Q: What is critical thinking?
A: Thank you for a great question. Here are thoughts from Michael Scriven and Richard Paul from the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction.
A Brief Conceptualization of Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information gathered from or generated by observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth and fairness.
Critical thinking can be seen as having two components:
1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills (as an exercise) without acceptance of their results.
Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own or one’s groups vested interest. As such, it is typically intellectually flawed, however, pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fair-mindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of idealism by those habituated to its selfish use.
Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking, or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through and through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies toward self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.
Why Critical Thinking?
Everyone thinks: it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make or build, depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content or concern – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.
A well-cultivated critical thinker:
• Raises vital questions and concerns, formulating them clearly and precisely.
• Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively, comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria standards.
• Thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as needed, their assumptions, implications and practical consequences.
• Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex issues.