Critical Thinking:
An Overview

Citation: Huitt, W. (1998). Critical thinking: An overview. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date] from, [Revision of paper presented at the Critical Thinking Conference sponsored by Gordon College, Barnesville, GA, March, 1993.]

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Critical thinking is an important issue in education today

The movement to the information age has focused attention on good thinking as an important element of life success (Huitt, 1995; Thomas & Smoot, 1994). These changing conditions require new outcomes, such as critical thinking, to be included as a focus of schooling. Old standards of simply being able to score well on a standardized test of basic skills, though still appropriate, cannot be the sole means by which we judge the academic success or failure of our students.

The purpose of this brief overview is to review what we know about critical thinking, how it might be differentiated from creative thinking, and to suggest future research and implementation activities

Definition has changed over the past decade

The definition of critical thinking has changed somewhat over the past decade. Originally the dominion of cognitive psychologists and philosophers, behaviorally-oriented psychologists and content specialists have recently joined the discussion. The following are some examples of attempts to define critical thinking:

Contributions to our thinking about critical thinking

Each of the separate groups has made significant contributions to our understanding of critical thinking. Contributors from the area of cognitive psychology (such as Paul Chance and Richard Mayer) delineate the set of operations and procedures involved in critical thinking. They work to establish the differences between critical thinking and other important aspects of thinking such as creative thinking.

Contributors from the area of philosophy (such as Richard Paul) remind us that critical thinking is a process of thinking to a standard. Simply being involved in the process of critical thinking is not enough; it must be done well and should guide the establishment of our beliefs and impact our behavior or action.

Contributors from the area of behavioral psychology help to establish the operational definitions associated with critical thinking. They work to define the subtasks associated with final outcomes and the methodologies teachers can use to shape initial behaviors towards the final outcomes. They also demonstrate how educators can establish the proper contingencies to change behavior.

Content specialists (such as Hickey and Mertes) demonstrate how critical thinking can be taught in different content areas such as reading, literature, social studies, mathematics, and science. This is an especially important contribution because it appears that critical thinking is best developed as students grapple with specific content rather than taught exclusively as a separate set of skills.

How is critical thinking related to Bloom et al.'s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain?  

Bloom and his colleagues (1956) produced one of the most often cited documents in establishing educational outcomes: The Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain. They proposed that knowing is actually composed of six successive levels arranged in a hierarchy: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation. Research over the past 40 years has generally confirmed that the first four levels are indeed a true hierarchy. That is, knowing at the knowledge level is easier than, and subsumed under, the level of comprehension and so forth up to the level of analysis. However, research is mixed on the relationship of synthesis and evaluation; it is possible that these two are reversed or they could be two separate, though equally difficult, activities (Seddon, 1978).

Synthesis and evaluation are two types of thinking that have much in common (the first four levels of Bloom's taxonomy), but are quite different in purpose. Evaluation (which might be considered equivalent to critical thinking as used in this document) focuses on making an assessment or judgment based on an analysis of a statement or proposition. Synthesis (which might be considered more equivalent to creative thinking) requires an individual to look at parts and relationships (analysis) and then to put these together in a new and original way.

There is some evidence to suggest that this equivalent-but-different relationship between critical/evaluative and creative/synthesis thinking is appropriate. Huitt (1992) classified techniques used in problem-solving and decision-making into two groups roughly corresponding to the critical/creative dichotomy. One set of techniques tended to be more linear and serial, more structured, more rational and analytical, and more goal-oriented; these techniques are often taught as part of critical thinking exercises. The second set of techniques tended to be more holistic and parallel, more emotional and intuitive, more creative, more visual, and more tactual/kinesthetic; these techniques are more often taught as part of creative thinking exercises. This distinction also corresponds to what is sometimes referred to as left brain thinking (analytic, serial, logical, objective) as compared to right brain thinking (global, parallel, emotional, subjective) (Springer & Deutsch, 1993).

One problem with the definitions provided above (which is common to most definitions from philosophers such as Paul and Scriven), is that of labeling "good" thinking as critical thinking. This implies that creative thinking is a component of critical thinking rather than a separate, though related, thinking process with its own standards of excellence. To classify all "good" thinking as critical thinking is to expand the definition beyond its usefulness and obfuscates the intended concept. It also has the danger of overselling the concept and having both educators and the general public reject the benefits of focusing on critical thinking. We need to recognize that "good" thinking requires both critical and creative thinking. For example, Duemler and Mayer (1988) found that when students used techniques associated with reason and logic as well as creativity and divergence, they were more successful in problem solving.

A second problem common to several definitions is that of confusing attitudes and dispositions towards thinking with the actual thinking process (i.e., emotion versus cognition; feeling versus reasoning.) For example, Tama (1989) includes an "an unwillingness to be persuaded unless [adequate] support is forthcoming" (p. 64) while Mertes (1991) includes using "reflective attitudes" in his. This makes it very difficult to separate out the cognitive processing skills from the attitudes or dispositions to use those skills. It is likely that two separate educational methods are necessary to impact these very different desired outcomes.

Proposed definition

I believe Ennis' (1992) definition comes closest to the mark of a useful generic definition for critical thinking. I offer yet another definition only to more closely align the concept to the evaluation level as defined by Bloom et al. (1956) and to include some of the vocabulary of other investigators. The following is my proposed definition of critical thinking:  

It is important to have a definition of critical thinking so that it can be compared and contrasted with other forms of thinking (i.e., non-critical thinking). For example, non-critical thinking can take the form of habitual thinking (thinking based on past practices without considering current data); brainstorming (saying whatever comes to mind without evaluation); creative thinking (putting facts, concepts and principles together in new and original ways); prejudicial thinking (gathering evidence to support a particular position without questioning the position itself); or emotive thinking (responding to the emotion of a message rather than the content.) Each of these types of thinking may have advantages and disadvantages relative to a particular context. There are situations when each might be more appropriate while the other types would be less appropriate.

Model of critical thinking and its modification

The following is a proposed model of critical thinking:

This model proposes that there are affective, conative, and behavioral aspects of critical thinking that must be considered in addition to the cognitive processes involved. This supports the definitions of Mertes (1991), Scriven and Paul (1992), and Ennis (1992) that include some component of beliefs and behavior. First, a stimulus presents an argument or proposition that must be evaluated. There is an affective disposition to use critical thinking that must activate the critical thinking processes if it is to take place. As a result of critical thinking a previously held belief is confirmed or a new belief is established. This will be established as a component of declarative memory in its semantic form although there may be episodic information associated with it. There may also be images or visualizations formed or remembered as part of the critical thinking process.

There is then an affective disposition to plan and take action in order for the critical thinking to act as a guide to behavior. The conative components of goal-setting and self-regulation must be activated in order to develop and implement a plan of action. As action is taken it results in feedback from the environment and a corresponding increase in procedural knowledge. This new learning is then available as either necessary corrective action is taken to guide action toward the desired goal based on beliefs or a new situation presents itself that requires additional critical thinking.

A complete critical thinking program will successfully deal with each of the components in the model. As stated previously, the most appropriate teaching methods are possibly different for each component. For example, if one is most interested in impacting declarative knowledge (facts, concepts, principles, etc. that are stored in semantic and episodic memory), the most appropriate teaching method is probably some form of didactic, explicit, or direct instruction. On the other hand, if the focus is on procedural knowledge it is likely that modeling and/or personal experience would be more appropriate teaching methods. Likewise, if one were trying to impact the memory of images or visualizations, then modeling, active visualizations, or working with pictures might be more appropriate. Attitudes are probably impacted most directly by socialization and the teaching method of cooperative learning. Learning the process of critical thinking might be best facilitated by a combination of didactic instruction and experience in specific content areas. Impacting conation might best be done through goal-setting exercises and action learning. Finally, overt behavior and learning to use feedback might best be accomplished using positive and negative reinforcement.

Summary and conclusions

The following are some of the most important factors to be considered in the discussion of critical thinking:

Critical thinking is a complex activity and we should not expect that one method of instruction will prove sufficient for developing each of its component parts. We have learned that while it is possible to teach critical thinking and its components as separate skills, they are developed and used best when learned in connection with a specific domain of knowledge (e.g., teaching, auto mechanics, etc) (Carr, 1990). We should not expect that a "critical thinking course" will develop our students' competencies in this area. If students are not expected to use these skills in traditional courses, the skills will simply atrophy and disappear. Teachers and instructors at all levels must require students to use these skills in every class and evaluate their skills accordingly. As Hummel and Huitt (1995) have stated "What You Measure Is What You Get." That is, students are not likely to develop these complex skills without specific, explicit expectations and their measurement in the form of important assessments.

However, even this is not enough for a complete "thinking program." The simple model described above must be combined with a model of creative thinking and these two models must then be combined into a model of problem solving and decision making if we are to more thoroughly understand the components of critical thinking and their value to the processes of evaluating arguments and propositions as a guide to developing beliefs and taking action. Therefore, it is necessary to include development of creative thinking (e.g., lateral thinking)and practice in using both sets of competencies to solve problems and make decisions in a wide variety of situations. In today's rapidly changing context, it is solving real problems and making correct decisions that is valued, not simply demonstrating a narrow set of skills in a highly structured academic setting.


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