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15 Things We Have Learned About Critical Thinking

Here are the key issues to consider in critical thinking.

Not long after the publication of my book, Critical Thinking: Conceptual Perspectives and Practical Guidelines, by Cambridge University Press, Psychology Today contacted me and asked me to write a blog on the subject. I never thought I would write a blog, but when presented with the opportunity to keep sharing my thoughts on critical thinking on a regular basis, I thought, why not? Maybe my writing might help educators, maybe they might help students and maybe they might help people in their day-to-day decision-making. If it can help, then it’s worthwhile.

To recap, critical thinking (CT) is a metacognitive process, consisting of a number of sub-skills and dispositions, that, when applied through purposeful, self-regulatory, reflective judgment, increase the chances of producing a logical solution to a problem or a valid conclusion to an argument (Dwyer, 2017; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014).

CT, if anything, has become more necessary, in this age of information bombardment and the new knowledge economy (Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014). It allows students to gain a better understanding of complex information (Dwyer, Hogan, & Stewart, 2012; 2014; Gambrill, 2006; Halpern, 2014); it allows them to achieve higher grades and become more employable, informed and active citizens (Barton & McCully, 2007; Holmes & Clizbe, 1997; National Academy of Sciences, 2005); it facilitates good decision-making and problem-solving in social and interpersonal contexts (Ku, 2009); and it decreases the effects of cognitive biases and heuristic-based thinking (Facione & Facione, 2001; McGuinness, 2013).

It’s now been just over a year since I started writing ‘Thoughts on Thinking’. As I consider my thinking and look over my writing during this period, I thought it would be worthwhile to collate and summarise some of the broader learning that has appeared in my writings. So, here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. We all know CT is important, but it may be the case that many educators, as well as students, don’t really know what researchers mean by "critical thinking" and/or simply haven’t researched it themselves.
  2. Just as many don’t really know what is meant by "critical thinking", there is also the problem of ensuring consistency across how it is defined/conceptualised, trained and measured, which is no easy task.
  3. Without adequate training in CT, it may be the case that mature students’ perceptions of how they approach CT do not match their actual ability - despite potentially enhanced autonomy, student responsibility and locus of control, it may be that an over-optimistic outlook on the benefits of experience (and its associated heuristic-based, intuitive judgment) takes centre-stage above and beyond actual ability.
  4. Social media is many things: entertainment, education, networking and much more. It is also, unfortunately, a vehicle for promoting faulty thinking. Being able to recognise persuasion techniques, illogical argumentation and fallacious reasoning, will allow you to better assess arguments presented to you, and help you to present better arguments.
  5. Values are unique to each and every individual. Though individuals can certainly share values, there is no guarantee that all of an individual’s values overlap with another’s. On the other hand, using the 'virtue' moniker implies that the individual is right based on some kind of ‘moral correctness’. Though there is nothing wrong with an individual presenting ideas and perspectives that they value, it is ill-conceived and dangerous to treat them as global virtues that everyone else should value too.
  6. CT is domain-general, but explicit CT training is necessary if educators want to see CT improve and flourish across domains.
  7. A person with a strong willingness to conduct CT has the consistent internal willingness and motivation to engage problems and make decisions by using reflective judgment. Reflective judgment, the recognition of limited knowledge and how this uncertainty can affect decision-making processes, is an important aspect of critical thinking regarding ‘taking a step back’ and thinking about an argument or problem a little bit longer and considering the basis for the reasons and consequences of responding in a particular way.
  8. There is a need for general, secondary-school training in bias and statistics. We need to teach CT to the coming generations. When not critically thinking, people don’t listen, and fail to be open-minded and reflect upon the information presented to them; they project their opinions and beliefs regardless of whether or not they have evidence to support their claims.
  9. Be open-minded towards others. You don’t have to respect them (respect is earned, it’s not a right); but be courteous (sure, we may be in disagreement; but, hey, we’re still civilised people).
  10. A person said what they said, not how you interpret what they said. If you are unclear as to what has been said, ask for clarification. Asking for clarity is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of successful problem-solving.
  11. ‘Proof’ is the dirtiest word in critical thinking. Research and science do not prove things, they can only disprove. Be wary when you hear the word ‘prove’ or any of its variants thrown around; but also, be mindful that people feel safer when they are assured and words like ‘proven’ reinforce this feeling of assuredness.
  12. Creative thinking isn’t really useful or practical in critical thinking, depending on how you conceptualize it. Critical thinking and creative thinking are very different entities if you treat the latter as something similar to lateral thinking or ‘thinking outside the box’. However, if we conceptualize creative thinking as synthesizing information for the purpose of inferring a logical and feasible conclusion or solution, then it becomes complementary to critical thinking. But then, we are not resorting to creativity alone - all other avenues involving critical thinking must be considered. That is, we can think creatively by synthesizing information we have previously thought about critically (i.e. through analysis and evaluation) for the purpose of inferring a logical and feasible conclusion or solution. Thus, given this caveat, we can infuse our critical thinking with creative thinking, but we must do so with caution.
  13. Changing people’s minds is not easy; and it’s even more difficult when the person you’re working with believes they have critically thought about it. It may simply boil down to the person you’re trying to educate and their disposition towards critical thinking, but the person’s emotional investment in their stance also plays a significant role.
  14. There is no such thing as good or bad CT – you either thought critically or you didn’t. Those who try it in good faith are likely to want to do it ‘properly’; and so, much of whether or not an individual is thinking critically comes down to intellectual humility and intellectual integrity.
  15. Finally, there are some general tips that people find useful in applying their critical thinking:
  • Save your critical thinking for things that matter - things you care about.
  • Do it earlier in your day to avoid faulty thinking resulting from decision fatigue.
  • Take a step back and think about a problem a little bit longer, considering the basis for the reasons and consequences of responding in a particular way.
  • Play Devil’s Advocate in order to overcome bias and 'auto-pilot processing' through truly considering alternatives.
  • Leave emotion at the door and remove your beliefs, attitudes, opinions and personal experiences from the equation - all of which are emotionally charged.


Barton, K., & McCully, A. (2007). Teaching controversial issues where controversial issues really matter. Teaching History, 127, 13–19.

Dwyer, C.P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dwyer, C. P., Hogan, M. J., & Stewart, I. (2012). An evaluation of argument mapping as a method of enhancing critical thinking performance in e-learningenvironments. Metacognition and Learning, 7, 219–244.

Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J. & Stewart, I. (2014). An integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century. Thinking Skills & Creativity, 12, 43-52.

Eigenauer, J.D. (2017). Don’t reinvent the critical thinking wheel: What scholarly literature tells us about critical thinking instruction. Innovation Abstracts, 39, 2.

Facione, P. A., & Facione, N. C. (2001). Analyzing explanations for seemingly irrational choices: Linking argument analysis and cognitive science. International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 15(2), 267–286.

Gambrill, E. (2006). Evidence-based practice and policy: Choices ahead. Research on Social Work Practice, 16(3), 338–357.

Halpern, D.F. (2014). Though and knowledge. UK: Psychology Press.

Holmes, J., & Clizbe, E. (1997). Facing the 21st century. Business Education Forum, 52(1), 33–35.

Ku, K. Y. L. (2009). Assessing students’ critical thinking performance: Urging for measurements using multi-response format. Thinking Skills and Creativity,4(1), 70–76.

McGuinness, C. (2013). Teaching thinking: Learning how to think. Presented at the Psychological Society of Ireland and British Psychological Association’s Public Lecture Series. Galway, Ireland, 6th March.

National Academy of Sciences. (2005). National Academy of Engineering Institute of Medicine Rising above the gathering storm: Energising and employingAmerica for a brighter economic future. Committee on prospering in the global economy for the 21st century. Washington, DC.

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