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Critical Thinking

Part 1: Critical Thinking and Education

The ability to think critically is an important outcome of higher education (Boyd, 2001; Brookfield, 1987; Facione & Facione, 1996; Paul, 1990). Paul and Elder (2005) state that the “development of critical thinking is the central goal of all educational institutions” (p. 11). Although most would agree that critical thinking is an expected outcome of education—especially at the post-secondary level— this outcome is often not a reality. Lipman (1988) reports that college freshmen score almost the same as 6th graders on critical thinking. Others report that, after four years of college, most graduates are not competent at critical thinking (Halpern,1999; Giancarlo & Facione, 2001; Tsui, 1999 and van Gelder, 2005).

If critical thinking is indeed a vital element of higher education, it stands to reason that students need—and even deserve—quality instruction that will ensure some level of competency in critical thinking for the majority of learners. Norris (1985) goes as far as to say that students have “a moral right to be taught how to think critically” (p. 40) but, a large study done by Kuhn (1991) concluded that most people can’t reason. This may be due to the fact that a majority of students are not taught how to think critically and reason (Graff, 2003). Van Gelder (2005) shares that teachers may expose students to the principles of critical thinking and may even provide examples of critical thinking but seldom guarantee sufficient (if any) active practice in critical thinking. Instructors at the college and university level generally have a highly developed skill set and knowledge base, but often in a specific discipline and may feel ill-equipped to know how to teach critical thinking.

"In early Greek mythology those sailors who tried to navigate the straits of Messina were said to encounter a rock and a whirlpool. If you were too intent upon avoiding the rock you would be sucked into the
whirlpool. If you skirted the whirlpool by too wide a margin you would strike the rock. These twin perils had markedly contrasting natures: the first was hard, solid, static, visible, definite, asymmetrical and an object;
the second was soft, liquid, dynamic:, hidden, indefinite, symmetrical and a process" (Hampden-Turner 1971, p. 24. Quoted in Reason 1994, p. 31).

Clearly, an apparently irresolvable dynamic of oppositions faces the captain of the ship. "The 'correct' course to steer is not predetermined, but rather continually adjusts to the wind and waves" (Reason 1994,
p. 31). Constant adjustment between two opposing polarities will be required. "Steering the ship involves leading in order to learn and learning in order to lead; the ship is erring so that it must be corrected,
and steering the ship involves maintaining continuity in the midst of change" (Hampden-Turner 1971, pp. 16-17. Quoted in Reason, 1994, p. 31).

Steering the ship would involve a number of factors For example, a combination of natural, intuitive responses would be evident. Constant adjustment and readjustment is required in direct response to constantly changing stimuli, in this case, the effect of the waves and the wind. The process is iterative.


  • Boyd, K. (2001). Critical thinking tests and higher education research. Dissertation, Georgia State University. AAT 3008097.
  • Brookfield, S. D. (1987). Developing critical thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Facione, P. A., & Facione, D. H. (1996). Externalizing the critical thinking in knowledge development and clinical judgment. Nursing Outlook, 44, 129-136.
  • Giancarlo, G., & Facione, P. (2001). A look across four years at the disposition toward critical thinking among undergraduate students. The Journal of General Education, 50(1), 29-55.
  • Graff, G. (2005) Clueless in academe: How schooling obscures the life of the mind. In T. van Gelder. Teaching critical thinking. College Teaching, 53(1), 41-46.
  • Halpern, D. F. (1999) Teaching for critical thinking: Helping college students develop the skills and dispositions of a critical thinker. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 80, 69-74.
  • Lipman, M. (1988). Philosophy goes to school. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Norris, S. P. (1985). Synthesis of research on critical thinking. Educational Leadership, 42(8), 40-46.
  • Paul, R. (1990). Critical thinking: What every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. Rohnert Park, CA: Sonoma State University.
  • Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2005). A guide for educators to critical thinking competency standards: Standards, principles, performance indicators, and outcomes with a critical thinking master rubric. Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Reason, P. (1994), Participation in Human Inquiry, SAGE Publications, London.
    Hampden-Turner, C.: 1971, Radical Man, Doubleday, New York.
  • Tsui, L. (1999). Critical thinking inside college classrooms: Evidence from four institutional case studies. Columbia, MO. Association for the Study of Higher Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED437013)
  • van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking. College Teaching, 53(1), 41-46.

Part 2: Critical Thinking and Knowledge

What is critical thinking and why is it important? The Executive Summary of the Delphi Report defines critical thinking as “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” (Facione, 1990, p. 2). Ennis (1985) defines critical thinking as “reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” (p. 46). Watson and Glaser (1991) state that,

Critical thinking is a composite of attitudes, knowledge and skills that include: 1. Attitudes of enquiry that involve an ability to recognize the existence of problems and an acceptance of the general need for evidence in support of what is asserted to be true; 2. Knowledge of the nature of valid abstractions, and generalizations in which the weight of accuracy of different kinds of evidence is logically determined; 3. Skills in employing and applying the above attitudes and knowledge. (p. 29)

The literature condenses other definition attempts to three strands of critical thinking: knowledge, skills, and dispositions (Harpaz, 2007). The three strands represent three different definitions and three different approaches to teaching.

Critical Thinking as Knowledge

The first approach to critical thinking—knowledge—is brought into focus through the work of thought leaders like Gardner, Perkins, and McPeck. Knowledge purists hold that the “quality of our thinking depends on knowing the topic” (Harpaz, 2007, p. 1853). If we are not thinking about something, we are not thinking. It is important to note that someone who thinks well in one field may not think well in another. Dewey (1933) says:

To grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things; to note how it appears or functions, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to. (p. 137)

Gardner (1999) believes “an individual understands a concept, skill, theory, or domain of knowledge to the extent that he or she can apply it appropriately in a new situation” (p. 119). Perkins (1981) discusses the importance of pattern recognition and the ability to use knowledge to create analogies and cross disciplinary boundaries. McPeck (1981) holds that critical thinking happens within and through a well established knowledge and understanding of content inside of a particular discipline. Although references to the knowledge approach to critical thinking largely seem to mean content knowledge within a discipline, there is both room and need to identify knowledge specific to critical thinking itself. For instance, learners can be presented with examples of fallacy thinking such as Red Herring, Straw Man and Tu Quoque and taught how to recognize the types and avoid them in their own thinking (Ennis, 1985). Teachers would do well to place much more of a focus on both identifying types of fallacy thinking and practicing the identification of these types within written works. Students need the advantage of knowing the names of the types and having practice in identifying them. Once of the reasons teachers do not spend more time in developing these understandings may be that they themselves are unfamiliar with and have little practice in identifying fallacies themselves. Labossiere (2009) does a thorough job of defining fallacies and providing examples, Magill (2010) points out 10 political fallacies, and The Owl at Perdue offers a decent resource on fallacy identification that teachers and students may find beneficial.

More Fallacies


  • Dewey, J. (1933).How we think. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Ennis, R. (1985). A logical basis for measuring critical thinking skills. Educational Leadership, 43(2), 44. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
  • Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment. The Delphi Report, Insight Assessment. Milbrae, CA: California Academic Press.
  • Gardner, H. (1999). The disciplined mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Harpaz, Y. (2007). Approaches to teaching thinking: Toward a conceptual mapping of the field. Teachers College Record, 109(8), 1845-1874.
  • McPeck, J. (1981). Critical Thinking and Education. Oxford, Martin Robertson.
  • Perkins, D. (1981). The mind’s best work. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Watson G. & Glaser, E. M. (1991). Critical thinking appraisal manual. Psychological Corporation, Kent.


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