“Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.
The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”
The Purpose Of Education / Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
Morehouse College Student Paper, The Maroon Tiger, in 1947
By Dr. Michele Simms – In a 2014 survey of 400 U.S. employers, 81% identified critical thinking as a necessary skill for college students to learn; 91% believed success in the workplace required “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems” as more important than the choice of one’s undergraduate major (AAC&U.)* Consistently, employer surveys rank critical thinking and problem-solving in their top five essential skills to learn in college.
Defining Critical Thinking
Yet, defining critical thinking as simply ‘the ability to think critically’ offers little value. Not surprising, there are many definitions with its origins dating back to the Socratic Method. Plato and Socrates emphasized the use of logic and rigorous questioning to distinguish between surface claims and those grounded in evidence and reasoning. Employing these skills yields consistent and valid arguments, the essence of critical thinking.
The range of definitions today–from philosophy, the sciences, to cognitive psychology– includes the core elements of argument, questioning, and reasoning. In addition, critical thinking subsumes the skills of problem-solving, awareness of one’s own assumptions and biases, observation and reflection, knowledge development, decision-making, hypothesis testing, and evaluation. In total, critical thinking is a deliberative, goal-directed process that forms and informs decisions and actions based on individual assumptions.
The American Philosophical Association provides not only a definition that comprises the above elements but identifies ten attributes of the ideal critical thinker: habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, and persistent in seeking results as the subject and circumstances of inquiry permit.
Assessing Critical Thinking Skills
The list is valuable in giving specific characteristics and behaviors in which to assess one’s skill across the spectrum of critical thinking. To probe more deeply, I have identified questions to ask for each trait:
- Habitually inquisitive: A habit is a regular and repeated behavior. Are you intellectually curious? Do you make a habit of asking questions?
- Well-informed: An extensive knowledge of a wide range subjects and events. Do you keep current? Are you a life-long learner?
- Trustful of reason: Reason is the power of the mind to think, understand and form judgments through logic. Do you trust your ability to use logic in making decisions? Do you trust the power of your mind?
- Open-minded: Are you willing to be challenged? To see the other side of the argument? Are you a good listener?
- Flexible: Are you capable of adapting to new, different, and changing circumstances?
- Fair-minded in evaluation: Can you assess a situation with impartiality and honesty?
- Honest in facing personal biases: Can you identify your personal biases? Can you face them honestly?
- Prudent in making judgments: Can you exercise restraint in decision-making? Do your decisions reflect sound judgment?
- Willing to reconsider: Are you capable of reevaluating, rethinking, revisiting a decision? An assumption? A personal opinion?
- Persistent in seeking results as the subject and circumstances of inquiry permit? Do you persevere, “keep at it,” when time allows to reach a result?
Each person can develop their own questions in order to ‘dig deeper.’ The list itself can serve as a personal mental model. In any given situation, one can ask: Am I being open-minded? Prudent? Flexible? Mental models are tacit maps of the world we hold in our long-term memory, and the short-term perceptions that comprise our reasoning processes over time (Senge, et. al.) Using the list of the ideal critical thinker as a mental model sharpens reasoning skills and so advances critical thinking.
Critical inquiry is a discipline; it requires humility along with a commitment of time and energy. Educators concern themselves with teaching critical thinking. Employers cite critical thinking as a necessary skill. Dr. King saw critical thinking as the fulcrum of education: to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, the facts from the fiction; we must think intensively, think critically. Therein lies its import: As critical thinkers, we have a choice what side we will advance.
Professor of Management, Cameron Endowed Chair of Management & Marketing
* As quoted from the Introduction / Module 3: Critical Thinking. Posted in online course: Teaching Soft Skills in College Courses, University of Wisconsin/Madison. Fall, 2018.
Senge, P., Kleiner, A., Roberts, C., Ross, R., & Smith, B. (1994). The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. New York: NY. p. 238.