What is Critical Thinking?

Here are some collected definitions from around the Web that discuss the meaning of critical thinking:

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”—The Foundation for Critical Thinking

“Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal.”—Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.”—Richard W. Paul

“Thoughtful people ponder the meaning of what they learn and the consequences of what they do. They bring assumptions and implications of ideas and actions to the surface, and challenge them if needed.”—Grant Wiggins

In the Critical Thinking Teacher’s Companion, we define critical thinking as clear, rational, logical, and independent. It’s about improving thinking by analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing how we think. It’s also thinking in a self-regulated and self-corrective manner—essentially, thinking on purpose. Critical thinking involves mindful communication, problem-solving, and a freedom from bias or egocentric tendency. You can apply critical thinking to any kind of subject, problem, or situation you choose.

These are all acceptable conclusions, but they still don’t define what critical thinking really is. However, if you look closely you’ll see a common thread among them: they all support the notion that thinking critically requires discipline.

Regardless of what images that particular word conjures up, the fact is real critical thinking requires a level of self-discipline and awareness, not to mention practice and perseverance. You’ll find that’s a part of the traits we discuss below.

10 Traits of the Critical Thinker

So, what does the ideal critical thinker look like? What are their most crucial defining characteristics? Here are the 10 we are most fond of.

1. Curiosity

Effective critical thinkers are curious about a wide range of topics and generally have broad interests. They also tend to have a healthy inquisitiveness about the world and about people. An understanding of and appreciation for a diversity of cultures, beliefs, and views is another hallmark of a great critical thinker, and it’s part of what makes them lifelong learners.

2. Compassion

The world is full of enough judgment and segregation. As we seek to help our learners acquire critical thinking skills, we mustn’t forget that critical thinking embraces the emotional and instinctual as much as the intellectual. That’s why critical thinkers act as much with their hearts as they do with their minds.

Each one of us has a story of our own that makes us who we are, as well as personal trials and challenges that have shaped us. Critical thinkers recognize this and compassionately celebrate the uniqueness in everyone. They are willing to help us see the best in ourselves and others.

3. Awareness

Opportunities to apply critical thinking skills are all around us every moment. Effective critical thinkers remain tuned into this and are always alert for chances to apply their best thinking habits to any situation. A desire to think critically about even the simplest of issues and tasks indicates a desire for constructive outcomes.

Critical thinking also means not taking anything at face value. It means always asking questions and exploring all sides of an issue, and appreciating the deeper facts hiding in everything. As such, those who think critically also tend to be instinctual problem solvers. This ranks as probably the most important skill we can help our learners build upon.


4. Decisiveness

Many situations that call for critical thinking also call for quick and decisive action. When we think critically we weigh our options and imagine the outcomes in the moment with speed and clarity, and are able to put aside fear when it comes to making decisions. In essence, critical thinkers like to move things forward rather than moving backward or procrastinating.

In addition to this, often choices have to be made even when we don’t have all the information we need to make them with confidence. When facing any kind of a challenge, someone has to take the lead and make the hard calls others shy away from. Effective critical thinkers realize that, more often than not, it’s necessary to take the initiative and make a decision even if it ends up being the wrong one. To them, that’s preferable to not making any decision at all.

5. Honesty

Honesty is important in any sense, but it is especially important to critical thinking. Moral integrity, ethical consideration and action, and things like global citizenship practices are all part of effective critical thinking.

It’s not a surprise that honesty resides at the core of all these things. We see in such people a strong desire for harmony and fulfillment in the world, and part of attaining this involves pursuing honesty in all endeavors and relationships.

The practice of honesty in critical thinking also extends to how one looks within oneself to embrace what resides there. It takes into account the processes behind managing our emotions, controlling our impulses, and recognizing any attempts at self-deception. Critical thinkers are as equally aware and accepting of themselves as they are of others.

6. Willingness

Willingness and flexibility encompass a number of key considerations for the critical thinker. They include but aren’t limited to things like:

  • learning from their own personal mistakes and shortcomings
  • challenging the status-quo when the need arises
  • openmindedly embracing other opinions and views that challenge their own
  • reconsidering and revising their opinions in the wake of new evidence
  • listening actively rather than simply waiting for their turn to talk
  • constantly improving, learning, and excelling

7. Creativity

There’s no question that effective critical thinkers are also largely creative thinkers. Creativity has unquestionably defined itself as a requisite skill for having in the collaborative modern workforce. Critical thinking in business, marketing, and professional alliances relies heavily on one’s ability to be creative. When businesses get creative with products and how they are advertised, they thrive in the global marketplace.

8. Perseverance

Critical thinkers know the necessity of staying on task. It’s not in their nature to give up until a solution is formulated, a process is determined, or a decision is reached. This is a part of the leadership mindset that critical thinkers also tend to model by default. As you can imagine, this is an especially useful quality not only to have but to be able to encourage in a team-working environment.

9. Objectivity

A focus on fairness and the inclusion of all viewpoints and concerns is another trait of the critical thinker. There’s no room for bias in critical thinking, only the acceptance and consideration of possibilities. Critical thinking also means not allowing oneself to be affected by external influences, or governed by internal ones such as impulse emotions.

10. Reflective Capacity

The last stage of Solution Fluency is perhaps the most important; it’s the debrief stage, and it’s one that is an essential factor in critical thinking. When engaging in critical thinking, one isn’t focused on stopping after the outcome. Instead, a critical thinker reflects on the learning journey and pinpoints areas for improvement, while also recognizing new applications for synthesized knowledge and ideas. You never ignore your mistakes, but you don’t dwell on them either—you learn, you internalize, and you move on to the next challenge.

What Critical Thinking Is and Isn’t

If we want to define critical thinking even further, a good lens to look through is one of comparison. Consider this graphic below that suggest what critical thinking is and what it isn’t.

Those are just a few of the many contrasting qualities between critical and non-critical thinking, and the list could easily be expanded. To look at it another way, this simple comparison below comes from an Inform Ed article by Saga Briggs. It features some ideas of what critical thinking is often mistaken for.

Critical thinking is:

  • Questioning other thinking
  • Embracing other thinking
  • Emulating other thinking
  • Willingness to be wrong
  • Questioning one’s own thinking
  • Putting logic before bias
  • Recognizing contradictions

Critical thinking isn’t:

  • Simply mimicking other thinking
  • Simply agreeing with other thinking
  • Being biased towards one way of thinking
  • Being biased against one way of thinking
  • Drawing conclusions too quickly
  • Denying faults in one’s own thinking
  • Placing weight on insignificant details

Let’s take the next steps together.

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