Developing critical thinking
The ability to think critically is a key skill for academic success.
It means not taking what you hear or read at face value, but using your critical faculties to weigh up the evidence, and considering the implications and conclusions of what the writer is saying.
Imagine two situations. On the first, you are on a country walk and you come across a notice which tells you not to attempt to climb a fence because of risk of electrocution. Would you pause to consider before obeying this instruction? On the other hand, suppose you were to receive a letter from a local farmer announcing that he proposed to put up an electric fence to protect a certain field. In this case, would you not be more likely to think about his reasons for doing so and what the implications would be for you and your family? In the first case, you are thinking reactively and in the second, you are thinking critically.
An allied skill is the ability to analyse – that is, to read or listen for the following points:
- How robust are the points presented as evidence?
- Does the author have a coherent argument, and do the points follow through logically from one another or are their breaks in the sense?
Can you spot flaws?
- Is the conclusion clearly presented?
- Are there signs of bias or persuasion in the language, such as use of emotional appeal, or indications that the author adheres to a particular school of thought or methodological perspective (an example here might be that of someone whose methodological approach was strongly quantitative, or qualitative)?
- How do the views presented differ from those of others in the field?
The key to critical thinking is to develop an impersonal approach which looks at arguments and facts and which lays aside personal views and feelings. This is because academic discourse is based according to key principles which are described as follows by Northedge (2005):
- Debate: arguing different points of view.
- Scholarship: awareness of what else has been written, and citing it correctly.
- Argument: developing points in a logical sequence which leads to a conclusion.
- Criticism: looking at strengths and weaknesses.
- Analysis: taking the argument apart, as described above.
- Evidence: ensuring that the argument is backed by valid evidence.
- Objectivity: the writing should be detached and unemotional and without direct appeal to the reader.
- Precision: anything that does not assist the argument should be omitted.
Critical and analytical thinking should be applied at all points in academic study - to selecting information, reading, writing, speaking and listening. Of these, learning to read and evaluate information critically is perhaps the most important skill, which if acquired can then be applied to other areas.
Selecting information critically
The first stage in reading critically is to exercise care in the information you use - how trustworthy is it? For printed material, consider:
- For books, who is the publisher? Is it a reputable academic publisher? Is the book part of a series (in which case it will also have another layer of ‘quality control’, from the Series Editor).
- For journal articles, does the article appear in an academic journal? (Your tutor should be able to tell you what the leading journals are in your field.)
- For both, who is the author and does he or she come from a respectable academic organization?
- How recent it the publication date, and are you using the latest edition of a textbook?
Particular care needs to be exercised when using information from the Internet. This will be the topic of another article on this site, but you need to consider relevance and in particular:
- What is its source? Is it from a commercial or academic organization, and if the latter, is it from well-known one? (For example, when I looked up ‘critical thinking’ I got a lot of commercial sites who were trying to sell particular services such as software or consultancy.)
- Is it written in an academic style, with references,
substantiated claims etc.?
- There are many journals which are published on the Internet. Not all of these are subject to the process of peer review, which involves the content being checked by people of standing.
- When was it posted/updated?
When reading academic texts, you need to employ certain procedures.
1. Identify the argument – what is the author’s main line of reasoning?
2. Analyse and criticize the argument:
- Are the reasons sufficient, and are they valid to the argument, in other words do they support it, or would it be possible to draw other conclusions from them?
- Does the author develop the argument in a logical and coherent fashion, i.e. premise/point A/point B/conclusion, avoiding confusing breaks in the logical flow?
- Is the author’s logic always valid, or does he/she draw arguments from false premises, or are there flaws in the reasoning assuming a causal connection where none is justifiable or generalizing from too few examples?
- Is the author’s style objective, or does he/she use emotive language, designed to get the reader’s sympathy, for example, words or phrases such as cruel, inhuman, Golden Age?
3. Assess the evidence:
- What is it – statistics, surveys, case studies, findings from experiment are all examples of evidence that may be presented.
- Is it valid? Validity may be affected by external criteria such as the source (for example an article from an academic journal is likely to be more reliable than one from a newspaper) or by the particular bias of the party concerned (for example if a women’s hospital is resisting closure, look carefully at evidence of other women’s services in the area). You should also examine the intrinsic qualities of the evidence, for example how recent are case studies? How robust are experiments? How large and representative is the survey? Is evidence anecdotal (for example, stories of one person being cured from a particular treatment are less impressive than clinical trials)?
4. What are the conclusions, and are they supported by the evidence? It may be possible to present what appears to be flawless research, which may yet not justify the conclusions. A good example here is the ongoing debate on child care, and whether mothers are better off at home looking after their children themselves. In the 1950s, John Bowlby presented good arguments why mothers should stay at home, which was subsequently reputed by later researchers, whilst the stay at home argument is now making a return. The studies themselves may not present valid evidence and need to be seen against other trends, such as the need to ensure full male employment after the war, the rise of feminism, and women’s desire for choice over whether or not they work.
5. What are the alternatives? Look at the author’s work from different perspectives – how does the view presented differ from others? Does the author have a particular agenda, revealed (as in the case of a particular view of research, see above) or hidden (for example, particular reasons, political or other, for arguing a case)? Does the evidence really lead to the conclusions offered or might there be other explanations (see the example in 4 above).
Air traffic in the Southeast of the country is becoming increasingly great, there are three airports and the plan is to expand the airport at Lutwick to ease congestion at the other airports and help with the expected tripling of demand by 2030 (1). Pollution from aircraft is one of the biggest problems of our times. (2) A recent survey of local residents by the Lutwick Times showed that 60 per cent of local residents would oppose the plan. (3) Lutwick was severely bombed in the war (4), and has suffered enough (5) without the further incursion of gridlocked motorways which would result from the enlarged airport. (6) Forecasts show that many more houses will be affected by noise pollution than with other airports, that the projected increase in jobs is dubious, and that flooding may result from hard surface run-off (7). We must therefore oppose the plans and press for an environmental impact tax on aviation (8).
A critique of the above passage
- The first sentence is a descriptive statement: unclear what the author’s premise is.
- The second sentence is a non sequitur - there is no explicit link with the first statement.
- A survey is a piece of evidence, but how reliable is the source, 60 per cent of what number and when was the survey carried out?
- That Lutwick was bombed during the war is a non sequitur, and is not essential to the case.
- This is emotive language.
- This assumes a causal connection between the enlarged airport and congested motorways, but there may be other reasons why motorways are congested.
- These statements constitute evidence, but they are not substantiated, referenced or quantified. What forecasts, how many more houses over what area, where will the flooding be and why will it result from hard surface run-off?
- The conclusion is clearly stated, but its first part (that plans must be opposed) clearly shows the bias of the writer, and the second part (the environmental impact tax) does not necessarily follow from the evidence, which is specific to a particular location. In order to arrive at that conclusion it is necessary to report evidence on a more general link between flights and the environment, to argue for the practicality of the tax looking at opposing arguments such as would it price air travel out of some people’s reach and would this be a bad thing?
Much has been written elsewhere on this site about the writing process, so we will only make brief reference here. Planning is the key: if you organize your ideas carefully in your plan, you will be clearer what you have to write.
You need to employ the same critical judgement to your own writing as you do to that of other people, although it can be more difficult to assess your own work! In particular:
- Check your line of reasoning is clear – start out by stating what you propose to do, organize your information in a logical pattern, and reach a clear and substantiated conclusion.
- Ensure that the evidence you use is valid according to the criteria set out above, under Reading critically.
- Be aware of the difference between descriptive writing, which tells a story, using statements, explanation and lists etc., and analytical writing, which presents an argument, giving reasons, weighing up information, and drawing conclusions.
Listening and speaking critically
Much of learning is carried out by dialogue, and by tossing ideas around, but you can’t expect yourself or others always to substantiate with the same degree of rigour as in writing! However, listen out in yourself and other people for inconsistencies and contradictions; if you are in a seminar, notice how ideas are ‘developed’ through dialogue, how your ideas fit in or contradict with those of others, etc. Be as prepared to ask questions as you are to listen, for example if someone offers a point of view about a particular author or text, don’t be afraid to challenge them to substantiate their claim. You will also need to put forward a reasoned argument, which will help develop your thinking skills, particularly as verbal debate proceeds at a more rapid pace than writing or reading, which are mostly solitary activities. Remember, too, that you have extra ‘data’ in the form of body language – does the latter fit in with what they are saying, or are you noticing contradictory signals, for example, a raised eyebrow?
- Northedge, A. (2005), The Good Study Guide, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK
The imparting of knowledge (content) and the development of thinking skills are accepted today as primary purposes of education. The explicit teaching and embedding of critical and creative thinking throughout the learning areas encourages students to engage in higher order thinking. By using logic and imagination, and by reflecting on how they best tackle issues, tasks and challenges, students are increasingly able to select from a range of thinking strategies and use them selectively and spontaneously in an increasing range of learning contexts.
Activities that foster critical and creative thinking should include both independent and collaborative tasks, and entail some sort of transition or tension between ways of thinking. They should be challenging and engaging, and contain approaches that are within the ability range of the learners, but also challenge them to think logically, reason, be open-minded, seek alternatives, tolerate ambiguity, inquire into possibilities, be innovative risk-takers and use their imagination.
Critical and creative thinking can be encouraged simultaneously through activities that integrate reason, logic, imagination and innovation; for example, focusing on a topic in a logical, analytical way for some time, sorting out conflicting claims, weighing evidence, thinking through possible solutions, and then, following reflection and perhaps a burst of creative energy, coming up with innovative and considered responses. Critical and creative thinking are communicative processes that develop flexibility and precision. Communication is integral to each of the thinking processes. By sharing thinking, visualisation and innovation, and by giving and receiving effective feedback, students learn to value the diversity of learning and communication styles.
The learning area or subject with the highest proportion of content descriptions tagged with Critical and Creative Thinking is placed first in the list.
F-6/7 Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS)
In the F–6/7 Australian Curriculum: Humanities and Social Sciences, students develop critical and creative thinking capability as they learn how to build discipline-specific knowledge about history, geography, civics and citizenship, and economics and business. Students learn and practise critical and creative thinking as they pose questions, research, analyse, evaluate and communicate information, concepts and ideas.
Students identify, explore and determine questions to clarify social issues and events, and apply reasoning, interpretation and analytical skills to data and information. Critical thinking is essential to the historical inquiry process because it requires the ability to question sources, interpret the past from incomplete documentation, assess reliability when selecting information from resources, and develop an argument using evidence. Students develop critical thinking through geographical investigations that help them think logically when evaluating and using evidence, testing explanations, analysing arguments and making decisions, and when thinking deeply about questions that do not have straightforward answers. Students learn to critically evaluate texts about people, places, events, processes and issues, including consumer and financial, for shades of meaning, feeling and opinion, by identifying subjective language, bias, fact and opinion, and how language and images can be used to manipulate meaning. They develop civic knowledge by considering multiple perspectives and alternatives, and reflecting on actions, values and attitudes, thus informing their decision-making and the strategies they choose to negotiate and resolve differences.
Students develop creative thinking through the examination of social, political, legal, civic, environmental and economic issues, past and present, that that are contested, do not have obvious or straightforward answers, and that require problem-solving and innovative solutions. Creative thinking is important in developing creative questions, speculation and interpretations during inquiry. Students are encouraged to be curious and imaginative in investigations and fieldwork, and to explore relevant imaginative texts.
Critical and creative thinking is essential for imagining probable, possible and preferred futures in relation to social, environmental, economic and civic sustainability and issues. Students think creatively about appropriate courses of action and develop plans for personal and collective action. They develop enterprising behaviours and capabilities to imagine possibilities, consider alternatives, test hypotheses, and seek and create innovative solutions, and think creatively about the impact of issues on their own lives and the lives of others.
In the Australian Curriculum: History, critical thinking is essential to the historical inquiry process because it requires the ability to question sources, interpret the past from incomplete documentation, develop an argument using evidence, and assess reliability when selecting information from resources. Creative thinking is important in developing new interpretations to explain aspects of the past that are contested or not well understood.
In the Australian Curriculum: Geography, students develop critical and creative thinking as they investigate geographical information, concepts and ideas through inquiry-based learning. They develop and practise critical and creative thinking by using strategies that help them think logically when evaluating and using evidence, testing explanations, analysing arguments and making decisions, and when thinking deeply about questions that do not have straightforward answers. Students learn the value and process of developing creative questions and the importance of speculation. Students are encouraged to be curious and imaginative in investigations and fieldwork. The geography curriculum also stimulates students to think creatively about the ways that the places and spaces they use might be better designed, and about possible, probable and preferable futures.
7-10 Civics and Citizenship
In the Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship, students develop critical thinking skills in their investigation of Australia’s democratic system of government. They learn to apply decision-making processes and use strategies to negotiate and resolve differences. Students develop critical and creative thinking through the examination of political, legal and social issues that do not have obvious or straightforward answers and that require problem-solving and innovative solutions. Students consider multiple perspectives and alternatives, think creatively about appropriate courses of action and develop plans for action. The Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship stimulates students to think creatively about the impact of civic issues on their own lives and the lives of others, and to consider how these issues might be addressed.
7-10 Economics and Business
In the Australian Curriculum: Economics and Business, students develop their critical and creative thinking as they identify, explore and determine questions to clarify economics and business issues and/or events and apply reasoning, interpretation and analytical skills to data and/or information. They develop enterprising behaviours and capabilities to imagine possibilities, consider alternatives, test hypotheses, and seek and create innovative solutions to economics and business issues and/or events.
In the Australian Curriculum: The Arts, critical and creative thinking is integral to making and responding to artworks. In creating artworks, students draw on their curiosity, imagination and thinking skills to pose questions and explore ideas, spaces, materials and technologies. They consider possibilities and make choices that assist them to take risks and express their ideas, concepts, thoughts and feelings creatively. They consider and analyse the motivations, intentions and possible influencing factors and biases that may be evident in artworks they make to which they respond. They offer and receive effective feedback about past and present artworks and performances, and communicate and share their thinking, visualisation and innovations to a variety of audiences.
In the Australian Curriculum: Technologies, students develop capability in critical and creative thinking as they imagine, generate, develop and critically evaluate ideas. They develop reasoning and the capacity for abstraction through challenging problems that do not have straightforward solutions. Students analyse problems, refine concepts and reflect on the decision-making process by engaging in systems, design and computational thinking. They identify, explore and clarify technologies information and use that knowledge in a range of situations.
Students think critically and creatively about possible, probable and preferred futures. They consider how data, information, systems, materials, tools and equipment (past and present) impact on our lives, and how these elements might be better designed and managed. Experimenting, drawing, modelling, designing and working with digital tools, equipment and software helps students to build their visual and spatial thinking and to create solutions, products, services and environments.
Health and Physical Education
In the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education (HPE), students develop their ability to think logically, critically and creatively in response to a range of health and physical education issues, ideas and challenges. They learn how to critically evaluate evidence related to the learning area and the broad range of associated media and other messages to creatively generate and explore original alternatives and possibilities. In the HPE curriculum, students’ critical and creative thinking skills are developed through learning experiences that encourage them to pose questions and seek solutions to health issues by exploring and designing appropriate strategies to promote and advocate personal, social and community health and wellbeing. Students also use critical thinking to examine their own beliefs and challenge societal factors that negatively influence their own and others’ identity, health and wellbeing.
The Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education also provides learning opportunities that support creative thinking through dance making, games creation and technique refinement. Students develop understanding of the processes associated with creating movement and reflect on their body’s responses and their feelings about these movement experiences. Including a critical inquiry approach is one of the five propositions that have shaped the HPE curriculum.
Critical and creative thinking are essential to developing analytical and evaluative skills and understandings in the Australian Curriculum: English. Students use critical and creative thinking through listening to, reading, viewing, creating and presenting texts, interacting with others, and when they recreate and experiment with literature, and discuss the aesthetic or social value of texts. Through close analysis of text and through reading, viewing and listening, students critically analyse the opinions, points of view and unstated assumptions embedded in texts. In discussion, students develop critical thinking as they share personal responses and express preferences for specific texts, state and justify their points of view and respond to the views of others.
In creating their own written, visual and multimodal texts, students also explore the influence or impact of subjective language, feeling and opinion on the interpretation of text. Students also use and develop their creative thinking capability when they consider the innovations made by authors, imagine possibilities, plan, explore and create ideas for imaginative texts based on real or imagined events. Students explore the creative possibilities of the English language to represent novel ideas.
Learning in the Australian Curriculum: Languages enables students to interact with people and ideas from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, which enhances critical thinking and reflection, and encourages creative, divergent and imaginative thinking. By learning to notice, connect, compare and analyse aspects of the target language, students develop critical, analytical and problem-solving skills.
In the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics, students develop critical and creative thinking as they learn to generate and evaluate knowledge, ideas and possibilities, and use them when seeking solutions. Engaging students in reasoning and thinking about solutions to problems and the strategies needed to find these solutions are core parts of the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics.
Students are encouraged to be critical thinkers when justifying their choice of a calculation strategy or identifying relevant questions during a statistical investigation. They are encouraged to look for alternative ways to approach mathematical problems; for example, identifying when a problem is similar to a previous one, drawing diagrams or simplifying a problem to control some variables.
In the Australian Curriculum: Science, students develop capability in critical and creative thinking as they learn to generate and evaluate knowledge, ideas and possibilities, and use them when seeking new pathways or solutions. In the science learning area, critical and creative thinking are embedded in the skills of posing questions, making predictions, speculating, solving problems through investigation, making evidence-based decisions, and analysing and evaluating evidence. Students develop understandings of concepts through active inquiry that involves planning and selecting appropriate information, evaluating sources of information to formulate conclusions and to critically reflect on their own and the collective process.
Creative thinking enables the development of ideas that are new to the individual, and this is intrinsic to the development of scientific understanding. Scientific inquiry promotes critical and creative thinking by encouraging flexibility and open-mindedness as students speculate about their observations of the world and the ability to use and design new processes to achieve this. Students’ conceptual understanding becomes more sophisticated as they actively acquire an increasingly scientific view of their world and the ability to examine it from new perspectives.
In the Australian Curriculum: Work Studies, Years 9–10, students develop an ability to think logically, critically and creatively in relation to concepts of work and workplaces contexts. These capabilities are developed through an emphasis on critical thinking processes that encourage students to question assumptions and empower them to create their own understanding of work and personal and workplace learning.
Students’ creative thinking skills are developed and practised through learning opportunities that encourage innovative, entrepreneurial and project-based activities, supporting creative responses to workplace, professional and industrial problems. Students also learn to respond to strategic and problem-based challenges using creative thinking. For example, a student could evaluate possible job scenarios based on local labour market data and personal capabilities.