What is Critical Thinking?

What is critical thinking? That’s a great question, and I’m glad you asked. It’s obvious that we think all the time, but how often do we think about how we think? Is our thinking good, does it make sense, is it well reasoned? Let’s take a close look at what critical thinking is.

To be honest, there are many definitions of critical thinking. You can search and find dozens and dozens, each a bit different. But they all seem to boil down to what Dr. Richard Paul once said:

Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.

That’s a small sentence that says quite a lot. Let’s take it apart and see what we find.

ARTFirst, thinking critically is an art, and like any art, it can be done well or done poorly. It takes time and practice to get good at it.There is not really a formula for doing it like there is in formal logic. We need our imagination to see connections, like a detective looking for patterns that help find who did it.

Critical thinking requires us to get into our mind, or the mind of someone else, to understand their reasoning. To do this, we need imagination. So, just as art reflects how an artist looks at the world, critical thinking helps us understand how someone’s thinking or actions reflects how they see the world.

ANALYZINGWe think all the time, but often we don’t look closely at thinking, at how we see things and how our thinking effects how we, and others, see the world.Critical thinking involves taking apart thinking and looking at how that thinking is constructed:

Like an archaeologist, the critical thinker looks for artifacts of reasoning from how a person writes or talks or acts. Critical thinking gives us the tools to dig out those clues and reconstruct the reasoning of the thinker.

EVALUATINGWhen we have figured out how a person is thinking, then it’s time to look for the quality of the thinking. Remember that thinking can run the gamut from great thinking to poor thinking, so we need to judge the thinking, hold it up to a standard of excellence.By judging the quality of thinking, we can assess if the thinking is done well or not, if the reasoning is based on sound ideas or whether we can rely on the conclusions the thinker gives us.

So, we follow a set of criteria, a rubric that helps us to check the quality of thinking and whether it can be trusted.

THINKING

What is powerful about critical thinking is that it helps us to not  only look into our own thinking, but also the thinking of others. We can analyze what Juliet thinks of Romeo when they first meet. Then we can analyze what they think of each other on the balcony. We can also analyze what Shakespeare thinks about Juliet, and even what you think about what Shakespeare thinks about Juliet. And then we can compare all of these, evaluate how strong their (and our) thinking is, and then see if we agree with how others think. Critical thinking can help us get into anyone’s mind.

WITH A VIEW TO IMPROVING IT

We always need to grow as thinkers, to become better at analyzing and evaluating our thinking and the thinking of others. In order to become a critical thinker we need to practice enough to make it a habit. Then we can make better decisions and act in accordance with what we have carefully reasoned.

Yes, it does take work and diligence, but also creativity and imagination. In the end, we not only become better thinkers and understand the world on a deeper level, but we become better people, understanding our place in the world and what we can do to improve it.

Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.

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