Critical Thinking Skills
Critical thinking is the capacity to distinguish between valid and invalid processes of inference and information sources; it requires the formation of beliefs based upon sound reasoning. The word critical derives from the Greek word “critic” and implies a critique; it identifies the intellectual capacity and the means “of judging” and of being “able to discern.”1 Much information and knowledge in everyday life can not be proven to be decisively correct or incorrect; critical reasoning is the capacity for objective analysis and evaluation in order to form a judgment on the process through which knowledge or information was generated. The literature on critical thinking has roots in two primary academic disciplines: philosophy and psychology.2
People often react to a piece of information rather than look at the reasoning that created that information. Critical thinking is about evaluating the process used to derive some piece of knowledge or information, rather than simply assessing the end product. Critical thinking involves suspending reactions to phenomena and looking at the process of reasoning and evidence that created that piece of information.3 Evaluating a piece of information based upon the process of inference that generated it, requires that one can subject oneself (and others) to reason rather than emotional reaction, and preconceived bias towards certain conclusions.
Skills and Characteristics
Critical thinking consists of both a conceptual skill set and a personal attitude.4 One must both have the thinking skills to evaluate evidence and processes of inference, but also have the will to subject oneself to the conclusions of those inferences. This involves trust in reason and willingness to reconsider one’s position, or adjust one’s beliefs and actions according to that which is derived from the most solid foundations of reason or empirical data. Critical thinking is inward-directed with the intent of maximizing the rationality of the thinker. One does not use critical thinking to solve problems — one uses critical thinking to improve one’s process of thinking.5 Thus one must be firstly interested in improving one’s cognitive processes.
These dispositions, which can be seen as attitudes or habits of mind, include open and fair-mindedness, inquisitiveness, flexibility, a propensity to seek reason, a desire to be well informed, and a respect for and willingness to entertain diverse viewpoints.6 Individuals must want to identify floors in their reasoning and assumptions, to seek out knowledge and evidence that is objective even if it refutes their own cherished beliefs. A critical thinker has to be able to not only identify floors in their reasoning but also adapt their behavior and beliefs to it. The relationship between critical thinking skills and critical thinking dispositions is an empirical question. Some people have both in abundance, some have skills but not the disposition to use them, some are disposed but lack strong skills, and some have neither.7 One empirical measure of this critical thinking dispositions is the California Measure of Mental Motivation.
Critical thinking requires a balance in judgment. Balanced judgment means maintaining different perspectives and inputs on the situation. Egoism can be a primary deterrent of balanced judgment, and thus a degree of self-awareness to identify and counterbalance this is required. Willingness to imagine or to remain open to considering alternative perspectives; willingness to integrate new or revised perspectives into one’s ways of thinking and acting; and willingness to foster criticality in others.8 Critical thinking requires an acceptance that what one considers as knowledge must be testable and explainable to be worthy of serious consideration and that legitimate theories clearly define their scope and the circumstance in which they will concede defeat.
Critical thinking, before anything involves some degree of awareness of one’s own or others processes of reasoning. As such it can be understood as a form of metacognition, in that it tries to identify the process of reasoning behind some inference or the sources behind a piece of information. Critical thinking is not simply knowing a lot it involves the tools for thinking to enable the subject to solve a diversity of problems.
Critical thinking involved a number of skills including observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and metacognition. Edward M. Glaser proposed that the ability to think critically involves three elements: An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. Some skill in applying those methods.9
The ability to reason logically is a fundamental skill of rational actors. Hence the study of the form of correct argumentation is relevant to the study of critical thinking. However, deductive reasoning is not sufficed as other forms of inductive reasoning are often needed. Thus critical reasoning is not the same as “hard” deductive reasoning, as operating in the “real world” means often operating without the certainty of deductive logic. As well as understanding the basics of deductive reasoning, critical thinking often involves the effective use of inductive, abductive or analogical reasoning.
Critical thinking involves the skill and propensity to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism.10 It involves suspending one’s judgment about claims that are presented to us, or one’s own claims, and waiting for sufficient evidence before adopting a new belief. Firstly examining the reasoning, assumptions, and biases behind a position. The reasoning behind a proposition should be based on sound logic, not on social pressure or emotional persuasion. The truth factor ascribed to statements should not be determined by the emotion that accompanies them or their popularity. Ideas do not become more valid because more people subscribe to them, thus even in the face of popular believes skepticism is required until appropriate evidence is found. A critical thinker can handle uncertainty, prefers to be aware of their areas of ignorance and can wait for valid evidence.11