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“Purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as an explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based” (Facione, 1990).
Critical thinking can be defined as a set of cognitive skills through which one aims to solve a problem or arrive at a conclusion as a result of analysing the authenticity of relevant evidence and existing knowledge, exercising rational decision-making and reflective questioning (Jones, 2019). It is regarded as one of the most vital skills for life.
There are so many definitions of critical thinking, most of which substantially overlap and point towards similar concepts, processes and skills – perhaps the best way to understand what critical thinking is, is to actively engage in its practice.
The roots of critical thinking can be traced back to 2,500 years ago, when Socrates was teaching his students about the value of assessing an idea based on its merits alone. At that time, when leading figures of authority spoke unchallenged, he emphasised the importance of being questioning and seeking the truth. Through his teachings, he established the importance of gathering evidence, reflectively questioning beliefs and subjecting every idea to scrutiny in order to reach sound, logical conclusions (Mintz, 2005). He devised what is now known as “Socratic Questioning”, a method that outlines the way to logical consistency and critical inquiry through a series of questions (note: see more on this in Section 4.3).
Key processes involved in critical thinking (Cottrell, 2011)
There is no one way of utilising critical thinking. The above may tell you what critical thinking consists of, but how to apply it can vary. You may employ a critical thinking ‘mindset’, you might see it as a set of actions to follow. If you are looking to seek guidance on how you can apply critical thinking in a structured way, here are two examples.
The Paul and Elder framework: A philosophical approach
One of the most widely recognised ways of applying critical thinking skills to daily life and problem-solving is the Paul-Elder framework, devised by Linda Elder and Richard Paul in the 1990’s. The Paul-Elder framework has three main components:
Graphic: The Paul-Elder Critical Thinking framework (Paul & Elder, 2019) showing how the key intellectual traits associated with critical thought can be developed by applying intellectual standards to the elements of reasoning.
The intellectual standards cover how we can ensure that the reasoning used to build our arguments adheres to the true process of critical thinking. Having good command of our own and others’ thought processes means making sure we comply with these standards, so much so that it becomes infused in all thinking, ultimately improving our reasoning (Paul & Elder, 1997; 2006). (Note: To see how these standards can be practically applied in academia, check out the section 2.3)
Could you elaborate?
Could you illustrate what you mean?
Could you give me an example?
How could we check on that?
How could we find out if that is true?
How could we verify or test that?
How does that relate to the problem?
How does that bear on the question?
How does that help us with the issue?
What factors make this difficult?
What are some of the complexities of this question?
What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with?
Does all of this make sense together?
Does your first paragraph fit in with your last one?
Does what you say follow from the evidence?
Do we need to look at this from another perspective?
Do we need to consider another point of view?
Do we need to look at this in other ways?
Could you be more specific?
Could you give me more details?
Could you be more exact?
Is this the most important problem to consider?
Is this the central idea to focus on?
Which of these facts are most important?
Is my thinking justifiable in context?
Am I taking into account the thinking of others?
Is my purpose fair given the situation?
Am I using my concepts in keeping with educated usage, or am I distorting them to get what I want?
Elements of Reasoning
The elements of reasoning are what we need to apply our intellectual standards to. According to Paul and Elder (2007), critical thinking is different from regular thinking. Their framework suggests that there are specific elements of our thinking that we should pay attention to in order to dive deeper and arrive at more reasonable conclusions.
With continued application of the intellectual standards to the elements of reasoning, one can develop the following intellectual traits. These characterise a critical thinker.
Bloom’s Taxonomy: An educational approach
Another structured way of applying critical thinking is using Bloom’s Taxonomy. This was a method originally created by Benjamin Bloom and collaborators in 1956, and then revised in 2001 by psychologists. Bloom’s Taxonomy is centred around the goal of getting students to learn more effectively and provides an ordered process where different forms of thought build upon each other.
Graphic: Revised 2001 version of Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid which indicates each step and how they are linked. Image courtesy of Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.
Making your way through these cognitive processes and reaching the highest level of the pyramid to the point of innovation, requires critical thinking. Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a great way to ensure you are aligned with clear goals and objectives that meet specific targets, hence why it is great as an educational approach.
To see the different cognitive processes comprising Bloom’s Taxonomy in action, check out this scene from the film ‘Inside Out’.
(Note: This video illustrates the original version of Bloom’s Taxonomy in relation to each scene. However, it is still a great depiction of even the revised version.)
As already mentioned, there are many ways of applying critical thinking, and above describes just two approaches. Perhaps one of them alone does not suit your wider purpose – in which case, you may want to incorporate elements of each approach that best fit the problem you are trying to solve.
Being more sceptical: It can be convenient to follow the crowd, and while conformity has its benefits, it can also lead to unhealthy thought patterns such as stereotyping. Being questioning and asking yourself, “Can I be sure this is true?” or “What evidence is there for this?” rather than blindly accepting information is a courageous exercise in thinking critically that can save you from adopting bad mental habits.
Nurturing your curiosity: Being questioning, but out of curiosity and opportunity for learning, rather than out of mistrust, is a virtue of critical thinking. An inquisitive approach that seeks to get more information and understand the world better will only give you more mental freedom to ask questions and learn new things.
Being more open-minded: Sometimes, our biases and assumptions about the world, often based on the society we grew up in, can lead us to make harmful stereotypical judgments. These don’t help anyone. Having an open mind means being aware of our harmful thought patterns, that prevent us from making fair and objective decisions, which is something critical thinking emphasises.
Thinking objectively: For certain decisions, separating fact from opinion, emotional impulses from rational thought, is essential. A critical thinker practices being able to balance these forces for those crucial decisions in order to make more balanced judgments free from personal biases.
Being humble: We can all be prone to overestimating how true and accurate our beliefs are. Unfortunately, we cannot always be right! I may be positive that there are no typos from me on this page having checked many times, but chances are, you may come across a few here and there! That being said, it is important not to get too caught up in self-doubt, and default to feeling like you’re always wrong, but rather, identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie, and be aware of them. Critical thinking emphasises awareness of our blind spots, and a critical thinker would welcome having a blind spot (politely) pointed out. This enables us to stay humble and open to improvement. So, if you find a typo or error anywhere in this resource, I welcome being politely notified about it!
Becoming tolerant: Finding out that you’re wrong, or that you have been misled in some way, can be difficult and uncomfortable to accept. Especially when it is regarding a closely held belief or assumption, a piece of work you have poured your time into, or information that you have endorsed. Someone who thinks critically is able to persist through that discomfort for the sake of knowing they are getting closer to betterment or even the truth. Practising critical thinking, by default, helps you become more tolerant of critique and opposing perspectives.
Being flexible: In a world where there is ever-present uncertainty and simultaneously, constant streams of information, discovery and innovation, having a fixed way of thinking can prevent you from updating or adapting your belief systems. Being a critical thinker doesn’t necessarily mean not having stable, valued beliefs, but rather, enables you to adapt and realign so that you grow as the world around you also changes and evolves. Adopting a “growth mindset” over a “fixed mindset” (Dweck, 1999, 2007, 2010) aptly demonstrates this principle of critical thinking.
Graphic: Illustration depicting the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, credit: @BigLifeJournal.
Critical thinking skills aren’t just valuable by themselves – they can also help us and improve us in other ways, too.
It makes you a better citizen – Part of being a socially responsible citizen involves being informed – in today’s digital age, where misinformation and disinformation are increasingly prevalent, critical thinking skills can help you differentiate between evidence-based claims and false stories.
It can help you become a better educator – If you are involved in teaching in some way, and your educational practice incorporates the tenets of critical thinking, then you will be creating an environment that encourages collaboration, open-mindedness and curiosity. According to a systematic review, promoting critical thinking practices in the classroom leads to largely positive results (Lorencová et al., 2019).
It’s beneficial for employability – The great thing about critical thinking is that it is a skill that is always in high demand. Even in the modern economy, as workforces become more automated, critical thinking remains universally valued by employers across sectors, and is projected to grow in importance.
Graphic: Critical Thinking listed as a ‘Top 10 skills of 2025’ in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020.
It can help you become a better researcher – Finally, critical thinking skills are vital for academic enquiry and can be greatly beneficial for the research process. The next section of this resource will take you through why critical thinking is so important for researchers.
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Cottrell, S. (2011). Critical Thinking Skills: Developing Effective Analysis and Argument. United Kingdom: Macmillan Education UK.
Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press. 10.
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Dweck, C. S. (2010). Mind sets and equitable education. Principal Leadership. Jan, 10, (5), 26.
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Lorencová, H., Jarošová, E., Avgitidou, S., & Dimitriadou, C. (2019). Critical thinking practices in teacher education programmes: a systematic review. Studies in Higher Education, 44(5), 844-859.
Mintz, A. (2005) ‘From grade school to law school: Socrates’ legacy in education,’ in A companion to Socrates. New York: Riley, pp. 476-492.
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Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2006). Critical thinking competency standards. Dillon Beach: Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2019). The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools (8th ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
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