What is Critical Thinking?
The ability to think critically calls for a higher-order thinking than simply the ability to recall information.
Definitions of critical thinking, its elements, and its associated activities fill the educational literature of the past forty years. Critical thinking has been described as an ability to question; to acknowledge and test previously held assumptions; to recognize ambiguity; to examine, interpret, evaluate, reason, and reflect; to make informed judgments and decisions; and to clarify, articulate, and justify positions (Hullfish & Smith, 1961; Ennis, 1962; Ruggiero, 1975; Scriven, 1976; Hallet, 1984; Kitchener, 1986; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Mines et al., 1990; Halpern, 1996; Paul & Elder, 2001; Petress, 2004; Holyoak & Morrison, 2005; among others).
After a careful review of the mountainous body of literature defining critical thinking and its elements, UofL has chosen to adopt the language of Michael Scriven and Richard Paul (2003) as a comprehensive, concise operating definition:
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.
Paul and Scriven go on to suggest that critical thinking is based on: "universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue, assumptions, concepts, empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions, implication and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frame of reference. Critical thinking - in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes - is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking."
This conceptualization of critical thinking has been refined and developed further by Richard Paul and Linder Elder into the Paul-Elder framework of critical thinking. Currently, this approach is one of the most widely published and cited frameworks in the critical thinking literature. According to the Paul-Elder framework, critical thinking is the:
- Analysis of thinking by focusing on the parts or structures of thinking ("the Elements of Thought")
- Evaluation of thinking by focusing on the quality ("the Universal Intellectual Standards")
- Improvement of thinking by using what you have learned ("the Intellectual Traits")
Selection of a Critical Thinking Framework
The University of Louisville chose the Paul-Elder model of Critical Thinking as the approach to guide our efforts in developing and enhancing our critical thinking curriculum. The Paul-Elder framework was selected based on criteria adapted from the characteristics of a good model of critical thinking developed at Surry Community College. The Paul-Elder critical thinking framework is comprehensive, uses discipline-neutral terminology, is applicable to all disciplines, defines specific cognitive skills including metacognition, and offers high quality resources.
Why the selection of a single critical thinking framework?
The use of a single critical thinking framework is an important aspect of institution-wide critical thinking initiatives (Paul and Nosich, 1993; Paul, 2004). According to this view, critical thinking instruction should not be relegated to one or two disciplines or departments with discipline specific language and conceptualizations. Rather, critical thinking instruction should be explicitly infused in all courses so that critical thinking skills can be developed and reinforced in student learning across the curriculum. The use of a common approach with a common language allows for a central organizer and for the development of critical thinking skill sets in all courses.