What is critical thinking?
- Knowledge and Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is about being able to assess or distinguish (from the Greek "kritein") – between true and false, good and bad. That is, to use one's rational abilities to cast an investigative gaze both on one's own and others' perceptions and independently assess what is true and right. Critical thinking thus involves being able to stand in the undecided and see beyond facile and simplified answers.
To think critically, one needs diversity of perspectives and practice in seeing things from different viewpoints. Critical thinking develops in interaction with others, in encounters with inequality and challenges. In today's world, where the manipulation of facts is widespread and prejudices and hatred spread through increasingly diverse channels, the development of critical thinking skills is more important than ever.
What is critical thinking?
There is no consensus on how critical thinking should be defined. Various aspects of the phenomenon are emphasized by different educational thinkers, but most share something in common: Critical thinking involves a form of "methodical doubt" – examining principles or claims rationally to judge them. Robert Ennis has defined critical thinking as follows (1991): "Critical thinking is reflective and reasonable thinking focused on what to believe or do."
“Critical thinking involves a form of "methodical doubt" – examining principles or claims rationally to judge them.
Ennis (ibid.) emphasizes that critical thinking involves both attitudes and abilities: It presupposes curiosity and openness to the possibility of being wrong, empathy, and the courage to think differently. Furthermore, it involves the ability for both logical and creative thinking, such as identifying premises behind claims, drawing conclusions, formulating hypotheses and justifications, and thinking about alternatives.
Ennis's definition highlights that critical thinking involves the evaluation of claims, values, and actions. It is not just directed towards what one should believe or think but also towards what constitutes right actions.
Richard Paul (1993) points out that the ability to think critically is a prerequisite for making independent decisions rather than merely absorbing norms and truths from society and surroundings. The goal of empowerment, therefore, requires an educational practice that promotes critical thinking and judgment.
Fundamentally, critical thinking is about the view of truth. From a scientific perspective, truth is provisional, something approached through thought, research, and conversation, but not something absolute or final. Critical thinking means continually, in a critical and investigative manner, seeking truth, but with the reservation that new knowledge and insight can change our perception.
Critical thinking is anchored in the ability to see an issue from multiple sides and to consider others' perspectives and situations when evaluating what is true and good. Critical thinking can thus also be linked to Aristotle's concept of phronesis – practical wisdom. In Aristotle's philosophy, phronesis is the wise and balanced application of knowledge in a specific context. Practical wisdom is related to the understanding that what is right must be judged based on a particular situation, taking many considerations into account (Ryen, 2019). Understood in this way, critical thinking also has a moral undertone, as it presupposes an openness to the better argument and the desire to approach the true or the good.
“Critical thinking is anchored in the ability to see an issue from multiple sides and to consider others' perspectives and situations when evaluating what is true and good.
Such an understanding suggests that critical thinking cannot be considered solely as a skill that individuals can develop. Critical thinking also becomes an invaluable quality in democratic communities. An ideal critical and enlightened public is characterized by open exchange of opinions and diversity of perspectives, as well as the desire for the better argument to prevail.
This broad understanding of critical thinking opens up different ways of working in schools and shows that critical thinking cannot be viewed as a skill practiced only in specific subjects. Critical thinking is more than source criticism, argument analysis, and exercises in logical and scientific thinking. Although critical thinking in practice can and must be related to specific subject matter, it involves a broad development of attitudes and skills fostered through various methods, and, crucially, through the quality of interaction in the classroom. (See Working with Critical Thinking in the classroom.)
Source criticism and argumentation
Critical thinking in the classroom has often focused mainly on working with source criticism and argumentation – practicing the ability to distinguish true information from false or good arguments from bad ones. Such work is undoubtedly crucial for developing the ability to assess information and influence to which one is exposed. In a time when fake news, misinformation, and propaganda seem to thrive, fostering critical awareness of how various media present facts or alternative facts is more important than ever.
Not least, a politicized discourse and debate on ethnicity, culture, and cultural collisions are prone to misguidance. It is important to be able to unveil or look behind polarized discussions and manipulative arguments that promote prejudice and "us" versus "them" thinking.
Conspiracy theories or "conspiracy talk" (Døving & Emberland, 2018) easily create scapegoats. Comments, especially online, often depict certain groups in society as scapegoats for everything wrong with social development. Conspiracy narratives function as explanatory models actively used to stigmatize groups, promote hate speech, and support hateful ideologies such as Islamophobia and antisemitism. It is essential to train awareness of such phenomena to be able to see through simplified representations.
What often characterizes conspiratorial thinking is a pronounced critical attitude toward politically correct or widely accepted truths but a total lack of willingness to subject one's own theories to critical scrutiny (Dyrendal and Emberland, 2019). A naive and credulous acceptance of all information that seemingly supports one's theories can be said to represent the opposite of critical thinking: Critical thinking involves turning the critical gaze both on one's own and others' opinions.
Systematic work with source criticism and argumentation analysis based on concrete and current examples is therefore essential to promote critical evaluative skills in the face of today's media society. In working with critical thinking in schools, it is important not to stifle students' curiosity or exploration but to stimulate healthy skepticism and the ability and willingness to examine facile claims more closely. Critical thinking involves developing tools to dismantle untenable arguments and rhetoric that simplifies.
Critical thinking as self-reflection
However, work with critical thinking must embrace a wider and broader scope. In addition to the curriculum emphasizing "critical and scientific thinking," the ability for self-reflection is also highlighted: "[Students] should also understand that their own experiences, positions, and convictions may be incomplete or erroneous" (Core curriculum 1.3). The ability to cast a critical light on one's own viewpoints, preconceptions, and actions can be considered a prerequisite for formation.
“"[Students] should also understand that their own experiences, positions, and convictions may be incomplete or erroneous" (Core curriculum 1.3).
Matthew Lipman, who has had a significant influence on the work of critical thinking in schools, emphasizes that critical thinking is about self-correction, engaging in active inquiry to find one's own mistakes. It involves an almost opposite movement to what can be said to be natural for us – to defend ourselves or present ourselves as good and flawless. However, self-correction or critical scrutiny of one's own thinking is a prerequisite for growth (Lipman, 1988).
According to Lipman, critical thinking also involves sensitivity to context, that is, an understanding that different contexts require different applications of rules or principles. Such contextual sensitivity leads to gradually better understanding that the world is more complex than it may seem from one's own viewpoint (Lipman, 1988). In this way, critical thinking is also a mindset – realizing that one's own field of vision may be limited. Critical thinking is more than a skill; it is also an attitude.
An attitude like this is developed through experience. If students practice taking different perspectives, opening up to the idea that the world can look different from someone else's point of view, they can realize that their own opinion may be incomplete. Changing behavior or altering perception in light of new experiences can then be seen as something positive.
Critical thinking as an intersubjective process
Focusing on the abilities and attitudes of individuals may lead to overlooking the intersubjective assumptions of critical thinking – that it develops through interaction. As both John Dewey (1910) and later Lipman (1988) define it, critical thinking is to be considered as a process that arises in and through interaction and communication, rather than a product of the individual.
“Critical thinking can be considered as a process that arises in and through interaction and communication, rather than a product of the individual.
Rooted in the thinking of Socrates, these philosophers view critical thinking as dialogical (dia-logos) – something that particularly occurs in and through oral encounters. The exploratory questions, the demand of the dialogue to listen, explain, justify, and elaborate become the 'technology of thinking.' Thus, the dialogue is also internalized to become an inner dialogue, where metacognition or self-reflection is practiced.
Dewey writes that growth – and thus formation – presupposes a challenge in encountering what is different. Growth is associated with 'a freed capacity for thought,' something that arises precisely through the opening or opportunity that unfolds in communication and encounters with others' perspectives (Dewey, 1910). Communication, challenge, and resistance are therefore invaluable elements for the development of critical thinking. 'The others' become prerequisites for 'enlarging your own mentality.'
Philosopher Hannah Arendt is also concerned with how plurality or diversity are positive prerequisites for growth, both for the individual and society. Seeing things from different perspectives (thinking in plural) counteracts and prevents the uniform, authoritarian, and totalitarian, which ultimately stifles freedom (Arendt, 1998).
Such thoughts point towards education that allows for diversity of perspectives and cultivates a good conversation community: Promoting critical thinking is closely related to facilitating good, exploratory, and critical conversations in the classroom.
Considering the class or school as a 'community of disagreement' (Laird Iversen, 2017) can be fruitful for facilitating critical thinking in the community. Disagreement is then not considered a threat to the community of conversation; rather, on the contrary. Seeing things from a perspective different from your own contributes to developing your own critical thinking. In a diverse society, the ability to tolerate differences of opinion and disagreement, without losing the ability to talk with respect for others' perspectives, becomes crucial for standing together to ensure a democratic culture. This ability must be practiced and trained in school, in line with the curriculum.
“Fostering critical thinking is closely related to facilitating good, exploratory, and critical conversations in the classroom.
The centering of critical thinking in the collaborative dialogical community has given rise to the work of philosophical discussions as a method in schools. An example of this is the P4C movement (Philosophy for Children), which, in the tradition of Dewey and Lipman, has developed into a large network of users and educational resources. In P4C, both dialogical skills and critical thinking are systematically trained by having the class practice being 'an investigative community.' In such a community, methodical doubt is cultivated, and the ability for perspective-taking, listening, and argumentation is developed (see Philosophical Conversations).
Such an approach to working with critical thinking emphasizes that critical thinking is nurtured through practice and is closely linked to practice. That is to say: Critical thinking is intersubjective in that it presupposes concrete exploration of lifelike, current topics and (ethical) issues in real situations in dialogue with others. And there is a dialectical relationship between reflection and action: critical thinking starts from, and is directed towards, lived life.
Critical thinking as social criticism
Is there a societal critical potential in working with critical thinking in schools? Is the goal to allow thinking that scrutinizes the norms and power structures of society? For many educational thinkers, critical thinking is also directed towards societal change – it is about a critical formation of democratic and active citizens who will participate in the construction and reconstruction of society (see Dewey, 1937; Freire, 1988; Lim, 2015).
Not all educational approaches to the understanding of critical thinking encompass such a perspective. Some focus primarily on critical thinking as cognitive skills and understanding of a scientific way of thinking. Critical thinking can, in this narrow sense, be perceived as a technique and be linked to the drilling of skills. Such a focus may in some cases be related to a desire to avoid topics that are too political or controversial. Questions that are highly debated may feel difficult to handle in a classroom.
However, many educators criticize such a narrow focus and believe that critical thinking should be seen as part of a larger education project. According to Lim (2015), critical thinking should not be reduced to being about tools to develop thought so that the argumentation or thinking itself becomes the goal. The societal dimension must also be present: Critical thinking is about being critical of the existing, challenging unjust societal structures, and acting for the good of society.
From such a perspective, which is in line with liberation pedagogy (Freire, 1988) and the idea of democratic education, the work with critical thinking must allow for experiences where students' critical thinking is stimulated in relation to topics and issues that make sense to them personally, as subjects and actors in the world.
“The students' critical thinking must be stimulated in relation to topics and issues that make sense to them personally, as subjects and actors in the world.
Critical formation, in such a perspective, means forming both as a human being and as a fellow human being, in a concrete, current context. That is, developing both the ability to reflect and competence in action. Klafki (2014) emphasizes that formation (Bildung) is about self-determination, co-determination, and solidarity with others. One of the teacher's most important tasks is then to use their professional judgment to facilitate critical reflection in the classroom around subject matter that addresses essential societal issues, topics that are relevant to the students, and stimulate their 'opening up to the world' (Ryen, 2019).
The core curriculum states that 'the school shall stimulate students to become active citizens and provide them with the competence to participate in the further development of democracy in Norway.' (2.5.2). The work with critical thinking must be seen in connection with this overarching goal.
So, critical thinking is a phenomenon that encompasses many different aspects – it points to both thinking skills, attitudes, dialogical abilities, and ethical reflection in light of current societal challenges. The work with critical thinking in schools must reflect such a broad understanding of what critical thinking can be about. (See more about this under Work with critical thinking)."
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Arendt, Hannah (1998): Tenkning og moralske overveielser I: Arendt, Hannah: ”Om vold, tenkning og moral”, Oslo: Det lille Forlag
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Paul, R. (1993): “The Logic of Creative and Critical Thinking.” American Behavioural Scientist, 37:1.
Ryen, E. (2019): “Klafki’s critical-constructive Didaktic and epistemology of Critical Thinking.” Journal of Curriculum Studies, Routledge.