Critical Thinking


© 2015, 2013, 2011, 2006, 2004, 1998, 1992, Peter A. Facione, Measured Reasons LLC, Hermosa Beach, CA

Permission to Reprint for Non-Commercial Uses

This essay is published Measured Reasons LLC and distributed by Insight Assessment. The original appeared in 1992 and has been updated many times over the years. Although the author and the publisher hold all copyrights, in the interests of advancing education and improving critical thinking, permission is hereby granted for paper, electronic, or digital copies to be made in unlimited amounts, provided that their distribution is free of charge provided that whenever material from this essay is cited or extracted in whole or in part that appropriate citation is made by indicating this essay’s full title, author’s name, publisher’s name, year, and page or pages where it appears in this edition. For permission for reprints intended for sale contact Insight Assessment by phone at 650-697-5628 or by email to [email protected] ISBN 13: 978-1-891557-07-1. To support the expenses of making this essay available free for non-commercial uses, the publisher has inserted information about its critical thinking testing instruments. These tools assess the critical thinking skills and habits of mind described in this essay. To build critical thinking skills and habits of mind consider using THINK_Critically, Facione & Gittens, Pearson Education.

Critical Thinking:

What It Is and Why It Counts

Peter A. Facione

The late George Carlin worked “critical thinking” into one of his comedic monologue rants on the perils of trusting our lives and fortunes to the decision-making of people who were gullible, uninformed, and unreflective. Had he lived to experience the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009, he would have surely added more to his caustic but accurate assessments regarding how failing to anticipate the consequences of one’s decisions often leads to disastrous results not only for the decision maker, but for many other people as well. After years of viewing higher education as more of a private good which benefits only the student, we are again beginning to appreciate higher education as being also a public good which benefits society. Is it not a wiser social policy to invest in the education of the future workforce, rather than to suffer the financial costs and endure the fiscal and social burdens associated with economic weakness, public

health problems, crime, and avoidable poverty? Perhaps that realization, along with its obvious advantages for high level strategic decision making, is what lead the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to comment on critical thinking in his commencement address to a graduating class of military officers.

Teach people to make good decisions and you equip them to improve

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their own futures and become contributing members of society, rather than burdens on society. Becoming educated and practicing good judgment does not absolutely guarantee a life of happiness, virtue, or economic success, but it surely offers a better chance at those things. And it is clearly better than enduring the consequences of making bad decisions and better than burdening friends, family, and all the rest of us with the unwanted and avoidable consequences of those poor choices.

Defining “Critical Thinking” Yes, surely we have all heard business executives, policy makers, civic leaders, and educators talking about critical thinking. At times we found ourselves wondering exactly what critical thinking was and why is it considered so useful and important. This essay takes a deeper look at these questions. But, rather than beginning with an abstract definition – as if critical thinking were about memorization, which is not the case – give this thought experiment a try: Imagine you have been invited to a movie by a friend. But it’s not a movie you want to see. So, your friend asks you why. You give your honest reason. The movie offends your sense of decency. Your friend asks you to clarify your reason by explaining what bothers you about the film. You reply that it is not the language used or the sexuality portrayed, but you find the violence in the film offensive. Sure, that should be a good enough answer. But suppose your friend, perhaps being a bit philosophically inclined or simply curious or argumentative, pursues the matter further by asking you to define what you mean by “offensive violence.” Take a minute and give it a try. How would you define “offensive violence” as it applies to movies? Can you write a characterization which captures what this commonly used concept contains? Take

care, though, we would not want to make the definition so broad that all movie violence would be automatically “offensive.” And check to be sure your way of defining “offensive violence” fits with how the rest of the people who know and use English would understand the term. Otherwise they will not be able to understand what you mean when you use that expression. Did you come up with a definition that works? How do you know? What you just did with the expression “offensive violence” is very much the same as what had to be done with the expression “critical thinking.” At one level we all know what “critical thinking” means — it means good thinking, almost the opposite of illogical, irrational, thinking. But when we test our understanding further, we run into questions. For example, is critical thinking the same as creative thinking, are they different, or is one part of the other? How do critical thinking and native intelligence or scholastic aptitude relate? Does critical thinking focus on the subject matter or content that you know or on the process you use when you reason about that content? It might not hurt at all if you formed some tentative preliminary ideas about the questions we just raised. We humans learn better when we stop frequently to reflect, rather than just plowing from the top of the page to the bottom without coming up for air. Fine. So how would you propose we go about defining “critical thinking.” You do not really want a definition plopped on the page for you to memorize, do you? That would be silly, almost counterproductive. The goal here is to help you sharpen your critical thinking skills and cultivate your critical thinking spirit. While memorization definitely has many valuable uses, fostering critical thinking is not among them. So, let’s look back at what you might have done to define “offensive violence” and see if we can learn from you. Did you think of some scenes in movies that were offensively violent, and did you contrast them with other

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scenes that were either not violent or not offensively violent? If you did, good. That is one (but not the only) way to approach the problem. Technically it is called finding paradigm cases. Happily, like many things in life, you do not have to know its name to do it well.

Back to critical thinking – let’s ask ourselves to come up with possible examples of strong critical thinking? How about the adroit and clever questioning of Socrates or a good attorney or interviewer? Or, what about the clever investigative approaches used by police detectives and crime scene analysts? Would we not want to also include people working together to solve a problem as they consider and discuss their options? How about someone who is good at listening to all sides of a dispute, considering all the facts, and then deciding what is relevant and what is not, and then rendering a thoughtful judgment? And maybe too, someone who is able to summarize complex ideas clearly with fairness to all sides, or a person who can come up with the most coherent and justifiable explanation of what a passage of written material means? Or the person who can readily devise sensible alternatives to explore, but who does not become defensive about abandoning them if they do not work? And also the person who can explain exactly how a particular conclusion was reached, or why certain criteria apply? Or, considering the concept of critical thinking from the opposite direction, we might ask what the consequences of failing to use our critical thinking might be. Imagine

1 Many useful characterizations of critical thinking by noted theorists and teachers are captured in Conversations with Critical

for a moment what could happen when a person or a group of people decides important matters without pausing first to think things through.

Expert Opinion An international group of experts was asked to try to form a consensus about the meaning of critical thinking.1 One of the first things they did was to ask themselves the question: Who are the best critical thinkers we know and what is it about them that leads us to consider them the best? So, who are the best critical thinkers you know? Why do you think they are strong critical thinkers? Can you draw from those examples a description that is more abstract? For example, consider effective trial lawyers, apart from how they conduct their personal lives or whether their client is really guilty or innocent, just look at how the lawyers develop their cases in court. They use reasons to try to convince the judge and jury of their client’s claim to guilt or innocence. They offer evidence and evaluate the significance of the evidence presented by the opposition lawyers. They interpret testimony. They analyze and evaluate the arguments advanced by the other side.

Thinkers , John Esterle and Dan Clurman (Eds.). Whitman Institute. San Francisco, CA. 1993

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Now, consider the example of the team of people trying to solve a problem. The team members, unlike the courtroom’s adversarial situation, try to collaborate. The members of an effective team do not compete against each other. They work in concert, like colleagues, for the common goal. Unless they solve the problem, none of them has won. When they find the way to solve the problem, they all have won. So, from analyzing just two examples we can generalize something very important: critical thinking is thinking that has a purpose (proving a point, interpreting what something means, solving a problem), but critical thinking can be a collaborative, noncompetitive endeavor. And, by the way, even lawyers collaborate. They can work together on a common defense or a joint prosecution, and they can also cooperate with each other to get at the truth so that justice is done. We will come to a more precise definition of critical thinking soon enough. But first, there is something else we can learn from paradigm examples. When you were thinking about “offensive violence” did you come up with any examples that were tough to classify? Borderline cases, as it were — an example that one person might consider offensive but another might reasonably regard as non-offensive. Yes, well, so did we. This is going to happen with all abstract concepts. It happens with the concept of critical thinking as well. There are people of whom we would say, on certain occasions this person is a good thinker, clear, logical, thoughtful, attentive to the facts, open to alternatives, but, wow, at other times, look out! When you get this person on such-and- such a topic, well it is all over then. You have pushed some kind of button and the person does not want to hear what anybody else has to say. The person’s mind is made up ahead of time. New facts are pushed aside. No other point of view is tolerated.

2 Spoken by the Vampire Marius in Ann Rice’s book The Vampire Lestat Ballantine Books. New York, NY. 1985.

Do you know any people that might fit that general description? Good. What can we learn about critical thinking from such a case? Maybe more than we can learn from just looking at the easy cases. For when a case is on the borderline, it forces us to make important distinctions. It confronts us and demands a decision: In or Out! And not just that, but why? So, our friend who is fair-minded about some things, but close-minded about others, what to do? Let’s take the parts we approve of because they seem to us to contribute to acting rationally and logically and include those in the concept of critical thinking, and let’s take the parts that work against reason, that close the mind to the possibility of new and relevant information, that blindly deny even the possibility that the other side might have merit, and call those poor, counterproductive, or uncritical thinking.

2 Now, formulate a list of cases — people that are clearly strong critical thinkers and clearly weak critical thinkers and some who are on the borderline. Considering all those cases, what is it about them that led you to decide which were which? Suggestion: What can the strong critical thinkers do (what mental abilities do they have), that the weak critical thinkers have trouble doing? What skills or approaches do

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the strong critical thinkers habitually seem to exhibit which the weak critical thinkers seem not to possess?

Core Critical Thinking Skills Above we suggested you look for a list of mental skills and habits of mind, the experts, when faced with the same problem you are working on, refer to their lists as including cognitive skills and dispositions. As to the cognitive skills here is what the experts include as being at the very core of critical thinking: interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self- regulation. (We will get to the dispositions in just a second.) Did any of these words or ideas come up when you tried to characterize the cognitive skills — mental abilities — involved in critical thinking? Quoting from the consensus statement of the national panel of experts: interpretation is “to comprehend and express the meaning or significance of a wide variety of experiences, situations, data, events, judgments, conventions, beliefs,

3 The findings of expert consensus cited or reported in this essay are published in Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. Peter A. Facione, principle investigator, The California Academic Press, Millbrae, CA, 1990. (ERIC ED 315 423). In 1993/94 the Center for the Study of Higher Education at The Pennsylvania State University undertook a study of 200 policy-makers, employers, and faculty

rules, procedures, or criteria.”3 Interpretation includes the sub-skills of categorization, decoding significance, and clarifying meaning. Can you think of examples of interpretation? How about recognizing a problem and describing it without bias? How about reading a person’s intentions in the expression on her face; distinguishing a main idea from subordinate ideas in a text; constructing a tentative categorization or way of organizing something you are studying; paraphrasing someone’s ideas in your own words; or, clarifying what a sign, chart or graph means? What about identifying an author’s purpose, theme, or point of view? How about what you did above when you clarified what “offensive violence” meant? Again from the experts: analysis is “to identify the intended and actual inferential relationships among statements, questions, concepts, descriptions, or other forms of representation intended to express belief, judgment, experiences, reasons, information, or opinions.” The experts include examining ideas, detecting arguments, and analyzing arguments as sub-skills of analysis. Again, can you come up with some examples of analysis? What about identifying the similarities and differences between two approaches to the solution of a given problem? What about picking out the main claim made in a newspaper editorial and tracing back the various reasons the editor offers in support of that claim? Or, what about identifying unstated assumptions; constructing a way to represent a main conclusion and the various reasons given to support or criticize it; sketching the relationship of sentences or paragraphs to each other and to the main purpose of the passage? What about graphically organizing this essay, in your

members from two-year and four-year colleges to determine what this group took to be the core critical thinking skills and habits of mind. The Pennsylvania State University Study, under the direction of Dr. Elizabeth Jones, was funded by the US Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Instruction. The Penn State study findings, published in 1994, confirmed the expert consensus described in this paper.

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own way, knowing that its purpose is to give a preliminary idea about what critical thinking means? The experts define evaluation as meaning “to assess the credibility of statements or other representations which are accounts or descriptions of a person’s perception, experience, situation, judgment, belief, or opinion; and to assess the logical strength of the actual or intended inferential relationships among statements, descriptions, questions or other forms of representation.” Your examples? How about judging an author’s or speaker’s credibility, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of alternative interpretations, determining the credibility of a source of information, judging if two statements contradict each other, or judging if the evidence at hand supports the conclusion being drawn? Among the examples the experts propose are these: “recognizing the factors which make a person a credible witness regarding a given event or a credible authority with regard to a given topic,” “judging if an argument’s conclusion follows either with certainty or with a high level of confidence from its premises,” “judging the logical strength of arguments based on hypothetical situations,” “judging if a given argument is relevant or applicable or has implications for the situation at hand.” Do the people you regard as strong critical thinkers have the three cognitive skills described so far? Are they good at interpretation, analysis, and evaluation? What about the next three? And your examples of weak critical thinkers, are they lacking in these cognitive skills? All, or just some? To the experts inference means “to identify and secure elements needed to draw reasonable conclusions; to form conjectures and hypotheses; to consider relevant information and to educe the consequences flowing from data, statements, principles, evidence, judgments, beliefs, opinions, concepts, descriptions, questions, or other

forms of representation.” As sub-skills of inference the experts list querying evidence, conjecturing alternatives, and drawing conclusions. Can you think of some examples of inference? You might suggest things like seeing the implications of the position someone is advocating, or drawing out or constructing meaning from the elements in a reading. You may suggest that predicting what will happen next based what is known about the forces at work in a given situation, or formulating a synthesis of related ideas into a coherent perspective. How about this: after judging that it would be useful to you to resolve a given uncertainty, developing a workable plan to gather that information? Or, when faced with a problem, developing a set of options for addressing it. What about, conducting a controlled experiment scientifically and applying the proper statistical methods to attempt to confirm or disconfirm an empirical hypothesis? Beyond being able to interpret, analyze, evaluate and infer, strong critical thinkers can do two more things. They can explain what they think and how they arrived at that judgment. And, they can apply their powers of critical thinking to themselves and improve on their previous opinions. These two skills are called “explanation” and “self- regulation.” The experts define explanation as being able to present in a cogent and coherent way the results of one’s reasoning. This means to be able to give someone a full look at the big picture: both “to state and to justify that reasoning in terms of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, and contextual considerations upon which one’s results were based; and to present one’s reasoning in the form of cogent arguments.” The sub-skills under explanation are describing methods and results, justifying procedures, proposing and defending with good reasons one’s causal and conceptual explanations of events or points of view, and presenting full and well- reasoned, arguments in the context of

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seeking the best understandings possible. Your examples first, please... Here are some more: to construct a chart which organizes one’s findings, to write down for future reference your current thinking on some important and complex matter, to cite the standards and contextual factors used to judge the quality of an interpretation of a text, to state research results and describe the methods and criteria used to achieve those results, to appeal to established criteria as a way of showing the reasonableness of a given judgment, to design a graphic display which accurately represents the subordinate and super-ordinate relationship among concepts or ideas, to cite the evidence that led you to accept or reject an author’s position on an issue, to list the factors that were considered in assigning a final course grade. Maybe the most remarkable cognitive skill of all, however, is this next one. This one is remarkable because it allows strong critical thinkers to improve their own thinking. In a sense this is critical thinking applied to itself. Because of that some people want to call this “meta-cognition,” meaning it raises thinking to another level. But “another level” really does not fully capture it, because at that next level up what self-regulation does is look back at all the dimensions of critical thinking and double check itself. Self- regulation is like a recursive function in mathematical terms, which means it can apply to everything, including itself. You can monitor and correct an interpretation you offered. You can examine and correct an inference you have drawn. You can review and reformulate one of your own explanations. You can even examine and correct your ability to examine and correct yourself! How? It is as simple as stepping back and saying to yourself, “How am I

4 The California Critical Thinking Skills Test, and the Test of Everyday Reasoning, the Health Science Reasoning Test, the Military and Defense Reasoning Profile, the Business Critical Thinking Skills Test, and the Legal Studies Reasoning Profile along with other testing instruments authored by Dr. Facione and his research team for

doing? Have I missed anything important? Let me double check before I go further.” The experts define self-regulation to mean “self-consciously to monitor one’s cognitive activities, the elements used in those activities, and the results educed, particularly by applying skills in analysis, and evaluation to one’s own inferential judgments with a view toward questioning, confirming, validating, or correcting either one’s reasoning or one’s results.” The two sub- skills here are self-examination and self- correction. Examples? Easy — to examine your views on a controversial issue with sensitivity to the possible influences of your personal biases or self-interest, to check yourself when listening to a speaker in order to be sure you are understanding what the person is really saying without introducing your own ideas, to monitor how well you seem to be understanding or comprehending what you are reading or experiencing, to remind yourself to separate your personal opinions and assumptions from those of the author of a passage or text, to double check yourself by recalculating the figures, to vary your reading speed and method mindful of the type of material and your purpose for reading, to reconsider your interpretation or judgment in view of further analysis of the facts of the case, to revise your answers in view of the errors you discovered in your work, to change your conclusion in view of the realization that you had misjudged the importance of certain factors when coming to your earlier decision. 4

people in K-12, college, and graduate / professional work target the core critical thinking skills identified here. These instruments are published in English and several authorized translations exclusively by Insight Assessment.

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Questions to Fire Up Our Critical Thinking Skills


• What does this mean?

• What’s happening? • How should we understand that (e.g., what he or she just said)? • What is the best way to characterize/categorize/classify this? • In this context, what was intended by saying/doing that? • How can we make sense out of this (experience, feeling, or statement)?


• Please tell us again your reasons for making that claim. • What is your conclusion/What is it that you are claiming? • Why do you think that? • What are the arguments pro and con? • What assumptions must we make to accept that conclusion? • What is your basis for saying that?


• Given what we know so far, what conclusions can we draw? • Given what we know so far, what can we rule out? • What does this evidence imply? • If we abandoned/accepted that assumption, how would things change? • What additional information do we need to resolve this question? • If we believed these things, what would they imply for us going forward? • What are the consequences of doing things that way? • What are some alternatives we haven’t yet explored? • Let’s consider each option and see where it takes us. • Are there any undesirable consequences that we can and should foresee?


• How credible is that claim? • Why do we think we can trust what this person claims? …