- Thoughtful learning
Critical thinking models: definition, benefits, and skills
In the age of memes and misinformation, critical thinking is a must. It's a crucial skill to differentiate between what may be true or false and develop (and explain) reasons for your beliefs.
The hardest part of critical thinking is knowing when to do it. Most of the time, it's easier to accept things as fact rather than to dig deeper to reach a conscious conclusion. This happens for various reasons. The most common being the ease of following the crowd and the fact it would be rather cumbersome to think critically about every single thing in the world!
How then do we know what to think critically about? How do we get the right answers, and how do we know they're correct? This is where a critical thinking model comes in. In this article, we’ll share three critical thinking models, essential critical reasoning skills, and why improving your critical thinking process is a good idea.
What Is Critical Thinking?
"Critical thinking is reasonable and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.” This is how renowned professor and author Robert Hugh Ennis defines it. Put another way, the definition of critical thinking is careful consideration and analysis of information to reach a rational conclusion or decision. We practice critical thinking to inform—and own—our beliefs and actions and ensure they truly align with our values and intentions.
That said, critical thinking is not our natural way of thinking . Most of us are never aware of our brain's metacognitive actions, conceptualizations, or synthesis. Instead, we rely on habits, patterns, and competencies from past experiences to understand and interact with the world. While this may save us time and effort, it doesn’t always provide the best results—and often results in fallacies.
What Are Critical Thinking Models?
A critical thinking model provides the structure for practicing this type of thinking. It helps us notice our own thinking biases and allows us to try viewing the world objectively all while providing guidelines for asking the right questions, reaching logical conclusions, and explaining how we did it.
3 Critical Thinking Models That Are Useful in Everyday Life
There are thousands of critical thinking models for almost any subject or discipline. Let’s take a look at three models of critical thinking we find useful in everyday life.
Proximate vs. Root Cause
The proximate vs. root cause critical thinking model encourages people to discover the primary cause of an event. A proximate cause is closest to the observed result or immediately responsible for it. In contrast, the root cause is the actual cause of the result. Both are causes of the event, but the root cause is the main cause, while the proximate cause is the immediate next cause.
This mental model forces you to look beyond obvious reasons to determine the core reason for impact. It helps with innovative problem-solving, so instead of relying on “Band-Aid solutions” or improving currently-existing solutions, you uncover the root of the matter and create something altogether new.
Example: You've gained a lot of weight since March 2021. Upon investigation, you may draw the following inferences:
- Proximate cause: You burn fewer calories than you consume (moving less and eating more due to boredom or food accessibility), thus the weight gain.
- Root cause: Your habits changed because of the lifestyle change from working at the office to working from home.
When you know the root cause of an issue, you can begin to deal with it to reduce the odds of recurrence. In this case, change your habits to fit the work-from-home lifestyle better. The proximate vs. root cause model improves your critical thinking ability and helps formulate a proper understanding of issues before working on them.
Cognitive bias is a tendency to think in ways that can lead to deviations from rationality and objectivity. We all have cognitive biases. This error in thinking happens because of our tendency to process and interpret information swiftly, which can affect our decision-making and the eventual outcome of a situation.
Example: A soccer player scores a goal. In his mind, that means he's a great player. But if he had missed, he would reason that it was because the grass was wet. In self-serving bias, the tendency is to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. In other words: if there's a success, it's because I did something right. If there's a failure, it's something else's fault, not mine.
When you only pay attention or engage with news sources, stories, and conversations that confirm your worldview, you limit yourself from other perspectives and opinions that may be good for you without realizing it. Being aware of your own cognitive bias allows you to create some distance between how you expect the world to be and become more open to how it actually is on any given day.
The human brain is a powerful machine, but it has its limitations. One of them is neglecting facts and evidence to make sense of the world quickly and easily. This habit of mind may allow us to make faster decisions, but it doesn't serve us optimally. When unchecked, cognitive biases hinder fair-mindedness, inclusion, and impartiality.
"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."
Hanlon's Razor promotes good thinking and teaches us not to assume the worst intentions about people's actions without investigation. It helps regulate our emotions and improve relationships and decision-making. It also helps us develop empathy by giving others the benefit of the doubt and not assuming negative intent with evidence.
Example: You get to work earlier than usual on a Monday morning and notice your things scattered around. This must mean someone used your office! You immediately think a certain coworker did this to annoy you. But when you pause and consider, you realize that a coworker may have used your office during the weekend because it was vacant and they forgot their keys at home.
The stories we tell ourselves about why things happen the way they do are rarely true. It's worth spending some time to objectively view situations and choose a positive narrative that leads to better outcomes in our mental and emotional health and relationships.
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Critical Thinking Skills and Their Benefits
Critical thinking skills are useful for everyone. They help us think coherently and make advancements with our personal and professional goals. Some of the benefits you can gain from critical thinking are:
- Greater reflective thinking and self-awareness
- Ability to audit new information
- Better interpersonal relationships
- More creative thinking and problem-solving skills
- Expanded open-mindedness
- Improved communication and presentation skills
- Freedom from past experiences and attachments
To gain these types of benefits, it’s important to practice the critical thinking skills listed below.
Observation is the foundation for critical thinking. It’s the ability to notice and predict opportunities, problems, and solutions. Taking the time to observe helps you process information better. Positive habits like meditating, journaling, and active listening will help you improve your observation skills.
After observing, it's time to analyze the information. Analyzing helps you gain a clearer grasp of the situation at hand. Ask questions that help you get a clearer picture of the subject and get to the root cause or reason. For example, if you’re analyzing a controversial tweet you read, you may ask questions such as:
- Who wrote this?
- What is it about?
- When was it written?
- Why did they write it? Do they have a hidden agenda?
- How sound is the premise?
- What if this tweet was altered to send a misleading message?
These questions help you break your subject into rational bits and consider the relationship between each one and the whole.
Inference is the ability to draw conclusions from the information you've analyzed and other relevant data. It's a higher-level critical thinking skill that helps you reach careful decisions rather than hastily drawn (and likely biased) conclusions.
Once you have a solid foundation for your beliefs, communicating your theory is the next essential part of critical thinking. Share your point of view and get feedback from others to know if it holds up. You can improve your communication skills by participating in thematic forum discussions and sharing your research and insights with others in your community, both online and offline.
Problem-solving is one of the main reasons for critical thinking. The end goal of critical thinking is using your new conclusion to close gaps and solve problems. You start by identifying your viewpoint, analyzing relevant information, and deciding on the right solution for a particular scenario. You can improve your problem-solving skills by self-learning the subject at hand and considering hidden, alternative outcomes.
Tap Into the Power of Critical Thinking
Becoming a critical thinker is challenging but oh-so worth it. It leads to continuous growth in all areas of your life: better relationships, confidence, and problem-solving skills. Critical thinking helps us overcome familiar patterns and ways of thinking, opening us to new perspectives.
To improve your critical thinking, spend time honing the five crucial critical thinking skills: observation, analysis, inference, communication, and problem-solving. Have fun with the process as you pay more attention to your beliefs and experiences and other people's perspectives and experiences as well.
You can use critical thinking models to guide your critical thinking journey, prompting you to realize when to pause and ask questions and when to accept the answers you have and move on. For example, in today’s age of misinformation, you may learn that it’s almost always counterproductive to engage with news and information from unknown sources.
Critical thinking is needed to remove scales from our eyes and improve our knowledge and experience of the world, but it’s also important to know when to turn our attention to focus on a new subject and move on.
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Critical thinking is an essential skill for university study. It will bring you benefits such as improved attention and observation, more focused reading, improved ability to interpret and evaluate the intellectual work of others and improved ability to communicate your argument (Cottrell, 2011).
The term ‘critical’ in everyday life is often seen as being negative or obstructive. However, in academic life, it involves not accepting information at face value. A critical thinker uses logical and rational thinking to evaluate previous research, assess its strengths and weaknesses and look for evidence to support arguments being made. Three important principles underpin critical thinking.
S[c]epticism S[c]epticism means never taking anything for granted. Always question assumptions or conclusions, and consider whether they flow logically from the evidence presented. Do not accept an assertion merely because it is in print or is delivered by a person or authority. Objectivity Being objective means taking an impartial and disinterested approach, setting aside any emotional reactions or personal views when considering an issue. Objectivity requires that you judge a researcher's arguments or conclusions according to the logic that underlies them and the evidence presented to support them, not on subjective beliefs or assumptions. Open-mindedness Be open-minded about what you are examining. Consider all sides of an argument, even if you have personal opinions one way or another. Open-mindedness means never ignoring potential explanations or interpretations, being flexible and willing to accept evidence that might conflict with your own personal experience.
(Quoted from Burton, 2017, p. 45)
There are three stages in critical analysis: comprehension, analysis and evaluation.
Stage 1: Comprehension
Understand what the author is saying. Summarise the author’s argument in your own words.
Stage 2: Analysis
This is the process of breaking down a text into component parts and examining their structure and the relationship between them. Ask yourself:
- What is the author’s purpose in each section of the text?
- What assumptions are beneath the author’s position?
Often writers argue from particular theoretical or political perspectives that are sometimes clear but are hidden at other times.
What techniques does the author use to persuade us of their position?
- Logical argument (is the logic valid?)
- Appeal to authority (are the authorities reputable and relevant?)
- Empirical data (studies can be methodologically flawed)
- Language (is it emotive, intimidating, obscure, full of jargon?)
Stage 3: Evaluation
Once you have analysed the text using the above strategies, you are now in a better position to judge its quality and validity. You can use the following questions as a checklist to help you make a sound judgement.
- Is the argument clear?
- Is the evidence adequate to support the conclusion?
- Does the writer manipulate the reader?
You should use these techniques to critically analyse your own assignments, as your markers will.
A key to writing well is to make sure you read extensively and gain a deep understanding of your research topic. Unless you really know the subject matter, you will not be able to write authoritatively. Make sure your arguments are based on evidence. Your work must clearly spell out the link between your arguments and the evidence being used to support them. You cannot imply a link or assume the reader will accept your argument unless you present a compelling case based on evidence. Consider the contribution that your study has made to the research topic. This will help you to draw conclusions about the implication or significance of your work. Think about the way your assignment is structured. It does not matter how ground-breaking your findings might be, if your work is not formatted and structured properly it will be of little value.
(Quoted from Burton, 2017, p. 51)
Burton, L. J. (2017). An interactive approach to writing essays and research reports in psychology (4th ed.). Wiley.
Cottrell, S. (2011). Critical thinking skills: Developing effective analysis and argument (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.
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A Short Guide to Building Your Team’s Critical Thinking Skills
- Matt Plummer
Critical thinking isn’t an innate skill. It can be learned.
Most employers lack an effective way to objectively assess critical thinking skills and most managers don’t know how to provide specific instruction to team members in need of becoming better thinkers. Instead, most managers employ a sink-or-swim approach, ultimately creating work-arounds to keep those who can’t figure out how to “swim” from making important decisions. But it doesn’t have to be this way. To demystify what critical thinking is and how it is developed, the author’s team turned to three research-backed models: The Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment, Pearson’s RED Critical Thinking Model, and Bloom’s Taxonomy. Using these models, they developed the Critical Thinking Roadmap, a framework that breaks critical thinking down into four measurable phases: the ability to execute, synthesize, recommend, and generate.
With critical thinking ranking among the most in-demand skills for job candidates , you would think that educational institutions would prepare candidates well to be exceptional thinkers, and employers would be adept at developing such skills in existing employees. Unfortunately, both are largely untrue.
- Matt Plummer (@mtplummer) is the founder of Zarvana, which offers online programs and coaching services to help working professionals become more productive by developing time-saving habits. Before starting Zarvana, Matt spent six years at Bain & Company spin-out, The Bridgespan Group, a strategy and management consulting firm for nonprofits, foundations, and philanthropists.
Frontiers and Advances in Positive Learning in the Age of InformaTiOn (PLATO) pp 89–106 Cite as
A Three-Level Model for Critical Thinking: Critical Alertness, Critical Reflection, and Critical Analysis
- Fritz K. Oser 2 &
- Horst Biedermann 3
- First Online: 03 January 2020
Based on the idea of measuring Critical Thinking (CT) through a new performance test (the kidney story) we outline why critical thinking is not the same skill as logical or general thinking. After proposing a three-level model of CT we analyze strengths and weaknesses and of the US and European tradition. We finally propose—on the basis of looking to some classical tests on CT—a test form in which the student has to question, deconstruct, model, and rebuild societal problems from a moral, ethos-oriented, political, and religious point of view. The generic part of CT thus relates to questions going beyond the knowing of the technical and functional side of a modern societal problem. CT is seen as an authentic daily-life-oriented and comprehensive competence that exceeds pure intelligence and fluid thinking.
- Critical thinking
- Critical alertness
- Performance test
- Critical thinking and social domains
And don’t criticize What you can’t understand… (From Bob Dylan: The times they are a-changin’)
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Oser, F.K., Biedermann, H. (2019). A Three-Level Model for Critical Thinking: Critical Alertness, Critical Reflection, and Critical Analysis. In: Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, O. (eds) Frontiers and Advances in Positive Learning in the Age of InformaTiOn (PLATO). Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26578-6_7
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Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.
2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples
2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.
Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as
active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)
and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.
In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.
Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment.
For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .
2. Examples and Non-Examples
Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.
Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.
Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o’clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68–69; 1933: 91–92)
Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.
“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.
“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot’s position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69–70; 1933: 92–93)
Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).
Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.
Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).
Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).
Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).
Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).
Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).
Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond lane from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.
Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.
Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as
a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)
A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.
Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 ) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.
What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as
a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)
Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.
- It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
- The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
- The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.
One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.
If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses. As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009, 2021), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on responsiveness to reasons (Siegel 1988). Kuhn (2019) takes critical thinking to be more a dialogic practice of advancing and responding to arguments than an individual ability.
In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.
Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).
Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.
Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:
- suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
- an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
- the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
- the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
- testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)
The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).
The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).
Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.
If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.
- Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
- Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in spacing in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
- Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
- Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
- Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
- Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
- Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the spacing of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
- Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
- Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
- Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
- Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.
By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.
Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.
Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.
Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)
8. Critical Thinking Dispositions
Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016a) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).
On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.
A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.
Facione (1990a: 25) divides “affective dispositions” of critical thinking into approaches to life and living in general and approaches to specific issues, questions or problems. Adapting this distinction, one can usefully divide critical thinking dispositions into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.
Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.
- Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
- Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
- Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
- Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
- Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking. In three studies, Haran, Ritov, & Mellers (2013) found that actively open-minded thinking, including “the tendency to weigh new evidence against a favored belief, to spend sufficient time on a problem before giving up, and to consider carefully the opinions of others in forming one’s own”, led study participants to acquire information and thus to make accurate estimations.
- Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
- Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
- Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.
Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .
Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.
Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).
The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.
Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.
Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.
Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).
Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.
Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).
Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.
Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).
Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.
Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.
Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.
In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.
We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), Black (2012), and Blair (2021).
According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work. It is also helpful to be aware of the prevalence of “noise” (unwanted unsystematic variability of judgments), of how to detect noise (through a noise audit), and of how to reduce noise: make accuracy the goal, think statistically, break a process of arriving at a judgment into independent tasks, resist premature intuitions, in a group get independent judgments first, favour comparative judgments and scales (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein 2021). It is helpful as well to be aware of the concept of “bounded rationality” in decision-making and of the related distinction between “satisficing” and optimizing (Simon 1956; Gigerenzer 2001).
Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.
Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .
What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of strategies for teaching students to think critically, Abrami et al. (2015) found that dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.
Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .
Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.
McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), Bailin et al. (1999b), and Willingham (2019).
McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.
The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.
It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.
Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:
- reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
- distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
- indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
- orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
- being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
- being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
- doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
- reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
- solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
- written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
- attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
- winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)
A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as
thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)
Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should
be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)
Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.
The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:
- Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
- Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
- Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
- In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
- Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 ) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).
A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.
What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.
Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .
As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.
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Teaching With Writing: The WIC Newsletter
Critical thinking: multiple models for teaching and learning (abridged), excerpts from critical thinking: multiple models for teaching and learning.
By Aubrae Vanderpool and Tracy Ann Robinson
“A great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized.”
The development of critical thinking skills increasingly is being identified not only as an essential component of writing courses but even more broadly, as a desired outcome of an undergraduate education. In this article, adapted from a paper by Aubrae Vanderpool that focuses on critical thinking in first-year writing classes, we take a look at what critical thinking means, offer some strategies and suggestions for incorporating critical thinking pedagogy into subject-matter courses, and comment on assessment issues and strategies.
Critical Thinking Defined…Or Not…
For some critical thinking has a lot to do with understanding one’s own perspective and those of others. Another model [of critical thinking] is dialectic, an idea or work is critiqued in a way that produces a counter-perspective and ultimately leads to a synthesis. For some critical thinking evokes a synthetic or inductive model based on testing evidence and making arguments. The exercise of reflective judgment is also a form of critical thinking. (“Critical Thinking and Broad Knowledge”)
While widely accepted as an educational imperative, critical thinking, as the above statement (excerpted from meeting notes for a Critical Thinking dialogue group at Western Washington University) indicates, is quite variously conceived and described. . . . Clearly, however, how an institution or department defines this intellectual practice will influence where in the curriculum critical thinking is taught, how it is taught, and, equally importantly, how it is assessed. For those in the process of formulating a working definition, familiarity with the following widely utilized models may serve as a helpful starting point.
According to Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956)—a cross-disciplinary model for developing higher-order thinking in students—learning how to think critically involves the mastery of six increasingly complex cognitive skills: knowledge (i.e., possession of specific facts or pieces of information) , comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation . See sidebar for details.
Bloom’s Taxonomy conceives critical thinking mastery as a sequential process, that is, one cannot move to the next cognitive tier without successfully negotiating the previous level. (“Teaching Critical Thinking”). Thus, some view the taxonomy as “a set of microlevel skills which may be used in critical thinking but do not represent critical thinking” (French and Rhoder 195). Philosopher Richard Paul objects to the taxonomy’s product-oriented conceptualization of thinking as a “one-way hierarchy” as opposed to thinking being a process that involves the recursive use of interrelated skills (French and Rhoder 195). Nonetheless, Bloom’s Taxonomy has been and continues to be an influential model for those developing critical thinking programs, as its inclusion in the Dartmouth College Composition Center’s critical thinking web page attests (Gocsik).
Knowledge: the remembering (recalling) of appropriate, previously learned terminology/specific facts/ways and means of dealing with specifics (conventions, trends and sequences, classifications and categories, criteria, methodology)/universals and abstractions in a field (principles and generalizations, theories and structures). defines; describes; enumerates; identifies; labels; lists; matches; names; reads; records; reproduces; selects; states; views.
Comprehension: Grasping (understanding) the meaning of informational materials. classifies; cites; converts; describes; discusses; estimates; explains; generalizes; gives examples; makes sense out of; paraphrases; restates (in own words); summarizes; traces; understands.
Application: The use of previously learned information in new and concrete situations to solve problems that have single or best answers. acts; administers; articulates; assesses; charts; collects; computes; constructs; contributes; controls; determines; develops; discovers; establishes; extends; implements; includes; informs; instructs; operationalizes; participates; predicts; prepares; preserves; produces; projects; provides; relates; reports; shows; solves; teaches; transfers; uses; utilizes.
Analysis: The breaking down of informational materials into their component parts, examining (and trying to understand the organizational structure of) such information to develop divergent conclusions by identifying motives or causes, making inferences, and/or finding evidence to support generalizations. breaks down; correlates; diagrams; differentiates; discriminates; distinguishes; focuses; illustrates; infers; limits; outlines; points out; prioritizes; recognizes; separates; subdivides.
Synthesis: Creatively or divergently applying prior knowledge and skills to produce a new or original whole. adapts; anticipates; categorizes; collaborates; combines; communicates; compares; compiles; composes; contrasts; creates; designs; devises; expresses; facilitates; formulates; generates; incorporates; individualizes; initiates; integrates; intervenes; models; modifies; negotiates; plans; progresses; rearranges; reconstructs; reinforces; reorganizes; revises; structures; substitutes; validates.
Evaluation: Judging the value of material based on personal values/opinions, resulting in an end product, with a given purpose, without real right or wrong answers. appraises; compares & contrasts; concludes; criticizes; critiques; decides; defends; interprets; judges; justifies; reframes; supports.
SOURCE: http://faculty.washington.edu/krumme/guides/bloom.html (no longer available)
Beyer’s evaluative thinking model
Barry Beyer, a prominent contemporary thinking skills theorist and teacher, interprets critical thinking as a more specifically evaluative activity than Bloom’s Taxonomy would imply:
Critical thinking is not making decisions or solving problems. It is not the same as reflective thinking, creative thinking, or conceptualizing. Each of these other types of thinking serves a specific purpose. We make decisions in order to choose among alternatives. We solve problems when we encounter an obstacle to a preferred condition. We engage in creative or conceptual thinking to invent or improve things. Critical thinking serves a purpose quite different from these other types of thinking. (Beyer 1995, 8)
For Beyer, the crux of critical thinking is criteria : “ The word critical in critical thinking comes from the Greek word for criterion, kriterion , which means a benchmark for judging” (Beyer 1995, 8-9). Thus, critical (or, to use Beyer’s preferred term, evaluative) thinking provides the means to assess the “accuracy, authenticity, plausibility, or sufficiency of claims” (Beyer 1995, 10).
Beyer asserts that critical thinking involves 10 cognitive operations, which can be employed in any sequence or combination as needed for the thinking task at hand:
- Distinguishing between verifiable facts and value claims
- Distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, claims, or reasons
- Determining the factual accuracy of a statement
- Determining the credibility of a source
- Identifying ambiguous claims or arguments
- Identifying unstated assumptions
- Detecting bias
- Recognizing logical fallacies
- Recognizing logical inconsistencies in a line of reasoning
- Determining the strength of an argument or claim (Beyer 1988, 57)
Further, Beyer argues that successful critical thinking requires “complex and often simultaneous interaction” of the following six elements:
o Dispositions. Critical thinkers develop habits of mind that “guide and sustain critical thinking”, including skepticism, fairmindedness, openmindedness, respect for evidence and reasoning, respect for clarity and precision, ability to consider different points of view, and a willingness to alter one’s position when reason and evidence call for such a shift.
o Criteria . Critical thinkers know about and have the ability to construct appropriate benchmarks for judging the issue at hand.
o Argument —defined as “a proposition with its supporting evidence and reasoning.” Critical thinkers are skillful at constructing, identifying, and evaluating the strength of arguments.
o Reasoning —the “cement that holds an argument together.” Critical thinkers determine the strength and validity of a conclusion by examining the soundness of the inductive or deductive process through which the conclusion was reached.
o Point of View. Critical thinkers are aware of their own point of view and capable of examining other points of view in order to better evaluate an issue.
o Procedures for applying criteria and judging. Critical thinkers have a repertoire of strategies appropriate to the subject matter and type of judgment to be made (Beyer 1995, 10-20)
In other words, critical thinkers habitually question the authenticity of anything that confronts them to ascertain exactly the extent to which it is an authentic instance of what it purports to be. In addition, they make judgments based on certain standards or other measures that serve as criteria for plausibility and truthfulness. And they pay special attention to the reasons and reasoning that undergird conclusions and claims.” (Beyer 1995, 22)
Critical thinking as a divergent process
While Beyer depicts critical thinking as a “ con vergent,” narrowing process, others prefer to view it as a di vergent, expanding, exploratory practice (French and Rhoder, 184-85) —a way to open up new solutions as well as evaluate those that have already been identified. For example, consider this statement from Peter Taylor of the UMass/Boston Graduate College of Education’s Critical and Creative Thinking Program. (In February, 2001, Taylor led a critical thinking workshop at OSU, sponsored jointly by the College of Liberal Arts’ Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Research, the Center for Water and Environmental Sustain-ability, and the Office of Academic Affairs; and organized by Anita Helle [English] and Denise Lach [CWest].)
My sense of critical thinking […] depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. I want students to see that they understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives . Critical thinking at this level should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts, but they do have to move through uncertainty. Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted.
This view suggests a much closer connection between critical and creative thinking than Beyer, for instance, would subscribe to. However, many of the concerns that underlie the current interest in furthering college students’ critical thinking skills recognize and affirm this connection.
Teaching Considerations and Strategies
. . . B. Lehman and D. Hayes propose the following strategies for promoting critical thinking in the classroom:
o Help students recognize what they already know about a topic. [For suggestions, see next section.]
o Help students learn to recognize their biases and keep an open mind about the topic. Have students list and share opinions on the subject, but postpone evaluation until more information is gathered.
o Formulate open-ended questions to help students analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the topic.
o Guide students in finding and using diverse sources to explain and support their ideas.
o Have students check the validity of sources and qualifications of authors.
o Help students see there is no single, final authority. By reading several sources on the same topic, students will discover that information is often conflicting and contradictory.
o Help students develop criteria for evaluation. As students learn to support their opinions with logical thinking and comparison of sources, they [develop] critical thinking skills. (Smith 350) . . . .
The Writing–Critical Thinking Connection
For centuries, the rhetorical assumption about language was that “one first finds knowledge and then puts it into words” (Bizzell, Herzberg, and Reynolds 1)—in other words, thinking always precedes writing or speaking. Today, however, we recognize that “knowledge is actually created by words” (Bizzell, Herzberg, and Reynolds 1) and that writing and thinking are recursive, interdependent processes that promote and enhance one another.
James Sheridan points out that “the act of generating written discourse is not merely a result of critical thinking but also a stimulus to new thinking and new discoveries” (52). This claim echoes Linda Flower’s assertion that “writing is a generative act—a process of not just ‘expressing’ but ‘making’ meaning” (193-94). The fact is that “when students write, they cannot remain passive players in the learning game” (Gocsik-source no longer available). As Peter Elbow suggests, “writing helps us achieve the perennially difficult task of standing outside our own thinking” (27). Hence, the concept of “writing to learn,” which has become so integral to Writing Across the Curriculum courses and programs.
Using writing to uncover knowledge
As well as using writing to reinforce and integrate new information, writing can be a way of discovering existing knowledge. Many critical thinking experts advocate beginning any new learning unit by identifying what students already know (but often don’t know they know) about the topic. This strategy promotes critical thinking and active learning by allowing students to “establish a context for new information and share ideas with others” (Smith 350). Two writing strategies that can assist in this discovery process are freewriting and the “write-and-pass” exercise:
Freewriting. Describing freewriting as an activity that “helps students break the writing-is-grammar chain [, which] stultifies the freedom and risk-taking necessary for innovative critical thinking” (53), James Sheridan suggests the process has only two r equirements:
( 1) “You cannot stop writing during the 10-minute exercise.” (2) “You are forbidden to think. [. . .] Write whatever comes into your right (or left) hand. You must keep on writing. Even if you say ‘I don’t know what to write,’ write that. You cannot scratch your head. You cannot gaze pensively at the ceiling. Just write. You are not responsible for what you say; your hand is doing it all. Say anything. Say ‘This is the worst exercise I ever heard of and I can’t believe they’re paying this guy good bucks to have us do it.’ Yell, scream, shout, kick (in written words). Say anything, but keep writing” (52)
With unfocused freewriting, students write about whatever they want. With focused , or directed , freewriting, students are given a topic or question to write on.
Write-and-pass. Another informal writing assignment that helps students discover what they already know is to ask them to spend a few minutes writing everything they can think of about a given topic or question (for example, “What is critical thinking?”). After several minutes, students pass what they’ve written to the person next to them, and that person reads and expands on the original response. The process is repeated a few more times; generally, with each pass, adding new information becomes more challenging.. The exercise provides a way both for students to focus their thoughts on a particular topic and to benefit from one another’s stores of knowledge.
Assessing Critical Thinking: Current Models
[A]n informed choice of an approach to assessing critical thinking can be made only after faculty have [asked and answered] these questions: What do we think critical thinking is? How do the critical thinking skills, processes, and strategies work together, and what aspects or combinations of them do we wish to assess? What are our students like? What are their motivations [and] environments? What are our assumptions relative to the knowledge and abilities that students need prior to engaging in college-level critical thinking? (Carpenter and Doig 34-35)
Carpenter and Doig’s observation comes from a 1988 review of assessment instruments developed for specific critical thinking courses and programs. Alternatively, the rubric developed in 2002 by Washington State University’s Critical Thinking Project can be used in subject-matter courses across the curriculum that focus on critical thinking. This rubric includes the following criteria for student writing:
- Identifies and summarizes the problem/question at issue.
- Identifies and presents the student’s own perspective and position as it is important to the analysis of the issue.
- Identifies and considers other salient perspectives and positions that are important to the analysis of the issue.
- Identifies and assesses the key assumptions.
- Identifies and assesses the quality of supporting data/evidence and provides additional data/evidence related to the issue.
- Identifies and considers the influence of the context (e.g. cultural/social, scientific, educational, economic, technological, ethical, political, personal, and so on) on the issue.
- Identifies and assesses conclusions, implications, and consequences. “Critical Thinking Rubric” no longer available online.
Each item in the rubric includes a description of what would be considered “scant” vs “substantially developed” coverage of that item. The Washington State Critical Thinking Project website is no longer available online.
A Final Note
In this article, we have focused on what Kerry S. Walters describes as the “logicistic” model of critical thinking—that is (according to Walters) “the unwarranted assumption that good thinking is reducible to logical thinking” (1). In Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking , Walters explores an alternative model being forwarded by an emerging “second-wave” of critical thinking research and pedagogy. Second-wave advocates argue that while “logical skills are essential functions of good thinking, […] so are non-analytic ones such as imagination and intuition, and the good thinker knows how to utilize both types” (2). This reconception of critical thinking is grounded in current scholarship in the fields of philosophy, psychology, education, feminist theory, and critical pedagogy; Walters’s book serves as an introduction to and dialogue among some of the proponents and practitioners of this alternative. While beyond the scope of this article, the second-wave perspective on critical thinking deserves our serious attention and consideration as well.
This article was previously published in entirety in Teaching with Writing , Winter 2004.
Works Cited (some sources no longer available)
Beyer, Barry K. Critical Thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1995.
________. Developing a Thinking Skills Program. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1988.
Bizzell, Patricia, Bruce Hertzberg, and Nedra Reynolds. The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing. 5th Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Carpenter, C. Blaine, and James C. Doig. “Assessing Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum.” Assessing Student’s Learning 34 (Summer 1988): 33-46.
“Critical Thinking and Broad Knowledge Meeting Notes.” 2 Nov. 2001. Center for Instructional Innovation, Western Washington University. 4 March 2003. http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/gened/dialogue/critical_notes_nov.htm Source no longer available.
Elbow, Peter. “Teaching Two Kinds of Thinking by Teaching Writing.” Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking . Ed. Kerry S. Walters. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994. 25-31.
Flower, Linda. “Taking Thought: The Role of Conscious Processing in the Making of Meaning.” Thinking, Reasoning, and Writing. Ed. Elaine P. Maimon, Barbara F. Nodine, and Finbarr W. O’Connor. NY: Longman, 1989. 185-212.
French, Joyce N. and Carol Rhoder. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. NY: Garland, 1992.
Gocsik, Karen. “Teaching Critical Thinking.: 1997 Dartmouth College Composition Center. Source no longer available.
Scriven, Michael and Richard Paul. “Defining Critical Thinking.” Draft Statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. Foundation for Critical Thinking. 27 Feb. 2003. <http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/definint-critical-thinking/766>
Sheridan, James J. “Skipping on the Brink of the Abyss: Teaching Thinking Through Writing.” Cr itical Thinking: Educational Imperative. Ed. Cynthia A. Barnes. New Directions for Community Colleges, No. 77. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992. 51-61.
Smith, Carl B. “Two Approaches to Critical Thinking.” The Reading Teacher 4.4 (Dec. 1990): 350-51.
Stewart, Ruth. “Teaching Critical Thinking in First-Year Composition: Sometimes More Is More.” Teaching English at the Two-Year College 29 (Dec. 2001): 162-171.
Taylor, Peter. “We Know More Than We Are, At First, Prepared To Acknowledge: Journeying to Develop Critical Thinking.” 12 March 2003 <http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html>
Walters, Kerry S. Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.
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Excelling at critical analysis: a 3-stage method with an image
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The 3-stage method breaks down academic writing into three elements: description, analysis, and critical evaluation, and asks the students to work with an image. In the first stage, students describe the image in detail and systematically extract all its elements – this is about paying attention to detail. In the second stage, they explain their interpretations – this develops the skill of analysis. Finally, in stage three, they ask questions that help to verify the accuracy of these interpretations – this stage emphasises the importance of research and evidence for the claims made in stage two. Each stage involves interactive work as the students discuss their findings in pairs or small groups. After each discussion, they are shown an example of a descriptive, analytical and critical analytical paragraph, with colour-coded writing so they can see the different tasks being smoothly integrated into the final piece. Finally, they look at structuring the essay into coherent paragraphs and try applying the method to different sources.
The 3-stage method was originally developed in 2016, in collaboration with Sara Erskine, and in later years modified and expanded based on students’ feedback at the University of Plymouth.
The workshop is particularly well received among Arts and Humanities students but can be easily adapted to other disciplines by using a different image or even an idea/concept/text. The most important principle is to demystify the concept of analysis by breaking it down into three clear stages (description, analysis, critical evaluation).
The slides can be used in workshops (small or large groups) and can be supported with the handout. This example PDF poster highlight potential use for one-to-one sessions.
1 review for Excelling at critical analysis: a 3-stage method with an image
Lauren Cross – 18/09/2023
This workshop plan has given me some fresh and concrete ideas for how to approach teaching visual analysis and critical thinking. Thank you, Alicja!
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- What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples
What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples
Published on May 30, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on May 31, 2023.
Critical thinking is the ability to effectively analyze information and form a judgment .
To think critically, you must be aware of your own biases and assumptions when encountering information, and apply consistent standards when evaluating sources .
Critical thinking skills help you to:
- Identify credible sources
- Evaluate and respond to arguments
- Assess alternative viewpoints
- Test hypotheses against relevant criteria
Table of contents
Why is critical thinking important, critical thinking examples, how to think critically, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about critical thinking.
Critical thinking is important for making judgments about sources of information and forming your own arguments. It emphasizes a rational, objective, and self-aware approach that can help you to identify credible sources and strengthen your conclusions.
Critical thinking is important in all disciplines and throughout all stages of the research process . The types of evidence used in the sciences and in the humanities may differ, but critical thinking skills are relevant to both.
In academic writing , critical thinking can help you to determine whether a source:
- Is free from research bias
- Provides evidence to support its research findings
- Considers alternative viewpoints
Outside of academia, critical thinking goes hand in hand with information literacy to help you form opinions rationally and engage independently and critically with popular media.
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Critical thinking can help you to identify reliable sources of information that you can cite in your research paper . It can also guide your own research methods and inform your own arguments.
Outside of academia, critical thinking can help you to be aware of both your own and others’ biases and assumptions.
However, when you compare the findings of the study with other current research, you determine that the results seem improbable. You analyze the paper again, consulting the sources it cites.
You notice that the research was funded by the pharmaceutical company that created the treatment. Because of this, you view its results skeptically and determine that more independent research is necessary to confirm or refute them. Example: Poor critical thinking in an academic context You’re researching a paper on the impact wireless technology has had on developing countries that previously did not have large-scale communications infrastructure. You read an article that seems to confirm your hypothesis: the impact is mainly positive. Rather than evaluating the research methodology, you accept the findings uncritically.
However, you decide to compare this review article with consumer reviews on a different site. You find that these reviews are not as positive. Some customers have had problems installing the alarm, and some have noted that it activates for no apparent reason.
You revisit the original review article. You notice that the words “sponsored content” appear in small print under the article title. Based on this, you conclude that the review is advertising and is therefore not an unbiased source. Example: Poor critical thinking in a nonacademic context You support a candidate in an upcoming election. You visit an online news site affiliated with their political party and read an article that criticizes their opponent. The article claims that the opponent is inexperienced in politics. You accept this without evidence, because it fits your preconceptions about the opponent.
There is no single way to think critically. How you engage with information will depend on the type of source you’re using and the information you need.
However, you can engage with sources in a systematic and critical way by asking certain questions when you encounter information. Like the CRAAP test , these questions focus on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.
When encountering information, ask:
- Who is the author? Are they an expert in their field?
- What do they say? Is their argument clear? Can you summarize it?
- When did they say this? Is the source current?
- Where is the information published? Is it an academic article? Is it peer-reviewed ?
- Why did the author publish it? What is their motivation?
- How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence? Does it rely on opinion, speculation, or appeals to emotion ? Do they address alternative arguments?
Critical thinking also involves being aware of your own biases, not only those of others. When you make an argument or draw your own conclusions, you can ask similar questions about your own writing:
- Am I only considering evidence that supports my preconceptions?
- Is my argument expressed clearly and backed up with credible sources?
- Would I be convinced by this argument coming from someone else?
If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- ChatGPT vs human editor
- ChatGPT citations
- Is ChatGPT trustworthy?
- Using ChatGPT for your studies
- What is ChatGPT?
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Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.
Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.
Critical thinking skills include the ability to:
You can assess information and arguments critically by asking certain questions about the source. You can use the CRAAP test , focusing on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.
Ask questions such as:
- Who is the author? Are they an expert?
- How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence?
A credible source should pass the CRAAP test and follow these guidelines:
- The information should be up to date and current.
- The author and publication should be a trusted authority on the subject you are researching.
- The sources the author cited should be easy to find, clear, and unbiased.
- For a web source, the URL and layout should signify that it is trustworthy.
Information literacy refers to a broad range of skills, including the ability to find, evaluate, and use sources of information effectively.
Being information literate means that you:
- Know how to find credible sources
- Use relevant sources to inform your research
- Understand what constitutes plagiarism
- Know how to cite your sources correctly
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search, interpret, and recall information in a way that aligns with our pre-existing values, opinions, or beliefs. It refers to the ability to recollect information best when it amplifies what we already believe. Relatedly, we tend to forget information that contradicts our opinions.
Although selective recall is a component of confirmation bias, it should not be confused with recall bias.
On the other hand, recall bias refers to the differences in the ability between study participants to recall past events when self-reporting is used. This difference in accuracy or completeness of recollection is not related to beliefs or opinions. Rather, recall bias relates to other factors, such as the length of the recall period, age, and the characteristics of the disease under investigation.
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FACT SHEET: President Biden Issues Executive Order on Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence
Today, President Biden is issuing a landmark Executive Order to ensure that America leads the way in seizing the promise and managing the risks of artificial intelligence (AI). The Executive Order establishes new standards for AI safety and security, protects Americans’ privacy, advances equity and civil rights, stands up for consumers and workers, promotes innovation and competition, advances American leadership around the world, and more. As part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s comprehensive strategy for responsible innovation, the Executive Order builds on previous actions the President has taken, including work that led to voluntary commitments from 15 leading companies to drive safe, secure, and trustworthy development of AI. The Executive Order directs the following actions: New Standards for AI Safety and Security
As AI’s capabilities grow, so do its implications for Americans’ safety and security. With this Executive Order, the President directs the most sweeping actions ever taken to protect Americans from the potential risks of AI systems :
- Require that developers of the most powerful AI systems share their safety test results and other critical information with the U.S. government. In accordance with the Defense Production Act, the Order will require that companies developing any foundation model that poses a serious risk to national security, national economic security, or national public health and safety must notify the federal government when training the model, and must share the results of all red-team safety tests. These measures will ensure AI systems are safe, secure, and trustworthy before companies make them public.
- Develop standards, tools, and tests to help ensure that AI systems are safe, secure, and trustworthy. The National Institute of Standards and Technology will set the rigorous standards for extensive red-team testing to ensure safety before public release. The Department of Homeland Security will apply those standards to critical infrastructure sectors and establish the AI Safety and Security Board. The Departments of Energy and Homeland Security will also address AI systems’ threats to critical infrastructure, as well as chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and cybersecurity risks. Together, these are the most significant actions ever taken by any government to advance the field of AI safety.
- Protect against the risks of using AI to engineer dangerous biological materials by developing strong new standards for biological synthesis screening. Agencies that fund life-science projects will establish these standards as a condition of federal funding, creating powerful incentives to ensure appropriate screening and manage risks potentially made worse by AI.
- Protect Americans from AI-enabled fraud and deception by establishing standards and best practices for detecting AI-generated content and authenticating official content . The Department of Commerce will develop guidance for content authentication and watermarking to clearly label AI-generated content. Federal agencies will use these tools to make it easy for Americans to know that the communications they receive from their government are authentic—and set an example for the private sector and governments around the world.
- Establish an advanced cybersecurity program to develop AI tools to find and fix vulnerabilities in critical software, building on the Biden-Harris Administration’s ongoing AI Cyber Challenge. Together, these efforts will harness AI’s potentially game-changing cyber capabilities to make software and networks more secure.
- Order the development of a National Security Memorandum that directs further actions on AI and security, to be developed by the National Security Council and White House Chief of Staff. This document will ensure that the United States military and intelligence community use AI safely, ethically, and effectively in their missions, and will direct actions to counter adversaries’ military use of AI.
Protecting Americans’ Privacy
Without safeguards, AI can put Americans’ privacy further at risk. AI not only makes it easier to extract, identify, and exploit personal data, but it also heightens incentives to do so because companies use data to train AI systems. To better protect Americans’ privacy, including from the risks posed by AI, the President calls on Congress to pass bipartisan data privacy legislation to protect all Americans, especially kids, and directs the following actions:
- Protect Americans’ privacy by prioritizing federal support for accelerating the development and use of privacy-preserving techniques— including ones that use cutting-edge AI and that let AI systems be trained while preserving the privacy of the training data.
- Strengthen privacy-preserving research and technologies, such as cryptographic tools that preserve individuals’ privacy, by funding a Research Coordination Network to advance rapid breakthroughs and development. The National Science Foundation will also work with this network to promote the adoption of leading-edge privacy-preserving technologies by federal agencies.
- Evaluate how agencies collect and use commercially available information —including information they procure from data brokers—and strengthen privacy guidance for federal agencies to account for AI risks. This work will focus in particular on commercially available information containing personally identifiable data.
- Develop guidelines for federal agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of privacy-preserving techniques, including those used in AI systems. These guidelines will advance agency efforts to protect Americans’ data.
Advancing Equity and Civil Rights
Irresponsible uses of AI can lead to and deepen discrimination, bias, and other abuses in justice, healthcare, and housing. The Biden-Harris Administration has already taken action by publishing the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights and issuing an Executive Order directing agencies to combat algorithmic discrimination , while enforcing existing authorities to protect people’s rights and safety. To ensure that AI advances equity and civil rights, the President directs the following additional actions:
- Provide clear guidance to landlords, Federal benefits programs, and federal contractors to keep AI algorithms from being used to exacerbate discrimination.
- Address algorithmic discrimination through training, technical assistance, and coordination between the Department of Justice and Federal civil rights offices on best practices for investigating and prosecuting civil rights violations related to AI.
- Ensure fairness throughout the criminal justice system by developing best practices on the use of AI in sentencing, parole and probation, pretrial release and detention, risk assessments, surveillance, crime forecasting and predictive policing, and forensic analysis.
Standing Up for Consumers, Patients, and Students
AI can bring real benefits to consumers—for example, by making products better, cheaper, and more widely available. But AI also raises the risk of injuring, misleading, or otherwise harming Americans. To protect consumers while ensuring that AI can make Americans better off, the President directs the following actions:
- Advance the responsible use of AI in healthcare and the development of affordable and life-saving drugs. The Department of Health and Human Services will also establish a safety program to receive reports of—and act to remedy – harms or unsafe healthcare practices involving AI.
- Shape AI’s potential to transform education by creating resources to support educators deploying AI-enabled educational tools, such as personalized tutoring in schools.
AI is changing America’s jobs and workplaces, offering both the promise of improved productivity but also the dangers of increased workplace surveillance, bias, and job displacement. To mitigate these risks, support workers’ ability to bargain collectively, and invest in workforce training and development that is accessible to all, the President directs the following actions:
- Develop principles and best practices to mitigate the harms and maximize the benefits of AI for workers by addressing job displacement; labor standards; workplace equity, health, and safety; and data collection. These principles and best practices will benefit workers by providing guidance to prevent employers from undercompensating workers, evaluating job applications unfairly, or impinging on workers’ ability to organize.
- Produce a report on AI’s potential labor-market impacts , and study and identify options for strengthening federal support for workers facing labor disruptions , including from AI.
Promoting Innovation and Competition
America already leads in AI innovation—more AI startups raised first-time capital in the United States last year than in the next seven countries combined. The Executive Order ensures that we continue to lead the way in innovation and competition through the following actions:
- Catalyze AI research across the United States through a pilot of the National AI Research Resource—a tool that will provide AI researchers and students access to key AI resources and data—and expanded grants for AI research in vital areas like healthcare and climate change.
- Promote a fair, open, and competitive AI ecosystem by providing small developers and entrepreneurs access to technical assistance and resources, helping small businesses commercialize AI breakthroughs, and encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to exercise its authorities.
- Use existing authorities to expand the ability of highly skilled immigrants and nonimmigrants with expertise in critical areas to study, stay, and work in the United States by modernizing and streamlining visa criteria, interviews, and reviews.
Advancing American Leadership Abroad
AI’s challenges and opportunities are global. The Biden-Harris Administration will continue working with other nations to support safe, secure, and trustworthy deployment and use of AI worldwide. To that end, the President directs the following actions:
- Expand bilateral, multilateral, and multistakeholder engagements to collaborate on AI . The State Department, in collaboration, with the Commerce Department will lead an effort to establish robust international frameworks for harnessing AI’s benefits and managing its risks and ensuring safety. In addition, this week, Vice President Harris will speak at the UK Summit on AI Safety, hosted by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
- Accelerate development and implementation of vital AI standards with international partners and in standards organizations, ensuring that the technology is safe, secure, trustworthy, and interoperable.
- Promote the safe, responsible, and rights-affirming development and deployment of AI abroad to solve global challenges, such as advancing sustainable development and mitigating dangers to critical infrastructure.
Ensuring Responsible and Effective Government Use of AI
AI can help government deliver better results for the American people. It can expand agencies’ capacity to regulate, govern, and disburse benefits, and it can cut costs and enhance the security of government systems. However, use of AI can pose risks, such as discrimination and unsafe decisions. To ensure the responsible government deployment of AI and modernize federal AI infrastructure, the President directs the following actions:
- Issue guidance for agencies’ use of AI, including clear standards to protect rights and safety, improve AI procurement, and strengthen AI deployment.
- Help agencies acquire specified AI products and services faster, more cheaply, and more effectively through more rapid and efficient contracting.
- Accelerate the rapid hiring of AI professionals as part of a government-wide AI talent surge led by the Office of Personnel Management, U.S. Digital Service, U.S. Digital Corps, and Presidential Innovation Fellowship. Agencies will provide AI training for employees at all levels in relevant fields.
As we advance this agenda at home, the Administration will work with allies and partners abroad on a strong international framework to govern the development and use of AI. The Administration has already consulted widely on AI governance frameworks over the past several months—engaging with Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, the UAE, and the UK. The actions taken today support and complement Japan’s leadership of the G-7 Hiroshima Process, the UK Summit on AI Safety, India’s leadership as Chair of the Global Partnership on AI, and ongoing discussions at the United Nations. The actions that President Biden directed today are vital steps forward in the U.S.’s approach on safe, secure, and trustworthy AI. More action will be required, and the Administration will continue to work with Congress to pursue bipartisan legislation to help America lead the way in responsible innovation. For more on the Biden-Harris Administration’s work to advance AI, and for opportunities to join the Federal AI workforce, visit AI.gov .
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Three Steps to Critical Thinking
Edutopia blogger Todd Finley praises Edward de Bono’s PMI model and demonstrates its uses as a student-friendly springboard to the critical thinking process.
Edward Charles Francis Publius de Bono is a bona fide genius. The author, inventor, Rhodes scholar and Nobel prize-nominated economist graduated from college at age 15. In the field of education and business, he is famous for originating the term lateral thinking . In his spare time, he also wrote Six Thinking Hats and several other books on creativity. Of all his contributions to the field of education, there is one critical thinking method that I use in classes more than any other: the PMI , a brainstorming model built on the categories of plus , minus and interesting .
Creative and Critical Thinking Can Be Taught
De Bono repeats throughout his writing that critical and creative thinking can be taught. Reinforcing his belief, Common Core documents state that critical thinking is "a key performance outcome" -- it should be taught. I've used the PMI with second grade, middle school and high school students. Here are four classroom scenarios where the PMI can aid teaching and learning:
Teaching scenario #1
When you ask a volunteer from your AP English class to analyze the Gettysburg Address, not one hand raises.
Teaching scenario #2
You post an anonymous 10th grade argumentative essay on the document camera for your students to critique, but the same three volunteers who always answer are the only kids with comments to contribute.
Teaching scenario #3
You want to prime your 7th grade social studies students to look more deeply at the pros and cons of gun control legislation.
Teaching scenario #4
You can't think of a good pre- or post-reading exercise to tell your substitute teacher to use.
Handier than a Blendtec Countertop appliance, the PMI writing/thinking protocol is intellectually useful in dozens of contexts. Because it has never failed me, I want you test out the PMI this week, unequivocally confident that de Bono's strategy will enhance critical appraisal of any subject. A side note: writing is thinking; try typing a sentence without thinking -- it doesn't work.
The PMI Steps
For two minutes in the plus column, write (with laser-beam focus) about all of the possible positive things regarding a subject or about taking an action.
For two minutes in the minus column, write (with the focus of a begging Labrador) about all the possible negative things related to a subject, or about the negative effects of taking an action.
For two minutes in the interesting column, write (with the focus of a pre-tenure NYU professor) about all the interesting things related to the subject, or implications and possible outcomes of taking an action, whether positive, negative or uncertain.
The PMI in Action
As I mentioned before, the PMI is useful in almost any process-oriented classroom context. It is particularly powerful for analyzing case studies and prewriting. To illustrate the later, let us imagine that my 1982 high school English teacher, Mrs. Beverly Forslof, tracks me down and asks me to write a "think piece" on the topic of drones. Furthermore, she directs me to demonstrate critical and creative thinking in fewer than 500 words.
I don't know much about predator drones, except that the U.S. military uses them extensively and that they are terrifying . Putting aside my ignorance, I set my timer for three two-minute intervals and develop the following PMI.
Whew! That was intense! The six minutes that I spent working through the PMI protocol helped me arrive at a topic that I am passionate about exploring: not the drones as weapon aspect of the technology, but drones as precursors of technologies that empower individuals . My prewriting has excited my imagination; technology might herald the dawn of private smart robots, personal flying companions that solve problems for us and negotiate with other robots on our behalf -- a scenario envisioned by speculative fiction author David Marusek in Counting Heads . If we assigned basic literacies to robots, what literacies would then become critical for humans to master? That's a topic I've never really thought about before. Thank you, PMI! In six minutes, I surveyed possibilities and came up with an action plan, effectively jump-starting my imaginary essay. The PMI has never failed to generate an "aha" idea for me.
Edward de Bono came up with numerous other critical thinking activities that help students solve problems. Try out his To Lo Po So Go strategy. That link also includes numerous sponge and transition questions to nourish kids' creative intelligence. David Koutsoukis has compiled 50 more of these questions, with answers included.