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Critical Thinking Definition and Conceptualization

Definition: Critical thinking is reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.



Ennis, R. H. (2002). Goals for a critical thinking curriculum and its assessment. In Arthur L. Costa (Ed.), Developing minds (3rd Edition). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Pp. 44-46.

Ennis, R. H.  (1996) Critical thinking.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Ennis, R. H. (1993).  Critical thinking: What is it?  In Henry A. Alexander (Ed.), Philosophy of education 1992.  Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.  Pp. 76-80.

Ennis, R. H. (1992).  John McPeck's Teaching critical thinking.  Educational Studies, 23 (4), 462-472.

Ennis, R.H. (1991).  Critical thinking: A streamlined conception.  Teaching Philosophy, 14 (1), 5-25.

Ennis, R.H. (1991). An elaboration of a cardinal goal of science instruction: Scientific thinking.  Educational Philosophy and Theory, 23 (1), 31-45.

Ennis, R.H.  (1990).  The rationality of rationality: Why think critically?  In Ralph Page (Ed.), Philosophy of education 1989.  Bloomington, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 1990. Pp. 402-405.

Ennis, R.H.  (1987).  A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities.  In J. Baron & R. Sternberg (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills:  Theory and practice.  New York:  W.H. Freeman.  Pp. 9-26.

Ennis, R.H.  (1981).  Eight fallacies in Bloom's taxonomy.  In C.J.B. Macmillan (Ed.), Philosophy of education 1980. Bloomington, IL:  Philosophy of Education Society.  Pp. 269-273.

Ennis, R. H.  (1980).  Presidential address: A conception of rational thinking.  In Jerrold Coombs (Ed.), Philosophy of education 1979.  Bloomington, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.  Pp. 1-30.

Ennis, R.H.  (1979).  Research in philosophy of science and science education.  In P. Asquith & H. Kyburg (Eds.), Current research in philosophy of science.  East Lansing, MI:  Philosophy of Science Association.  Pp. 138-170.

Ennis, R.H.  (1962).  A concept of critical thinking.  Harvard Educational Review, 32, 81-111.

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May 6 2014, Volume 1, Issue 4, No. 2

Arthur L. Costa is an Emeritus Professor of Education at California State University, Sacramento and cofounder of the Institute for Habits of Mind in Westport, Connecticut. He has served as a classroom teacher, a curriculum consultant, and an assistant superintendent for instruction and as the director of Educational Programs for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is best known for his written and spoken advocacy of the Habits of Mind and is a regular contributor to the Blogazine with posts on critical thinking.

Driving Question:  What is critical thinking and what is blocking its widespread teaching, transferring and assessing in 21st Century Classrooms?

Critical thinking is a nice term. It is one on which most of us outside the Texas legislature agree is needed. (Heltin, Ed Week, Teacher edition, 6/28/12) So, what's stopping critical thinking from being taught, assessed and applied?

Consistently included in all lists of dispositional essentials for college and career readiness, 21st Century Skills or Global Futures is the capacity and inclination to think critically (Costa and Kallick, 2014).

Actually this is nothing new. Socrates advocated critical thinking in the 3rd century BC. Now critical thinking is a basic component of the Common Core State Standards as well as all modern curriculum documents. Furthermore, ask teachers if they want their students to think critically and assuredly most would agree.

So why then, are so many adults and children victims of Ponzi schemes, targets of false advertising, swayed by political claims, and dismayed by an over-abundance of conflicting information? I believe it's because we talk a good story, but fail to go beyond labels. Let us consider what is needed.

Definitions for the disposition of thinking critically are readily available on the web. It is most important not to spend hours quibbling but to look for the common elements.

· "Critical thinking is the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion."

· "...Disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence" (

When it comes to capturing the essence of what makes critical thinking, I am partial to renowned science educator Paul Brandwein's definition: "Doing your damnedest with your brain, no holds barred!"

What Students Need

Because building students' meaning of critical thinking is necessary, labels and definitions are inadequate. Students must also have:

  • Capabilities - a range of strategies, tools, and tactics with which to think criticall6.
  • Awareness - being alert to situational cues that signal when it is important to think critically (EG: Advertisements, political speeches, reading newspapers, web searches, etc.) and when it may not matter (Playing a fast-moving, whimsical computer game, enjoying a comic strip, or watching a sci-fi movie when chimerical thinking is more appropriate, etc.)
  • Intentionality - using critical thinking consciously, proactively, and intentionally. Being alert to situational cues, the student consciously realizes that here is a time and situation when thinking critically is essential.
  • Spontaneity - using critical thinking autonomously—without prompting or reminding by others. The impetus for thinking critically must emanate from within—without seeking reward, recognition, or approval from others.
  • Value - choosing to use critical rather than impulsive, rigid, vague, rambling, thinking because of their consequences and, by contrast, the benefits of skillful, critical thinking.
  • Reflection - on their skillfulness in using critical thinking—being spectators of their own behavior—making a commitment to constantly improve their performance and applying critical thinking in an ever-widening set of circumstances.
  • Action - Thomas Edison once said, "Vision without execution is hallucination." Students must have the will and motivation to think critically--thoughtfully acted on, carried out, and fulfilled. Students must be prepared to advocate the use of critical thinking by others. In a group situation, for example, the student is willing to call on the need for thinking critically. This is probably the most challenging of all these dimensions.

Reframing Teaching and Learning

I believe that a mind-shift is essential to reframe how we teach and students learn to think-- from valuing knowledge acquisition as an outcome to valuing skillful thinking as an outcome. Schools tend to teach, assess and reward convergent thinking and the acquisition of content with a limited range of acceptable answers. Critical thinking, however, requires much more.

Critical thinking is learned by confronting those paradoxical, dichotomous, enigmatic, confusing, ambiguous, discrepant situations which plague our lives and for which there are no immediate answers. We want students to learn how to develop a critical stance with their work: inquiring, thinking flexibly, and learning from another person's perspective. The essential attribute of intelligent human beings is not only having information, but also knowing how to act on it (Heick, 2014).

By definition, a problem is any stimulus, question, task, phenomenon, or discrepancy, the explanation for which is not immediately known. Thus, we are interested in focusing on student performance under those challenging conditions that demand strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity, and precision to resolve a complex problem. These ARE the subject matters of instruction.

Content, selectively abandoned and judiciously selected because of its fecund contributions to the practice of critical thinking, becomes the vehicle to carry the processes of learning. The focus is on learning FROM the standards instead of learning OF the standards.


Costa, A. & Kallick. B. (2014) Dispositions: Reframing teaching and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Heick, T. (02/27/2014), Are You Teaching Content Or Teaching Thought? accessed at

Heltin. L. Texas GOP, accessed at


 Next: Critical Thinking - A 21st Century Imperative




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