Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
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It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking – in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes – is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.
Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behaviour. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills (“as an exercise”) without acceptance of their results.
Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skilful manipulation of ideas in service of one”s own, or one’s groups”, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fair-mindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of “idealism” by those habituated to its selfish use.
Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on , among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavour.
Another Brief Conceptualization of Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically. They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked. They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies. They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking. They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason. They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest. They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society. At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so. They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others. They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement. They embody the Socratic principle: The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.
~ Linda Elder, September, 2007
Why Critical Thinking?
Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or
problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking
by skilfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and
imposing intellectual standards upon them.
A well cultivated critical thinker:
raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and
gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to
interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought,
recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.
Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism. (Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008).
Available from : www.criticalthinking.org/aboutct/define_critical_thinking.cfm
Both Critical Thinking and Reflective Thinking
Critical thinking and reflective thinking are often used synonymously. Critical thinking is used to describe:
“… the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome…thinking that is purposeful, reasoned and goal directed – the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions when the thinker is using skills that are thoughtful and effective for the particular context and type of thinking task. Critical thinking is sometimes called directed thinking because it focuses on a desired outcome.” Halpern (1996).
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Reflective thinking, on the other hand, is a part of the critical thinking process referring specifically to the processes of analyzing and making judgments about what has happened. Dewey (1933) suggests that reflective thinking is an active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge, of the grounds that support that knowledge, and the further conclusions to which that knowledge leads. Learners are aware of and control their learning by actively participating in reflective thinking – assessing what they know, what they need to know, and how they bridge that gap – during learning situations.
In summary, critical thinking involves a wide range of thinking skills leading toward desirable outcomes and reflective thinking focuses on the process of making judgments about what has happened. However, reflective thinking is most important in prompting learning during complex problem-solving situations because it provides students with an opportunity to step back and think about how they actually solve problems and how a particular set of problem solving strategies is appropriated for achieving their goal.
Characteristics of environments and activities that prompt and support reflective thinking:
Provide enough wait-time for students to reflect when responding to inquiries.
Provide emotionally supportive environments in the classroom encouraging re-evaluation of conclusions.
Prompt reviews of the learning situation, what is known, what is not yet known, and what has been learned.
Provide authentic tasks involving ill-structured data to encourage reflective thinking during learning activities.
Prompt students’ reflection by asking questions that seek reasons and evidence.
Provide some explanations to guide students’ thought processes during explorations.
Provide a less-structured learning environment that prompts students to explore what they think is important.
Provide social-learning environments such as those inherent in peer-group works and small group activities to allow students to see other points of view.
Provide reflective journal to write down students’ positions, give reasons to support what they think, show awareness of opposing positions and the weaknesses of their own positions.
Reflective thinking involves personal consideration of one’s own learning. It considers personal achievements and failures and asks what worked, what didn’t, and what needs improvement (Given, 2002). It asks the learner to think about her own thinking.
“Reflection is the key that opens the door to understanding ourselves in relation to core ethical values” (Beland, 2003, p.15). Similarly, Lickona states that moral reflection is necessary to develop the cognitive side of character -the important part of our moral selves that enables us to make moral judgments about our own behaviour and that of others” (Lickona, 1991, p.229). This type of reflection enables learners to gain self-knowledge, to demonstrate their understanding of worthwhile moral values, take on the perspective of others, to reflect on why some actions are morally better than others, and to consider alternatives and consequences of actions.
Whether reflection is verbal, written, or drawn it is a key strategy for learning and a major tool for character education. “Brain research suggests that brief periods of downtime aid in association, consolidate learning, and ‘imprint’ memory” (Jenson, 1998 as cited in Beland, 2003, p.38).
Reflection can be done through journal writing, keeping a daily diary, essay writing, drawing, and talking in pairs. Reflection can follow a peer discussion. Reflection can be in response to a journal prompt about a character in literature. Reflection on compelling literature and narratives help us bridge the struggle to gain an understanding of the ideas and reasoning of others. Reflection aids the learner in making connections between the moral and social issues in the story, the struggle of the stories’ characters, and their own struggles to lead a moral life.
Reflection can occur in response to academic work and as a follow-up to a cooperative activity when students are asked to reflect upon how well their group did or did not work together. It can be used to review the day, as a follow-up for class meetings, as part of goal setting, and as part of a service learning activity. Students can reflect upon an authentic issue faced by students and the school community such as the impact of cliques, academic honesty or improving sportsmanship. Reflection can be used in a number of ways that ask students to think about and respond to the learning. Teachers can model reflection by sharing their own learning regarding a moral issue. This shows students that character development is a life-long journey and that, in this pursuit, it is the effort and the striving toward an ethical life that is important. (Beland, 2003, p.16)
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