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Critical Thinking as a Set of Skills

The skills approach to critical thinking means that instructors approach critical thinking as a set of skills that learners can develop. The skills represent patterns of thinking that can be modeled by applying algorithms. Examples of basic thinking skills are classifying, comparing, and ordering. Basic critical thinking skills can be developed in young children during elementary school. Examples of higher order thinking skills are decision making, problem solving, and discovering bias, which are more often used by college age learners (Harpaz, 2007). The Delphi Report (Facione, 1990) identifies six critical thinking or cognitive skills: 1) interpretation, 2) analysis, 3) evaluation, 4) inference, 5) explanation and (6) self-regulation. Mayer (1992) refers to competencies rather than skills and identifies these as collecting, analyzing and organizing, planning, problem-solving, communicating information, collaborating, and using technology.

Paul and Elder (2003) represent assumptions, point of view, concepts, inference, information, questions, purpose and implications as a circle of thinking skills revolving around elements of thought. This representation hints that there is no particular place to begin or end and that any element can be used at any time. Hanley (1995) identifies a set of cognitive skills: encode, transform, organize, integrate, score, categorize, and retrieve information. Ennis (1985) provides a comprehensive look at critical thinking abilities grouped in five categories: 1) elementary clarification, 2) basic support, 3) inference and 4) advanced clarification, and 5) strategy and tactics (p. 46). Ennis (1989) holds that having critical thinking abilities does not necessarily add up to a critical thinker. Critical thinkers must be able to design and utilize an orderly checklist of problem solving while being sensitive to the views of others involved.

In education, most teachers are familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, identifying six levels of thinking skills (Bloom, 1956; Halawi, McCarthy, & Pires, 2009). Knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation form the taxonomy in the cognitive domain (Bloom, 1956). Ennis reminds us that the taxonomy was intended as a way to classify objectives and that the classifications may be “too vague” and educators may have a tendency to assume the top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy are the top rung of higher order thinking skills ladder (Ennis, 1985, p. 45). Caution should be applied when using the taxonomy and a wider knowledge of what constitutes higher level thinking should be sought. Table 1 represents a comparison of the skills presented by the Delphi Report, Paul, Mayer, Hanley, Ennis.

Source: Flynt. Note: The columns represent the definitions presented by the various leaders in the field. These have been organized across rows to group and highlight similarities thus helping to identify a process.

Viewing these critical thinking skills in reference to the Bloom taxonomy, one sees that critical thinking begins before and moves beyond the taxonomy intended to classify objectives in a learning environment. Utilizing a collective set of definitions presented by the various leaders in the field, critical thinking skills appear to represent a process aimed at resolution where learners seek, understand and utilize appropriate knowledge and information suited to an existing problem, situation or issue. If critical thinking skills progress from the initial need to seek, understand or utilize knowledge in order to identify some form of resolution, then both learners and instructors would benefit from a proceduralized map of how to approach problems by using critical thinking skills.

Each definition of critical thinking presented in Table 1 is, in itself, incomplete. When viewed in relation to the other definitions gaps become obvious. Only Paul and Elder (2003) begins with a problem, situation or issue—the purpose of inquiry. A logical next step would be to question. From here learners would seek information which involves collecting and retrieving. Organization and classification around a concept are necessary to determine relevance, and interpretation of information is required to create categories. When the definitions of critical thinking skills are compared collectively, one sees a more complete picture of critical thinking skills as a process that can be learned.

Though the literature abounds with strategies aimed at promoting critical thinking skills, few procedural approaches to critical thinking skill instruction are found. Ennis (1985) comes very close to providing a proceduralized road map of critical thinking skills with a detailed list of abilities classified under five categories: 1) elementary clarification which includes the ability to ask and answer questions, 2) basic support which includes the ability judge the credibility of information, 3) inference which includes the ability to judge the value of information, 4) advance clarification which includes the ability to examine assumptions and form articulate definitions, and 5) strategy and tactics which employs actions, interactions and the ability to identify and react to fallacies. For critical thinking skills to truly be developed, teachers in k-8 settings should seek ways to strategically plan for, instruct, model and assess critical thinking skills. Teachers at the high school and higher education levels should not assume that learners possess critical thinking skills.


  • Bloom B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives, Handbook I: The cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.
  • Ennis, R. (1985). A logical basis for measuring critical thinking skills. Educational Leadership, 43(2), 44. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
  • Ennis, R. (1989). Critical thinking and subject specificity: Clarification and needed research. Educational Researcher, 18(3), 4-10.
  • 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.
  • Halawi, L., McCarthy, R., & Pires, S. (2009). An Evaluation of E-learning on the basis of Bloom's taxonomy: An exploratory study. Journal of Education for Business, 84(6), 374-380. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
  • Hanley, G. (1995). Teaching critical thinking: Focusing on metacognitive skills and problem solving.Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 160.
  • Harpaz, Y. (2007). Approaches to teaching thinking: Toward a conceptual mapping of the field. Teachers College Record, 109(8), 1845-1874.
  • Mayer, E. (1992). Putting general education to work: The key-competency report. Canberra: Australian Education Council.
  • Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2003). A miniature guide on how to improve student learning. Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.



Critical Thinking as a Set of Dispositions

Dispositions represent the willingness to think. Critical thinking as dispositions grew out of thought research between the 1980s and 1990s with leaders such as Ennis, Paul and Perkins. As early as the 1930s, Dewey, “the father of the field” (Harpaz, 2007, p. 1849) spoke of three attitudes (dispositions): open-mindedness, wholeheartedness, and responsibility. Learners must possess the dispositions, mental character traits, or attitudes to think critically before they will be motivated to develop critical thinking skills (Ennis 1996; Facione, 2007; Halpern, 1999). According to the Delphi Report “Educating good critical thinkers…combines developing critical thinking skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society” (Facione, 1990, p. 2). The Delphi Report also points out that “critical thinking is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, critical thinking is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life” (Facione, 1990, p. 2). According to the Delphi Report,

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 on inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. (Facione, 1990, p. 2)

Paul and Elder (2005) propose that the goal in developing critical thinking skills is to improve the ability to be fair-minded. “If learners do not develop the attitude of fair-mindedness”, they state, “critical thinking loses the thinking and can become just critical” (p. 7). Facione, Facione, and Giancarlo (2001) identified seven critical thinking dispositions as part of the California.

Rather than dispositions, Costa (1991) refers to "passions of mind identified as efficacy, flexibility, craftsmanship, consciousness, interdependence” (p. 62). Tishman, Jay, and Perkins (1993) share that instruction should cultivate dispositions. As a result, learners will: 1) be broad and adventurous, 2) possess sustained intellectual curiosity, 3) clarify and seek understanding, 4) be planful and strategic, 5) be intellectually careful, 6) seek and evaluate reasons, and 7) be metacognitive (p. 148).

Ennis (1987) provides a taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions that outlines three categories of the ‘caring’ critical thinker. Critical thinkers possess three caring attributes which mean that they “care that their beliefs be true, and that their decisions be justified…care to present a position honestly and clearly…care about the dignity and worth of every person” (¶ 3). In The Disposition to Care chart I have aligned Facione et al. (2001) and Tishman et al. (1993) with the Ennis definition of the three caring attributes.

A teacher, interested in developing the disposition to “care to present a position honestly” can use the chart as a guide for what qualities to encourage in students: A person who cares to present a position honestly will be intellectually honest, will seek the truth, will be analytical and will be alert to solving problems. As teachers remind students of the importance of these dispositions and model the dispositions themselves students can be encouraged to reflect on their own growth and areas needing growth in dispositions.

Harpaz (2007) states that “thinking dispositions stem from opinions, positions, values, and decisions that the individual has formed” (p. 1850) and goes on to speak of a “pattern of cultivation” (p. 1852) and that teachers must embody the dispositions they desire in their learners through personal example. To cultivate requires three steps: 1) embody by personal example, 2) provide cultivating activities, and 3) deal explicitly with dispositions (Harpaz, 2007). By utilizing the three caring attributes (Ennis, 1985), teachers can represent dispositions in a simple and profound way to cultivate student growth in dispositions.

According to Brabeck (1983) dispositions can be cultivated in learners. The literature suggests strategies for cultivating the dispositions to think critically: a) analysis of real-world problems, b) performance based problem solving, c) verbalizing evidence supporting arguments or decisions, d) extensive writing, e) attention to classroom environment and, f) use of group work in and out of the classroom (Brookfield, 1995; Burge, 1988; Miller and King, 2003).

One caution that should be kept in mind is that the development of critical thinking will take time and results may not be evident during the time frame of one course (Paul & Elder, 2005; van Gelder, 2005)


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  • Burge, L. (1988). Beyond andragogy: Some explorations for distance learning design. Journal of Distance Education, 3(1), 5-23.
  • Costa, A. L. (1991). The school as a home for the mind. In A. L. Costa,Developing minds: A resource for teaching thinking, revised edition, (1), Alexandria: ASCD.
  • Ennis, R. (1985). A logical basis for measuring critical thinking skills. Educational Leadership, 43(2), 44. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
  • Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J. B. Baron and R. J. Sternberg (eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice. New York: W. H. Freeman, 9-26.
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  • Facione, P. A. (2007). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. Insight Assessment. Milbrae, CA: The California Academic Press.
  • Facione, P. A., Facione, N. C., Giancarlo, C. (2001). California critical thinking disposition inventory. Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press, 2-3.
  • 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.
  • Harpaz, Y. (2007). Approaches to teaching thinking: Toward a conceptual mapping of the field. Teachers College Record, 109(8), 1845-1874.
  • Miller, T. W., & King, F. B. (2003). Distance education: Pedagogy and best practice in the new millennium. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 6(3), 283–297.
  • 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.
  • Tishman, S., & Jay, E. & Perkins, D. N. (1993). Teaching thinking dispositions: from transmission to enculturation. Theory Into Practice, 32(3), 147. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.
  • van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking. College Teaching, 53(1), 41-46.