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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

What the hell even IS critical thinking?

Everyone knows critical thinking is important. It's a general capability for Australian students, employees demand it of jobseekers, and it is held up as the saviour of the swirling mass of misinformation that is social media.

But what the hell is it?

I asked a friend, an educational researcher, for help:

It isn't that people haven't tried to define critical thinking.

Some go for a long list of the many skills critical thinkers need:

"The process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion"
"Purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based."

Others focus on asking questions.

"Critical thinking is essentially questioning..."
"...critical thinking is questioning what you are told instead of just accepting it. "

While still others think answers—the conclusions we reach—are the key:

Critical thinking… means making reasoned judgments.”
"Critical thinking is problem solving"

While none of these definitions are terrible, it becomes hard to talk about critical thinking when everyone is on a different page.

What we need is a basic common ground to start from that is useful.

Critical thinking is metacognitive evaluation according to norms of rationality.

Or, put more simply:

...a critical thinker is...someone who thinks about their thinking, about why they believe those things, about what standards are appropriate for believing those things are 'true' or 'correct', and evaluates their own thinking to see if their beliefs are justified.

What is most useful about this conception of a critical thinker is that it puts the onus squarely back on the individual.

It becomes clear that critical thinking isn't just a set of skills we can adopt or use against the enemies of logic but a way of engaging with our own thoughts and perceptions.


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