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Critical Thinking: Are You Doing It Critically?

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

Paradox Surrounding Critical Thinking

Take a second to consider the phrase' critical thinking,' what comes to mind? Have you ever tried to define it without cracking open a dictionary?

absolute objectivity is unattainable

If you went straight to Google for the answer, I wouldn't blame you! However, I'm sure you were met with about a billion results in half a second.


Unpopular Opinion: Critical thinking needs a disclaimer.

My mind struggles with the idea of critical thinking as it's defined in most academic settings since it's subject to the limitations of human cognition (Caratozzolo, Alvarez-Delgado & Hosseini, 2021). All information we would use in an effort to think critically is still evaluated by a biased mind, limiting the process to our domain knowledge and perceptions; absolute objectivity is unattainable (Gallagher, 2006).

Take Robert Ennis's 1962 definition of critical thinking as "the correct assessing of statements" (Ennis, 1962). How could an inherently biased mind begin to evaluate correctness in most contexts without a universal definition of that idea, which doesn't exist? Most definitions for critical thinking are riddled with ambiguously defined concepts subjective to human experience, i.e., words like universal, rational, clear, and logical, all of which require particular contexts before they can be applied.

Now, let's look at Michael Scriven's 1997 definition of Critical Thinking: "is skilled and active interpretation and evaluation of observations and communications, information, and argumentation" (Fischer & Scriven, 1997, p.21). Even within this definition of critical thinking, words like "skilled" are explained in Alec Fisher's Critical Thinking as "clarity, relevance, reasonableness..." (Fisher, n.d.) would require a great deal of context even to begin to unpack.


Critical Thinking Needs Context

The excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Critical Thinking entry should express how amorphous these concepts can be:

"... theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity and to make a selection according to one's own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum."


So, if no one field, expert, or school of thought can define critical thinking, is the entire concept of critical thinking an exercise of its concepts? Furthermore, if these concepts are built on highly debatable ideas, how should they be applied in an educational setting?

After reviewing several studies and academic papers on the subject, I see implementing the more generalized concept of critical thinking to a holistic learning approach and then contextualizing these ideas to foster an open-minded and creative learning environment. By providing a more collaborative and balanced approach to informing a thinker's domain knowledge, moving from Remember-Factual to Metacognitive-Create (which I express graphically below,) we can ultimately introduce them to the framework needed for higher cognitive awareness that critical thinking hopes to achieve (Caratozzolo, Alvarez-Delgado, & Hosseini, 2021).

teared multi-level yard graph depicting the relationship between the knowledge dimensions and the cognitive process dimensions.
By Tiffeny Wilbourn. Adapted from sketch found in 'Creativity in Criticality: tools for Generation Z students in STEM.'

Adapted from a sketch model in Creativity in Criticality: Tools for Generation Z students in STEM (Caratozzolo, Alvarez-Delgado, & Hosseini, 2021) this concept graph by blending Bloom’s Taxonomy (Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate and Create) with Anderson & Krathwohl’s (A&K) Taxonomy (Factual, Conceptual, Procedural and Metacognitive). The tiered yard joins the cognitive processes used to enact on knowledge dimensions where students can create in the truest sense of the word by effectively manipulating the thinking process and information at a multi-dimentional scale. (Bloom's Taxonomy: A New Look at an Old Standby 2007.)




Reference List:

  1. Critical Thinking - Cambridge University Press & Assessment. (n.d.-b).

  2. Critical thinking in every domain of knowledge and belief. Critical Thinking in Every Domain of Knowledge and. (n.d.).

  3. Critical thinking – a tangible construct? - Cambridge assessment. (n.d.-a).

  4. Defining critical thinking. (n.d.).

  5. Hitchcock, D. (2022, October 12). Critical thinking. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  6. P. Caratozzolo, A. Alvarez-Delgado and S. Hosseini, "Creativity in Criticality: Tools for Generation Z students in STEM," 2021 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON), Vienna, Austria, 2021, pp. 591-598, doi: 10.1109/EDUCON46332.2021.9454110.

  7. If not absolute objectivity, then what? A reply ... - Syracuse University. (n.d.-c).

  8. Intel Corporation. (2007). Bloom’s Taxonomy: A New Look at an Old Standby. Bloom’s taxonomy 2.,and%20knowledge%20about%20specific%20details.

  9. What is Critical Thinking? - University of Louisville Ideas To Action. (n.d.).,guide%20to%20belief%20and%20action.

  10. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023a, September 30). Critical thinking. Wikipedia.

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