Thursday, January 20, 2011

(PTL) Defining, Justifying Critical Thinking (CT)

A series of brief articles by several top contributors to the CT literature (Norris, McPeck, Ennis, Siegel, and McCarthy; follow links at the close of Norris' essay to access the others):

And on today's Huffington Post: Nearly half of all college students not exhibiting any noticeable improvement in their "critical thinking skills"


  1. I think analyzing "critical thinking" in noun form is somewhat misleading; many of the properties that we could empirically observe in a critical thinker do not speak to the fundamental activity and power behind a critical thinker's behaviors. It is the thought processes and the manner in which reasoning is conducted that truly speaks to the notion of critical thinking.

    I believe that critical thinking involves:

    1) Sustained, concentrated thinking
    2) Use of logic/reason
    3) Processing a larger number of variables than present on the surface
    4) The goal not just to support one already known position/conclusion, but to judge the viability of all feasible conclusions.

    Working from this definition of the verb, I can better understand exactly what a person needs in order to be a critical thinker (large body of knowledge, motivation to think, and a liberal and accepting attitude towards other perspectives). If I merely observed critical thinkers, I could get lost in their (often inconsistent) array of virtues and behaviors.

    The question turns to how best to develop these capacities in students. Usually, none of these skills are explicitly trained. Any good curriculum requires that the students develop these skills on their own. But maybe there should be more formal and explicit training. However, some may argue against the ethics of training number 4, which would surely alter one's personality and values.

    Also notice that these capacities are extremely hard to measure at any given moment (like during a standardized test). While I'm sure that the conclusions in the Huffington Post article are not too far off, I'm not sure any single measurement can describe the increase in a student's critical thinking.

  2. "Critical thinking" is a gerund phrase, a noun-like creature formed from the verb to think -- so, to my mind, the analysis of the verb applies equally to the gerund (and the agents of CT). But maybe I misunderstood your comment?

    Also, one of these essays explicitly considers the relations between ethics and CT.

  3. Maybe I'm just being overly nit-picky. I recognize that an empirical analysis of the the verb "to think critically" and the gerund "critical thinking" would be equivalent. But I thought that an empirical analysis of the noun "critical thinker" would yield different results, since "thinker" denotes more properties than the verb "to think." An empirical analysis of a thinker includes her intentions, beliefs and maybe even her identity. These are extremely tricky properties to pin down, and are possibly irrelevant to the capacity to think critically.

  4. I would suggest that these are not essentially empirical analyses -- but theoretical, conceptual approaches to the issue.