Critical thinking is the most powerful problem-solving method ever devised and requires significant cognitive resources. It requires both concrete and abstract cognitive enablers and takes significant time to learn. There are a number of cognitive components that come together for critical thinking to occur.
I define critical thinking skills by combining two definitions of critical thinking, one by Halpern and a second by Willingham. My definition is:
The use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome and the ability to see both sides of an issue. To be a critical thinker, you must be open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, be able to reason dispassionately, demand that claims be backed by good evidence, be able to deduce and infer conclusions from available facts, and solve problems through the use of the aforementioned abilities, as well as coalescing others around the outcome.
Critical thinking cognitive components include:
- Cognitive Flexibility
- Willingness to self-correct
- Consensus Seeking
These abilities, when directed at a problem by a group of people, result in critical thinking.
From this list, it is apparent that both a concrete cognitive enabler (persistence), four abstract cognitive enablers (planning, cognitive flexibility, attentiveness, and the willingness to self-correct) as well as the unique human skill of bringing others to a consensus around a solution to a problem.
Some of these components are taught in both secondary education and higher education. Most of these components are left to a learner to simply come up with on their own, and rarely are these components brought together to address a problem in formal education.
In addition to the problem of critical analysis (the careful analysis of evidence and the methods used to support that evidence) being presented as critical thinking, many educators conflate analytical thinking (logical and rational consideration of an argument) with critical thinking. Although both of these important skills are necessary for critical thinking and planning (usually the most significant problem learning support officers have to deal with) should be a core component of both, neither one of them is critical thinking.
Critical analysis is necessary for the recursive consideration of arguments put forward as supporting a solution to a problem and analytical thinking is vital to both presenting those supporting arguments and coalescing around a solution to a problem.
Unfortunately, analytical thinking and/or critical analysis are the usual definitions of critical thinking.
Most secondary school assessment that uses open-ended essay type questions to judge learning progress require analytic thinking, labeled as critical thinking. This leads students to believe that presenting material in a logically sound and rational way is what is meant by critical thinking.
This use of analytic thinking as a definition for critical thinking is often as far as students progress in their learning throughout college and university – at every level. This is because this is the understanding that college and university professors have of critical thinking is that it is analytic thinking. Some programs and teachers in higher education will require critical analysis of the evidence as a student progresses to more advanced levels of instruction. Rarely is the full suite of cognitive enablers brought to bear on a problem in higher education.
A Ph.D. is almost the only place where something even close to critical thinking appears. Even at the Ph.D. level, the willingness to self-correct is conflated with direction from a supervisor. Receiving and incorporating direction and suggestions from a supervisor is not self-correction. Self-correction is the change of direction in thinking that occurs when the weight of evidence necessitates a change in thinking. When a person is studying for a Ph.D., the pursuit of the answers to a problem is almost always based on the foundation of knowledge that supports a supervisor and the adherents to an idea. The number of times that the foundation for an area of study (no matter how narrow) is overturned by evidence found by a student – even when it should be – is infinitesimal.
Analytic thinking and critical analysis are not critical thinking. There are those who figure out what critical thinking is, but the number is few and is rarely taught as anything other than a definition.