Trying to teach the enigmatic and increasingly popular skill of critical thinking

by Grace

The mysterious skill of “critical thinking” — schools try to teach it and employers seek workers who have it.  But the definition is  hard to pin down.

Here are some definitions of critical thinking:

  • “The ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument. To sift through all the noise.”
    -Richard Arum, New York University sociology professor
  • “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.”
    -Linda Elder, educational psychologist; president, Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • “Do they make use of information that’s available in their journey to arrive at a conclusion or decision? How do they make use of that?”
    -Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting, Goldman Sachs Group

I like the first definition the best, but of course employers define it any way that makes sense for their workplace.

In any case, it has become an increasingly sought-after skill.

Mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009, according to an analysis by career-search site The site, which combs job ads from several sources, found last week that more than 21,000 health-care and 6,700 management postings contained some reference to the skill.

A concrete example of what critical thinking means in the workplace comes from NYU music business graduate Brittany Holloway.

Ms. Holloway, who now works as a content-review and fraud specialist at Brooklyn-based digital-music distributor TuneCore, defines the skill as “forming your own opinion from a variety of different sources.”

Ms. Holloway, 21 years old, says her current job requires her to think critically when screening music releases before they’re sent to digital stores like Apple Inc.’s iTunes.

Critical thinking and problem solving skills are related, and employers report they are having difficulty finding college graduates that measure up in those areas.  Colleges, having “institutionally supported and encouraged [a] retreat from academic standards and rigor”, are regularly chastised for failing to teach those skills.

A broad base of knowledge is needed before we can become critical thinkers.

… Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is a leading expert on how students learn. “Data from the last thirty years leads to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not only because you need something to think about,” Willingham has written. “The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

Will Common Core Standards help develop critical thinking skills?

Part of the problem is a decline in content-based instruction that affects students from kindergarten to college.  Common Core Standards, with their emphasis on non-fiction reading and evidence-based writing, may remedy that.  But that is still to be determined, partly due to the ongoing implementation problems of CCS.


Melissa Korn, “Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That?”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 21, 2014.


13 Responses to “Trying to teach the enigmatic and increasingly popular skill of critical thinking”

  1. I do not like these definitions of critical thinking because they are only based on verbal reasoning. Mathematical and computational problem solving are utterly ignored; yet I think more critical thinking goes on in those areas than in fields like literary analysis.


  2. I thought at least one of the definitions was general enough to include math and computational problem solving, but perhaps I’m missing something. Basically, you review/analyze data and produce a solution is how I’m reading it.


  3. Both mathematical and computational thinking are far more than reviewing and analyzing data. Computational thinking, from CMU’s website on computational thinking (they coined the term originally):

    Computational thinking means creating and making use of different levels of abstraction, to understand and solve problems more effectively.

    Computational thinking means thinking algorithmically and with the ability to apply mathematical concepts such as induction to develop more efficient, fair, and secure solutions.

    Computational thinking means understanding the consequences of scale, not only for reasons of efficiency but also for economic and social reasons.

    The last one is really important, IMHO. One of the biggest contributions of computer science to the world of ideas is a formal way of thinking about the difficulty of problems and how scale affects difficulty. That is something that mathematicians never thought about because they never had to worry about scale.


  4. It seems there is a general definition of critical thinking that would encompass all disciplines, but I don’t know offhand what it is. I can see where scale is a particularly important component of computational thinking, but I don’t think it’s necessary to include it in a general definition. Although I’m not sure what the best general definition would be, it seems including things like “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating” would be a start.


  5. I think that CSProfMom’s point is that “critical thinking” is generally defined rather narrowly and generically, and so misses the important thinking styles that are crucial to some fields. “Computational thinking” is one that is missing. One I see students not getting in most of their college classes is “engineering thinking” or “systems thinking”—dividing difficult problems into simpler subproblems with clearly defined interactions between the subproblems. Although one can argue that these specific modes of thinking are somehow subsumed in “critical thinking”, but classes that purport to develop critical thinking skills don’t generally develop these important modes of thinking.


  6. ” classes that purport to develop critical thinking skills don’t generally develop these important modes of thinking”

    Very true. It’s very interesting to consider the different types of thinking needed for different fields. Maybe a generic “scientific” thinking/method or “legal thinking” could be additional examples. Then a question becomes how important any of these are to effective problem solving across many disciplines. I think a strong argument could be made that they are important.


  7. Yes, the term “critical thinking” has been narrowed down to the concept of supporting conclusions with evidence. The first and third definitions in your post reflect that narrowing. Analyzing evidence is certainly an important skill, but it isn’t the only kind of deep thinking out there. My concern is that other important kinds of deep thinking are not being taught at all because education, both K12 and university level, is so dominated by the humanities. It leads to the widespread view that engineering and computer science are simply about low level trade skills, and that we don’t teach critical thinking because our students are not writing papers with conclusions supported by text evidence.

    Gasstations, I think there is a lot of overlap between “computational thinking”, “mathematical thinking”, and “systems thinking”. Abstraction and decomposition are key skills in all three. Your description “dividing difficult problems into simpler subproblems with clearly defined interactions” is absolutely critical in computer science. Maybe computational thinking is simply systems thinking + algorithms?

    In any case, because the “critical thinking” term does not include this idea of systems thinking, we see students arrive into our engineering/CS programs utterly unable to think in this manner. I believe that is a major reason why we see the terrible attrition rates in these programs.


  8. Scientific thinking is different from systems thinking, and may have more in common with the analyze-with-evidence model. The distinguishing feature of the scientific method is its rigor and reliance on experimentation to generate the data. Scientists are quite different from engineers though. Scientists look for explanations of phenomena that already exist. Engineers create things that never existed before. This is the main reason I always argue that computer science, despite its name, is fundamentally an engineering field.


  9. “Your description “dividing difficult problems into simpler subproblems with clearly defined interactions” is absolutely critical in computer science. Maybe computational thinking is simply systems thinking + algorithms?”

    I agree that CS is one of the best places for teaching systems thinking, because CS has formal representations of the interfaces that are actually taught. But systems thinking is a much broader idea, applying to all forms of engineering, not just software.

    My PhD is in CS and my MS and BS in math, so I see a big difference between computational thinking and mathematical thinking, even though there is a big overlap.

    Computational thinking involves using computation to solve problems (data analysis, algorithmic solution of symbolic problems, numerical simulation, …) and may not involve much systems thinking or algorithmic thinking—someone else may have done that for you to enable you to use a computational tool.

    Mathematical thinking is primarily about developing formal rules that capture interesting phenomenal, exploring what one can do within these rule systems, and proving things rigorously. Computation has become a rich source of new formal systems for mathematicians to study (theoretical computer science is really a branch of mathematics), just as physics was in previous centuries.

    There are overlaps and intersections (proofs done with the aid of a computer are a combination of mathematical and computational thinking, for example), but I see computational, algorithmic, mathematical, systems, and statistical thinking all as rather different modes of thought, all of which are important and none of which are covered in the rather weak definitions of critical thinking (which seem to be a subset of the medieval trivium: grammar, rhetoric, and logic—leaving out the grammar).


  10. ” It leads to the widespread view that engineering and computer science are simply about low level trade skills”

    I don’t see that view as so widespread, just from my experience. People think engineers are smart people, but with a limited skill set that doesn’t apply to most other disciplines. That’s a stereotype that has some basis in fact, and sometimes acts as a career trap for engineers.


  11. “limited skill set” – isn’t that true of most professional fields? Doctors are very specialized – their skill set doesn’t transfer well to sales, for example. The same is true for lawyers, who couldn’t move into engineering or medicine without a lot of retraining. Same for investment bankers and journalists. You couldn’t move a journalist into a research chemist position. I think there is simply a bias that the only people who aren’t “limited” are managers and writers. But they are just as limited as engineers.



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