Critical thinking is a term used by educators to describe forms of learning, thought, and analysis that go beyond the memorization and recall of information and facts. In common usage, critical thinking is an umbrella term that may be applied to many different forms of learning acquisition or to a wide variety of thought processes. In its most basic expression, critical thinking occurs when students are analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, or synthesizing information and applying creative thought to form an argument, solve a problem, or reach a conclusion.
Critical thinking entails many kinds of intellectual skills, including the following representative examples:
- Developing well-reasoned, persuasive arguments and evaluating and responding to counterarguments
- Examining concepts or situations from multiple perspectives, including different cultural perspectives
- Questioning evidence and assumptions to reach novel conclusions
- Devising imaginative ways to solve problems, especially unfamiliar or complex problems
- Formulating and articulating thoughtful, penetrating questions
- Identifying themes or patterns and making abstract connections across subjects
Critical thinking is a central concept in educational reforms that call for schools to place a greater emphasis on skills that are used in all subject areas and that students can apply in all educational, career, and civic settings throughout their lives. It’s also a central concept in reforms that question how teachers have traditionally taught and what students should be learning—notably, the 21st century skills movement, which broadly calls on schools to create academic programs and learning experiences that equip students with the most essential and in-demand knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to be successful in higher-education programs and modern workplaces. As higher education and job requirements become competitive, complex, and technical, proponents argue, students will need skills such as critical thinking to successfully navigate the modern world, excel in challenging careers, and process increasingly complex information.
Critical thinking also intersects with debates about assessment and how schools should measure learning acquisition. For example, multiple-choice testing formats have been common in standardized testing for decades, yet the heavy use of such testing formats emphasizes—and may reinforce the importance of—factual retention and recall over other skills. If schools largely test and award grades for factual recall, teachers will therefore stress memorization and recall in their teaching, possibly at the expense of skills such as critical thinking that are vitally important for students to possess but far more challenging to measure accurately.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.