Philosophy Critical Thinking About Foundational Beliefs Of The Deep

With Implications for Instruction

Linda Elder with Richard Paul

Though most teachers aspire to make critical thinking a primary objective of their instruction, most also do not realize that, to develop as thinkers, students must pass through stages of development in critical thinking. That is, most teachers are unaware of the levels of intellectual development that people go through as they improve as thinkers. We believe that significant gains in the intellectual quality of student work will not be achieved except to the degree that teachers recognize that skilled critical thinking develops, only when properly cultivated, and only through predictable stages.

In this paper we shall set out a stage theory based on the nearly twenty years of research of the Center for Critical Thinking and explain some of the theory’s implications for instruction. We shall be brief, concise, and to the point in our explanation with minimal theoretical elaboration. Furthermore, we believe that the “practicality” of the theory we explain here is best tested in the classroom and in everyday life. The reader should be expressly aware that we are approaching the human mind exclusively from an intellectual standpoint — not from a psychological standpoint. Each stage of intellectual development will be explained in terms of the following variables:

  1. Defining Feature
  2. Principal Challenge
  3. Knowledge of Thinking
  4. Skill in Thinking
  5. Relevant Intellectual Traits
  6. Some Implications for Instruction

Due to space limitations, we have made no attempt to be exhaustive with respect to any stage, nor to answer the many questions that might be raised concerning the development, reliability or validity of the stages. The basic intention is to provide a practical organizer for teachers interested in using a conceptual map to guide student thinking through developmental stages in the process of becoming critical thinkers. Once the stages are explained, and stage-specific recommendations are given, we close with some global implications for instruction.

We make the following assumptions: (1) that there are predictable stages through which every person who develops as a critical thinker passes, (2) that passage from one stage to the next is dependent upon a necessary level of commitment on the part of an individual to develop as a critical thinker, is not automatic, and is unlikely to take place “subconsciously,” (3) that success in instruction is deeply connected to the intellectual quality of student learning, and (4) that regression is possible in development.

Before moving to the stages themselves, a brief overview of what we mean by critical thinking is in order. Our working definition is as follows: We define critical thinking as:

the ability and disposition to improve one’s thinking by systematically subjecting it to intellectual self-assessment.

It is important to recognize that on this view, persons are critical thinkers, in the fullest sense of the term, only if they display this ability and disposition in all, or most, of the dimensions of their lives (e.g. as a parent, citizen, consumer, lover, friend, learner, and professional). We exclude from our concept of the critical thinker those who think critically in only one dimension of their lives. We do so because the quality of one’s life is dependent upon high quality reasoning in all domains of one’s life, not simply in one dimension.

The stages we will lay out are as follows:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker
Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker
Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker
Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker
Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker
Stage Six: The Accomplished Thinker

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker

Defining Feature: Unreflective thinkers are largely unaware of the determining role that thinking is playing in their lives and of the many ways that problems in thinking are causing problems in their lives. Unreflective thinkers lack the ability to explicitly assess their thinking and improve it thereby.

Knowledge of Thinking: Unreflective thinkers lack the knowledge that high quality thinking requires regular practice in taking thinking apart, accurately assessing it, and actively improving it. In fact, unreflective thinkers are largely unaware of thinking as such, hence fail to recognize thinking as involving concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc. Unreflective thinkers are largely unaware of the appropriate standards for the assessment of thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc.

Skill in Thinking: Unreflective thinkers may have developed a variety of skills in thinking without being aware of them. However, these skills are inconsistently applied because of the lack of self-monitoring of thought. Prejudices and misconceptions often undermine the quality of thought of the unreflective thinker.

Some Implications for Instruction: We must recognize that in the present mode of instruction it is perfectly possible for students to graduate from high school, or even college, and still be largely unreflective thinkers. Though all students think, most students are largely unaware of how their thinking is structured or how to assess or improve it. Thus when they experience problems in thinking, they lack the skills to identify and “fix” these problems. Most teachers do not seem to be aware of how unaware most students are of their thinking. Little is being done at present to help students "discover" their thinking. This emphasis needs shifting.

Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker

Defining Features: Thinkers move to the “challenged” stage when they become initially aware of the determining role that thinking is playing in their lives, and of the fact that problems in their thinking are causing them serious and significant problems.

Principal Challenge: To become initially aware of the determining role of thinking in one’s life and of basic problems that come from poor thinking.

Knowledge of Thinking: Challenged thinkers, unlike unreflective thinkers are becoming aware of thinking as such. They are becoming aware, at some level, that high quality thinking requires deliberate reflective thinking about thinking (in order to improve thinking). They recognize that their thinking is often flawed, although they are not able to identify many of these flaws. Challenged thinkers may develop an initial awareness of thinking as involving concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc., and as involving standards for the assessment of thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc., though they have only an initial grasp of these standards and what it would take to internalize them. Challenged thinkers also develop some understanding of the role of self-deception in thinking, though their understanding is limited. At this stage the thinker develops some reflective awareness of how thinking operates for good or ill.

Skill in Thinking: Most challenged thinkers have very limited skills in thinking. However like unreflective thinkers, they may have developed a variety of skills in thinking without being aware of them, and these skills may (ironically) serve as barriers to development. At this stage thinkers with some implicit critical thinking abilities may more easily deceive themselves into believing that their thinking is better than it actually is, making it more difficult to recognize the problems inherent in poor thinking. To accept the challenge at this level requires that thinkers gain insight into the fact that whatever intellectual skills they have are inconsistently applied across the domains of their lives.

Relevant Intellectual Trait: The fundamental intellectual trait at this stage is intellectual humility, in order to see that problems are inherent in one’s thinking.

Some Implications for Instruction: We must recognize the importance of challenging our students — in a supportive way — to recognize both that they are thinkers and that their thinking often goes awry. We must lead class discussions about thinking. We must explicitly model thinking (e.g., thinking aloud through a problem). We must design classroom activities that explicitly require students to think about their thinking. We must have students examine both poor and sound thinking, talking about the differences. We must introduce students to the parts of thinking and the intellectual standards necessary to assess thinking. We must introduce the idea of intellectual humility to students; that is, the idea of becoming aware of our own ignorance. Perhaps children can best understand the importance of this idea through their concept of the "know-it-all," which comes closest to their recognition of the need to be intellectually humble.

Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker

Defining Feature: Those who move to the beginning thinker stage are actively taking up the challenge to begin to take explicit command of their thinking across multiple domains of their lives. Thinkers at this stage recognize that they have basic problems in their thinking and make initial attempts to better understand how they can take charge of and improve it. Based on this initial understanding, beginning thinkers begin to modify some of their thinking, but have limited insight into deeper levels of the trouble inherent in their thinking. Most importantly, they lack a systematic plan for improving their thinking, hence their efforts are hit and miss.

Principal Challenge: To begin to see the importance of developing as a thinker. To begin to seek ways to develop as a thinker and to make an intellectual commitment to that end.

Knowledge of Thinking: Beginning thinkers, unlike challenged thinkers are becoming aware not only of thinking as such, but also of the role in thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc. Beginning thinkers are also at some beginning stage of recognizing not only that there are standards for the assessment of thinking: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc., but also that one needs to internalize them and thus begin using them deliberately in thinking. They have a beginning understanding of the role of egocentric thinking in human life.

Skill in Thinking: Beginning thinkers are able to appreciate a critique of their powers of thought. Beginning thinkers have enough skill in thinking to begin to monitor their own thoughts, though as “beginners” they are sporadic in that monitoring. They are beginning to recognize egocentric thinking in themselves and others.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: The key intellectual trait required at this stage is some degree of intellectual humility in beginning to recognize the problems inherent in thinking. In addition, thinkers must have some degree of intellectual confidence in reason, a trait which provides the impetus to take up the challenge and begin the process of active development as critical thinkers, despite limited understanding of what it means to do high quality reasoning. In addition, beginning thinkers have enough intellectual perseverance to struggle with serious problems in thinking while yet lacking a clear solution to those problems (in other words, at this stage thinkers are recognizing more and more problems in their thinking but have not yet discovered how to systematize their efforts to solve them).

Some Implications for Instruction: Once we have persuaded most of our students that much of their thinking — left to itself — is flawed and that they, like all of us, are capable of improving as thinkers, we must teach in such a way as to help them to see that we all need to regularly practice good thinking to become good thinkers. Here we can use sporting analogies and analogies from other skill areas. Most students already know that you can get good in a sport only if you regularly practice. We must not only look for opportunities to encourage them to think well, we must help them to begin to understand what it is to develop good HABITS of thinking. What do we need to do regularly in order to read well? What must we do regularly and habitually if we are to listen well? What must we do regularly and habitually if we are to write well. What must we do regularly and habitually if we are to learn well? We must recognize that students are not only creatures of habit, but like the rest of us, they are largely unaware of the habits they are developing. They are largely unaware of what it is to develop good habits (in general), let alone good habits of thinking. If our students are truly “beginning” thinkers, they will be receptive to the importance of developing sound habits of thought. We must emphasize the importance of beginning to take charge of the parts of thinking and applying intellectual standards to thinking. We must teach students to begin to recognize their native egocentrism when it is operating in their thinking.

Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker

Defining Feature: Thinkers at this stage have a sense of the habits they need to develop to take charge of their thinking. They not only recognize that problems exist in their thinking, but they also recognize the need to attack these problems globally and systematically. Based on their sense of the need to practice regularly, they are actively analyzing their thinking in a number of domains. However, since practicing thinkers are only beginning to approach the improvement of their thinking in a systematic way, they still have limited insight into deeper levels of thought, and thus into deeper levels of the problems embedded in thinking.

Principal Challenge: To begin to develop awareness of the need for systematic practice in thinking.

Knowledge of Thinking: Practicing thinkers, unlike beginning thinkers are becoming knowledgeable of what it would take to systematically monitor the role in their thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc. Practicing thinkers are also becoming knowledgeable of what it would take to regularly assess their thinking for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc. Practicing thinkers recognize the need for systematicity of critical thinking and deep internalization into habits. They clearly recognize the natural tendency of the human mind to engage in egocentric thinking and self-deception.

Skill in Thinking: Practicing thinkers have enough skill in thinking to critique their own plan for systematic practice, and to construct a realistic critique of their powers of thought. Furthermore, practicing thinkers have enough skill to begin to regularly monitor their own thoughts. Thus they can effectively articulate the strengths and weaknesses in their thinking. Practicing thinkers can often recognize their own egocentric thinking as well as egocentric thinking on the part of others. Furthermore practicing thinkers actively monitor their thinking to eliminate egocentric thinking, although they are often unsuccessful.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: The key intellectual trait required to move to this stage is intellectual perseverance. This characteristic provides the impetus for developing a realistic plan for systematic practice (with a view to taking greater command of one’s thinking). Furthermore, thinkers at this stage have the intellectual humility required to realize that thinking in all the domains of their lives must be subject to scrutiny, as they begin to approach the improvement of their thinking in a systematic way.

Some Implications for Instruction: What are the basic features of thinking that students must command to effectively become practicing thinkers? What do they need to do to take charge of their thinking intellectually, with respect to any content? We must teach in such a way that students come to understand the power in knowing that whenever humans reason, they have no choice but to use certain predictable structures of thought: that thinking is inevitably driven by the questions, that we seek answers to questions for some purpose, that to answer questions, we need information, that to use information we must interpret it (i.e., by making inferences), and that our inferences, in turn, are based on assumptions, and have implications, all of which involves ideas or concepts within some point of view. We must teach in such a way as to require students to regularly deal explicitly with these structures (more on these structure presently).

Students should now be developing the habit — whenever they are trying to figure something out — of focusing on: purpose, question, information, inferences, assumptions, concepts, point of view, and implications. The result of this emphasis in instruction is that students begin to see connections between all the subject matter they are learning. In studying history, they learn to focus on historical purposes and questions. When studying math, they clarify and analyze mathematical goals and problems. When studying literature, they reflect upon literary purposes and questions. They notice themselves making historical, mathematical, and literary assumptions. They notice themselves tracing historical, mathematical, and literary implications. Recognizing the "moves" one makes in thinking well is an essential part of becoming a practicing thinker.

Students should be encouraged to routinely catch themselves thinking both egocentrically and sociocentrically. They should understand, for example, that most of the problems they experience in learning result from a natural desire to avoid confusion and frustration, and that their inability to understand another person’s point of view is often caused by their tendency to see the world exclusively within their own egocentric point of view.

Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker

Defining Feature: Thinkers at this stage have now established good habits of thought which are “paying off.” Based on these habits, advanced thinkers not only actively analyze their thinking in all the significant domains of their lives, but also have significant insight into problems at deeper levels of thought. While advanced thinkers are able to think well across the important dimensions of their lives, they are not yet able to think at a consistently high level across all of these dimensions. Advanced thinkers have good general command over their egocentric nature. They continually strive to be fair-minded. Of course, they sometimes lapse into egocentrism and reason in a one-sided way.

Principal Challenge: To begin to develop depth of understanding not only of the need for systematic practice in thinking, but also insight into deep levels of problems in thought: consistent recognition, for example, of egocentric and sociocentric thought in one’s thinking, ability to identify areas of significant ignorance and prejudice, and ability to actually develop new fundamental habits of thought based on deep values to which one has committed oneself.

Knowledge of Thinking: Advanced thinkers are actively and successfully engaged in systematically monitoring the role in their thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc., and hence have excellent knowledge of that enterprise. Advanced thinkers are also knowledgeable of what it takes to regularly assess their thinking for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc. Advanced thinkers value the deep and systematic internalization of critical thinking into their daily habits. Advanced thinkers have keen insight into the role of egocentrism and sociocentrism in thinking, as well as the relationship between thoughts, feelings and desires.

They have a deep understanding of the powerful role that thinking plays in the quality of their lives. They understand that egocentric thinking will always play a role in their thinking, but that they can control the power that egocentrism has over their thinking and their lives.

Skill in Thinking: Advanced thinkers regularly critique their own plan for systematic practice, and improve it thereby. Practicing thinkers regularly monitor their own thoughts. They insightfully articulate the strengths and weaknesses in their thinking. They possess outstanding knowledge of the qualities of their thinking. Advanced thinkers are consistently able to identify when their thinking is driven by their native egocentrism; and they effectively use a number of strategies to reduce the power of their egocentric thoughts.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: The key intellectual trait required at this stage is a high degree of intellectual humility in recognizing egocentric and sociocentric thought in one’s life as well as areas of significant ignorance and prejudice. In addition the thinker at this level needs: a) the intellectual insight and perseverance to actually develop new fundamental habits of thought based on deep values to which one has committed oneself, b) the intellectual integrity to recognize areas of inconsistency and contradiction in one’s life, c) the intellectual empathy necessary to put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, d) the intellectual courage to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints toward which one has strong negative emotions, e) the fair-mindedness necessary to approach all viewpoints without prejudice, without reference to one’s own feelings or vested interests. In the advanced thinker these traits are emerging, but may not be manifested at the highest level or in the deepest dimensions of thought.

Some Implications for Instruction: For the foreseeable future most of our students will not become advanced thinkers — if at all — until college or beyond. Nevertheless, it is important that they learn what it would be to become an advanced thinker. It is important that they see it as an important goal. We can help students move in this direction by fostering their awareness of egocentrism and sociocentrism in their thinking, by leading discussions on intellectual perseverance, intellectual integrity, intellectual empathy, intellectual courage, and fair-mindedness. If we can graduate students who are practicing thinkers, we will have achieved a major break-through in schooling. However intelligent our graduates may be, most of them are largely unreflective as thinkers, and are unaware of the disciplined habits of thought they need to develop to grow intellectually as a thinker.

Stage Six: The Accomplished Thinker

Defining Feature: Accomplished thinkers not only have systematically taken charge of their thinking, but are also continually monitoring, revising, and re-thinking strategies for continual improvement of their thinking. They have deeply internalized the basic skills of thought, so that critical thinking is, for them, both conscious and highly intuitive. As Piaget would put it, they regularly raise their thinking to the level of conscious realization. Through extensive experience and practice in engaging in self-assessment, accomplished thinkers are not only actively analyzing their thinking in all the significant domains of their lives, but are also continually developing new insights into problems at deeper levels of thought. Accomplished thinkers are deeply committed to fair-minded thinking, and have a high level of, but not perfect, control over their egocentric nature.

Principal Challenge: To make the highest levels of critical thinking intuitive in every domain of one’s life. To internalize highly effective critical thinking in an interdisciplinary and practical way.

Knowledge of Thinking: Accomplished thinkers are not only actively and successfully engaged in systematically monitoring the role in their thinking of concepts, assumptions, inferences, implications, points of view, etc., but are also regularly improving that practice. Accomplished thinkers have not only a high degree of knowledge of thinking, but a high degree of practical insight as well. Accomplished thinkers intuitively assess their thinking for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, logicalness, etc. Accomplished thinkers have deep insights into the systematic internalization of critical thinking into their habits. Accomplished thinkers deeply understand the role that egocentric and sociocentric thinking plays in the lives of human beings, as well as the complex relationship between thoughts, emotions, drives and behavior.

Skill in Thinking: Accomplished thinkers regularly, effectively, and insightfully critique their own use of thinking in their lives, and improve it thereby. Accomplished thinkers consistently monitor their own thoughts. They effectively and insightfully articulate the strengths and weaknesses inherent in their thinking. Their knowledge of the qualities of their thinking is outstanding. Although, as humans they know they will always be fallible (because they must always battle their egocentrism, to some extent), they consistently perform effectively in every domain of their lives. People of good sense seek out master thinkers, for they recognize and value the ability of master thinkers to think through complex issues with judgment and insight.

Relevant Intellectual Traits: Naturally inherent in master thinkers are all the essential intellectual characteristics, deeply integrated. Accomplished thinkers have a high degree of intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual autonomy, intellectual responsibility and fair-mindedness. Egocentric and sociocentric thought is quite uncommon in the accomplished thinker, especially with respect to matters of importance. There is a high degree of integration of basic values, beliefs, desires, emotions, and action.

Some implications for Instruction: For the foreseeable future the vast majority of our students will never become accomplished thinkers — any more than most high school basketball players will develop the skills or abilities of a professional basketball player or student writers the writing skills of a published novelist. Nevertheless, it is important that they learn what it would be to become an accomplished thinker. It is important that they see it as a real possibility, if practicing skills of thinking becomes a characteristic of how they use their minds day to day.

Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking, namely, to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those which — however appealing they may be to our native egocentrism, however much they serve our vested interests, however comfortable or comforting they may be — lack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant our belief.

Socrates’ practice was followed by the critical thinking of Plato (who recorded Socrates’ thought), Aristotle, and the Greek skeptics, all of whom emphasized that things are often very different from what they appear to be and that only the trained mind is prepared to see through the way things look to us on the surface (delusive appearances) to the way they really are beneath the surface (the deeper realities of life). From this ancient Greek tradition emerged the need, for anyone who aspired to understand the deeper realities, to think systematically, to trace implications broadly and deeply, for only thinking that is comprehensive, well-reasoned, and responsive to objections can take us beyond the surface.

In the Middle Ages, the tradition of systematic critical thinking was embodied in the writings and teachings of such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas (Sumna Theologica) who to ensure his thinking met the test of critical thought, always systematically stated, considered, and answered all criticisms of his ideas as a necessary stage in developing them. Aquinas heightened our awareness not only of the potential power of reasoning but also of the need for reasoning to be systematically cultivated and "cross-examined." Of course, Aquinas’ thinking also illustrates that those who think critically do not always reject established beliefs, only those beliefs that lack reasonable foundations.

In the Renaissance (15th and 16th Centuries), a flood of scholars in Europe began to think critically about religion, art, society, human nature, law, and freedom. They proceeded with the assumption that most of the domains of human life were in need of searching analysis and critique. Among these scholars were Colet, Erasmus, and Moore in England. They followed up on the insight of the ancients.

Francis Bacon, in England, was explicitly concerned with the way we misuse our minds in seeking knowledge. He recognized explicitly that the mind cannot safely be left to its natural tendencies. In his book The Advancement of Learning, he argued for the importance of studying the world empirically. He laid the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on the information-gathering processes. He also called attention to the fact that most people, if left to their own devices, develop bad habits of thought (which he called "idols") that lead them to believe what is false or misleading. He called attention to "Idols of the tribe" (the ways our mind naturally tends to trick itself), "Idols of the market-place" (the ways we misuse words), "Idols of the theater" (our tendency to become trapped in conventional systems of thought), and "Idols of the schools" (the problems in thinking when based on blind rules and poor instruction). His book could be considered one of the earliest texts in critical thinking, for his agenda was very much the traditional agenda of critical thinking.

Some fifty years later in France, Descartes wrote what might be called the second text in critical thinking, Rules For the Direction of the Mind. In it, Descartes argued for the need for a special systematic disciplining of the mind to guide it in thinking. He articulated and defended the need in thinking for clarity and precision. He developed a method of critical thought based on the principle of systematic doubt. He emphasized the need to base thinking on well-thought through foundational assumptions. Every part of thinking, he argued, should be questioned, doubted, and tested.

In the same time period, Sir Thomas Moore developed a model of a new social order, Utopia, in which every domain of the present world was subject to critique. His implicit thesis was that established social systems are in need of radical analysis and critique. The critical thinking of these Renaissance and post-Renaissance scholars opened the way for the emergence of science and for the development of democracy, human rights, and freedom for thought.

In the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli’s The Prince critically assessed the politics of the day, and laid the foundation for modern critical political thought. He refused to assume that government functioned as those in power said it did. Rather, he critically analyzed how it did function and laid the foundation for political thinking that exposes both, on the one hand, the real agendas of politicians and, on the other hand, the many contradictions and inconsistencies of the hard, cruel, world of the politics of his day

Hobbes and Locke (in 16th and 17th Century England) displayed the same confidence in the critical mind of the thinker that we find in Machiavelli. Neither accepted the traditional picture of things dominant in the thinking of their day. Neither accepted as necessarily rational that which was considered "normal" in their culture. Both looked to the critical mind to open up new vistas of learning. Hobbes adopted a naturalistic view of the world in which everything was to be explained by evidence and reasoning. Locke defended a common sense analysis of everyday life and thought. He laid the theoretical foundation for critical thinking about basic human rights and the responsibilities of all governments to submit to the reasoned criticism of thoughtful citizens.

It was in this spirit of intellectual freedom and critical thought that people such as Robert Boyle (in the 17th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (in the 17th and 18th Century) did their work. In his Sceptical Chymist, Boyle severely criticized the chemical theory that had preceded him. Newton, in turn, developed a far-reaching framework of thought which roundly criticized the traditionally accepted world view. He extended the critical thought of such minds as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. After Boyle and Newton, it was recognized by those who reflected seriously on the natural world that egocentric views of world must be abandoned in favor of views based entirely on carefully gathered evidence and sound reasoning.

Another significant contribution to critical thinking was made by the thinkers of the French Enlightenment: Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot. They all began with the premise that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world. What is more, for these thinkers, reason must turn inward upon itself, in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought. They valued disciplined intellectual exchange, in which all views had to be submitted to serious analysis and critique. They believed that all authority must submit in one way or another to the scrutiny of reasonable critical questioning.

Eighteenth Century thinkers extended our conception of critical thought even further, developing our sense of the power of critical thought and of its tools. Applied to the problem of economics, it produced Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. In the same year, applied to the traditional concept of loyalty to the king, it produced the Declaration of Independence. Applied to reason itself, it produced Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

In the 19th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human social life by Comte and Spencer. Applied to the problems of capitalism, it produced the searching social and economic critique of Karl Marx. Applied to the history of human culture and the basis of biological life, it led to Darwin’s Descent of Man. Applied to the unconscious mind, it is reflected in the works of Sigmund Freud. Applied to cultures, it led to the establishment of the field of Anthropological studies. Applied to language, it led to the field of Linguistics and to many deep probings of the functions of symbols and language in human life.

In the 20th Century, our understanding of the power and nature of critical thinking has emerged in increasingly more explicit formulations. In 1906, William Graham Sumner published a land-breaking study of the foundations of sociology and anthropology,Folkways, in which he documented the tendency of the human mind to think sociocentrically and the parallel tendency for schools to serve the (uncritical) function of social indoctrination :

"Schools make persons all on one pattern, orthodoxy. School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe. An orthodoxy is produced in regard to all the great doctrines of life. It consists of the most worn and commonplace opinions which are common in the masses. The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations (p. 630).

At the same time, Sumner recognized the deep need for critical thinking in life and in education:

"Criticism is the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a mental habit and power. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances. Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty. A teacher of any subject who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision, is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded. They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens” (pp. 632, 633).

John Dewey agreed. From his work, we have increased our sense of the pragmatic basis of human thought (its instrumental nature), and especially its grounding in actual human purposes, goals, and objectives. From the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein we have increased our awareness not only of the importance of concepts in human thought, but also of the need to analyze concepts and assess their power and limitations. From the work of Piaget, we have increased our awareness of the egocentric and sociocentric tendencies of human thought and of the special need to develop critical thought which is able to reason within multiple standpoints, and to be raised to the level of "conscious realization." From the massive contribution of all the "hard" sciences, we have learned the power of information and the importance of gathering information with great care and precision, and with sensitivity to its potential inaccuracy, distortion, or misuse. From the contribution of depth-psychology, we have learned how easily the human mind is self-deceived, how easily it unconsciously constructs illusions and delusions, how easily it rationalizes and stereotypes, projects and scapegoats.

To sum up, the tools and resources of the critical thinker have been vastly increased in virtue of the history of critical thought. Hundreds of thinkers have contributed to its development. Each major discipline has made some contribution to critical thought. Yet for most educational purposes, it is the summing up of base-line common denominators for critical thinking that is most important. Let us consider now that summation.

The Common Denominators of Critical Thinking Are the Most Important By-products of the History of Critical Thinking

We now recognize that critical thinking, by its very nature, requires, for example, the systematic monitoring of thought; that thinking, to be critical, must not be accepted at face value but must be analyzed and assessed for its clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and logicalness. We now recognize that critical thinking, by its very nature, requires, for example, the recognition that all reasoning occurs within points of view and frames of reference; that all reasoning proceeds from some goals and objectives, has an informational base; that all data when used in reasoning must be interpreted, that interpretation involves concepts; that concepts entail assumptions, and that all basic inferences in thought have implications. We now recognize that each of these dimensions of thinking need to be monitored and that problems of thinking can occur in any of them.

The result of the collective contribution of the history of critical thought is that the basic questions of Socrates can now be much more powerfully and focally framed and used. In every domain of human thought, and within every use of reasoning within any domain, it is now possible to question:

  • ends and objectives,
  • the status and wording of questions,
  • the sources of information and fact,
  • the method and quality of information collection,
  • the mode of judgment and reasoning used,
  • the concepts that make that reasoning possible,
  • the assumptions that underlie concepts in use,
  • the implications that follow from their use, and
  • the point of view or frame of reference within which reasoning takes place.

In other words, questioning that focuses on these fundamentals of thought and reasoning are now baseline in critical thinking. It is beyond question that intellectual errors or mistakes can occur in any of these dimensions, and that students need to be fluent in talking about these structures and standards.

Independent of the subject studied, students need to be able to articulate thinking about thinking that reflects basic command of the intellectual dimensions of thought:  "Let’s see, what is the most fundamental issue here? From what point of view should I approach this problem? Does it make sense for me to assume this? From these data may I infer this? What is implied in this graph? What is the fundamental concept here? Is this consistent with that? What makes this question complex? How could I check the accuracy of these data? If this is so, what else is implied? Is this a credible source of information? Etc." (For more information on the basic elements of thought and basic intellectual criteria and standards, see Appendices C and D).

With intellectual language such as this in the foreground, students can now be taught at least minimal critical thinking moves within any subject field. What is more, there is no reason in principle that students cannot take the basic tools of critical thought which they learn in one domain of study and extend it (with appropriate adjustments) to all the other domains and subjects which they study. For example, having questioned the wording of a problem in math, I am more likely to question the wording of a problem in the other subjects I study.

As a result of the fact that students can learn these generalizable critical thinking moves, they need not be taught history simply as a body of facts to memorize; they can now be taught history as historical reasoning. Classes can be designed so that students learn to think historically and develop skills and abilities essential to historical thought. Math can be taught so that the emphasis is on mathematical reasoning. Students can learn to think geographically, economically, biologically, chemically, in courses within these disciplines. In principle, then, all students can be taught so that they learn how to bring the basic tools of disciplined reasoning into every subject they study. Unfortunately, it is apparent, given the results of this study, that we are very far from this ideal state of affairs. We now turn to the fundamental concepts and principles tested in standardized critical thinking tests.

{ Taken from the California Teacher Preparation for Instruction in Critical Thinking: Research Findings and Policy Recommendations: State of California, California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, Sacramento, CA, March 1997. Principal authors: Richard Paul, Linda Elder, and Ted Bartell }

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