this realization forms part of
good at critical thinking not also being good
the basis for why people these days are
in the broader personal and social sense.
demanding a broader range of learning
In other words, if a person were “really” a
outcomes from our schools and colleges.
“good critical thinker” in the procedural
“Knowledge and skills,” the staples of the
sense and if the person had all the
educational philosophy of the mid-twentieth
appropriate dispositions, then the person
century, are not sufficient. We must look to
simply would not do those kinds of
a broader set of outcomes including habits
exploitive and aggravating things.
of mind and dispositions, such as civic

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 11

engagement, concern for the common the science from the pseudo-science – the
good, and social responsibility. kernel of enduring truth from the latest
“Thinking” in Popular Culture cocktail party banter.

We have said so many good things “Thinking” in Cognitive Science

about critical thinking that you might have
the impression that “critical thinking” and Theories emerging from more
“good thinking” mean the same thing. But scientific studies of human thinking and
that is not what the experts said. They see decision-making in recent years propose
critical thinking as making up part of what that thinking is more integrated and less
we mean by good thinking, but not as being dualistic than the notions in popular culture
the only kind of good thinking. For example, suggest. We should be cautious about
they would have included creative thinking proposals suggesting oversimplified ways of
as part of good thinking. understanding how humans think. We
should avoid harsh, rigid dichotomies such
Creative or innovative thinking is the as “reason vs. emotion,” “intuitive vs. linear,”
kind of thinking that leads to new insights, “creativity vs. criticality,” “right brained vs.
novel approaches, fresh perspectives, left brained,” “as on Mars vs. as on Venus.”
whole new ways of understanding and
conceiving of things. The products of There is often a kernel of wisdom in
creative thought include some obvious popular beliefs, and perhaps that gem this
things like music, poetry, dance, dramatic time is the realization that some times we
literature, inventions, and technical decide things very quickly almost as
innovations. But there are some not so spontaneous, intuitive, reactions to the
obvious examples as well, such as ways of situation at hand. Many accidents on the
putting a question that expand the horizons freeways of this nation are avoided
of possible solutions, or ways of conceiving precisely because drivers are able to see
of relationships which challenge and react to dangerous situations so
presuppositions and lead one to see the quickly. Many good decisions which feel
world in imaginative and different ways. intuitive are really the fruit of expertise.
Decisions good drivers make in those
The experts working on the concept moments of crisis, just like the decisions
of critical thinking wisely left open the entire which practiced athletes make in the flow of
question of what the other forms good a game or the decisions that a gifted
thinking might take. Creative thinking is teacher makes as she or he interacts with
only one example. There is a kind of students, are borne of expertise, training,
purposive, kinetic thinking that instantly and practice.
coordinates movement and intention as, for
example, when an athlete dribbles a soccer At the same time that we are
ball down the field during a match. There is immersed in the world around us and in our
a kind of meditative thinking which may daily lives, constantly making decisions
lead to a sense of inner peace or to unreflectively, we may also be thinking quite
profound insights about human existence. reflectively about something. Perhaps we’re
In contrast, there is a kind of hyper-alert, worried about a decision which we have to
instinctive thinking needed by soldiers in make about an important project at work, or
battle. In the context of popular culture one about a personal relationship, or about a
finds people proposing all kinds of thinking legal matter, whatever. We gather
or this-kind of intelligence or that-kind of information, consider our options, explore
intelligence. Some times it is hard to sort out possibilities, formulate some thoughts about

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 12

what we propose to do and why this choice ahead, to consider options carefully, to
is the right one. In other words, we make a review and revise our work in the light of
purposeful, reflective judgment about what relevant guidelines or standards or rules of
to believe or what to do – precisely the kind procedure. While System 2 decisions are
of judgment which is the focus of critical also influenced by the correct or incorrect
thinking. application of heuristic maneuvers, this is
the system which relies on well articulated
Recent integrative models of human reasons and more fully developed evidence.
decision-making propose that the thinking It is reasoning based on what we have
processes of our species is not best learned through careful analysis, evaluation,
described as a conflictive duality as in explanation, and self-correction. This is the
“intuitive vs. reflective” but rather an system which values intellectual honesty,
integrative functioning of two mutually analytically anticipating what happens next,
supportive systems “intuitive and reflective.” maturity of judgment, fair-mindedness,
These two systems of thinking are present elimination of biases, and truth-seeking.
in all of us and can act in parallel to process This is the system which we rely on to think
cognitively the matters over which we are carefully trough complex, novel, high-
deciding. stakes, and highly integrative problems.

One system is more intuitive, Educators urge us to improve our

reactive, quick and holistic. So as not to critical thinking skills and to reinforce our
confuse things with the notions of thinking in disposition to use those skills because that
popular culture, cognitive scientists often is perhaps the best way to develop and
name this system, “System 1.” The other refine our System 2 reasoning.
(yes, you can guess its name) is more
deliberative, reflective, computational and System 1 and System 2 are both
rule governed. You are right, it is called believed to be vital decision-making tools
“System 2.” when stakes are high and when uncertainty
is an issue. Each of these two cognitive
In System 1 thinking, one relies systems are believed to be capable of
heavily on a number of heuristics (cognitive functioning to monitor and potentially
maneuvers), key situational characteristics, override the other. This is one of the ways
readily associated ideas, and vivid our species reduces the chance of making
memories to arrive quickly and confidently foolish, sub-optimal or even dangerous
at a judgment. System 1 thinking is errors in judgment. Human thinking is far
particularly helpful in familiar situations from perfect. Even a good thinker makes
when time is short and immediate action is both System 1 and 2 errors. At times we
required. misinterpret things, or we get our facts
wrong, and we make mistakes as a result.
While System 1 is functioning, But often our errors are directly related to
another powerful system is also at work,
that is, unless we shut it down by abusing 3
alcohol or drugs, or with fear or indifference. To learn more about this integrative model
of thinking and about cognitive heuristics, which will
Called “System 2,” this is our more
be described next, you may wish to consult the
reflective thinking system. It is useful for references listed at the end of this essay. The material
making judgments when you find yourself in presented in this section is derived from these books
unfamiliar situations and have more time to and related publications by many of these same
figure things out. It allows us to process authors and others working to scientifically explain
how humans actually make decisions.
abstract concepts, to deliberate, to plan

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 13

the influences and misapplications of people associate the word “cancer” with
cognitive heuristics. Because we share the “death.” Some associate “sunshine” with
propensity to use these heuristics as we “happiness.” These kinds of associational
make decisions, let’s examine how some of reasoning responses can be helpful at
them influence us. times, as for example if associating cancer
with death leads you not to smoke and to go
Cognitive heuristics are thinking in for regular checkups. At other times the
maneuvers which, at times, appear to be same association may influence a person to
almost hardwired into our species. They make an unwise decision, as for example if
influence both systems of thinking, the associating “cancer” with “death” were to
intuitive thinking of System 1 and the lead you to be so fearful and pessimistic
reflective reasoning of System 2. Five that you do not seek diagnosis and
heuristics often seem to be more frequently treatment of a worrisome cancer symptom
operating in our System 1 reasoning are until it was really too late to do anything.
known as availability, affect, association,
simulation, and similarity. The Simulation heuristic is working
when you are imagining how various
Availability, the coming to mind of a scenarios will unfold. People often imagine
story or vivid memory of something that how a conversation will go, or how they will
happened to you or to someone close to be treated by someone else when they
you, inclines a person make inaccurate meet the person, or what their friends or
estimates of the likelihood of that thing’s boss or lover will say and do when they
happening again. People tell stories of have to address some difficult issue. These
things that happened to themselves or their simulations, like movies in our heads, help
friends all the time as a way of explaining us prepare and do a better job when the
their own decisions. The stories may not be difficult moment arrives. But they can also
scientifically representative, the events may lead us to have mistaken expectations.
be mistaken, misunderstood, or People may not respond as we imagined,
misinterpreted. But all that aside, the power things may go much differently. Our
of the story is to guide, often in a good way, preparations may fail us because the ease
the decision toward one choice rather than of our simulation misled us into thinking that
another. things would have to go as we had
imagined them. And they did not.
The Affect heuristic operates when
you have an immediate positive or an The Similarity heuristic operates
negative reaction to some idea, proposal, when we notice some way in which we are
person, object, whatever. Sometimes called like someone else and infer that what
a “gut reaction” this affective response sets happened to that person is therefore more
up an initial orientation in us, positive or likely to happen to us. The similarity
negative, toward the object. It takes a lot of heuristic functions much like an analogical
System 2 reasoning to overcome a powerful argument or metaphorical model. The
affective response to an idea, but it can be similarity we focus on might be fundamental
done. And at times it should be, because and relevant, which would make the
there is no guarantee that your gut reaction inference more warranted. For example, the
is always right. boss fired your coworker for missing sales
targets and you draw the reasonable
The Association heuristic is conclusion that if you miss your sales
operating when one word or idea reminds targets you’ll be fired too. Or the similarity
us of something else. For example, some that comes to mind might be superficial or

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 14

not connected with the outcome, which freedom, they do not want to lose their lives,
would make the inference unwarranted. For their families, their jobs, their possessions.
example you see a TV commercial showing High stakes gambling is best left to those
trim-figured young people enjoying fattening who can afford to lose the money. Las
fast foods and infer that because you’re Vegas didn’t build all those multi-million
young too you can indulge your cravings for dollar casino hotels because vacationers
fast foods without gaining a lot of excess are winning all the time! And so, in real life,
unsightly poundage. we take precautions. We avoid
unnecessary risks. The odds may not be
Heuristics and biases often stacked against us, but the consequences
appearing to be somewhat more associated of losing at times are so great that we would
with System 2 thinking include: satisficing, prefer to forego the possibilities of gain in
risk/loss aversion, anchoring with order not to lose what we have. And yet, on
adjustment, and the illusion of control. occasion this can be a most unfortunate
decision too. History has shown time and
Satisficing occurs as we consider time again that businesses which avoid
our alternatives. When we come to one risks often are unable to compete
which is good enough to fulfill our objectives successfully with those willing to move more
we often regard ourselves as having boldly into new markets or into new product
completed our deliberations. We have lines.
satisficed. And why not? The choice is,
after all, good enough. It may not be Any heuristic is only a maneuver,
perfect, it may not be optimal, it may not perhaps a shortcut or impulse to think or act
even be the best among the options in one way rather than another, but certainly
available. But it is good enough. Time to not a failsafe rule. It may work out well
decide and move forward. much of the time to rely on the heuristic, but
it will not work out for the best all of the
The running mate of satisficing is time.
temporizing. Temporizing is deciding that
the option which we have come to is “good For example, people with something
enough for now.” We often move through to lose tend toward conservative choices
life satisficing and temporizing. At times we politically as well as economically. Nothing
look back on our situations and wonder why wrong with that necessarily. Just an
it is that we have settled for far less than we observation about the influence of Loss
might have. If we had only studied harder, Aversion heuristic on actual decision
worked out a little more, taken better care of making. We are more apt to endure the
ourselves and our relationships, perhaps we status quo, even as it slowly deteriorates,
would not be living as we are now. But, at than we are to call for “radical” change.
the time each of the decisions along the Regrettably, however, when the call for
way was “good enough for the time being.” change comes, it often requires a far
greater upheaval to make the necessary
We are by nature a species that is transformations, or, on occasion, the
averse to risk and loss. Often we make situation has deteriorated beyond the point
decisions on the basis of what we are too of no return. In those situations we find
worried about losing, rather than on the ourselves wondering why we waited so long
basis of what we might gain. This works out before doing something.
to be a rather serviceable approach in many
circumstances. People do not want to lose The heuristic known as Anchoring
control, they do not want to lose their with Adjustment is operative when we find

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 15

ourselves making evaluative judgments. accident. But at times we simply are
The natural thing for us to do is to locate or mistaken about our ability to actually
anchor our evaluation at some point along exercise full control over a situation. Sadly
whatever scale we are using. For example, we might become ill even if we do work hard
a professor says that the student’s paper is to take good care of ourselves. Or we may
a C+. Then, as other information comes our be involved in an accident even if we are
way, we may adjust that judgment. The sober. Our business may fail even if we
professor, for example, may decide that the work very hard to make it a success. We
paper is as good as some others that were may not do as well on an exam as we might
given a B-, and so adjust the grade upward. hope even if we study hard.
The interesting thing about this heuristic, is
that we do not normally start over with a Related to the Illusion of Control
fresh evaluation. We have dropped anchor heuristic is the tendency to misconstrue our
and we may drag it upward or downward a personal influence or responsibility for past
bit, but we do not pull it off the bottom of the events. This is called Hindsight Bias. We
sea to relocate our evaluation. First may over-estimate the influence our actions
impressions, as the saying goes, cannot be have had on events when things go right, or
undone. The good thing about this heuristic we may underestimate our responsibility or
is that it permits us to move on. We have culpability when things go wrong. We have
done the evaluation; there are other papers all heard people bragging about how they
to grade, other projects to do, other things did this and how they did that and, as a
in life that need attention. We could not result, such and such wonderful things
long endure if we had to constantly re- happened. We made these great plans and
evaluate every thing anew. The unfortunate look how well our business did financially.
thing about this heuristic is that we Which may be true when the economy is
sometimes drop anchor in the wrong place; strong; but not when the economy is failing.
we have a hard time giving people a second It is not clear how much of that success
chance at making a good first impression. came from the planning and how much
came from the general business
The heuristic known as Illusion of environment. Or, we have all been in the
Control is evident in many situations. Many room when it was time to own up for some
of us over-estimate our abilities to control thing that went wrong and thought to
what will happen. We make plans for how ourselves, hey, I may have had some part in
we are going to do this or that, say this or this, but it was not entirely my fault. “It
that, manipulate the situation this way or wasn’t my fault the children were late for
that way, share or not share this information school, hey I was dressed and ready to go
or that possibility, all the time thinking that at the regular time.” As if seeing that the
some how our petty plans will enable us to family was running late I had no
control what happens. We act as if others responsibility to take some initiative and
are dancing on the ends of the strings that help out.
we are pulling, when in actuality the
influences our words or actions have on “Insanity is doing the same thing
future events may be quite negligible. At over and over again while expecting
times we do have some measure of control.
a different outcome.”
For example we may exercise, not smoke,
and watch our diet in order to be more fit
and healthy. We are careful not to drink if Albert Einstein
we are planning to drive so that we reduce
the risks of being involved in a traffic

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 16

Research on our shared heuristic to explain how people decide on an option
patterns of decision-making does not aim to with such conviction that they stick to their
evaluate these patterns as necessarily good decision over time and with such confidence
or bad patterns of thinking. I fear that my that they act on that decision, the concept
wording of them above may not have been that what we do is build a Dominance
as entirely neutral and descriptive as Structure has been put forth. In a nutshell
perhaps it should have been. In truth, this theory suggests that when we settle on
reliance on heuristics can be an efficient a particular option which is good enough we
ways of deciding things, given how very tend to elevate its merits and diminish its
complicated our lives are. We cannot flaws relative to the other options. We raise
devote maximal cognitive resources to it up in our minds until it becomes for us the
every single decision we make. dominant option. In this way, as our
Those of us who study these decision takes shape, we gain confidence in
heuristic thinking phenomena are simply our choice and we feel justified in
trying to document how we humans do dismissing the other options, even though
think. There are many useful purposes for the objective distance between any of them
doing this. For example, if we find that and our dominant option may not be very
people repeatedly make a given kind of great at all. But we become invested in our
mistake when thinking about a commonly dominant option to the extent that we are
experienced problem, then we might find able to put the other possibilities aside and
ways to intervene and to help ourselves not act on the basis of our choice. In fact, it
repeat that error over and over again. comes to dominate the other options in our
minds so much that we are able to sustain
This research on the actual patterns our decision to act over a period of time,
of thinking used by individuals and by rather than going back to re-evaluate or
groups might prove particularly valuable to reconsider constantly. Understanding the
those who seek interventions which could natural phenomenon of dominance
improve how we make our own heath care structuring can help us appreciate why it
decisions, how we make business can be so difficult for us to get others to
decisions, how we lead teams of people to change their minds, or why it seems that our
work more effectively in collaborative reasons for our decisions are so much
settings, and the like. better than any of the objections which
others might make to our decisions. This is
Popular culture offers one other not to say that we are right or wrong.
myth about decision-making which is worth Rather, this is only to observe that human
questioning. And that is the belief that beings are capable of unconsciously
when we make reflective decisions we building up defenses around their choices
carefully weigh each of our options, giving which can result in the warranted or
due consideration to all of them in turn, unwarranted confidence to act on the basis
before deciding which we will adopt. of those choices.
Although perhaps it should be, research on
human decision-making shows that this Realizing the power of dominance
simply is not what happens. When seeking structuring, one can only be more
committed to the importance of education
Henry Montgomery, “From cognition to and critical thinking. We should do all that
action: The search for dominance in decision making.” we can to inform ourselves fully and to
In Process and Structure in Human Decision-Making, reflect carefully on our choices before we
Montgomery H, Svenson O (Eds). John Wiley & Sons: make them, because we are, after all,
Chichester, UK, 1989.
human and we are as likely as the next

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 17

person to believe that we are right and they correlated with college GPA. It has also
are wrong once the dominance structure been shown that critical thinking skills can
begins to be erected. Braking through that be learned, which suggests that as one
to fix bad decisions, which is possible, can learns them one’s GPA might well improve.
be much harder than getting things right in In further support of this hypothesis is the
the first place. significant correlation between critical
thinking and reading comprehension.
There are more heuristics than only Improvements in the one are paralleled by
those mentioned above. There is more to improvements in the other. Now if you can
learn about dominance structuring as it read better and think better, might you not
occurs in groups as well as in individuals, do better in your classes, learn more, and
and how to mitigate the problems which get better grades. It is, to say the least,
may arise by prematurely settling on a very plausible.
“good enough” option, or about how to craft
educational programs or interventions which Learning, Critical Thinking, and Our
help people be more effective in their Nation’s Future
System 1 and System 2 thinking. There is
much to learn about human thinking and “The future now belongs to societies
how to optimize it in individuals of different that organize themselves for learning...
ages; how to optimize the thinking of groups nations that want high incomes and full
of peers and groups where organizational employment must develop policies that
hierarchies influence interpersonal emphasize the acquisition of knowledge
dynamics. And, happily, there is a lot we and skills by everyone, not just a select
know today about human thinking and
decision-making that we did not know a few Ray Marshall & Marc Tucker, Thinking For A Living:
years ago. Education And The Wealth of Nations, Basic Books. New
York. 1992.

Which brings us to the final

question, “Why is critical thinking of But what a limited benefit — better
particular value?” grades. Who really cares in the long run?
Two years after college, five years out, what
Let us start with you first. Why does GPA really mean? Right now college
would it be of value to you to have the level technical and professional programs
cognitive skills of interpretation, analysis, have a half-life of about four years, which
evaluation, inference, explanation, and self- means that the technical content is
regulation? expanding so fast and changing so much

Why would it be of value to you to 5

Findings regarding the effectiveness of
learn to approach life and to approach
critical thinking instruction, and correlations with GPA
specific concerns with the critical thinking and reading ability are reported in “Technical Report
dispositions listed above? Would you have #1, Experimental Validation and Content Validity”
greater success in your work? Would you (ERIC ED 327 549), “Technical Report #2, Factors
get better grades? Predictive of CT Skills” (ERIC ED 327 550), and
“Gender, Ethnicity, Major, CT Self-Esteem, and the
California Critical Thinking Skills Test” (ERIC ED 326
Actually the answer to the grades 584). All by Peter A. Facione and published by the
question, scientifically speaking, is very California Academic Press, Millbrae, CA, 1990. These
possibly, Yes! A study of over 1100 college reports are available as PDF files downloadable from
students shows that scores on a college or from
the author via e-mail attachments.
level critical thinking skills test significantly

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 18

that in about four years after graduation to make their own contributions to
your professional training will be in serious knowledge and to society. [Being a
need of renewal. So, if the only thing a professor is a curious job — the more
college is good for is to get the entry level effective you are as a teacher, less your
training and the credential needed for some students require your aid in learning.]
job, then college would be a time-limited
value. Liberal education is about learning
to learn, to think for yourself, on your own
and in collaboration with others. Liberal
“Critical thinking is the education leads us away from naive
acceptance of authority, above self-
process of purposeful, self- defeating relativism, and beyond ambiguous
regulatory judgment. This contextualism. It culminates in principled
process reasoned reflective judgment. Learning critical
consideration to evidence, thinking, cultivating the critical spirit, is not
just a means to this end, it is part of the goal
context, conceptualizations, itself. People who are poor critical thinkers,
methods, and criteria.” who lack the dispositions and skills
described, cannot be said to be liberally
The APA Delphi Report, educated, regardless of the academic
Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert degrees they may hold.
Consensus for Purposes of Educational
Assessment and Instruction Yes, there is much more to a liberal
1990 ERIC Doc. NO.: ED 315 423
education, than critical thinking. There is an
understanding of the methods, principles,
theories and ways of achieving knowledge
Is that the whole story? A job is a
which are proper to the different intellectual
good thing, but is that what a college
realms. There is an encounter with the
education is all about, getting started in a
cultural, artistic and spiritual dimensions of
good job? Maybe some cannot see its
life. There is the evolution of one’s decision
further value, but many do. A main
making to the level of principled integrity
purpose, if not the main purpose, of the
and concern for the common good and
collegiate experience, at either the two-year
social justice. There is the realization of the
or the four-year level, is to achieve what
ways all our lives are shaped by global as
people have called a “liberal education.”
well as local political, social, psychological,
Not liberal in the sense of a smattering of
economic, environmental, and physical
this and that for no particular purpose
forces. There is the growth that comes from
except to fulfill the unit requirement. But
the interaction with cultures, languages,
liberal in the sense of “liberating.” And who
ethnic groups, religions, nationalities, and
is being liberated? You! Liberated from a
social classes other than one’s own. There
kind of slavery. But from whom?
is the refinement of one’s humane
sensibilities through reflection on the
From professors. Actually from
recurring questions of human existence,
dependence on professors so that they no
meaning, love, life and death. There is the
longer stand as infallible authorities
sensitivity, appreciation and critical
delivering opinions beyond our capacity to
appraisal of all that is good and all that is
challenge, question, and dissent. In fact,
bad in the human condition. As the mind
this is exactly what the professors want.
awakens and matures, and the proper
They want their students to excel on their
nurturing and educational nourishment is
own, to go beyond what is currently known,

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 19

provided, these others central parts of a does not value and cultivate critical thinking,
liberal education develop as well. Critical we might reasonably expect that in time the
thinking plays an essential role in achieving judicial system and the economic system
these purposes. would collapse. And, in such a society, one
that does not liberate its citizens by
Any thing else? What about going teaching them to think critically for
beyond the individual to the community? themselves, it would be madness to
advocate democratic forms of government.
The experts say critical thinking is Is it any wonder that business and
fundamental to, if not essential for, “a civic leaders are maybe even more
rational and democratic society.” What interested in critical thinking than
might the experts mean by this? educators? Critical thinking employed by an
informed citizenry is a necessary condition
Well, how wise would democracy be for the success of democratic institutions
if people abandoned critical thinking? and for competitive free-market economic
Imagine an electorate that cared not for the enterprise. These values are so important
facts, that did not wish to consider the pros that it is in the national interest that we
and cons of the issues, or if they did, had should try to educate all citizens so that
not the brain power to do so. Imagine your they can learn to think critically. Not just for
life and the lives of your friends and family their own personal good, but for the good of
placed in the hands of juries and judges the rest of us too.
who let their biases and stereotypes govern
their decisions, who do not attend to the Generalizing, imagine a society, say,
evidence, who are not interested in for example, the millions of people living in
reasoned inquiry, who do not know how to the Los Angeles basin, or in New York and
draw an inference or evaluate one. Without along the east coast, or in Chicago, or
critical thinking people would be more easily Mexico City, Cairo, Rome, Tokyo, Baghdad,
exploited not only politically but Moscow, Beijing, or Hong Kong. They are,
economically. The impact of abandoning de facto, entirely dependent upon one
critical thinking would not be confined to the another, and on hundreds of thousands of
micro-economics of the household checking other people as well for their external
account. Suppose the people involved in supplies of food and water, for their survival.
international commerce were lacking in Now imagine that these millions permitted
critical thinking skills, they would be unable their schools and colleges to stop teaching
to analyze and interpret the market trends, people how to think critically and effectively.
evaluate the implications of interest Imagine that because of war, or AIDS, or
fluctuations, or explain the potential impact famine, or religious conviction, parents
of those factors which influence large scale could not or would not teach their children
production and distribution of goods and how to think critically. Imagine the social
materials. Suppose these people were and political strife, the falling apart of
unable to draw the proper inferences from fundamental systems of public safety and
the economic facts, or unable to properly public health, the loss of any scientific
evaluate the claims made by the understanding of disease control or
unscrupulous and misinformed. In such a agricultural productivity, the emergence of
situation serious economic mistakes would paramilitary gangs, strong men, and petty
be made. Whole sectors of the economy warlords seeking to protect themselves and
would become unpredictable, and large their own by acquiring control over what
scale economic disaster would become food and resources they can and destroying
extremely likely. So, given a society that those who stand in their path.

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 20

leaders who, instead of encouraging critical
Look at what has happened around thinking, were content to make knowingly
the world in places devastated by economic irrational, illogical, prejudicial, unreflective,
embargoes, one-sided warfare, or the short-sighted, and unreasonable decisions.
AIDS epidemic. Or, consider the problem of
global warming, and how important it is for How long might it take for the people
all of us to cooperate with efforts to curtail in this society which does not value critical
our uses of fossil fuels in order to reduce thinking to be at serious risk of foolishly
emissions of greenhouse gases. harming themselves and each other?

Consider the “cultural revolutions” In 2007 world news reports spoke of

undertaken by totalitarian rulers. Notice how school buildings and teachers being shot
in virtually every case absolutist and terrorists and violently extreme religious
dictatorial despots seek ever more severe zealots. Education which includes a good
limitations on free expression. They label measure of critical thinking skills and
“liberal” intellectuals “dangers to society” dispositions like truth-seeking and open-
and expel “radical” professors from teaching mindedness, is a problem for terrorists and
posts because they might “corrupt the extremists because they want to have
youth.” Some use the power of their complete control of what people think. Their
governmental or religious authority to crush methods include indoctrination, intimidation,
not only their opposition but the moderates and the strictest authoritarian orthodoxy. In
as well -- all in the name of maintaining the the “black-and-white” world of “us vs. them”
purity of their movement. They intimidate a good education would mean that the
journalists and those media outlets which people might begin to think for themselves.
dare to comment “negatively” on their And that is something these extremists do
political and cultural goals or their heavy not want.
handed methods.
History shows that assaults on
The historical evidence is there for learning, whether by book burning, exile of
us to see what happens when schools are intellectuals, or regulations aimed at
closed or converted from places of suppressing research and frustrating the
education to places for indoctrination. We fair-minded, evidence-based, and unfettered
know what happens when children are no pursuit of knowledge, can happen wherever
longer being taught truth-seeking, the skills and whenever people are not vigilant
of good reasoning, or the lessons of human defenders of open, objective, and
history and basic science: Cultures independent inquiry.
disintegrate; communities collapse; the
machinery of civilization fails; massive Does this mean that society should
numbers of people die; and sooner or later place a very high value on critical thinking?
social and political chaos ensues.
Or, imagine a media, a religious or
political hegemony which cultivated, Does this mean society has the right
instead of critical thinking, all the opposite to force someone to learn to think critically?
dispositions? Or consider if that hegemony
reinforced uncritical, impulsive decision Maybe.
making and the “ready-shoot-aim” approach
to executive action. Imagine governmental But, really, should we have to?
structures, administrators, and community

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 21


“We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which

results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as
explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or
contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as
a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful
resource in one’s personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good
thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal
critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-
minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases,
prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in
complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the
selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which
are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus,
educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines
developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield
useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.”


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Six Steps to Effective Thinking and Problem-Solving


Identify the problem. — “What’s the real question we’re facing here?”
Define the context. — “What are the facts and circumstances that frame this problem?”
Enumerate choices. — “What are our most plausible three or four options?”
Analyze options. — “What is our best course of action, all things considered?”
List reasons explicitly. — “Let’s be clear: Why we are making this particular choice?”
Self-correct. — “Okay, let’s look at it again. What did we miss?”

5 What’s and a Why

Critical Thinking: What It is and Why it Counts 2007 update Page 23