Critical Thinking – Part 2

I closed the previous entry on critical thinking with the following picture.

critical thinkingNotice that critical thinking is underwritten by two sets of skills—cognitive and dispositional.

Cognitive Skills

This is the bit that probably comes to mind immediately when considering critical thinking. Critical thinking involves the mobilization of a number of concrete thinking skills. Let’s pick an example: you read in the paper that industrial emissions are implicated in the overall warming of the earth. Deciding whether you believe what you read is surely an exercise in critical thinking, isn’t it?

I don’t want to belabour anything, but let’s expand the skills list.

  • Interpretation
    • Categorization
    • Decoding significance
    • Clarifying meaning
  • Analysis
    • Examining Ideas
    • Identifying Arguments
    • Analyzing Arguments
  • Evaluation
    • Assessing Claims
    • Assessing Arguments
  • Inference
    • Querying Evidence
    • Conjecturing Alternatives
    • Drawing Conclusions
  • Explanation
    • Stating Results
    • Justifying Procedures
    • Presenting Arguments
  • Self-regulation
    • Self-examination
    • Self-correction

You can see that a number of these skills/sub-skills are generic. Assessing arguments, for example requires similar skills and understanding regardless of the content of the argument. Similarly Explanation and Self-regulation are (almost) independent of subject matter.

But content knowledge remains crucial to these activities. One cannot query evidence without understanding something of the standards of evidence. One cannot conjecture alternatives without some knowledge of which alternatives are possible.

In short, the skill dimension of critical thinking is both general and subject-specific.


The character virtues, or dispositions to think critically are often ignored. They seem to be the embarrassing ex who nobody wants to talk about.

You see, just having skills isn’t enough; you have to use them. And to use them, you need some motivation. And motivation comes from character. And this terrifies curriculum writers, disgusts assessment theorists, and worries teachers. But there it is, anyways.

  • Approaches to life and living in general:
    • Inquisitiveness with regard to a wide range of issues
    • Concern to become and remain generally well-informed
    • Alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking
    • Trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry
    • Self-confidence in one’s own ability to reason
    • Open-mindedness regarding divergent world views
    • Flexibility in considering alternatives and opinions
    • Understanding of the opinions of other people
    • Fair-mindedness in appraising reasoning
    • Honesty in facing one’s own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, egocentric or sociocentric tendencies
    • Prudence in suspending, making or altering judgments
    • Willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted
  • Approaches to specific issues, questions or problems:
    • Clarity in stating the question or concern
    • Orderliness in working with complexity
    • Diligence in seeking relevant information
    • Reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria
    • Care in focusing attention on the concern at hand
    • Persistence though difficulties are encountered
    • Precision to the degree permitted by the subject and the circumstance

Here’s the problem. Current educational thinking stipulates that all mandated student outcomes must be observable and measurable (either directly or indirectly). We can measure whether a student can deploy the Pythagorean Theorem to solve 2-dimensional problems. We can observe and measure a student’s ability to express the theme of a novel in prose (maybe not precisely, but we can do it). But how can we stipulate “approaches to life” and then measure them?

I’ll deal with this in a bit more detail in a future post. But let’s answer back with the question: why not?

Sure it’s uncomfortable to report that a student is not open minded about divergent world views. But if it’s a crucial component of critical thinking, then it’s fair game. Inquisitiveness? Alertness to opportunities? Honesty? Prudence in judgment? This is starting to look like student reports of a century ago!

And why not? Our grandparents and great-grandparents were not fools. They recognized that intellectual achievement is predicated on intellectual habits, though they wouldn’t have used those words. Yes, we’ve improved our educational thinking in many way, but we can’t change the way that responsible thinking works. And that’s a significant part of what makes thinking critical: it is responsible.

I’m going to leave off here. But if you’re with me this far, try to imagine how a teacher can assess and report on the items in the above lists without creating a disaster in class, school and home.


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