The Critical Thinking Series, Part I: What is Critical Thinking? | Augusta Moore | 5 Min Read

It is a common phrase amongst educators that students should be taught how to think and not what to think. Most would agree that one particularly important skill that students should learn in school is the ability to engage in critical thinking. Accordingly, it is important to ask ourselves, as educators, “Am I, in fact, really teaching my students to think critically?” And, if so, “What evidence do I have that my students’ critical thinking skills are actually improving?”

In order to answer either of these questions, it is important to have a clear sense of what critical thinking is. However, when asked to define “critical thinking” many would not be able to provide a very coherent or specific definition of the ability. For example, common explanations of “critical thinking” might include phrases such as clear thinking, reflective thinking, or logical thinking. 

But what exactly is clear thinking? What does it mean to be reflective? Is applying rules of logic sufficient for critical thinking? Such phrases, while they do provide bits and pieces of understanding, do not wholly define or explain such an important process. It is important to think more carefully about what we mean by “critical thinking.” How can we effectively teach critical thinking to our students or even share ideas as educators for how to better develop this skill if we all have different understandings of what critical thinking actually is?

John Dewey, in his book How We Think, defines critical or reflective thinking as a series of five steps. Critical thinking is the process by which we identify and then work to solve a problem. It is important to note here that, as defined by Dewey, critical thinking becomes a process inherently centered around a problem. That is, there is no critical thinking without a problem to solve. The five steps are as follows:

  1. Become aware of a problem 
  2. Define that problem
  3. Propose various hypotheses as solutions to that problem
  4. Evaluate the implications of each hypothesis using reason
  5. Use experience to test the hypotheses

While this definition goes a long way to unify and clarify our concept of critical thinking, we need to go a step further in our definition of critical thinking and provide a standard by which we are said to be engaging in critical thinking well. That is, while many forms of thinking may fit the definition above it also…

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Augusta Moore

Augusta Moore is a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she received her doctorate in philosophy. Her research focuses on civic education and, in particular, the pedagogical approaches that will best encourage future citizens to develop those civic virtues that will give them the skills to effectively participate in civic discourse. Moore is passionate about and advocates for equal access to quality civic education for all students.