Critical Thinking, Critical Analysis, and Critique – Same or Different?

Unfortunately, for many naïve teachers and students, these three things are thought of as the same thing. They are not. They are two different things (two of these things are closely related – one of these things just doesn’t belong).

I can’t tell you how many scholarship applications that I have read from incoming first-year university students with the instructions to demonstrate their ability to think critically and receive a critique. First of all, the instructions demonstrate a serious lack of understanding on the part of the person responsible for producing them. And, secondly, the potential scholars are coached by their high school teachers to write something for their scholarship. This clearly demonstrated to me that none of the three groups had the slightest idea what the differences are between critical thinking, critical analysis, and critiques.

Critical thinking is a way of thinking that is purposeful, focussed, and is formulated to solve problems. There are identifiable aspects, underlying abilities, and clear competencies that define critical thinking.

  • The ability and willingness to plan
  • Cognitive flexibility – rejection of rigidity or dogmatic thinking
  • Persistence – because it is effortful it is easy to take shortcuts to find a solution
  • Willingness to self-correct – this is, by far, the most difficult because it means that you can be wrong
  • Directive attention – making your thinking purposeful and directive
  • Consensus seeking – sometimes in the process of solving a difficult problem, we find that we must display some give and take in order to get through it

Critical thinking is a powerful tool for solving problems in the world. Unfortunately, it is a very limited commodity. There are shortages in virtually every corner of our society. Being in short supply, the laws of economics suggest that it would have a high value. It does not. The reason is that, often, those who need it the most already think they are endowed with more than enough. Most of those who teach it teach something not even closely related (often in ignorance) and then flood their counterfeit goods on the market, depressing prices. And those who understand the need, and their own lack, feel threatened by anyone who possesses it, and so avoid buying it. There are also those who know they need it, think they are buying it but don’t really understanding what it is that they are buying and are forced to rely on experts (who often don’t really know what they are supposed to be selling) who market counterfeit critical thinking to them.

This is a market that needs attending to.

So, what does this have to do with critical analysis and critiques?

Critical analysis is the production of a critique (see, these two are related) that evaluates something else so that it can be better understood by others. This is often an academic exercise used to teach students to write an evaluation of a piece of written work or understand a body of work. This is what I was reading over and over when I was reading scholarship applications. It does not take critical thinking to produce a critique. It takes an understanding of a body of knowledge and the ability to present that knowledge (paper, work, book etc.) in an understandable format with the writer’s evaluation of what the work means.

A critique becomes extremely shallow when a naïve teacher reduces the word “critically” to critical. In this case, critical means to find flaws in the work. Look at a body of work or a paper written and find something wrong with it. I’m not even certain that there is a legitimate name for this kind of writing. This exercise can be included in a critique, but a critique is much, much more.

As a professor of psychology, the favorite high school scholarship demonstration of critical thinking was the shredding of Stanley Milgram, one of the giants in the field, and his work. I have been associated with this field for 30+ years, and I would never attempt such a feat. I am certain that there are specialists in the field would and could, highlight some of the legitimate deficiencies in his work, but I wouldn’t go near it. And yet, under the tutelage of a high school teacher, final year students go to great lengths to criticize his work, methods, and outcomes in (sometimes) passable English.

Unfortunately, this naïve view of critical thinking often persists throughout university with no attempt to correct it (that should be done in high school). As a result, too many university graduates think they possess critical thinking skills when they don’t.

Critical analyses are not limited to written works. Often critical analyses are carried out on systems. All kinds of systems, in order to evaluate their fitness for purpose. If you have had a system in place for more than ten years, no matter how well it works, you should run a critical analysis. This doesn’t mean that you have to change the system, it might be just fine, but a good critical analysis will show you that and may even suggest changes that might improve the efficiency of the system.

One way that critical thinking, critical analysis, and critiques are closely related is that critiques produced through the use of critical thinking are the ones that are, by far the best. They highlight strengths and weaknesses in an area and then go on to present a well thought out evaluation and solution to address the weaknesses or solve the problem.

Mixing the three up is common (very common), but if you buy the shallow (or even pretty good) ability to critically analyze something, thinking you are buying critical thinking, you are paying for a counterfeit – even if you never find out.

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