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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o’clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68–69; 1933: 91–92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot’s position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69–70; 1933: 92–93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond lane from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses. As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009, 2021), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on responsiveness to reasons (Siegel 1988). Kuhn (2019) takes critical thinking to be more a dialogic practice of advancing and responding to arguments than an individual ability.

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in spacing in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the spacing of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016a) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Facione (1990a: 25) divides “affective dispositions” of critical thinking into approaches to life and living in general and approaches to specific issues, questions or problems. Adapting this distinction, one can usefully divide critical thinking dispositions into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking. In three studies, Haran, Ritov, & Mellers (2013) found that actively open-minded thinking, including “the tendency to weigh new evidence against a favored belief, to spend sufficient time on a problem before giving up, and to consider carefully the opinions of others in forming one’s own”, led study participants to acquire information and thus to make accurate estimations.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), Black (2012), and Blair (2021).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work. It is also helpful to be aware of the prevalence of “noise” (unwanted unsystematic variability of judgments), of how to detect noise (through a noise audit), and of how to reduce noise: make accuracy the goal, think statistically, break a process of arriving at a judgment into independent tasks, resist premature intuitions, in a group get independent judgments first, favour comparative judgments and scales (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein 2021). It is helpful as well to be aware of the concept of “bounded rationality” in decision-making and of the related distinction between “satisficing” and optimizing (Simon 1956; Gigerenzer 2001).

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of strategies for teaching students to think critically, Abrami et al. (2015) found that dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), Bailin et al. (1999b), and Willingham (2019).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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  • The Nature of Critical Thinking: An Outline of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities , by Robert H. Ennis

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  • What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

Published on May 30, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on May 31, 2023.

Critical thinking is the ability to effectively analyze information and form a judgment .

To think critically, you must be aware of your own biases and assumptions when encountering information, and apply consistent standards when evaluating sources .

Critical thinking skills help you to:

  • Identify credible sources
  • Evaluate and respond to arguments
  • Assess alternative viewpoints
  • Test hypotheses against relevant criteria

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Table of contents

Why is critical thinking important, critical thinking examples, how to think critically, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about critical thinking.

Critical thinking is important for making judgments about sources of information and forming your own arguments. It emphasizes a rational, objective, and self-aware approach that can help you to identify credible sources and strengthen your conclusions.

Critical thinking is important in all disciplines and throughout all stages of the research process . The types of evidence used in the sciences and in the humanities may differ, but critical thinking skills are relevant to both.

In academic writing , critical thinking can help you to determine whether a source:

  • Is free from research bias
  • Provides evidence to support its research findings
  • Considers alternative viewpoints

Outside of academia, critical thinking goes hand in hand with information literacy to help you form opinions rationally and engage independently and critically with popular media.

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Critical thinking can help you to identify reliable sources of information that you can cite in your research paper . It can also guide your own research methods and inform your own arguments.

Outside of academia, critical thinking can help you to be aware of both your own and others’ biases and assumptions.

Academic examples

However, when you compare the findings of the study with other current research, you determine that the results seem improbable. You analyze the paper again, consulting the sources it cites.

You notice that the research was funded by the pharmaceutical company that created the treatment. Because of this, you view its results skeptically and determine that more independent research is necessary to confirm or refute them. Example: Poor critical thinking in an academic context You’re researching a paper on the impact wireless technology has had on developing countries that previously did not have large-scale communications infrastructure. You read an article that seems to confirm your hypothesis: the impact is mainly positive. Rather than evaluating the research methodology, you accept the findings uncritically.

Nonacademic examples

However, you decide to compare this review article with consumer reviews on a different site. You find that these reviews are not as positive. Some customers have had problems installing the alarm, and some have noted that it activates for no apparent reason.

You revisit the original review article. You notice that the words “sponsored content” appear in small print under the article title. Based on this, you conclude that the review is advertising and is therefore not an unbiased source. Example: Poor critical thinking in a nonacademic context You support a candidate in an upcoming election. You visit an online news site affiliated with their political party and read an article that criticizes their opponent. The article claims that the opponent is inexperienced in politics. You accept this without evidence, because it fits your preconceptions about the opponent.

There is no single way to think critically. How you engage with information will depend on the type of source you’re using and the information you need.

However, you can engage with sources in a systematic and critical way by asking certain questions when you encounter information. Like the CRAAP test , these questions focus on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

When encountering information, ask:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert in their field?
  • What do they say? Is their argument clear? Can you summarize it?
  • When did they say this? Is the source current?
  • Where is the information published? Is it an academic article? Is it peer-reviewed ?
  • Why did the author publish it? What is their motivation?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence? Does it rely on opinion, speculation, or appeals to emotion ? Do they address alternative arguments?

Critical thinking also involves being aware of your own biases, not only those of others. When you make an argument or draw your own conclusions, you can ask similar questions about your own writing:

  • Am I only considering evidence that supports my preconceptions?
  • Is my argument expressed clearly and backed up with credible sources?
  • Would I be convinced by this argument coming from someone else?

If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • ChatGPT vs human editor
  • ChatGPT citations
  • Is ChatGPT trustworthy?
  • Using ChatGPT for your studies
  • What is ChatGPT?
  • Chicago style
  • Paraphrasing


  • Types of plagiarism
  • Self-plagiarism
  • Avoiding plagiarism
  • Academic integrity
  • Consequences of plagiarism
  • Common knowledge

Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.

Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.

Critical thinking skills include the ability to:

You can assess information and arguments critically by asking certain questions about the source. You can use the CRAAP test , focusing on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

Ask questions such as:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence?

A credible source should pass the CRAAP test  and follow these guidelines:

  • The information should be up to date and current.
  • The author and publication should be a trusted authority on the subject you are researching.
  • The sources the author cited should be easy to find, clear, and unbiased.
  • For a web source, the URL and layout should signify that it is trustworthy.

Information literacy refers to a broad range of skills, including the ability to find, evaluate, and use sources of information effectively.

Being information literate means that you:

  • Know how to find credible sources
  • Use relevant sources to inform your research
  • Understand what constitutes plagiarism
  • Know how to cite your sources correctly

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search, interpret, and recall information in a way that aligns with our pre-existing values, opinions, or beliefs. It refers to the ability to recollect information best when it amplifies what we already believe. Relatedly, we tend to forget information that contradicts our opinions.

Although selective recall is a component of confirmation bias, it should not be confused with recall bias.

On the other hand, recall bias refers to the differences in the ability between study participants to recall past events when self-reporting is used. This difference in accuracy or completeness of recollection is not related to beliefs or opinions. Rather, recall bias relates to other factors, such as the length of the recall period, age, and the characteristics of the disease under investigation.

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Critical Thinking: A Model of Intelligence for Solving Real-World Problems

Diane f. halpern.

1 Department of Psychology, Claremont McKenna College, Emerita, Altadena, CA 91001, USA

Dana S. Dunn

2 Department of Psychology, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA 18018, USA; ude.naivarom@nnud

Most theories of intelligence do not directly address the question of whether people with high intelligence can successfully solve real world problems. A high IQ is correlated with many important outcomes (e.g., academic prominence, reduced crime), but it does not protect against cognitive biases, partisan thinking, reactance, or confirmation bias, among others. There are several newer theories that directly address the question about solving real-world problems. Prominent among them is Sternberg’s adaptive intelligence with “adaptation to the environment” as the central premise, a construct that does not exist on standardized IQ tests. Similarly, some scholars argue that standardized tests of intelligence are not measures of rational thought—the sort of skill/ability that would be needed to address complex real-world problems. Other investigators advocate for critical thinking as a model of intelligence specifically designed for addressing real-world problems. Yes, intelligence (i.e., critical thinking) can be enhanced and used for solving a real-world problem such as COVID-19, which we use as an example of contemporary problems that need a new approach.

1. Introduction

The editors of this Special Issue asked authors to respond to a deceptively simple statement: “How Intelligence Can Be a Solution to Consequential World Problems.” This statement holds many complexities, including how intelligence is defined and which theories are designed to address real-world problems.

2. The Problem with Using Standardized IQ Measures for Real-World Problems

For the most part, we identify high intelligence as having a high score on a standardized test of intelligence. Like any test score, IQ can only reflect what is on the given test. Most contemporary standardized measures of intelligence include vocabulary, working memory, spatial skills, analogies, processing speed, and puzzle-like elements (e.g., Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale Fourth Edition; see ( Drozdick et al. 2012 )). Measures of IQ correlate with many important outcomes, including academic performance ( Kretzschmar et al. 2016 ), job-related skills ( Hunter and Schmidt 1996 ), reduced likelihood of criminal behavior ( Burhan et al. 2014 ), and for those with exceptionally high IQs, obtaining a doctorate and publishing scholarly articles ( McCabe et al. 2020 ). Gottfredson ( 1997, p. 81 ) summarized these effects when she said the “predictive validity of g is ubiquitous.” More recent research using longitudinal data, found that general mental abilities and specific abilities are good predictors of several work variables including job prestige, and income ( Lang and Kell 2020 ). Although assessments of IQ are useful in many contexts, having a high IQ does not protect against falling for common cognitive fallacies (e.g., blind spot bias, reactance, anecdotal reasoning), relying on biased and blatantly one-sided information sources, failing to consider information that does not conform to one’s preferred view of reality (confirmation bias), resisting pressure to think and act in a certain way, among others. This point was clearly articulated by Stanovich ( 2009, p. 3 ) when he stated that,” IQ tests measure only a small set of the thinking abilities that people need.”

3. Which Theories of Intelligence Are Relevant to the Question?

Most theories of intelligence do not directly address the question of whether people with high intelligence can successfully solve real world problems. For example, Grossmann et al. ( 2013 ) cite many studies in which IQ scores have not predicted well-being, including life satisfaction and longevity. Using a stratified random sample of Americans, these investigators found that wise reasoning is associated with life satisfaction, and that “there was no association between intelligence and well-being” (p. 944). (critical thinking [CT] is often referred to as “wise reasoning” or “rational thinking,”). Similar results were reported by Wirthwein and Rost ( 2011 ) who compared life satisfaction in several domains for gifted adults and adults of average intelligence. There were no differences in any of the measures of subjective well-being, except for leisure, which was significantly lower for the gifted adults. Additional research in a series of experiments by Stanovich and West ( 2008 ) found that participants with high cognitive ability were as likely as others to endorse positions that are consistent with their biases, and they were equally likely to prefer one-sided arguments over those that provided a balanced argument. There are several newer theories that directly address the question about solving real-world problems. Prominent among them is Sternberg’s adaptive intelligence with “adaptation to the environment” as the central premise, a construct that does not exist on standardized IQ tests (e.g., Sternberg 2019 ). Similarly, Stanovich and West ( 2014 ) argue that standardized tests of intelligence are not measures of rational thought—the sort of skill/ability that would be needed to address complex real-world problems. Halpern and Butler ( 2020 ) advocate for CT as a useful model of intelligence for addressing real-world problems because it was designed for this purpose. Although there is much overlap among these more recent theories, often using different terms for similar concepts, we use Halpern and Butler’s conceptualization to make our point: Yes, intelligence (i.e., CT) can be enhanced and used for solving a real-world problem like COVID-19.

4. Critical Thinking as an Applied Model for Intelligence

One definition of intelligence that directly addresses the question about intelligence and real-world problem solving comes from Nickerson ( 2020, p. 205 ): “the ability to learn, to reason well, to solve novel problems, and to deal effectively with novel problems—often unpredictable—that confront one in daily life.” Using this definition, the question of whether intelligent thinking can solve a world problem like the novel coronavirus is a resounding “yes” because solutions to real-world novel problems are part of his definition. This is a popular idea in the general public. For example, over 1000 business managers and hiring executives said that they want employees who can think critically based on the belief that CT skills will help them solve work-related problems ( Hart Research Associates 2018 ).

We define CT as the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal directed--the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions, when the thinker is using skills that are thoughtful and effective for the particular context and type of thinking task. International surveys conducted by the OECD ( 2019, p. 16 ) established “key information-processing competencies” that are “highly transferable, in that they are relevant to many social contexts and work situations; and ‘learnable’ and therefore subject to the influence of policy.” One of these skills is problem solving, which is one subset of CT skills.

The CT model of intelligence is comprised of two components: (1) understanding information at a deep, meaningful level and (2) appropriate use of CT skills. The underlying idea is that CT skills can be identified, taught, and learned, and when they are recognized and applied in novel settings, the individual is demonstrating intelligent thought. CT skills include judging the credibility of an information source, making cost–benefit calculations, recognizing regression to the mean, understanding the limits of extrapolation, muting reactance responses, using analogical reasoning, rating the strength of reasons that support and fail to support a conclusion, and recognizing hindsight bias or confirmation bias, among others. Critical thinkers use these skills appropriately, without prompting, and usually with conscious intent in a variety of settings.

One of the key concepts in this model is that CT skills transfer in appropriate situations. Thus, assessments using situational judgments are needed to assess whether particular skills have transferred to a novel situation where it is appropriate. In an assessment created by the first author ( Halpern 2018 ), short paragraphs provide information about 20 different everyday scenarios (e.g., A speaker at the meeting of your local school board reported that when drug use rises, grades decline; so schools need to enforce a “war on drugs” to improve student grades); participants provide two response formats for every scenario: (a) constructed responses where they respond with short written responses, followed by (b) forced choice responses (e.g., multiple choice, rating or ranking of alternatives) for the same situations.

There is a large and growing empirical literature to support the assertion that CT skills can be learned and will transfer (when taught for transfer). See for example, Holmes et al. ( 2015 ), who wrote in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , that there was “significant and sustained improvement in students’ critical thinking behavior” (p. 11,199) for students who received CT instruction. Abrami et al. ( 2015, para. 1 ) concluded from a meta-analysis that “there are effective strategies for teaching CT skills, both generic and content specific, and CT dispositions, at all educational levels and across all disciplinary areas.” Abrami et al. ( 2008, para. 1 ), included 341 effect sizes in a meta-analysis. They wrote: “findings make it clear that improvement in students’ CT skills and dispositions cannot be a matter of implicit expectation.” A strong test of whether CT skills can be used for real-word problems comes from research by Butler et al. ( 2017 ). Community adults and college students (N = 244) completed several scales including an assessment of CT, an intelligence test, and an inventory of real-life events. Both CT scores and intelligence scores predicted individual outcomes on the inventory of real-life events, but CT was a stronger predictor.

Heijltjes et al. ( 2015, p. 487 ) randomly assigned participants to either a CT instruction group or one of six other control conditions. They found that “only participants assigned to CT instruction improved their reasoning skills.” Similarly, when Halpern et al. ( 2012 ) used random assignment of participants to either a learning group where they were taught scientific reasoning skills using a game format or a control condition (which also used computerized learning and was similar in length), participants in the scientific skills learning group showed higher proportional learning gains than students who did not play the game. As the body of additional supportive research is too large to report here, interested readers can find additional lists of CT skills and support for the assertion that these skills can be learned and will transfer in Halpern and Dunn ( Forthcoming ). There is a clear need for more high-quality research on the application and transfer of CT and its relationship to IQ.

5. Pandemics: COVID-19 as a Consequential Real-World Problem

A pandemic occurs when a disease runs rampant over an entire country or even the world. Pandemics have occurred throughout history: At the time of writing this article, COVID-19 is a world-wide pandemic whose actual death rate is unknown but estimated with projections of several million over the course of 2021 and beyond ( Mega 2020 ). Although vaccines are available, it will take some time to inoculate most or much of the world’s population. Since March 2020, national and international health agencies have created a list of actions that can slow and hopefully stop the spread of COVID (e.g., wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, avoiding group gatherings), yet many people in the United States and other countries have resisted their advice.

Could instruction in CT encourage more people to accept and comply with simple life-saving measures? There are many possible reasons to believe that by increasing citizens’ CT abilities, this problematic trend can be reversed for, at least, some unknown percentage of the population. We recognize the long history of social and cognitive research showing that changing attitudes and behaviors is difficult, and it would be unrealistic to expect that individuals with extreme beliefs supported by their social group and consistent with their political ideologies are likely to change. For example, an Iranian cleric and an orthodox rabbi both claimed (separately) that the COVID-19 vaccine can make people gay ( Marr 2021 ). These unfounded opinions are based on deeply held prejudicial beliefs that we expect to be resistant to CT. We are targeting those individuals who beliefs are less extreme and may be based on reasonable reservations, such as concern about the hasty development of the vaccine and the lack of long-term data on its effects. There should be some unknown proportion of individuals who can change their COVID-19-related beliefs and actions with appropriate instruction in CT. CT can be a (partial) antidote for the chaos of the modern world with armies of bots creating content on social media, political and other forces deliberately attempting to confuse issues, and almost all media labeled “fake news” by social influencers (i.e., people with followers that sometimes run to millions on various social media). Here, are some CT skills that could be helpful in getting more people to think more critically about pandemic-related issues.

Reasoning by Analogy and Judging the Credibility of the Source of Information

Early communications about the ability of masks to prevent the spread of COVID from national health agencies were not consistent. In many regions of the world, the benefits of wearing masks incited prolonged and acrimonious debates ( Tang 2020 ). However, after the initial confusion, virtually all of the global and national health organizations (e.g., WHO, National Health Service in the U. K., U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) endorse masks as a way to slow the spread of COVID ( Cheng et al. 2020 ; Chu et al. 2020 ). However, as we know, some people do not trust governmental agencies and often cite the conflicting information that was originally given as a reason for not wearing a mask. There are varied reasons for refusing to wear a mask, but the one most often cited is that it is against civil liberties ( Smith 2020 ). Reasoning by analogy is an appropriate CT skill for evaluating this belief (and a key skill in legal thinking). It might be useful to cite some of the many laws that already regulate our behavior such as, requiring health inspections for restaurants, setting speed limits, mandating seat belts when riding in a car, and establishing the age at which someone can consume alcohol. Individuals would be asked to consider how the mandate to wear a mask compares to these and other regulatory laws.

Another reason why some people resist the measures suggested by virtually every health agency concerns questions about whom to believe. Could training in CT change the beliefs and actions of even a small percentage of those opposed to wearing masks? Such training would include considering the following questions with practice across a wide domain of knowledge: (a) Does the source have sufficient expertise? (b) Is the expertise recent and relevant? (c) Is there a potential for gain by the information source, such as financial gain? (d) What would the ideal information source be and how close is the current source to the ideal? (e) Does the information source offer evidence that what they are recommending is likely to be correct? (f) Have you traced URLs to determine if the information in front of you really came from the alleged source?, etc. Of course, not everyone will respond in the same way to each question, so there is little likelihood that we would all think alike, but these questions provide a framework for evaluating credibility. Donovan et al. ( 2015 ) were successful using a similar approach to improve dynamic decision-making by asking participants to reflect on questions that relate to the decision. Imagine the effect of rigorous large-scale education in CT from elementary through secondary schools, as well as at the university-level. As stated above, empirical evidence has shown that people can become better thinkers with appropriate instruction in CT. With training, could we encourage some portion of the population to become more astute at judging the credibility of a source of information? It is an experiment worth trying.

6. Making Cost—Benefit Assessments for Actions That Would Slow the Spread of COVID-19

Historical records show that refusal to wear a mask during a pandemic is not a new reaction. The epidemic of 1918 also included mandates to wear masks, which drew public backlash. Then, as now, many people refused, even when they were told that it was a symbol of “wartime patriotism” because the 1918 pandemic occurred during World War I ( Lovelace 2020 ). CT instruction would include instruction in why and how to compute cost–benefit analyses. Estimates of “lives saved” by wearing a mask can be made meaningful with graphical displays that allow more people to understand large numbers. Gigerenzer ( 2020 ) found that people can understand risk ratios in medicine when the numbers are presented as frequencies instead of probabilities. If this information were used when presenting the likelihood of illness and death from COVID-19, could we increase the numbers of people who understand the severity of this disease? Small scale studies by Gigerenzer have shown that it is possible.

Analyzing Arguments to Determine Degree of Support for a Conclusion

The process of analyzing arguments requires that individuals rate the strength of support for and against a conclusion. By engaging in this practice, they must consider evidence and reasoning that may run counter to a preferred outcome. Kozyreva et al. ( 2020 ) call the deliberate failure to consider both supporting and conflicting data “deliberate ignorance”—avoiding or failing to consider information that could be useful in decision-making because it may collide with an existing belief. When applied to COVID-19, people would have to decide if the evidence for and against wearing a face mask is a reasonable way to stop the spread of this disease, and if they conclude that it is not, what are the costs and benefits of not wearing masks at a time when governmental health organizations are making them mandatory in public spaces? Again, we wonder if rigorous and systematic instruction in argument analysis would result in more positive attitudes and behaviors that relate to wearing a mask or other real-world problems. We believe that it is an experiment worth doing.

7. Conclusions

We believe that teaching CT is a worthwhile approach for educating the general public in order to improve reasoning and motivate actions to address, avert, or ameliorate real-world problems like the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence suggests that CT can guide intelligent responses to societal and global problems. We are NOT claiming that CT skills will be a universal solution for the many real-world problems that we confront in contemporary society, or that everyone will substitute CT for other decision-making practices, but we do believe that systematic education in CT can help many people become better thinkers, and we believe that this is an important step toward creating a society that values and practices routine CT. The challenges are great, but the tools to tackle them are available, if we are willing to use them.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, D.F.H. and D.S.D.; resources, D.F.H.; data curation, writing—original draft preparation, D.F.H.; writing—review and editing, D.F.H. and D.S.D. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

No IRB Review.

Informed Consent Statement

No Informed Consent.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Critical Thinking Definition, Skills, and Examples

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Critical thinking refers to the ability to analyze information objectively and make a reasoned judgment. It involves the evaluation of sources, such as data, facts, observable phenomena, and research findings.

Good critical thinkers can draw reasonable conclusions from a set of information, and discriminate between useful and less useful details to solve problems or make decisions. Employers prioritize the ability to think critically—find out why, plus see how you can demonstrate that you have this ability throughout the job application process. 

Why Do Employers Value Critical Thinking Skills?

Employers want job candidates who can evaluate a situation using logical thought and offer the best solution.

 Someone with critical thinking skills can be trusted to make decisions independently, and will not need constant handholding.

Hiring a critical thinker means that micromanaging won't be required. Critical thinking abilities are among the most sought-after skills in almost every industry and workplace. You can demonstrate critical thinking by using related keywords in your resume and cover letter, and during your interview.

Examples of Critical Thinking

The circumstances that demand critical thinking vary from industry to industry. Some examples include:

  • A triage nurse analyzes the cases at hand and decides the order by which the patients should be treated.
  • A plumber evaluates the materials that would best suit a particular job.
  • An attorney reviews evidence and devises a strategy to win a case or to decide whether to settle out of court.
  • A manager analyzes customer feedback forms and uses this information to develop a customer service training session for employees.

Promote Your Skills in Your Job Search

If critical thinking is a key phrase in the job listings you are applying for, be sure to emphasize your critical thinking skills throughout your job search.

Add Keywords to Your Resume

You can use critical thinking keywords (analytical, problem solving, creativity, etc.) in your resume. When describing your  work history , include top critical thinking skills that accurately describe you. You can also include them in your  resume summary , if you have one.

For example, your summary might read, “Marketing Associate with five years of experience in project management. Skilled in conducting thorough market research and competitor analysis to assess market trends and client needs, and to develop appropriate acquisition tactics.”

Mention Skills in Your Cover Letter

Include these critical thinking skills in your cover letter. In the body of your letter, mention one or two of these skills, and give specific examples of times when you have demonstrated them at work. Think about times when you had to analyze or evaluate materials to solve a problem.

Show the Interviewer Your Skills

You can use these skill words in an interview. Discuss a time when you were faced with a particular problem or challenge at work and explain how you applied critical thinking to solve it.

Some interviewers will give you a hypothetical scenario or problem, and ask you to use critical thinking skills to solve it. In this case, explain your thought process thoroughly to the interviewer. He or she is typically more focused on how you arrive at your solution rather than the solution itself. The interviewer wants to see you analyze and evaluate (key parts of critical thinking) the given scenario or problem.

Of course, each job will require different skills and experiences, so make sure you read the job description carefully and focus on the skills listed by the employer.

Top Critical Thinking Skills

Keep these in-demand critical thinking skills in mind as you update your resume and write your cover letter. As you've seen, you can also emphasize them at other points throughout the application process, such as your interview. 

Part of critical thinking is the ability to carefully examine something, whether it is a problem, a set of data, or a text. People with  analytical skills  can examine information, understand what it means, and properly explain to others the implications of that information.

  • Asking Thoughtful Questions
  • Data Analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Questioning Evidence
  • Recognizing Patterns


Often, you will need to share your conclusions with your employers or with a group of colleagues. You need to be able to  communicate with others  to share your ideas effectively. You might also need to engage in critical thinking in a group. In this case, you will need to work with others and communicate effectively to figure out solutions to complex problems.

  • Active Listening
  • Collaboration
  • Explanation
  • Interpersonal
  • Presentation
  • Verbal Communication
  • Written Communication

Critical thinking often involves creativity and innovation. You might need to spot patterns in the information you are looking at or come up with a solution that no one else has thought of before. All of this involves a creative eye that can take a different approach from all other approaches.

  • Flexibility
  • Conceptualization
  • Imagination
  • Drawing Connections
  • Synthesizing


To think critically, you need to be able to put aside any assumptions or judgments and merely analyze the information you receive. You need to be objective, evaluating ideas without bias.

  • Objectivity
  • Observation

Problem Solving

Problem-solving is another critical thinking skill that involves analyzing a problem, generating and implementing a solution, and assessing the success of the plan. Employers don’t simply want employees who can think about information critically. They also need to be able to come up with practical solutions.

  • Attention to Detail
  • Clarification
  • Decision Making
  • Groundedness
  • Identifying Patterns

More Critical Thinking Skills

  • Inductive Reasoning
  • Deductive Reasoning
  • Noticing Outliers
  • Adaptability
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Brainstorming
  • Optimization
  • Restructuring
  • Integration
  • Strategic Planning
  • Project Management
  • Ongoing Improvement
  • Causal Relationships
  • Case Analysis
  • Diagnostics
  • SWOT Analysis
  • Business Intelligence
  • Quantitative Data Management
  • Qualitative Data Management
  • Risk Management
  • Scientific Method
  • Consumer Behavior

Key Takeaways

  • Demonstrate that you have critical thinking skills by adding relevant keywords to your resume.
  • Mention pertinent critical thinking skills in your cover letter, too, and include an example of a time when you demonstrated them at work.
  • Finally, highlight critical thinking skills during your interview. For instance, you might discuss a time when you were faced with a challenge at work and explain how you applied critical thinking skills to solve it.

University of Louisville. " What is Critical Thinking ."

American Management Association. " AMA Critical Skills Survey: Workers Need Higher Level Skills to Succeed in the 21st Century ."

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  • What is Critical Thinking?

The ability to think critically calls for a higher-order thinking than simply the ability to recall information.

Definitions of critical thinking, its elements, and its associated activities fill the educational literature of the past forty years. Critical thinking has been described as an ability to question; to acknowledge and test previously held assumptions; to recognize ambiguity; to examine, interpret, evaluate, reason, and reflect; to make informed judgments and decisions; and to clarify, articulate, and justify positions (Hullfish & Smith, 1961; Ennis, 1962; Ruggiero, 1975; Scriven, 1976; Hallet, 1984; Kitchener, 1986; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Mines et al., 1990; Halpern, 1996; Paul & Elder, 2001; Petress, 2004; Holyoak & Morrison, 2005; among others).

After a careful review of the mountainous body of literature defining critical thinking and its elements, UofL has chosen to adopt the language of Michael Scriven and Richard Paul (2003) as a comprehensive, concise operating definition:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Paul and Scriven go on to suggest that critical thinking is based on: "universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue, assumptions, concepts, empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions, implication and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frame of reference. Critical thinking - in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes - is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking."

This conceptualization of critical thinking has been refined and developed further by Richard Paul and Linder Elder into the Paul-Elder framework of critical thinking. Currently, this approach is one of the most widely published and cited frameworks in the critical thinking literature. According to the Paul-Elder framework, critical thinking is the:

  • Analysis of thinking by focusing on the parts or structures of thinking ("the Elements of Thought")
  • Evaluation of thinking by focusing on the quality ("the Universal Intellectual Standards")
  • Improvement of thinking by using what you have learned ("the Intellectual Traits")

Selection of a Critical Thinking Framework

The University of Louisville chose the Paul-Elder model of Critical Thinking as the approach to guide our efforts in developing and enhancing our critical thinking curriculum. The Paul-Elder framework was selected based on criteria adapted from the characteristics of a good model of critical thinking developed at Surry Community College. The Paul-Elder critical thinking framework is comprehensive, uses discipline-neutral terminology, is applicable to all disciplines, defines specific cognitive skills including metacognition, and offers high quality resources.

Why the selection of a single critical thinking framework?

The use of a single critical thinking framework is an important aspect of institution-wide critical thinking initiatives (Paul and Nosich, 1993; Paul, 2004). According to this view, critical thinking instruction should not be relegated to one or two disciplines or departments with discipline specific language and conceptualizations. Rather, critical thinking instruction should be explicitly infused in all courses so that critical thinking skills can be developed and reinforced in student learning across the curriculum. The use of a common approach with a common language allows for a central organizer and for the development of critical thinking skill sets in all courses.

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Opinion article, redefining critical thinking: teaching students to think like scientists.

scientific definition critical thinking

  • Department of Psychology, MacEwan University, Edmonton, AB, Canada

From primary to post-secondary school, critical thinking (CT) is an oft cited focus or key competency (e.g., DeAngelo et al., 2009 ; California Department of Education, 2014 ; Alberta Education, 2015 ; Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, n.d. ). Unfortunately, the definition of CT has become so broad that it can encompass nearly anything and everything (e.g., Hatcher, 2000 ; Johnson and Hamby, 2015 ). From discussion of Foucault, critique and the self ( Foucault, 1984 ) to Lawson's (1999) definition of CT as the ability to evaluate claims using psychological science, the term critical thinking has come to refer to an ever-widening range of skills and abilities. We propose that educators need to clearly define CT, and that in addition to teaching CT, a strong focus should be placed on teaching students how to think like scientists. Scientific thinking is the ability to generate, test, and evaluate claims, data, and theories (e.g., Bullock et al., 2009 ; Koerber et al., 2015 ). Simply stated, the basic tenets of scientific thinking provide students with the tools to distinguish good information from bad. Students have access to nearly limitless information, and the skills to understand what is misinformation or a questionable scientific claim is crucially important ( Smith, 2011 ), and these skills may not necessarily be included in the general teaching of critical thinking ( Wright, 2001 ).

This is an issue of more than semantics. While some definitions of CT include key elements of the scientific method (e.g., Lawson, 1999 ; Lawson et al., 2015 ), this emphasis is not consistent across all interpretations of CT ( Huber and Kuncel, 2016 ). In an attempt to provide a comprehensive, detailed definition of CT, the American Philosophical Association (APA), outlined six CT skills, 16 subskills, and 19 dispositions ( Facione, 1990 ). Skills include interpretation, analysis, and inference; dispositions include inquisitiveness and open-mindedness. 1 From our perspective, definitions of CT such as those provided by the APA or operationally defined by researchers in the context of a scholarly article (e.g., Forawi, 2016 ) are not problematic—the authors clearly define what they are referring to as CT. Potential problems arise when educators are using different definitions of CT, or when the banner of CT is applied to nearly any topic or pedagogical activity. Definitions such as those provided by the APA provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the multi-faceted nature of CT, however the definition is complex and may be difficult to work with at a policy level for educators, especially those who work primarily with younger students.

The need to develop scientific thinking skills is evident in studies showing that 55% of undergraduate students believe that a full moon causes people to behave oddly, and an estimated 67% of students believe creatures such as Bigfoot and Chupacabra exist, despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting these claims ( Lobato et al., 2014 ). Additionally, despite overwhelming evidence supporting the existence of anthropogenic climate change, and the dire need to mitigate its effects, many people still remain skeptical of climate change and its impact ( Feygina et al., 2010 ; Lewandowsky et al., 2013 ). One of the goals of education is to help students foster the skills necessary to be informed consumers of information ( DeAngelo et al., 2009 ), and providing students with the tools to think scientifically is a crucial component of reaching this goal. By focusing on scientific thinking in conjunction with CT, educators may be better able design specific policies that aim to facilitate the necessary skills students should have when they enter post-secondary training or the workforce. In other words, students should leave secondary school with the ability to rule out rival hypotheses, understand that correlation does not equal causation, the importance of falsifiability and replicability, the ability to recognize extraordinary claims, and use the principle of parsimony (e.g., Lett, 1990 ; Bartz, 2002 ).

Teaching scientific thinking is challenging, as people are vulnerable to trusting their intuitions and subjective observations and tend to prioritize them over objective scientific findings (e.g., Lilienfeld et al., 2012 ). Students and the public at large are prone to naïve realism, or the tendency to believe that our experiences and observations constitute objective reality ( Ross and Ward, 1996 ), when in fact our experiences and observations are subjective and prone to error (e.g., Kahneman, 2011 ). Educators at the post-secondary level tend to prioritize scientific thinking ( Lilienfeld, 2010 ), however many students do not continue on to a post-secondary program after they have completed high school. Further, students who are told they are learning critical thinking may believe they possess the skills to accurately assess the world around them. However, if they are not taught the specific skills needed to be scientifically literate, they may still fall prey to logical fallacies and biases. People tend to underestimate or not understand fallacies that can prevent them from making sound decisions ( Lilienfeld et al., 2001 ; Pronin et al., 2004 ; Lilienfeld, 2010 ). Thus, it is reasonable to think that a person who has not been adequately trained in scientific thinking would nonetheless consider themselves a strong critical thinker, and therefore would be even less likely consider his or her own personal biases. Another concern is that when teaching scientific thinking there is always the risk that students become overly critical or cynical (e.g., Mercier et al., 2017 ). By this, a student may be skeptical of nearly all findings, regardless of the supporting evidence. By incorporating and focusing on cognitive biases, instructors can help students understand their own biases, and demonstrate how the rigor of the scientific method can, at least partially, control for these biases.

Teaching CT remains controversial and confusing for many instructors ( Bensley and Murtagh, 2012 ). This is partly due to the lack of clarity in the definition of CT and the wide range of methods proposed to best teach CT ( Abrami et al., 2008 ; Bensley and Murtagh, 2012 ). For instance, Bensley and Spero (2014) found evidence for the effectiveness of direct approaches to teaching CT, a claim echoed in earlier research ( Abrami et al., 2008 ; Marin and Halpern, 2011 ). Despite their positive findings, some studies have failed to find support for measures of CT ( Burke et al., 2014 ) and others have found variable, yet positive, support for instructional methods ( Dochy et al., 2003 ). Unfortunately, there is a lack of research demonstrating the best pedagogical approaches to teaching scientific thinking at different grade levels. More research is needed to provide an empirically grounded approach to teach scientific thinking, and there is also a need to develop evidence based measures of scientific thinking that are grade and age appropriate. One approach to teaching scientific thinking may be to frame the topic in its simplest terms—the ability to “detect baloney” ( Sagan, 1995 ).

Sagan (1995) has promoted the tools necessary to recognize poor arguments, fallacies to avoid, and how to approach claims using the scientific method. The basic tenets of Sagan's argument apply to most claims, and have the potential to be an effective teaching tool across a range of abilities and ages. Sagan discusses the idea of a baloney detection kit, which contains the “tools” for skeptical thinking. The development of “baloney detection kits” which include age-appropriate scientific thinking skills may be an effective approach to teaching scientific thinking. These kits could include the style of exercises that are typically found under the banner of CT training (e.g., group discussions, evaluations of arguments) with a focus on teaching scientific thinking. An empirically validated kit does not yet exist, though there is much to draw from in the literature on pedagogical approaches to correcting cognitive biases, combatting pseudoscience, and teaching methodology (e.g., Smith, 2011 ). Further research is needed in this area to ensure that the correct, and age-appropriate, tools are part of any baloney detection kit.

Teaching Sagan's idea of baloney detection in conjunction with CT provides educators with a clear focus—to employ a pedagogical approach that helps students create sound and cogent arguments while avoiding falling prey to “baloney”. This is not to say that all of the information taught under the current banner of “critical thinking” is without value. In fact, many of the topics taught under the current approach of CT are important, even though they would not fit within the framework of some definitions of critical thinking. If educators want to ensure that students have the ability to be accurate consumers of information, a focus should be placed on including scientific thinking as a component of the science curriculum, as well as part of the broader teaching of CT.

Educators need to be provided with evidence-based approaches to teach the principles of scientific thinking. These principles should be taught in conjunction with evidence-based methods that mitigate the potential for fallacious reasoning and false beliefs. At a minimum, when students first learn about science, there should also be an introduction to the basics tenets of scientific thinking. Courses dedicated to promoting scientific thinking may also be effective. A course focused on cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and the hallmarks of scientific thinking adapted for each grade level may provide students with the foundation of solid scientific thinking skills to produce and evaluate arguments, and allow expansion of scientific thinking into other scholastic areas and classes. Evaluations of the efficacy of these courses would be essential, along with research to determine the best approach to incorporate scientific thinking into the curriculum.

If instructors know that students have at least some familiarity with the fundamental tenets of scientific thinking, the ability to expand and build upon these ideas in a variety of subject specific areas would further foster and promote these skills. For example, when discussing climate change, an instructor could add a brief discussion of why some people reject the science of climate change by relating this back to the information students will be familiar with from their scientific thinking courses. In terms of an issue like climate change, many students may have heard in political debates or popular culture that global warming trends are not real, or a “hoax” ( Lewandowsky et al., 2013 ). In this case, only teaching the data and facts may not be sufficient to change a student's mind about the reality of climate change ( Lewandowsky et al., 2012 ). Instructors would have more success by presenting students with the data on global warming trends as well as information on the biases that could lead some people reject the data ( Kowalski and Taylor, 2009 ; Lewandowsky et al., 2012 ). This type of instruction helps educators create informed citizens who are better able to guide future decision making and ensure that students enter the job market with the skills needed to be valuable members of the workforce and society as a whole.

By promoting scientific thinking, educators can ensure that students are at least exposed to the basic tenets of what makes a good argument, how to create their own arguments, recognize their own biases and those of others, and how to think like a scientist. There is still work to be done, as there is a need to put in place educational programs built on empirical evidence, as well as research investigating specific techniques to promote scientific thinking for children in earlier grade levels and develop measures to test if students have acquired the necessary scientific thinking skills. By using an evidence based approach to implement strategies to promote scientific thinking, and encouraging researchers to further explore the ideal methods for doing so, educators can better serve their students. When students are provided with the core ideas of how to detect baloney, and provided with examples of how baloney detection relates to the real world (e.g., Schmaltz and Lilienfeld, 2014 ), we are confident that they will be better able to navigate through the oceans of information available and choose the right path when deciding if information is valid.

Author Contribution

RS was the lead author and this paper, and both EJ and NW contributed equally.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

1. ^ There is some debate about the role of dispositional factors in the ability for a person to engage in critical thinking, specifically that dispositional factors may mitigate any attempt to learn CT. The general consensus is that while dispositional traits may play a role in the ability to think critically, the general skills to be a critical thinker can be taught ( Niu et al., 2013 ; Abrami et al., 2015 ).

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Keywords: scientific thinking, critical thinking, teaching resources, skepticism, education policy

Citation: Schmaltz RM, Jansen E and Wenckowski N (2017) Redefining Critical Thinking: Teaching Students to Think like Scientists. Front. Psychol . 8:459. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00459

Received: 13 December 2016; Accepted: 13 March 2017; Published: 29 March 2017.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2017 Schmaltz, Jansen and Wenckowski. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Rodney M. Schmaltz, [email protected]

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What Are Critical Thinking Skills and Why Are They Important?

Learn what critical thinking skills are, why they’re important, and how to develop and apply them in your workplace and everyday life.

[Featured Image]:  Project Manager, approaching  and analyzing the latest project with a team member,

We often use critical thinking skills without even realizing it. When you make a decision, such as which cereal to eat for breakfast, you're using critical thinking to determine the best option for you that day.

Critical thinking is like a muscle that can be exercised and built over time. It is a skill that can help propel your career to new heights. You'll be able to solve workplace issues, use trial and error to troubleshoot ideas, and more.

We'll take you through what it is and some examples so you can begin your journey in mastering this skill.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to interpret, evaluate, and analyze facts and information that are available, to form a judgment or decide if something is right or wrong.

More than just being curious about the world around you, critical thinkers make connections between logical ideas to see the bigger picture. Building your critical thinking skills means being able to advocate your ideas and opinions, present them in a logical fashion, and make decisions for improvement.

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Why is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking is useful in many areas of your life, including your career. It makes you a well-rounded individual, one who has looked at all of their options and possible solutions before making a choice.

According to the University of the People in California, having critical thinking skills is important because they are [ 1 ]:

Crucial for the economy

Essential for improving language and presentation skills

Very helpful in promoting creativity

Important for self-reflection

The basis of science and democracy 

Critical thinking skills are used every day in a myriad of ways and can be applied to situations such as a CEO approaching a group project or a nurse deciding in which order to treat their patients.

Examples of common critical thinking skills

Critical thinking skills differ from individual to individual and are utilized in various ways. Examples of common critical thinking skills include:

Identification of biases: Identifying biases means knowing there are certain people or things that may have an unfair prejudice or influence on the situation at hand. Pointing out these biases helps to remove them from contention when it comes to solving the problem and allows you to see things from a different perspective.

Research: Researching details and facts allows you to be prepared when presenting your information to people. You’ll know exactly what you’re talking about due to the time you’ve spent with the subject material, and you’ll be well-spoken and know what questions to ask to gain more knowledge. When researching, always use credible sources and factual information.

Open-mindedness: Being open-minded when having a conversation or participating in a group activity is crucial to success. Dismissing someone else’s ideas before you’ve heard them will inhibit you from progressing to a solution, and will often create animosity. If you truly want to solve a problem, you need to be willing to hear everyone’s opinions and ideas if you want them to hear yours.

Analysis: Analyzing your research will lead to you having a better understanding of the things you’ve heard and read. As a true critical thinker, you’ll want to seek out the truth and get to the source of issues. It’s important to avoid taking things at face value and always dig deeper.

Problem-solving: Problem-solving is perhaps the most important skill that critical thinkers can possess. The ability to solve issues and bounce back from conflict is what helps you succeed, be a leader, and effect change. One way to properly solve problems is to first recognize there’s a problem that needs solving. By determining the issue at hand, you can then analyze it and come up with several potential solutions.

How to develop critical thinking skills

You can develop critical thinking skills every day if you approach problems in a logical manner. Here are a few ways you can start your path to improvement:

1. Ask questions.

Be inquisitive about everything. Maintain a neutral perspective and develop a natural curiosity, so you can ask questions that develop your understanding of the situation or task at hand. The more details, facts, and information you have, the better informed you are to make decisions.

2. Practice active listening.

Utilize active listening techniques, which are founded in empathy, to really listen to what the other person is saying. Critical thinking, in part, is the cognitive process of reading the situation: the words coming out of their mouth, their body language, their reactions to your own words. Then, you might paraphrase to clarify what they're saying, so both of you agree you're on the same page.

3. Develop your logic and reasoning.

This is perhaps a more abstract task that requires practice and long-term development. However, think of a schoolteacher assessing the classroom to determine how to energize the lesson. There's options such as playing a game, watching a video, or challenging the students with a reward system. Using logic, you might decide that the reward system will take up too much time and is not an immediate fix. A video is not exactly relevant at this time. So, the teacher decides to play a simple word association game.

Scenarios like this happen every day, so next time, you can be more aware of what will work and what won't. Over time, developing your logic and reasoning will strengthen your critical thinking skills.

Learn tips and tricks on how to become a better critical thinker and problem solver through online courses from notable educational institutions on Coursera. Start with Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking from Duke University or Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age from the University of Michigan.

Article sources

University of the People, “ Why is Critical Thinking Important?: A Survival Guide ,” Accessed May 18, 2023.

Keep reading

Coursera staff.

Editorial Team

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning

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35 Scientific Thinking and Reasoning

Kevin N. Dunbar, Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD

David Klahr, Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

  • Published: 21 November 2012
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Scientific thinking refers to both thinking about the content of science and the set of reasoning processes that permeate the field of science: induction, deduction, experimental design, causal reasoning, concept formation, hypothesis testing, and so on. Here we cover both the history of research on scientific thinking and the different approaches that have been used, highlighting common themes that have emerged over the past 50 years of research. Future research will focus on the collaborative aspects of scientific thinking, on effective methods for teaching science, and on the neural underpinnings of the scientific mind.

There is no unitary activity called “scientific discovery”; there are activities of designing experiments, gathering data, inventing and developing observational instruments, formulating and modifying theories, deducing consequences from theories, making predictions from theories, testing theories, inducing regularities and invariants from data, discovering theoretical constructs, and others. — Simon, Langley, & Bradshaw, 1981 , p. 2

What Is Scientific Thinking and Reasoning?

There are two kinds of thinking we call “scientific.” The first, and most obvious, is thinking about the content of science. People are engaged in scientific thinking when they are reasoning about such entities and processes as force, mass, energy, equilibrium, magnetism, atoms, photosynthesis, radiation, geology, or astrophysics (and, of course, cognitive psychology!). The second kind of scientific thinking includes the set of reasoning processes that permeate the field of science: induction, deduction, experimental design, causal reasoning, concept formation, hypothesis testing, and so on. However, these reasoning processes are not unique to scientific thinking: They are the very same processes involved in everyday thinking. As Einstein put it:

The scientific way of forming concepts differs from that which we use in our daily life, not basically, but merely in the more precise definition of concepts and conclusions; more painstaking and systematic choice of experimental material, and greater logical economy. (The Common Language of Science, 1941, reprinted in Einstein, 1950 , p. 98)

Nearly 40 years after Einstein's remarkably insightful statement, Francis Crick offered a similar perspective: that great discoveries in science result not from extraordinary mental processes, but rather from rather common ones. The greatness of the discovery lies in the thing discovered.

I think what needs to be emphasized about the discovery of the double helix is that the path to it was, scientifically speaking, fairly commonplace. What was important was not the way it was discovered , but the object discovered—the structure of DNA itself. (Crick, 1988 , p. 67; emphasis added)

Under this view, scientific thinking involves the same general-purpose cognitive processes—such as induction, deduction, analogy, problem solving, and causal reasoning—that humans apply in nonscientific domains. These processes are covered in several different chapters of this handbook: Rips, Smith, & Medin, Chapter 11 on induction; Evans, Chapter 8 on deduction; Holyoak, Chapter 13 on analogy; Bassok & Novick, Chapter 21 on problem solving; and Cheng & Buehner, Chapter 12 on causality. One might question the claim that the highly specialized procedures associated with doing science in the “real world” can be understood by investigating the thinking processes used in laboratory studies of the sort described in this volume. However, when the focus is on major scientific breakthroughs, rather than on the more routine, incremental progress in a field, the psychology of problem solving provides a rich source of ideas about how such discoveries might occur. As Simon and his colleagues put it:

It is understandable, if ironic, that ‘normal’ science fits … the description of expert problem solving, while ‘revolutionary’ science fits the description of problem solving by novices. It is understandable because scientific activity, particularly at the revolutionary end of the continuum, is concerned with the discovery of new truths, not with the application of truths that are already well-known … it is basically a journey into unmapped terrain. Consequently, it is mainly characterized, as is novice problem solving, by trial-and-error search. The search may be highly selective—but it reaches its goal only after many halts, turnings, and back-trackings. (Simon, Langley, & Bradshaw, 1981 , p. 5)

The research literature on scientific thinking can be roughly categorized according to the two types of scientific thinking listed in the opening paragraph of this chapter: (1) One category focuses on thinking that directly involves scientific content . Such research ranges from studies of young children reasoning about the sun-moon-earth system (Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992 ) to college students reasoning about chemical equilibrium (Davenport, Yaron, Klahr, & Koedinger, 2008 ), to research that investigates collaborative problem solving by world-class researchers in real-world molecular biology labs (Dunbar, 1995 ). (2) The other category focuses on “general” cognitive processes, but it tends to do so by analyzing people's problem-solving behavior when they are presented with relatively complex situations that involve the integration and coordination of several different types of processes, and that are designed to capture some essential features of “real-world” science in the psychology laboratory (Bruner, Goodnow, & Austin, 1956 ; Klahr & Dunbar, 1988 ; Mynatt, Doherty, & Tweney, 1977 ).

There are a number of overlapping research traditions that have been used to investigate scientific thinking. We will cover both the history of research on scientific thinking and the different approaches that have been used, highlighting common themes that have emerged over the past 50 years of research.

A Brief History of Research on Scientific Thinking

Science is often considered one of the hallmarks of the human species, along with art and literature. Illuminating the thought processes used in science thus reveal key aspects of the human mind. The thought processes underlying scientific thinking have fascinated both scientists and nonscientists because the products of science have transformed our world and because the process of discovery is shrouded in mystery. Scientists talk of the chance discovery, the flash of insight, the years of perspiration, and the voyage of discovery. These images of science have helped make the mental processes underlying the discovery process intriguing to cognitive scientists as they attempt to uncover what really goes on inside the scientific mind and how scientists really think. Furthermore, the possibilities that scientists can be taught to think better by avoiding mistakes that have been clearly identified in research on scientific thinking, and that their scientific process could be partially automated, makes scientific thinking a topic of enduring interest.

The cognitive processes underlying scientific discovery and day-to-day scientific thinking have been a topic of intense scrutiny and speculation for almost 400 years (e.g., Bacon, 1620 ; Galilei 1638 ; Klahr 2000 ; Tweney, Doherty, & Mynatt, 1981 ). Understanding the nature of scientific thinking has been a central issue not only for our understanding of science but also for our understating of what it is to be human. Bacon's Novumm Organum in 1620 sketched out some of the key features of the ways that experiments are designed and data interpreted. Over the ensuing 400 years philosophers and scientists vigorously debated about the appropriate methods that scientists should use (see Giere, 1993 ). These debates over the appropriate methods for science typically resulted in the espousal of a particular type of reasoning method, such as induction or deduction. It was not until the Gestalt psychologists began working on the nature of human problem solving, during the 1940s, that experimental psychologists began to investigate the cognitive processes underlying scientific thinking and reasoning.

The Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer pioneered the investigation of scientific thinking (of the first type described earlier: thinking about scientific content ) in his landmark book Productive Thinking (Wertheimer, 1945 ). Wertheimer spent a considerable amount of time corresponding with Albert Einstein, attempting to discover how Einstein generated the concept of relativity. Wertheimer argued that Einstein had to overcome the structure of Newtonian physics at each step in his theorizing, and the ways that Einstein actually achieved this restructuring were articulated in terms of Gestalt theories. (For a recent and different account of how Einstein made his discovery, see Galison, 2003 .) We will see later how this process of overcoming alternative theories is an obstacle that both scientists and nonscientists need to deal with when evaluating and theorizing about the world.

One of the first investigations of scientific thinking of the second type (i.e., collections of general-purpose processes operating on complex, abstract, components of scientific thought) was carried out by Jerome Bruner and his colleagues at Harvard (Bruner et al., 1956 ). They argued that a key activity engaged in by scientists is to determine whether a particular instance is a member of a category. For example, a scientist might want to discover which substances undergo fission when bombarded by neutrons and which substances do not. Here, scientists have to discover the attributes that make a substance undergo fission. Bruner et al. saw scientific thinking as the testing of hypotheses and the collecting of data with the end goal of determining whether something is a member of a category. They invented a paradigm where people were required to formulate hypotheses and collect data that test their hypotheses. In one type of experiment, the participants were shown a card such as one with two borders and three green triangles. The participants were asked to determine the concept that this card represented by choosing other cards and getting feedback from the experimenter as to whether the chosen card was an example of the concept. In this case the participant may have thought that the concept was green and chosen a card with two green squares and one border. If the underlying concept was green, then the experimenter would say that the card was an example of the concept. In terms of scientific thinking, choosing a new card is akin to conducting an experiment, and the feedback from the experimenter is similar to knowing whether a hypothesis is confirmed or disconfirmed. Using this approach, Bruner et al. identified a number of strategies that people use to formulate and test hypotheses. They found that a key factor determining which hypothesis-testing strategy that people use is the amount of memory capacity that the strategy takes up (see also Morrison & Knowlton, Chapter 6 ; Medin et al., Chapter 11 ). Another key factor that they discovered was that it was much more difficult for people to discover negative concepts (e.g., not blue) than positive concepts (e.g., blue). Although Bruner et al.'s research is most commonly viewed as work on concepts, they saw their work as uncovering a key component of scientific thinking.

A second early line of research on scientific thinking was developed by Peter Wason and his colleagues (Wason, 1968 ). Like Bruner et al., Wason saw a key component of scientific thinking as being the testing of hypotheses. Whereas Bruner et al. focused on the different types of strategies that people use to formulate hypotheses, Wason focused on whether people adopt a strategy of trying to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses. Using Popper's ( 1959 ) theory that scientists should try and falsify rather than confirm their hypotheses, Wason devised a deceptively simple task in which participants were given three numbers, such as 2-4-6, and were asked to discover the rule underlying the three numbers. Participants were asked to generate other triads of numbers and the experimenter would tell the participant whether the triad was consistent or inconsistent with the rule. They were told that when they were sure they knew what the rule was they should state it. Most participants began the experiment by thinking that the rule was even numbers increasing by 2. They then attempted to confirm their hypothesis by generating a triad like 8-10-12, then 14-16-18. These triads are consistent with the rule and the participants were told yes, that the triads were indeed consistent with the rule. However, when they proposed the rule—even numbers increasing by 2—they were told that the rule was incorrect. The correct rule was numbers of increasing magnitude! From this research, Wason concluded that people try to confirm their hypotheses, whereas normatively speaking, they should try to disconfirm their hypotheses. One implication of this research is that confirmation bias is not just restricted to scientists but is a general human tendency.

It was not until the 1970s that a general account of scientific reasoning was proposed. Herbert Simon, often in collaboration with Allan Newell, proposed that scientific thinking is a form of problem solving. He proposed that problem solving is a search in a problem space. Newell and Simon's theory of problem solving is discussed in many places in this handbook, usually in the context of specific problems (see especially Bassok & Novick, Chapter 21 ). Herbert Simon, however, devoted considerable time to understanding many different scientific discoveries and scientific reasoning processes. The common thread in his research was that scientific thinking and discovery is not a mysterious magical process but a process of problem solving in which clear heuristics are used. Simon's goal was to articulate the heuristics that scientists use in their research at a fine-grained level. By constructing computer programs that simulated the process of several major scientific discoveries, Simon and colleagues were able to articulate the specific computations that scientists could have used in making those discoveries (Langley, Simon, Bradshaw, & Zytkow, 1987 ; see section on “Computational Approaches to Scientific Thinking”). Particularly influential was Simon and Lea's ( 1974 ) work demonstrating that concept formation and induction consist of a search in two problem spaces: a space of instances and a space of rules. This idea has influenced problem-solving accounts of scientific thinking that will be discussed in the next section.

Overall, the work of Bruner, Wason, and Simon laid the foundations for contemporary research on scientific thinking. Early research on scientific thinking is summarized in Tweney, Doherty and Mynatt's 1981 book On Scientific Thinking , where they sketched out many of the themes that have dominated research on scientific thinking over the past few decades. Other more recent books such as Cognitive Models of Science (Giere, 1993 ), Exploring Science (Klahr, 2000 ), Cognitive Basis of Science (Carruthers, Stich, & Siegal, 2002 ), and New Directions in Scientific and Technical Thinking (Gorman, Kincannon, Gooding, & Tweney, 2004 ) provide detailed analyses of different aspects of scientific discovery. Another important collection is Vosnadiau's handbook on conceptual change research (Vosniadou, 2008 ). In this chapter, we discuss the main approaches that have been used to investigate scientific thinking.

How does one go about investigating the many different aspects of scientific thinking? One common approach to the study of the scientific mind has been to investigate several key aspects of scientific thinking using abstract tasks designed to mimic some essential characteristics of “real-world” science. There have been numerous methodologies that have been used to analyze the genesis of scientific concepts, theories, hypotheses, and experiments. Researchers have used experiments, verbal protocols, computer programs, and analyzed particular scientific discoveries. A more recent development has been to increase the ecological validity of such research by investigating scientists as they reason “live” (in vivo studies of scientific thinking) in their own laboratories (Dunbar, 1995 , 2002 ). From a “Thinking and Reasoning” standpoint the major aspects of scientific thinking that have been most actively investigated are problem solving, analogical reasoning, hypothesis testing, conceptual change, collaborative reasoning, inductive reasoning, and deductive reasoning.

Scientific Thinking as Problem Solving

One of the primary goals of accounts of scientific thinking has been to provide an overarching framework to understand the scientific mind. One framework that has had a great influence in cognitive science is that scientific thinking and scientific discovery can be conceived as a form of problem solving. As noted in the opening section of this chapter, Simon ( 1977 ; Simon, Langley, & Bradshaw, 1981 ) argued that both scientific thinking in general and problem solving in particular could be thought of as a search in a problem space. A problem space consists of all the possible states of a problem and all the operations that a problem solver can use to get from one state to the next. According to this view, by characterizing the types of representations and procedures that people use to get from one state to another it is possible to understand scientific thinking. Thus, scientific thinking can be characterized as a search in various problem spaces (Simon, 1977 ). Simon investigated a number of scientific discoveries by bringing participants into the laboratory, providing the participants with the data that a scientist had access to, and getting the participants to reason about the data and rediscover a scientific concept. He then analyzed the verbal protocols that participants generated and mapped out the types of problem spaces that the participants search in (e.g., Qin & Simon, 1990 ). Kulkarni and Simon ( 1988 ) used a more historical approach to uncover the problem-solving heuristics that Krebs used in his discovery of the urea cycle. Kulkarni and Simon analyzed Krebs's diaries and proposed a set of problem-solving heuristics that he used in his research. They then built a computer program incorporating the heuristics and biological knowledge that Krebs had before he made his discoveries. Of particular importance are the search heuristics that the program uses, which include experimental proposal heuristics and data interpretation heuristics. A key heuristic was an unusualness heuristic that focused on unusual findings, which guided search through a space of theories and a space of experiments.

Klahr and Dunbar ( 1988 ) extended the search in a problem space approach and proposed that scientific thinking can be thought of as a search through two related spaces: an hypothesis space and an experiment space. Each problem space that a scientist uses will have its own types of representations and operators used to change the representations. Search in the hypothesis space constrains search in the experiment space. Klahr and Dunbar found that some participants move from the hypothesis space to the experiment space, whereas others move from the experiment space to the hypothesis space. These different types of searches lead to the proposal of different types of hypotheses and experiments. More recent work has extended the dual-space approach to include alternative problem-solving spaces, including those for data, instrumentation, and domain-specific knowledge (Klahr & Simon, 1999 ; Schunn & Klahr, 1995 , 1996 ).

Scientific Thinking as Hypothesis Testing

Many researchers have regarded testing specific hypotheses predicted by theories as one of the key attributes of scientific thinking. Hypothesis testing is the process of evaluating a proposition by collecting evidence regarding its truth. Experimental cognitive research on scientific thinking that specifically examines this issue has tended to fall into two broad classes of investigations. The first class is concerned with the types of reasoning that lead scientists astray, thus blocking scientific ingenuity. A large amount of research has been conducted on the potentially faulty reasoning strategies that both participants in experiments and scientists use, such as considering only one favored hypothesis at a time and how this prevents the scientists from making discoveries. The second class is concerned with uncovering the mental processes underlying the generation of new scientific hypotheses and concepts. This research has tended to focus on the use of analogy and imagery in science, as well as the use of specific types of problem-solving heuristics.

Turning first to investigations of what diminishes scientific creativity, philosophers, historians, and experimental psychologists have devoted a considerable amount of research to “confirmation bias.” This occurs when scientists only consider one hypothesis (typically the favored hypothesis) and ignore other alternative hypotheses or potentially relevant hypotheses. This important phenomenon can distort the design of experiments, formulation of theories, and interpretation of data. Beginning with the work of Wason ( 1968 ) and as discussed earlier, researchers have repeatedly shown that when participants are asked to design an experiment to test a hypothesis they will predominantly design experiments that they think will yield results consistent with the hypothesis. Using the 2-4-6 task mentioned earlier, Klayman and Ha ( 1987 ) showed that in situations where one's hypothesis is likely to be confirmed, seeking confirmation is a normatively incorrect strategy, whereas when the probability of confirming one's hypothesis is low, then attempting to confirm one's hypothesis can be an appropriate strategy. Historical analyses by Tweney ( 1989 ), concerning the way that Faraday made his discoveries, and experiments investigating people testing hypotheses, have revealed that people use a confirm early, disconfirm late strategy: When people initially generate or are given hypotheses, they try and gather evidence that is consistent with the hypothesis. Once enough evidence has been gathered, then people attempt to find the boundaries of their hypothesis and often try to disconfirm their hypotheses.

In an interesting variant on the confirmation bias paradigm, Gorman ( 1989 ) showed that when participants are told that there is the possibility of error in the data that they receive, participants assume that any data that are inconsistent with their favored hypothesis are due to error. Thus, the possibility of error “insulates” hypotheses against disconfirmation. This intriguing hypothesis has not been confirmed by other researchers (Penner & Klahr, 1996 ), but it is an intriguing hypothesis that warrants further investigation.

Confirmation bias is very difficult to overcome. Even when participants are asked to consider alternate hypotheses, they will often fail to conduct experiments that could potentially disconfirm their hypothesis. Tweney and his colleagues provide an excellent overview of this phenomenon in their classic monograph On Scientific Thinking (1981). The precise reasons for this type of block are still widely debated. Researchers such as Michael Doherty have argued that working memory limitations make it difficult for people to consider more than one hypothesis. Consistent with this view, Dunbar and Sussman ( 1995 ) have shown that when participants are asked to hold irrelevant items in working memory while testing hypotheses, the participants will be unable to switch hypotheses in the face of inconsistent evidence. While working memory limitations are involved in the phenomenon of confirmation bias, even groups of scientists can also display confirmation bias. For example, the controversy over cold fusion is an example of confirmation bias. Here, large groups of scientists had other hypotheses available to explain their data yet maintained their hypotheses in the face of other more standard alternative hypotheses. Mitroff ( 1974 ) provides some interesting examples of NASA scientists demonstrating confirmation bias, which highlight the roles of commitment and motivation in this process. See also MacPherson and Stanovich ( 2007 ) for specific strategies that can be used to overcome confirmation bias.

Causal Thinking in Science

Much of scientific thinking and scientific theory building pertains to the development of causal models between variables of interest. For example, do vaccines cause illnesses? Do carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming? Does water on a planet indicate that there is life on the planet? Scientists and nonscientists alike are constantly bombarded with statements regarding the causal relationship between such variables. How does one evaluate the status of such claims? What kinds of data are informative? How do scientists and nonscientists deal with data that are inconsistent with their theory?

A central issue in the causal reasoning literature, one that is directly relevant to scientific thinking, is the extent to which scientists and nonscientists alike are governed by the search for causal mechanisms (i.e., how a variable works) versus the search for statistical data (i.e., how often variables co-occur). This dichotomy can be boiled down to the search for qualitative versus quantitative information about the paradigm the scientist is investigating. Researchers from a number of cognitive psychology laboratories have found that people prefer to gather more information about an underlying mechanism than covariation between a cause and an effect (e.g., Ahn, Kalish, Medin, & Gelman, 1995 ). That is, the predominant strategy that students in simulations of scientific thinking use is to gather as much information as possible about how the objects under investigation work, rather than collecting large amounts of quantitative data to determine whether the observations hold across multiple samples. These findings suggest that a central component of scientific thinking may be to formulate explicit mechanistic causal models of scientific events.

One type of situation in which causal reasoning has been observed extensively is when scientists obtain unexpected findings. Both historical and naturalistic research has revealed that reasoning causally about unexpected findings plays a central role in science. Indeed, scientists themselves frequently state that a finding was due to chance or was unexpected. Given that claims of unexpected findings are such a frequent component of scientists' autobiographies and interviews in the media, Dunbar ( 1995 , 1997 , 1999 ; Dunbar & Fugelsang, 2005 ; Fugelsang, Stein, Green, & Dunbar, 2004 ) decided to investigate the ways that scientists deal with unexpected findings. In 1991–1992 Dunbar spent 1 year in three molecular biology laboratories and one immunology laboratory at a prestigious U.S. university. He used the weekly laboratory meeting as a source of data on scientific discovery and scientific reasoning. (He termed this type of study “in vivo” cognition.) When he looked at the types of findings that the scientists made, he found that over 50% of the findings were unexpected and that these scientists had evolved a number of effective strategies for dealing with such findings. One clear strategy was to reason causally about the findings: Scientists attempted to build causal models of their unexpected findings. This causal model building results in the extensive use of collaborative reasoning, analogical reasoning, and problem-solving heuristics (Dunbar, 1997 , 2001 ).

Many of the key unexpected findings that scientists reasoned about in the in vivo studies of scientific thinking were inconsistent with the scientists' preexisting causal models. A laboratory equivalent of the biology labs involved creating a situation in which students obtained unexpected findings that were inconsistent with their preexisting theories. Dunbar and Fugelsang ( 2005 ) examined this issue by creating a scientific causal thinking simulation where experimental outcomes were either expected or unexpected. Dunbar ( 1995 ) has called the study of people reasoning in a cognitive laboratory “in vitro” cognition. These investigators found that students spent considerably more time reasoning about unexpected findings than expected findings. In addition, when assessing the overall degree to which their hypothesis was supported or refuted, participants spent the majority of their time considering unexpected findings. An analysis of participants' verbal protocols indicates that much of this extra time was spent formulating causal models for the unexpected findings. Similarly, scientists spend more time considering unexpected than expected findings, and this time is devoted to building causal models (Dunbar & Fugelsang, 2004 ).

Scientists know that unexpected findings occur often, and they have developed many strategies to take advantage of their unexpected findings. One of the most important places that they anticipate the unexpected is in designing experiments (Baker & Dunbar, 2000 ). They build different causal models of their experiments incorporating many conditions and controls. These multiple conditions and controls allow unknown mechanisms to manifest themselves. Thus, rather than being the victims of the unexpected, they create opportunities for unexpected events to occur, and once these events do occur, they have causal models that allow them to determine exactly where in the causal chain their unexpected finding arose. The results of these in vivo and in vitro studies all point to a more complex and nuanced account of how scientists and nonscientists alike test and evaluate hypotheses about theories.

The Roles of Inductive, Abductive, and Deductive Thinking in Science

One of the most basic characteristics of science is that scientists assume that the universe that we live in follows predictable rules. Scientists reason using a variety of different strategies to make new scientific discoveries. Three frequently used types of reasoning strategies that scientists use are inductive, abductive, and deductive reasoning. In the case of inductive reasoning, a scientist may observe a series of events and try to discover a rule that governs the event. Once a rule is discovered, scientists can extrapolate from the rule to formulate theories of observed and yet-to-be-observed phenomena. One example is the discovery using inductive reasoning that a certain type of bacterium is a cause of many ulcers (Thagard, 1999 ). In a fascinating series of articles, Thagard documented the reasoning processes that Marshall and Warren went through in proposing this novel hypothesis. One key reasoning process was the use of induction by generalization. Marshall and Warren noted that almost all patients with gastric entritis had a spiral bacterium in their stomachs, and he formed the generalization that this bacterium is the cause of stomach ulcers. There are numerous other examples of induction by generalization in science, such as Tycho De Brea's induction about the motion of planets from his observations, Dalton's use of induction in chemistry, and the discovery of prions as the source of mad cow disease. Many theories of induction have used scientific discovery and reasoning as examples of this important reasoning process.

Another common type of inductive reasoning is to map a feature of one member of a category to another member of a category. This is called categorical induction. This type of induction is a way of projecting a known property of one item onto another item that is from the same category. Thus, knowing that the Rous Sarcoma virus is a retrovirus that uses RNA rather than DNA, a biologist might assume that another virus that is thought to be a retrovirus also uses RNA rather than DNA. While research on this type of induction typically has not been discussed in accounts of scientific thinking, this type of induction is common in science. For an influential contribution to this literature, see Smith, Shafir, and Osherson ( 1993 ), and for reviews of this literature see Heit ( 2000 ) and Medin et al. (Chapter 11 ).

While less commonly mentioned than inductive reasoning, abductive reasoning is an important form of reasoning that scientists use when they are seeking to propose explanations for events such as unexpected findings (see Lombrozo, Chapter 14 ; Magnani, et al., 2010 ). In Figure 35.1 , taken from King ( 2011 ), the differences between inductive, abductive, and deductive thinking are highlighted. In the case of abduction, the reasoner attempts to generate explanations of the form “if situation X had occurred, could it have produced the current evidence I am attempting to interpret?” (For an interesting of analysis of abductive reasoning see the brief paper by Klahr & Masnick, 2001 ). Of course, as in classical induction, such reasoning may produce a plausible account that is still not the correct one. However, abduction does involve the generation of new knowledge, and is thus also related to research on creativity.

The different processes underlying inductive, abductive, and deductive reasoning in science. (Figure reproduced from King 2011 ).)

Turning now to deductive thinking, many thinking processes that scientists adhere to follow traditional rules of deductive logic. These processes correspond to those conditions in which a hypothesis may lead to, or is deducible to, a conclusion. Though they are not always phrased in syllogistic form, deductive arguments can be phrased as “syllogisms,” or as brief, mathematical statements in which the premises lead to the conclusion. Deductive reasoning is an extremely important aspect of scientific thinking because it underlies a large component of how scientists conduct their research. By looking at many scientific discoveries, we can often see that deductive reasoning is at work. Deductive reasoning statements all contain information or rules that state an assumption about how the world works, as well as a conclusion that would necessarily follow from the rule. Numerous discoveries in physics such as the discovery of dark matter by Vera Rubin are based on deductions. In the dark matter case, Rubin measured galactic rotation curves and based on the differences between the predicted and observed angular motions of galaxies she deduced that the structure of the universe was uneven. This led her to propose that dark matter existed. In contemporary physics the CERN Large Hadron Collider is being used to search for the Higgs Boson. The Higgs Boson is a deductive prediction from contemporary physics. If the Higgs Boson is not found, it may lead to a radical revision of the nature of physics and a new understanding of mass (Hecht, 2011 ).

The Roles of Analogy in Scientific Thinking

One of the most widely mentioned reasoning processes used in science is analogy. Scientists use analogies to form a bridge between what they already know and what they are trying to explain, understand, or discover. In fact, many scientists have claimed that the making of certain analogies was instrumental in their making a scientific discovery, and almost all scientific autobiographies and biographies feature one particular analogy that is discussed in depth. Coupled with the fact that there has been an enormous research program on analogical thinking and reasoning (see Holyoak, Chapter 13 ), we now have a number of models and theories of analogical reasoning that suggest how analogy can play a role in scientific discovery (see Gentner, Holyoak, & Kokinov, 2001 ). By analyzing several major discoveries in the history of science, Thagard and Croft ( 1999 ), Nersessian ( 1999 , 2008 ), and Gentner and Jeziorski ( 1993 ) have all shown that analogical reasoning is a key aspect of scientific discovery.

Traditional accounts of analogy distinguish between two components of analogical reasoning: the target and the source (Holyoak, Chapter 13 ; Gentner 2010 ). The target is the concept or problem that a scientist is attempting to explain or solve. The source is another piece of knowledge that the scientist uses to understand the target or to explain the target to others. What the scientist does when he or she makes an analogy is to map features of the source onto features of the target. By mapping the features of the source onto the target, new features of the target may be discovered, or the features of the target may be rearranged so that a new concept is invented and a scientific discovery is made. For example, a common analogy that is used with computers is to describe a harmful piece of software as a computer virus. Once a piece of software is called a virus, people can map features of biological viruses, such as that it is small, spreads easily, self-replicates using a host, and causes damage. People not only map individual features of the source onto the target but also the systems of relations. For example, if a computer virus is similar to a biological virus, then an immune system can be created on computers that can protect computers from future variants of a virus. One of the reasons that scientific analogy is so powerful is that it can generate new knowledge, such as the creation of a computational immune system having many of the features of a real biological immune system. This analogy also leads to predictions that there will be newer computer viruses that are the computational equivalent of retroviruses, lacking DNA, or standard instructions, that will elude the computational immune system.

The process of making an analogy involves a number of key steps: retrieval of a source from memory, aligning the features of the source with those of the target, mapping features of the source onto those of the target, and possibly making new inferences about the target. Scientific discoveries are made when the source highlights a hitherto unknown feature of the target or restructures the target into a new set of relations. Interestingly, research on analogy has shown that participants do not easily use remote analogies (see Gentner et al., 1997 ; Holyoak & Thagard 1995 ). Participants in experiments tend to focus on the sharing of a superficial feature between the source and the target, rather than the relations among features. In his in vivo studies of science, Dunbar ( 1995 , 2001 , 2002 ) investigated the ways that scientists use analogies while they are conducting their research and found that scientists use both relational and superficial features when they make analogies. Whether they use superficial or relational features depends on their goals. If their goal is to fix a problem in an experiment, their analogies are based upon superficial features. However, if their goal is to formulate hypotheses, they focus on analogies based upon sets of relations. One important difference between scientists and participants in experiments is that the scientists have deep relational knowledge of the processes that they are investigating and can hence use this relational knowledge to make analogies (see Holyoak, Chapter 13 for a thorough review of analogical reasoning).

Are scientific analogies always useful? Sometimes analogies can lead scientists and students astray. For example, Evelyn Fox-Keller ( 1985 ) shows how an analogy between the pulsing of a lighthouse and the activity of the slime mold dictyostelium led researchers astray for a number of years. Likewise, the analogy between the solar system (the source) and the structure of the atom (the target) has been shown to be potentially misleading to students taking more advanced courses in physics or chemistry. The solar system analogy has a number of misalignments to the structure of the atom, such as electrons being repelled from each other rather than attracted; moreover, electrons do not have individual orbits like planets but have orbit clouds of electron density. Furthermore, students have serious misconceptions about the nature of the solar system, which can compound their misunderstanding of the nature of the atom (Fischler & Lichtfeld, 1992 ). While analogy is a powerful tool in science, like all forms of induction, incorrect conclusions can be reached.

Conceptual Change in Science

Scientific knowledge continually accumulates as scientists gather evidence about the natural world. Over extended time, this knowledge accumulation leads to major revisions, extensions, and new organizational forms for expressing what is known about nature. Indeed, these changes are so substantial that philosophers of science speak of “revolutions” in a variety of scientific domains (Kuhn, 1962 ). The psychological literature that explores the idea of revolutionary conceptual change can be roughly divided into (a) investigations of how scientists actually make discoveries and integrate those discoveries into existing scientific contexts, and (b) investigations of nonscientists ranging from infants, to children, to students in science classes. In this section we summarize the adult studies of conceptual change, and in the next section we look at its developmental aspects.

Scientific concepts, like all concepts, can be characterized as containing a variety of “knowledge elements”: representations of words, thoughts, actions, objects, and processes. At certain points in the history of science, the accumulated evidence has demanded major shifts in the way these collections of knowledge elements are organized. This “radical conceptual change” process (see Keil, 1999 ; Nersessian 1998 , 2002 ; Thagard, 1992 ; Vosniadou 1998, for reviews) requires the formation of a new conceptual system that organizes knowledge in new ways, adds new knowledge, and results in a very different conceptual structure. For more recent research on conceptual change, The International Handbook of Research on Conceptual Change (Vosniadou, 2008 ) provides a detailed compendium of theories and controversies within the field.

While conceptual change in science is usually characterized by large-scale changes in concepts that occur over extensive periods of time, it has been possible to observe conceptual change using in vivo methodologies. Dunbar ( 1995 ) reported a major conceptual shift that occurred in immunologists, where they obtained a series of unexpected findings that forced the scientists to propose a new concept in immunology that in turn forced the change in other concepts. The drive behind this conceptual change was the discovery of a series of different unexpected findings or anomalies that required the scientists to both revise and reorganize their conceptual knowledge. Interestingly, this conceptual change was achieved by a group of scientists reasoning collaboratively, rather than by a scientist working alone. Different scientists tend to work on different aspects of concepts, and also different concepts, that when put together lead to a rapid change in entire conceptual structures.

Overall, accounts of conceptual change in individuals indicate that it is indeed similar to that of conceptual change in entire scientific fields. Individuals need to be confronted with anomalies that their preexisting theories cannot explain before entire conceptual structures are overthrown. However, replacement conceptual structures have to be generated before the old conceptual structure can be discarded. Sometimes, people do not overthrow their original conceptual theories and through their lives maintain their original views of many fundamental scientific concepts. Whether people actively possess naive theories, or whether they appear to have a naive theory because of the demand characteristics of the testing context, is a lively source of debate within the science education community (see Gupta, Hammer, & Redish, 2010 ).

Scientific Thinking in Children

Well before their first birthday, children appear to know several fundamental facts about the physical world. For example, studies with infants show that they behave as if they understand that solid objects endure over time (e.g., they don't just disappear and reappear, they cannot move through each other, and they move as a result of collisions with other solid objects or the force of gravity (Baillargeon, 2004 ; Carey 1985 ; Cohen & Cashon, 2006 ; Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007 ; Gelman & Baillargeon, 1983 ; Gelman & Kalish, 2006 ; Mandler, 2004 ; Metz 1995 ; Munakata, Casey, & Diamond, 2004 ). And even 6-month-olds are able to predict the future location of a moving object that they are attempting to grasp (Von Hofsten, 1980 ; Von Hofsten, Feng, & Spelke, 2000 ). In addition, they appear to be able to make nontrivial inferences about causes and their effects (Gopnik et al., 2004 ).

The similarities between children's thinking and scientists' thinking have an inherent allure and an internal contradiction. The allure resides in the enthusiastic wonder and openness with which both children and scientists approach the world around them. The paradox comes from the fact that different investigators of children's thinking have reached diametrically opposing conclusions about just how “scientific” children's thinking really is. Some claim support for the “child as a scientist” position (Brewer & Samarapungavan, 1991 ; Gelman & Wellman, 1991 ; Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl, 1999 ; Karmiloff-Smith 1988 ; Sodian, Zaitchik, & Carey, 1991 ; Samarapungavan 1992 ), while others offer serious challenges to the view (Fay & Klahr, 1996 ; Kern, Mirels, & Hinshaw, 1983 ; Kuhn, Amsel, & O'Laughlin, 1988 ; Schauble & Glaser, 1990 ; Siegler & Liebert, 1975 .) Such fundamentally incommensurate conclusions suggest that this very field—children's scientific thinking—is ripe for a conceptual revolution!

A recent comprehensive review (Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007 ) of what children bring to their science classes offers the following concise summary of the extensive developmental and educational research literature on children's scientific thinking:

Children entering school already have substantial knowledge of the natural world, much of which is implicit.

What children are capable of at a particular age is the result of a complex interplay among maturation, experience, and instruction. What is developmentally appropriate is not a simple function of age or grade, but rather is largely contingent on children's prior opportunities to learn.

Students' knowledge and experience play a critical role in their science learning, influencing four aspects of science understanding, including (a) knowing, using, and interpreting scientific explanations of the natural world; (b) generating and evaluating scientific evidence and explanations, (c) understanding how scientific knowledge is developed in the scientific community, and (d) participating in scientific practices and discourse.

Students learn science by actively engaging in the practices of science.

In the previous section of this article we discussed conceptual change with respect to scientific fields and undergraduate science students. However, the idea that children undergo radical conceptual change in which old “theories” need to be overthrown and reorganized has been a central topic in understanding changes in scientific thinking in both children and across the life span. This radical conceptual change is thought to be necessary for acquiring many new concepts in physics and is regarded as the major source of difficulty for students. The factors that are at the root of this conceptual shift view have been difficult to determine, although there have been a number of studies in cognitive development (Carey, 1985 ; Chi 1992 ; Chi & Roscoe, 2002 ), in the history of science (Thagard, 1992 ), and in physics education (Clement, 1982 ; Mestre 1991 ) that give detailed accounts of the changes in knowledge representation that occur while people switch from one way of representing scientific knowledge to another.

One area where students show great difficulty in understanding scientific concepts is physics. Analyses of students' changing conceptions, using interviews, verbal protocols, and behavioral outcome measures, indicate that large-scale changes in students' concepts occur in physics education (see McDermott & Redish, 1999 , for a review of this literature). Following Kuhn ( 1962 ), many researchers, but not all, have noted that students' changing conceptions resemble the sequences of conceptual changes in physics that have occurred in the history of science. These notions of radical paradigm shifts and ensuing incompatibility with past knowledge-states have called attention to interesting parallels between the development of particular scientific concepts in children and in the history of physics. Investigations of nonphysicists' understanding of motion indicate that students have extensive misunderstandings of motion. Some researchers have interpreted these findings as an indication that many people hold erroneous beliefs about motion similar to a medieval “impetus” theory (McCloskey, Caramazza, & Green, 1980 ). Furthermore, students appear to maintain “impetus” notions even after one or two courses in physics. In fact, some authors have noted that students who have taken one or two courses in physics can perform worse on physics problems than naive students (Mestre, 1991 ). Thus, it is only after extensive learning that we see a conceptual shift from impetus theories of motion to Newtonian scientific theories.

How one's conceptual representation shifts from “naive” to Newtonian is a matter of contention, as some have argued that the shift involves a radical conceptual change, whereas others have argued that the conceptual change is not really complete. For example, Kozhevnikov and Hegarty ( 2001 ) argue that much of the naive impetus notions of motion are maintained at the expense of Newtonian principles even with extensive training in physics. However, they argue that such impetus principles are maintained at an implicit level. Thus, although students can give the correct Newtonian answer to problems, their reaction times to respond indicate that they are also using impetus theories when they respond. An alternative view of conceptual change focuses on whether there are real conceptual changes at all. Gupta, Hammer and Redish ( 2010 ) and Disessa ( 2004 ) have conducted detailed investigations of changes in physics students' accounts of phenomena covered in elementary physics courses. They have found that rather than students possessing a naive theory that is replaced by the standard theory, many introductory physics students have no stable physical theory but rather construct their explanations from elementary pieces of knowledge of the physical world.

Computational Approaches to Scientific Thinking

Computational approaches have provided a more complete account of the scientific mind. Computational models provide specific detailed accounts of the cognitive processes underlying scientific thinking. Early computational work consisted of taking a scientific discovery and building computational models of the reasoning processes involved in the discovery. Langley, Simon, Bradshaw, and Zytkow ( 1987 ) built a series of programs that simulated discoveries such as those of Copernicus, Bacon, and Stahl. These programs had various inductive reasoning algorithms built into them, and when given the data that the scientists used, they were able to propose the same rules. Computational models make it possible to propose detailed models of the cognitive subcomponents of scientific thinking that specify exactly how scientific theories are generated, tested, and amended (see Darden, 1997 , and Shrager & Langley, 1990 , for accounts of this branch of research). More recently, the incorporation of scientific knowledge into computer programs has resulted in a shift in emphasis from using programs to simulate discoveries to building programs that are used to help scientists make discoveries. A number of these computer programs have made novel discoveries. For example, Valdes-Perez ( 1994 ) has built systems for discoveries in chemistry, and Fajtlowicz has done this in mathematics (Erdos, Fajtlowicz, & Staton, 1991 ).

These advances in the fields of computer discovery have led to new fields, conferences, journals, and even departments that specialize in the development of programs devised to search large databases in the hope of making new scientific discoveries (Langley, 2000 , 2002 ). This process is commonly known as “data mining.” This approach has only proved viable relatively recently, due to advances in computer technology. Biswal et al. ( 2010 ), Mitchell ( 2009 ), and Yang ( 2009 ) provide recent reviews of data mining in different scientific fields. Data mining is at the core of drug discovery, our understanding of the human genome, and our understanding of the universe for a number of reasons. First, vast databases concerning drug actions, biological processes, the genome, the proteome, and the universe itself now exist. Second, the development of high throughput data-mining algorithms makes it possible to search for new drug targets, novel biological mechanisms, and new astronomical phenomena in relatively short periods of time. Research programs that took decades, such as the development of penicillin, can now be done in days (Yang, 2009 ).

Another recent shift in the use of computers in scientific discovery has been to have both computers and people make discoveries together, rather than expecting that computers make an entire scientific discovery. Now instead of using computers to mimic the entire scientific discovery process as used by humans, computers can use powerful algorithms that search for patterns on large databases and provide the patterns to humans who can then use the output of these computers to make discoveries, ranging from the human genome to the structure of the universe. However, there are some robots such as ADAM, developed by King ( 2011 ), that can actually perform the entire scientific process, from the generation of hypotheses, to the conduct of experiments and the interpretation of results, with little human intervention. The ongoing development of scientific robots by some scientists (King et al., 2009 ) thus continues the tradition started by Herbert Simon in the 1960s. However, many of the controversies as to whether the robot is a “real scientist” or not continue to the present (Evans & Rzhetsky, 2010 , Gianfelici, 2010 ; Haufe, Elliott, Burian, & O' Malley, 2010 ; O'Malley 2011 ).

Scientific Thinking and Science Education

Accounts of the nature of science and research on scientific thinking have had profound effects on science education along many levels, particularly in recent years. Science education from the 1900s until the 1970s was primarily concerned with teaching students both the content of science (such as Newton's laws of motion) or the methods that scientists need to use in their research (such as using experimental and control groups). Beginning in the 1980s, a number of reports (e.g., American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983; Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1991 ) stressed the need for teaching scientific thinking skills rather than just methods and content. The addition of scientific thinking skills to the science curriculum from kindergarten through adulthood was a major shift in focus. Many of the particular scientific thinking skills that have been emphasized are skills covered in previous sections of this chapter, such as teaching deductive and inductive thinking strategies. However, rather than focusing on one particular skill, such as induction, researchers in education have focused on how the different components of scientific thinking are put together in science. Furthermore, science educators have focused upon situations where science is conducted collaboratively, rather than being the product of one person thinking alone. These changes in science education parallel changes in methodologies used to investigate science, such as analyzing the ways that scientists think and reason in their laboratories.

By looking at science as a complex multilayered and group activity, many researchers in science education have adopted a constructivist approach. This approach sees learning as an active rather than a passive process, and it suggests that students learn through constructing their scientific knowledge. We will first describe a few examples of the constructivist approach to science education. Following that, we will address several lines of work that challenge some of the assumptions of the constructivist approach to science education.

Often the goal of constructivist science education is to produce conceptual change through guided instruction where the teacher or professor acts as a guide to discovery, rather than the keeper of all the facts. One recent and influential approach to science education is the inquiry-based learning approach. Inquiry-based learning focuses on posing a problem or a puzzling event to students and asking them to propose a hypothesis that could explain the event. Next, the student is asked to collect data that test the hypothesis, make conclusions, and then reflect upon both the original problem and the thought processes that they used to solve the problem. Often students use computers that aid in their construction of new knowledge. The computers allow students to learn many of the different components of scientific thinking. For example, Reiser and his colleagues have developed a learning environment for biology, where students are encouraged to develop hypotheses in groups, codify the hypotheses, and search databases to test these hypotheses (Reiser et al., 2001 ).

One of the myths of science is the lone scientist suddenly shouting “Eureka, I have made a discovery!” Instead, in vivo studies of scientists (e.g., Dunbar, 1995 , 2002 ), historical analyses of scientific discoveries (Nersessian, 1999 ), and studies of children learning science at museums have all pointed to collaborative scientific discovery mechanisms as being one of the driving forces of science (Atkins et al., 2009 ; Azmitia & Crowley, 2001 ). What happens during collaborative scientific thinking is that there is usually a triggering event, such as an unexpected result or situation that a student does not understand. This results in other members of the group adding new information to the person's representation of knowledge, often adding new inductions and deductions that both challenge and transform the reasoner's old representations of knowledge (Chi & Roscoe, 2002 ; Dunbar 1998 ). Social mechanisms play a key component in fostering changes in concepts that have been ignored in traditional cognitive research but are crucial for both science and science education. In science education there has been a shift to collaborative learning, particularly at the elementary level; however, in university education, the emphasis is still on the individual scientist. As many domains of science now involve collaborations across scientific disciplines, we expect the explicit teaching of heuristics for collaborative science to increase.

What is the best way to teach and learn science? Surprisingly, the answer to this question has been difficult to uncover. For example, toward the end of the last century, influenced by several thinkers who advocated a constructivist approach to learning, ranging from Piaget (Beilin, 1994 ) to Papert ( 1980 ), many schools answered this question by adopting a philosophy dubbed “discovery learning.” Although a clear operational definition of this approach has yet to be articulated, the general idea is that children are expected to learn science by reconstructing the processes of scientific discovery—in a range of areas from computer programming to chemistry to mathematics. The premise is that letting students discover principles on their own, set their own goals, and collaboratively explore the natural world produces deeper knowledge that transfers widely.

The research literature on science education is far from consistent in its use of terminology. However, our reading suggests that “discovery learning” differs from “inquiry-based learning” in that few, if any, guidelines are given to students in discovery learning contexts, whereas in inquiry learning, students are given hypotheses and specific goals to achieve (see the second paragraph of this section for a definition of inquiry-based learning). Even though thousands of schools have adopted discovery learning as an alternative to more didactic approaches to teaching and learning, the evidence showing that it is more effective than traditional, direct, teacher-controlled instructional approaches is mixed, at best (Lorch et al., 2010 ; Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010 ). In several cases where the distinctions between direct instruction and more open-ended constructivist instruction have been clearly articulated, implemented, and assessed, direct instruction has proven to be superior to the alternatives (Chen & Klahr, 1999 ; Toth, Klahr, & Chen, 2000 ). For example, in a study of third- and fourth-grade children learning about experimental design, Klahr and Nigam ( 2004 ) found that many more children learned from direct instruction than from discovery learning. Furthermore, they found that among the few children who did manage to learn from a discovery method, there was no better performance on a far transfer test of scientific reasoning than that observed for the many children who learned from direct instruction.

The idea of children learning most of their science through a process of self-directed discovery has some romantic appeal, and it may accurately describe the personal experience of a handful of world-class scientists. However, the claim has generated some contentious disagreements (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006 ; Klahr, 2010 ; Taber 2009 ; Tobias & Duffy, 2009 ), and the jury remains out on the extent to which most children can learn science that way.

Conclusions and Future Directions

The field of scientific thinking is now a thriving area of research with strong underpinnings in cognitive psychology and cognitive science. In recent years, a new professional society has been formed that aims to facilitate this integrative and interdisciplinary approach to the psychology of science, with its own journal and regular professional meetings. 1 Clearly the relations between these different aspects of scientific thinking need to be combined in order to produce a truly comprehensive picture of the scientific mind.

While much is known about certain aspects of scientific thinking, much more remains to be discovered. In particular, there has been little contact between cognitive, neuroscience, social, personality, and motivational accounts of scientific thinking. Research in thinking and reasoning has been expanded to use the methods and theories of cognitive neuroscience (see Morrison & Knowlton, Chapter 6 ). A similar approach can be taken in exploring scientific thinking (see Dunbar et al., 2007 ). There are two main reasons for taking a neuroscience approach to scientific thinking. First, functional neuroimaging allows the researcher to look at the entire human brain, making it possible to see the many different sites that are involved in scientific thinking and gain a more complete understanding of the entire range of mechanisms involved in this type of thought. Second, these brain-imaging approaches allow researchers to address fundamental questions in research on scientific thinking, such as the extent to which ordinary thinking in nonscientific contexts and scientific thinking recruit similar versus disparate neural structures of the brain.

Dunbar ( 2009 ) has used some novel methods to explore Simon's assertion, cited at the beginning of this chapter, that scientific thinking uses the same cognitive mechanisms that all human beings possess (rather than being an entirely different type of thinking) but combines them in ways that are specific to a particular aspect of science or a specific discipline of science. For example, Fugelsang and Dunbar ( 2009 ) compared causal reasoning when two colliding circular objects were labeled balls or labeled subatomic particles. They obtained different brain activation patterns depending on whether the stimuli were labeled balls or subatomic particles. In another series of experiments, Dunbar and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study patterns of activation in the brains of students who have and who have not undergone conceptual change in physics. For example, Fugelsang and Dunbar ( 2005 ) and Dunbar et al. ( 2007 ) have found differences in the activation of specific brain sites (such as the anterior cingulate) for students when they encounter evidence that is inconsistent with their current conceptual understandings. These initial cognitive neuroscience investigations have the potential to reveal the ways that knowledge is organized in the scientific brain and provide detailed accounts of the nature of the representation of scientific knowledge. Petitto and Dunbar ( 2004 ) proposed the term “educational neuroscience” for the integration of research on education, including science education, with research on neuroscience. However, see Fitzpatrick (in press) for a very different perspective on whether neuroscience approaches are relevant to education. Clearly, research on the scientific brain is just beginning. We as scientists are beginning to get a reasonable grasp of the inner workings of the subcomponents of the scientific mind (i.e., problem solving, analogy, induction). However, great advances remain to be made concerning how these processes interact so that scientific discoveries can be made. Future research will focus on both the collaborative aspects of scientific thinking and the neural underpinnings of the scientific mind.

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What’s the Difference Between Critical Thinking and Scientific Thinking?

critical thinking and scientific thinking

Thinking deeply about things is a defining feature of what it means to be human, but, surprising as it may seem, there isn’t just one way to ‘think’ about something; instead, humans have been developing organized and varied schools of thought for thousands of years.

Discussions about morality, religion, and the meaning of life often drive knowledge-seeking inquiry, leading people to wonder what the difference is between critical thinking and Scientific Thinking.

Critical thinkers prioritize objectivity to analyze a problem, deduce logical solutions, and examine what the ramifications of those solutions are.

While scientific thinking often relies heavily on critical thinking, scientific inquiry is more dedicated to acquiring knowledge rather than mere abstraction.

There are a lot of nuances between critical thinking and scientific thinking, and most of us probably utilize these skills in our everyday lives. The rest of this article will thoroughly define the two terms and relate how they are similar and different.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a mindset ― a lens, if you will, through which one may view the world. Critical thinkers rely on a lot of introspection, constantly self-evaluating how they came to a conclusion, and what that conclusion naturally entails.

A critical thinker may discern what they already know about a subject, what that information suggests, why that information is relevant, and how that information could be linked to further lines of inquiry. Critical thinking is, therefore, simply the ability to think clearly and logically.

Systematic reasoning is prized over gut instinct, and determining relevance is crucial to parsing out useful data from extraneous information.

Naturally, the ability to think critically is highly prized in an academic setting, and most educators seek to enable their students to think critically.

What is the link between the styles and motivations of these two Romantic era poets? How can your current understanding of algebra be applied to geometry? How does our understanding of this historical figure influence our understanding of social life at the time?

So much information can be interlinked to develop our understanding of the world, and critical thinking is the basis for using objectivity to not only establish likely outcomes to a scenario, but also inquire on the repercussions of that outcome and reflect on the process by which one came to that conclusion.

What Is Scientific Thinking?

The objective of scientific thinking is the acquisition of knowledge. The more we know, the more we can hope to know.

Scientific thinking begins by imagining what the outcome of a problem may be, observing the situation, and then making notes and changing the initial hypothesis.

The commonly used scientific method is as follows:

  • Define the purpose of the experiment
  • Formulate a hypothesis
  • Study the phenomenon and collect data
  • Draw results

As you might imagine, this process can be repeated ad infinitum. So, you draw a conclusion that’s scientifically verifiable? Great! Now you can take that conclusion and use it as a basis for a new experiment. Of course, the scientific method has limits.

It’s hard to apply the scientific method when it comes to morality or religious beliefs. A revelation of a prophet cannot be empirically verified.

We can’t go inside said prophet’s mind and see exactly what neurons were firing to recreate the conditions under which the vision was made, and even if we could, the nature of such a revelation is spiritual and immaterial.

It’s impossible to influence the supernatural in the material world, and as such, creating a test that relies on changing something to see the outcome is impossible. Where scientific thinking does excel is in the fields of math and, well, science.

Physics is known as the perfect science because the forces that comprise our world are well understood and don’t tend to exhibit anomalies, making the empirically verified scientific method perfect for improving our understanding of the natural world.

How Are Critical Thinking and Scientific Thinking Similar and Different?

Both critical and scientific thinking rely on the use of empirical, objective evidence. Thinking scientifically or critically relies on using the data available and following it to its likely conclusion.

Scientific thinking can be seen as a stricter, more regulated version of critical thinking. It takes the tenets of critically thinking and narrows the focus.

Both fields of study eschew personal bias and gut instinct as both unreliable and unhelpful.

The main difference between the two, however, is the goal of each discipline.

While both prioritize learning and using data to make hypotheses, critical thinking is prone to much more abstraction and self-reflection.

With little variation in the scientific method, there’s not really any need to reflect on how those conclusions were drawn or if those conclusions are a result of any kind of bias. It’s just not useful information.

For a critical thinker, however, self-reflection is key to identifying inconsistencies and refining one’s argument.

Both scientific thinking and critical thinking tend to draw links between concepts, evaluating how they are related and what knowledge may be gleaned from that connection.

While critical thinking can be applied to most concepts, even those of morality and anthropology, scientific thinking is often problem oriented. If a problem exists, scientific inquiry attempts to gain the necessary information to solve it, overcoming obstacles along the way.

Both critical thinkers and scientific thinkers may very well end up at the same conclusion― they will just draw those conclusions differently. Critical thinkers are concerned with logic, order, and rational thinking.

Establishing already-understood information, applying that information to a query, and then establishing a defensible argument on the accuracy and relevance of the conclusion is the trademark of a critical thinker. Scientific thinkers, on the other hand, work towards solving knowledge almost exclusively through the acquisition of knowledge through the scientific method.

Scientific thinkers develop a hypothesis, test it, and then rinse and repeat until the phenomenon is understood. As such, scientific thinkers are obsessed with why questions. Why does this phenomenon happen?

Why does matter behave like this? In the end, both schools are thought have a lot of interesting ideas guiding them, and most of us probably use them throughout our daily lives.,to%20the%20best%20possible%20conclusion.%20Critical%20Thinking%20is%3A

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scientific definition critical thinking

3. Critical Thinking in Science: How to Foster Scientific Reasoning Skills

Critical thinking in science is important largely because a lot of students have developed expectations about science that can prove to be counter-productive. 

After various experiences — both in school and out — students often perceive science to be primarily about learning “authoritative” content knowledge: this is how the solar system works; that is how diffusion works; this is the right answer and that is not. 

This perception allows little room for critical thinking in science, in spite of the fact that argument, reasoning, and critical thinking lie at the very core of scientific practice.

Argument, reasoning, and critical thinking lie at the very core of scientific practice.

scientific definition critical thinking

In this article, we outline two of the best approaches to be most effective in fostering scientific reasoning. Both try to put students in a scientist’s frame of mind more than is typical in science education:

  • First, we look at  small-group inquiry , where students formulate questions and investigate them in small groups. This approach is geared more toward younger students but has applications at higher levels too.
  • We also look  science   labs . Too often, science labs too often involve students simply following recipes or replicating standard results. Here, we offer tips to turn labs into spaces for independent inquiry and scientific reasoning.

scientific definition critical thinking

I. Critical Thinking in Science and Scientific Inquiry

Even very young students can “think scientifically” under the right instructional support. A series of experiments , for instance, established that preschoolers can make statistically valid inferences about unknown variables. Through observation they are also capable of distinguishing actions that cause certain outcomes from actions that don’t. These innate capacities, however, have to be developed for students to grow up into rigorous scientific critical thinkers. 

Even very young students can “think scientifically” under the right instructional support.

Although there are many techniques to get young children involved in scientific inquiry — encouraging them to ask and answer “why” questions, for instance — teachers can provide structured scientific inquiry experiences that are deeper than students can experience on their own. 

Goals for Teaching Critical Thinking Through Scientific Inquiry

When it comes to teaching critical thinking via science, the learning goals may vary, but students should learn that:

  • Failure to agree is okay, as long as you have reasons for why you disagree about something.
  • The logic of scientific inquiry is iterative. Scientists always have to consider how they might improve your methods next time. This includes addressing sources of uncertainty.
  • Claims to knowledge usually require multiple lines of evidence and a “match” or “fit” between our explanations and the evidence we have.
  • Collaboration, argument, and discussion are central features of scientific reasoning.
  • Visualization, analysis, and presentation are central features of scientific reasoning.
  • Overarching concepts in scientific practice — such as uncertainty, measurement, and meaningful experimental contrasts — manifest themselves somewhat differently in different scientific domains.

How to Teaching Critical Thinking in Science Via Inquiry

Sometimes we think of science education as being either a “direct” approach, where we tell students about a concept, or an “inquiry-based” approach, where students explore a concept themselves.  

But, especially, at the earliest grades, integrating both approaches can inform students of their options (i.e., generate and extend their ideas), while also letting students make decisions about what to do.

Like a lot of projects targeting critical thinking, limited classroom time is a challenge. Although the latest content standards, such as the Next Generation Science Standards , emphasize teaching scientific practices, many standardized tests still emphasize assessing scientific content knowledge.

The concept of uncertainty comes up in every scientific domain.

Creating a lesson that targets the right content is also an important aspect of developing authentic scientific experiences. It’s now more  widely acknowledged  that effective science instruction involves the interaction between domain-specific knowledge and domain-general knowledge, and that linking an inquiry experience to appropriate target content is vital.

For instance, the concept of uncertainty  comes up  in every scientific domain. But the sources of uncertainty coming from any given measurement vary tremendously by discipline. It requires content knowledge to know how to wisely apply the concept of uncertainty.

Tips and Challenges for teaching critical thinking in science

Teachers need to grapple with student misconceptions. Student intuition about how the world works — the way living things grow and behave, the way that objects fall and interact — often conflicts with scientific explanations. As part of the inquiry experience, teachers can help students to articulate these intuitions and revise them through argument and evidence.

Group composition is another challenge. Teachers will want to avoid situations where one member of the group will simply “take charge” of the decision-making, while other member(s) disengage. In some cases, grouping students by current ability level can make the group work more productive. 

Another approach is to establish group norms that help prevent unproductive group interactions. A third tactic is to have each group member learn an essential piece of the puzzle prior to the group work, so that each member is bringing something valuable to the table (which other group members don’t yet know).

It’s critical to ask students about how certain they are in their observations and explanations and what they could do better next time. When disagreements arise about what to do next or how to interpret evidence, the instructor should model good scientific practice by, for instance, getting students to think about what kind of evidence would help resolve the disagreement or whether there’s a compromise that might satisfy both groups.

The subjects of the inquiry experience and the tools at students’ disposal will depend upon the class and the grade level. Older students may be asked to create mathematical models, more sophisticated visualizations, and give fuller presentations of their results.

Lesson Plan Outline

This lesson plan takes a small-group inquiry approach to critical thinking in science. It asks students to collaboratively explore a scientific question, or perhaps a series of related questions, within a scientific domain.

Suppose students are exploring insect behavior. Groups may decide what questions to ask about insect behavior; how to observe, define, and record insect behavior; how to design an experiment that generates evidence related to their research questions; and how to interpret and present their results.

An in-depth inquiry experience usually takes place over the course of several classroom sessions, and includes classroom-wide instruction, small-group work, and potentially some individual work as well.

Students, especially younger students, will typically need some background knowledge that can inform more independent decision-making. So providing classroom-wide instruction and discussion before individual group work is a good idea.

For instance, Kathleen Metz had students observe insect behavior, explore the anatomy of insects, draw habitat maps, and collaboratively formulate (and categorize) research questions before students began to work more independently.

The subjects of a science inquiry experience can vary tremendously: local weather patterns, plant growth, pollution, bridge-building. The point is to engage students in multiple aspects of scientific practice: observing, formulating research questions, making predictions, gathering data, analyzing and interpreting data, refining and iterating the process.

As student groups take responsibility for their own investigation, teachers act as facilitators. They can circulate around the room, providing advice and guidance to individual groups. If classroom-wide misconceptions arise, they can pause group work to address those misconceptions directly and re-orient the class toward a more productive way of thinking.

Throughout the process, teachers can also ask questions like:

  • What are your assumptions about what’s going on? How can you check your assumptions?
  • Suppose that your results show X, what would you conclude?
  • If you had to do the process over again, what would you change? Why?

scientific definition critical thinking

II. Rethinking Science Labs

Beyond changing how students approach scientific inquiry, we also need to rethink science labs. After all, science lab activities are ubiquitous in science classrooms and they are a great opportunity to teach critical thinking skills.

Often, however, science labs are merely recipes that students follow to verify standard values (such as the force of acceleration due to gravity) or relationships between variables (such as the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration) known to the students beforehand. 

This approach does not usually involve critical thinking: students are not making many decisions during the process, and they do not reflect on what they’ve done except to see whether their experimental data matches the expected values.

With some small tweaks, however, science labs can involve more critical thinking. Science lab activities that give students not only the opportunity to design, analyze, and interpret the experiment, but re -design, re -analyze, and re -interpret the experiment provides ample opportunity for grappling with evidence and evidence-model relationships, particularly if students don’t know what answer they should be expecting beforehand.

Such activities improve scientific reasoning skills, such as: 

  • Evaluating quantitative data
  • Plausible scientific explanations for observed patterns

And also broader critical thinking skills, like:

  • Comparing models to data, and comparing models to each other
  • Thinking about what kind of evidence supports one model or another
  • Being open to changing your beliefs based on evidence

Traditional science lab experiences bear little resemblance to actual scientific practice. Actual practice  involves  decision-making under uncertainty, trial-and-error, tweaking experimental methods over time, testing instruments, and resolving conflicts among different kinds of evidence. Traditional in-school science labs rarely involve these things.

Traditional science lab experiences bear little resemblance to actual scientific practice.

When teachers use science labs as opportunities to engage students in the kinds of dilemmas that scientists actually face during research, students make more decisions and exhibit more sophisticated reasoning.

In the lesson plan below, students are asked to evaluate two models of drag forces on a falling object. One model assumes that drag increases linearly with the velocity of the falling object. Another model assumes that drag increases quadratically (e.g., with the square of the velocity).  Students use a motion detector and computer software to create a plot of the position of a disposable paper coffee filter as it falls to the ground. Among other variables, students can vary the number of coffee filters they drop at once, the height at which they drop them, how they drop  them, and how they clean their data. This is an approach to scaffolding critical thinking: a way to get students to ask the right kinds of questions and think in the way that scientists tend to think.

Design an experiment to test which model best characterizes the motion of the coffee filters. 

Things to think about in your design:

  • What are the relevant variables to control and which ones do you need to explore?
  • What are some logistical issues associated with the data collection that may cause unnecessary variability (either random or systematic) or mistakes?
  • How can you control or measure these?
  • What ways can you graph your data and which ones will help you figure out which model better describes your data?

Discuss your design with other groups and modify as you see fit.

Initial data collection

Conduct a quick trial-run of your experiment so that you can evaluate your methods.

  • Do your graphs provide evidence of which model is the best?
  • What ways can you improve your methods, data, or graphs to make your case more convincing?
  • Do you need to change how you’re collecting data?
  • Do you need to take data at different regions?
  • Do you just need more data?
  • Do you need to reduce your uncertainty?

After this initial evaluation of your data and methods, conduct the desired improvements, changes, or additions and re-evaluate at the end.

In your lab notes, make sure to keep track of your progress and process as you go. As always, your final product is less important than how you get there.

How to Make Science Labs Run Smoothly

Managing student expectations . As with many other lesson plans that incorporate critical thinking, students are not used to having so much freedom. As with the example lesson plan above, it’s important to scaffold student decision-making by pointing out what decisions have to be made, especially as students are transitioning to this approach.

Supporting student reasoning . Another challenge is to provide guidance to student groups without telling them how to do something. Too much “telling” diminishes student decision-making, but not enough support may leave students simply not knowing what to do. 

There are several key strategies teachers can try out here: 

  • Point out an issue with their data collection process without specifying exactly how to solve it.
  • Ask a lab group how they would improve their approach.
  • Ask two groups with conflicting results to compare their results, methods, and analyses.

Download our Teachers’ Guide

(please click here)

Sources and Resources

Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2007). Scientific thinking and scientific literacy . Handbook of child psychology , Vol. 4. Wiley. A review of research on scientific thinking and experiments on teaching scientific thinking in the classroom.

Metz, K. (2004). Children’s understanding of scientific inquiry: Their conceptualizations of uncertainty in investigations of their own design . Cognition and Instruction 22(2). An example of a scientific inquiry experience for elementary school students.

The Next Generation Science Standards . The latest U.S. science content standards.

Concepts of Evidence A collection of important concepts related to evidence that cut across scientific disciplines.

Scienceblind A book about children’s science misconceptions and how to correct them.

Holmes, N. G., Keep, B., & Wieman, C. E. (2020). Developing scientific decision making by structuring and supporting student agency. Physical Review Physics Education Research , 16 (1), 010109. A research study on minimally altering traditional lab approaches to incorporate more critical thinking. The drag example was taken from this piece.

ISLE , led by E. Etkina.  A platform that helps teachers incorporate more critical thinking in physics labs.

Holmes, N. G., Wieman, C. E., & Bonn, D. A. (2015). Teaching critical thinking . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 112 (36), 11199-11204. An approach to improving critical thinking and reflection in science labs. Walker, J. P., Sampson, V., Grooms, J., Anderson, B., & Zimmerman, C. O. (2012). Argument-driven inquiry in undergraduate chemistry labs: The impact on students’ conceptual understanding, argument skills, and attitudes toward science . Journal of College Science Teaching , 41 (4), 74-81. A large-scale research study on transforming chemistry labs to be more inquiry-based.

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Scientific Thinking and Critical Thinking in Science Education 

Two Distinct but Symbiotically Related Intellectual Processes

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  • Published: 05 September 2023

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Scientific thinking and critical thinking are two intellectual processes that are considered keys in the basic and comprehensive education of citizens. For this reason, their development is also contemplated as among the main objectives of science education. However, in the literature about the two types of thinking in the context of science education, there are quite frequent allusions to one or the other indistinctly to refer to the same cognitive and metacognitive skills, usually leaving unclear what are their differences and what are their common aspects. The present work therefore was aimed at elucidating what the differences and relationships between these two types of thinking are. The conclusion reached was that, while they differ in regard to the purposes of their application and some skills or processes, they also share others and are related symbiotically in a metaphorical sense; i.e., each one makes sense or develops appropriately when it is nourished or enriched by the other. Finally, an orientative proposal is presented for an integrated development of the two types of thinking in science classes.

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scientific definition critical thinking

Philosophical Inquiry and Critical Thinking in Primary and Secondary Science Education

Fostering scientific literacy and critical thinking in elementary science education.

Rui Marques Vieira & Celina Tenreiro-Vieira

scientific definition critical thinking

Enhancing Scientific Thinking Through the Development of Critical Thinking in Higher Education

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. Albert Einstein

1 Introduction

In consulting technical reports, theoretical frameworks, research, and curricular reforms related to science education, one commonly finds appeals to scientific thinking and critical thinking as essential educational processes or objectives. This is confirmed in some studies that include exhaustive reviews of the literature in this regard such as those of Bailin ( 2002 ), Costa et al. ( 2020 ), and Santos ( 2017 ) on critical thinking, and of Klarh et al. ( 2019 ) and Lehrer and Schauble ( 2006 ) on scientific thinking. However, conceptualizing and differentiating between both types of thinking based on the above-mentioned documents of science education are generally difficult. In many cases, they are referred to without defining them, or they are used interchangeably to represent virtually the same thing. Thus, for example, the document A Framework for K-12 Science Education points out that “Critical thinking is required, whether in developing and refining an idea (an explanation or design) or in conducting an investigation” (National Research Council (NRC), 2012 , p. 46). The same document also refers to scientific thinking when it suggests that basic scientific education should “provide students with opportunities for a range of scientific activities and scientific thinking , including, but not limited to inquiry and investigation, collection and analysis of evidence, logical reasoning, and communication and application of information” (NRC, 2012 , p. 251).

A few years earlier, the report Science Teaching in Schools in Europe: Policies and Research (European Commission/Eurydice, 2006 ) included the dimension “scientific thinking” as part of standardized national science tests in European countries. This dimension consisted of three basic abilities: (i) to solve problems formulated in theoretical terms , (ii) to frame a problem in scientific terms , and (iii) to formulate scientific hypotheses . In contrast, critical thinking was not even mentioned in such a report. However, in subsequent similar reports by the European Commission/Eurydice ( 2011 , 2022 ), there are some references to the fact that the development of critical thinking should be a basic objective of science teaching, although these reports do not define it at any point.

The ENCIENDE report on early-year science education in Spain also includes an explicit allusion to critical thinking among its recommendations: “Providing students with learning tools means helping them to develop critical thinking , to form their own opinions, to distinguish between knowledge founded on the evidence available at a certain moment (evidence which can change) and unfounded beliefs” (Confederation of Scientific Societies in Spain (COSCE), 2011 , p. 62). However, the report makes no explicit mention to scientific thinking. More recently, the document “ Enseñando ciencia con ciencia ” (Teaching science with science) (Couso et al., 2020 ), sponsored by Spain’s Ministry of Education, also addresses critical thinking:

(…) with the teaching approach through guided inquiry students learn scientific content, learn to do science (procedures), learn what science is and how it is built, and this (...) helps to develop critical thinking , that is, to question any statement that is not supported by evidence. (Couso et al., 2020 , p. 54)

On the other hand, in referring to what is practically the same thing, the European report Science Education for Responsible Citizenship speaks of scientific thinking when it establishes that one of the challenges of scientific education should be: “To promote a culture of scientific thinking and inspire citizens to use evidence-based reasoning for decision making” (European Commission, 2015 , p. 14). However, the Pisa 2024 Strategic Vision and Direction for Science report does not mention scientific thinking but does mention critical thinking in noting that “More generally, (students) should be able to recognize the limitations of scientific inquiry and apply critical thinking when engaging with its results” (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2020 , p. 9).

The new Spanish science curriculum for basic education (Royal Decree 217/ 2022 ) does make explicit reference to scientific thinking. For example, one of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) competency descriptors for compulsory secondary education reads:

Use scientific thinking to understand and explain the phenomena that occur around them, trusting in knowledge as a motor for development, asking questions and checking hypotheses through experimentation and inquiry (...) showing a critical attitude about the scope and limitations of science. (p. 41,599)

Furthermore, when developing the curriculum for the subjects of physics and chemistry, the same provision clarifies that “The essence of scientific thinking is to understand what are the reasons for the phenomena that occur in the natural environment to then try to explain them through the appropriate laws of physics and chemistry” (Royal Decree 217/ 2022 , p. 41,659). However, within the science subjects (i.e., Biology and Geology, and Physics and Chemistry), critical thinking is not mentioned as such. Footnote 1 It is only more or less directly alluded to with such expressions as “critical analysis”, “critical assessment”, “critical reflection”, “critical attitude”, and “critical spirit”, with no attempt to conceptualize it as is done with regard to scientific thinking.

The above is just a small sample of the concepts of scientific thinking and critical thinking only being differentiated in some cases, while in others they are presented as interchangeable, using one or the other indistinctly to talk about the same cognitive/metacognitive processes or practices. In fairness, however, it has to be acknowledged—as said at the beginning—that it is far from easy to conceptualize these two types of thinking (Bailin, 2002 ; Dwyer et al., 2014 ; Ennis, 2018 ; Lehrer & Schauble, 2006 ; Kuhn, 1993 , 1999 ) since they feed back on each other, partially overlap, and share certain features (Cáceres et al., 2020 ; Vázquez-Alonso & Manassero-Mas, 2018 ). Neither is there unanimity in the literature on how to characterize each of them, and rarely have they been analyzed comparatively (e.g., Hyytinen et al., 2019 ). For these reasons, I believed it necessary to address this issue with the present work in order to offer some guidelines for science teachers interested in deepening into these two intellectual processes to promote them in their classes.

2 An Attempt to Delimit Scientific Thinking in Science Education

For many years, cognitive science has been interested in studying what scientific thinking is and how it can be taught in order to improve students’ science learning (Klarh et al., 2019 ; Zimmerman & Klarh, 2018 ). To this end, Kuhn et al. propose taking a characterization of science as argument (Kuhn, 1993 ; Kuhn et al., 2008 ). They argue that this is a suitable way of linking the activity of how scientists think with that of the students and of the public in general, since science is a social activity which is subject to ongoing debate, in which the construction of arguments plays a key role. Lehrer and Schauble ( 2006 ) link scientific thinking with scientific literacy, paying especial attention to the different images of science. According to those authors, these images would guide the development of the said literacy in class. The images of science that Leherer and Schauble highlight as characterizing scientific thinking are: (i) science-as-logical reasoning (role of domain-general forms of scientific reasoning, including formal logic, heuristic, and strategies applied in different fields of science), (ii) science-as-theory change (science is subject to permanent revision and change), and (iii) science-as-practice (scientific knowledge and reasoning are components of a larger set of activities that include rules of participation, procedural skills, epistemological knowledge, etc.).

Based on a literature review, Jirout ( 2020 ) defines scientific thinking as an intellectual process whose purpose is the intentional search for information about a phenomenon or facts by formulating questions, checking hypotheses, carrying out observations, recognizing patterns, and making inferences (a detailed description of all these scientific practices or competencies can be found, for example, in NRC, 2012 ; OECD, 2019 ). Therefore, for Jirout, the development of scientific thinking would involve bringing into play the basic science skills/practices common to the inquiry-based approach to learning science (García-Carmona, 2020 ; Harlen, 2014 ). For other authors, scientific thinking would include a whole spectrum of scientific reasoning competencies (Krell et al., 2022 ; Moore, 2019 ; Tytler & Peterson, 2004 ). However, these competences usually cover the same science skills/practices mentioned above. Indeed, a conceptual overlap between scientific thinking, scientific reasoning, and scientific inquiry is often found in science education goals (Krell et al., 2022 ). Although, according to Leherer and Schauble ( 2006 ), scientific thinking is a broader construct that encompasses the other two.

It could be said that scientific thinking is a particular way of searching for information using science practices Footnote 2 (Klarh et al., 2019 ; Zimmerman & Klarh, 2018 ; Vázquez-Alonso & Manassero-Mas, 2018 ). This intellectual process provides the individual with the ability to evaluate the robustness of evidence for or against a certain idea, in order to explain a phenomenon (Clouse, 2017 ). But the development of scientific thinking also requires metacognition processes. According to what Kuhn ( 2022 ) argues, metacognition is fundamental to the permanent control or revision of what an individual thinks and knows, as well as that of the other individuals with whom it interacts, when engaging in scientific practices. In short, scientific thinking demands a good connection between reasoning and metacognition (Kuhn, 2022 ). Footnote 3

From that perspective, Zimmerman and Klarh ( 2018 ) have synthesized a taxonomy categorizing scientific thinking, relating cognitive processes with the corresponding science practices (Table 1 ). It has to be noted that this taxonomy was prepared in line with the categorization of scientific practices proposed in the document A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012 ). This is why one needs to understand that, for example, the cognitive process of elaboration and refinement of hypotheses is not explicitly associated with the scientific practice of hypothesizing but only with the formulation of questions. Indeed, the K-12 Framework document does not establish hypothesis formulation as a basic scientific practice. Lederman et al. ( 2014 ) justify it by arguing that not all scientific research necessarily allows or requires the verification of hypotheses, for example, in cases of exploratory or descriptive research. However, the aforementioned document (NRC, 2012 , p. 50) does refer to hypotheses when describing the practice of developing and using models , appealing to the fact that they facilitate the testing of hypothetical explanations .

In the literature, there are also other interesting taxonomies characterizing scientific thinking for educational purposes. One of them is that of Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas ( 2018 ) who, instead of science practices, refer to skills associated with scientific thinking . Their characterization basically consists of breaking down into greater detail the content of those science practices that would be related to the different cognitive and metacognitive processes of scientific thinking. Also, unlike Zimmerman and Klarh’s ( 2018 ) proposal, Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas’s ( 2018 ) proposal explicitly mentions metacognition as one of the aspects of scientific thinking, which they call meta-process . In my opinion, the proposal of the latter authors, which shells out scientific thinking into a broader range of skills/practices, can be more conducive in order to favor its approach in science classes, as teachers would have more options to choose from to address components of this intellectual process depending on their teaching interests, the educational needs of their students and/or the learning objectives pursued. Table 2 presents an adapted characterization of the Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas’s ( 2018 ) proposal to address scientific thinking in science education.

3 Contextualization of Critical Thinking in Science Education

Theorization and research about critical thinking also has a long tradition in the field of the psychology of learning (Ennis, 2018 ; Kuhn, 1999 ), and its application extends far beyond science education (Dwyer et al., 2014 ). Indeed, the development of critical thinking is commonly accepted as being an essential goal of people’s overall education (Ennis, 2018 ; Hitchcock, 2017 ; Kuhn, 1999 ; Willingham, 2008 ). However, its conceptualization is not simple and there is no unanimous position taken on it in the literature (Costa et al., 2020 ; Dwyer et al., 2014 ); especially when trying to relate it to scientific thinking. Thus, while Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina ( 2022 ) Footnote 4 and McBain et al. ( 2020 ) consider critical thinking to be the basis of or forms part of scientific thinking, Dowd et al. ( 2018 ) understand scientific thinking to be just a subset of critical thinking. However, Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas ( 2018 ) do not seek to determine whether critical thinking encompasses scientific thinking or vice versa. They consider that both types of knowledge share numerous skills/practices and the progressive development of one fosters the development of the other as a virtuous circle of improvement. Other authors, such as Schafersman ( 1991 ), even go so far as to say that critical thinking and scientific thinking are the same thing. In addition, some views on the relationship between critical thinking and scientific thinking seem to be context-dependent. For example, Hyytine et al. ( 2019 ) point out that in the perspective of scientific thinking as a component of critical thinking, the former is often used to designate evidence-based thinking in the sciences, although this view tends to dominate in Europe but not in the USA context. Perhaps because of this lack of consensus, the two types of thinking are often confused, overlapping, or conceived as interchangeable in education.

Even with such a lack of unanimous or consensus vision, there are some interesting theoretical frameworks and definitions for the development of critical thinking in education. One of the most popular definitions of critical thinking is that proposed by The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (1987, cited in Inter-American Teacher Education Network, 2015 , p. 6). This conceives of it as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”. In other words, critical thinking can be regarded as a reflective and reasonable class of thinking that provides people with the ability to evaluate multiple statements or positions that are defensible to then decide which is the most defensible (Clouse, 2017 ; Ennis, 2018 ). It thus requires, in addition to a basic scientific competency, notions about epistemology (Kuhn, 1999 ) to understand how knowledge is constructed. Similarly, it requires skills for metacognition (Hyytine et al., 2019 ; Kuhn, 1999 ; Magno, 2010 ) since critical thinking “entails awareness of one’s own thinking and reflection on the thinking of self and others as objects of cognition” (Dean & Kuhn, 2003 , p. 3).

In science education, one of the most suitable scenarios or resources, but not the only one, Footnote 5 to address all these aspects of critical thinking is through the analysis of socioscientific issues (SSI) (Taylor et al., 2006 ; Zeidler & Nichols, 2009 ). Without wishing to expand on this here, I will only say that interesting works can be found in the literature that have analyzed how the discussion of SSIs can favor the development of critical thinking skills (see, e.g., López-Fernández et al., 2022 ; Solbes et al., 2018 ). For example, López-Fernández et al. ( 2022 ) focused their teaching-learning sequence on the following critical thinking skills: information analysis, argumentation, decision making, and communication of decisions. Even some authors add the nature of science (NOS) to this framework (i.e., SSI-NOS-critical thinking), as, for example, Yacoubian and Khishfe ( 2018 ) in order to develop critical thinking and how this can also favor the understanding of NOS (Yacoubian, 2020 ). In effect, as I argued in another work on the COVID-19 pandemic as an SSI, in which special emphasis was placed on critical thinking, an informed understanding of how science works would have helped the public understand why scientists were changing their criteria to face the pandemic in the light of new data and its reinterpretations, or that it was not possible to go faster to get an effective and secure medical treatment for the disease (García-Carmona, 2021b ).

In the recent literature, there have also been some proposals intended to characterize critical thinking in the context of science education. Table 3 presents two of these by way of example. As can be seen, both proposals share various components for the development of critical thinking (respect for evidence, critically analyzing/assessing the validity/reliability of information, adoption of independent opinions/decisions, participation, etc.), but that of Blanco et al. ( 2017 ) is more clearly contextualized in science education. Likewise, that of these authors includes some more aspects (or at least does so more explicitly), such as developing epistemological Footnote 6 knowledge of science (vision of science…) and on its interactions with technology, society, and environment (STSA relationships), and communication skills. Therefore, it offers a wider range of options for choosing critical thinking skills/processes to promote it in science classes. However, neither proposal refers to metacognitive skills, which are also essential for developing critical thinking (Kuhn, 1999 ).

3.1 Critical thinking vs. scientific thinking in science education: differences and similarities

In accordance with the above, it could be said that scientific thinking is nourished by critical thinking, especially when deciding between several possible interpretations and explanations of the same phenomenon since this generally takes place in a context of debate in the scientific community (Acevedo-Díaz & García-Carmona, 2017 ). Thus, the scientific attitude that is perhaps most clearly linked to critical thinking is the skepticism with which scientists tend to welcome new ideas (Normand, 2008 ; Sagan, 1987 ; Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina, 2022 ), especially if they are contrary to well-established scientific knowledge (Bell, 2009 ). A good example of this was the OPERA experiment (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2016a ), which initially seemed to find that neutrinos could move faster than the speed of light. This finding was supposed to invalidate Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity (the finding was later proved wrong). In response, Nobel laureate in physics Sheldon L. Glashow went so far as to state that:

the result obtained by the OPERA collaboration cannot be correct. If it were, we would have to give up so many things, it would be such a huge sacrifice... But if it is, I am officially announcing it: I will shout to Mother Nature: I’m giving up! And I will give up Physics. (BBVA Foundation, 2011 )

Indeed, scientific thinking is ultimately focused on getting evidence that may support an idea or explanation about a phenomenon, and consequently allow others that are less convincing or precise to be discarded. Therefore when, with the evidence available, science has more than one equally defensible position with respect to a problem, the investigation is considered inconclusive (Clouse, 2017 ). In certain cases, this gives rise to scientific controversies (Acevedo-Díaz & García-Carmona, 2017 ) which are not always resolved based exclusively on epistemic or rational factors (Elliott & McKaughan, 2014 ; Vallverdú, 2005 ). Hence, it is also necessary to integrate non-epistemic practices into the framework of scientific thinking (García-Carmona, 2021a ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ), practices that transcend the purely rational or cognitive processes, including, for example, those related to emotional or affective issues (Sinatra & Hofer, 2021 ). From an educational point of view, this suggests that for students to become more authentically immersed in the way of working or thinking scientifically, they should also learn to feel as scientists do when they carry out their work (Davidson et al., 2020 ). Davidson et al. ( 2020 ) call it epistemic affect , and they suggest that it could be approach in science classes by teaching students to manage their frustrations when they fail to achieve the expected results; Footnote 7 or, for example, to moderate their enthusiasm with favorable results in a scientific inquiry by activating a certain skepticism that encourages them to do more testing. And, as mentioned above, for some authors, having a skeptical attitude is one of the actions that best visualize the application of critical thinking in the framework of scientific thinking (Normand, 2008 ; Sagan, 1987 ; Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina, 2022 ).

On the other hand, critical thinking also draws on many of the skills or practices of scientific thinking, as discussed above. However, in contrast to scientific thinking, the coexistence of two or more defensible ideas is not, in principle, a problem for critical thinking since its purpose is not so much to invalidate some ideas or explanations with respect to others, but rather to provide the individual with the foundations on which to position themself with the idea/argument they find most defensible among several that are possible (Ennis, 2018 ). For example, science with its methods has managed to explain the greenhouse effect, the phenomenon of the tides, or the transmission mechanism of the coronavirus. For this, it had to discard other possible explanations as they were less valid in the investigations carried out. These are therefore issues resolved by the scientific community which create hardly any discussion at the present time. However, taking a position for or against the production of energy in nuclear power plants transcends the scope of scientific thinking since both positions are, in principle, equally defensible. Indeed, within the scientific community itself there are supporters and detractors of the two positions, based on the same scientific knowledge. Consequently, it is critical thinking, which requires the management of knowledge and scientific skills, a basic understanding of epistemic (rational or cognitive) and non-epistemic (social, ethical/moral, economic, psychological, cultural, ...) aspects of the nature of science, as well as metacognitive skills, which helps the individual forge a personal foundation on which to position themself in one place or another, or maintain an uncertain, undecided opinion.

In view of the above, one can summarize that scientific thinking and critical thinking are two different intellectual processes in terms of purpose, but are related symbiotically (i.e., one would make no sense without the other or both feed on each other) and that, in their performance, they share a fair number of features, actions, or mental skills. According to Cáceres et al. ( 2020 ) and Hyytine et al. ( 2019 ), the intellectual skills that are most clearly common to both types of thinking would be searching for relationships between evidence and explanations , as well as investigating and logical thinking to make inferences . To this common space, I would also add skills for metacognition in accordance with what has been discussed about both types of knowledge (Khun, 1999 , 2022 ).

In order to compile in a compact way all that has been argued so far, in Table 4 , I present my overview of the relationship between scientific thinking and critical thinking. I would like to point out that I do not intend to be extremely extensive in the compilation, in the sense that possibly more elements could be added in the different sections, but rather to represent above all the aspects that distinguish and share them, as well as the mutual enrichment (or symbiosis) between them.

4 A Proposal for the Integrated Development of Critical Thinking and Scientific Thinking in Science Classes

Once the differences, common aspects, and relationships between critical thinking and scientific thinking have been discussed, it would be relevant to establish some type of specific proposal to foster them in science classes. Table 5 includes a possible script to address various skills or processes of both types of thinking in an integrated manner. However, before giving guidance on how such skills/processes could be approached, I would like to clarify that while all of them could be dealt within the context of a single school activity, I will not do so in this way. First, because I think that it can give the impression that the proposal is only valid if it is applied all at once in a specific learning situation, which can also discourage science teachers from implementing it in class due to lack of time or training to do so. Second, I think it can be more interesting to conceive the proposal as a set of thinking skills or actions that can be dealt with throughout the different science contents, selecting only (if so decided) some of them, according to educational needs or characteristics of the learning situation posed in each case. Therefore, in the orientations for each point of the script or grouping of these, I will use different examples and/or contexts. Likewise, these orientations in the form of comments, although founded in the literature, should be considered only as possibilities to do so, among many others possible.

Motivation and predisposition to reflect and discuss (point i ) demands, on the one hand, that issues are chosen which are attractive for the students. This can be achieved, for example, by asking the students directly what current issues, related to science and its impact or repercussions, they would like to learn about, and then decide on which issue to focus on (García-Carmona, 2008 ). Or the teacher puts forward the issue directly in class, trying for it be current, to be present in the media, social networks, etc., or what they think may be of interest to their students based on their teaching experience. In this way, each student is encouraged to feel questioned or concerned as a citizen because of the issue that is going to be addressed (García-Carmona, 2008 ). Also of possible interest is the analysis of contemporary, as yet unresolved socioscientific affairs (Solbes et al., 2018 ), such as climate change, science and social justice, transgenic foods, homeopathy, and alcohol and drug use in society. But also, everyday questions can be investigated which demand a decision to be made, such as “What car to buy?” (Moreno-Fontiveros et al., 2022 ), or “How can we prevent the arrival of another pandemic?” (Ushola & Puig, 2023 ).

On the other hand, it is essential that the discussion about the chosen issue is planned through an instructional process that generates an environment conducive to reflection and debate, with a view to engaging the students’ participation in it. This can be achieved, for example, by setting up a role-play game (Blanco-López et al., 2017 ), especially if the issue is socioscientific, or by critical and reflective reading of advertisements with scientific content (Campanario et al., 2001 ) or of science-related news in the daily media (García-Carmona, 2014 , 2021a ; Guerrero-Márquez & García-Carmona, 2020 ; Oliveras et al., 2013 ), etc., for subsequent discussion—all this, in a collaborative learning setting and with a clear democratic spirit.

Respect for scientific evidence (point ii ) should be the indispensable condition in any analysis and discussion from the prisms of scientific and of critical thinking (Erduran, 2021 ). Although scientific knowledge may be impregnated with subjectivity during its construction and is revisable in the light of new evidence ( tentativeness of scientific knowledge), when it is accepted by the scientific community it is as objective as possible (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2016b ). Therefore, promoting trust and respect for scientific evidence should be one of the primary educational challenges to combating pseudoscientists and science deniers (Díaz & Cabrera, 2022 ), whose arguments are based on false beliefs and assumptions, anecdotes, and conspiracy theories (Normand, 2008 ). Nevertheless, it is no simple task to achieve the promotion or respect for scientific evidence (Fackler, 2021 ) since science deniers, for example, consider that science is unreliable because it is imperfect (McIntyre, 2021 ). Hence the need to promote a basic understanding of NOS (point iii ) as a fundamental pillar for the development of both scientific thinking and critical thinking. A good way to do this would be through explicit and reflective discussion about controversies from the history of science (Acevedo-Díaz & García-Carmona, 2017 ) or contemporary controversies (García-Carmona, 2021b ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2016a ).

Also, with respect to point iii of the proposal, it is necessary to manage basic scientific knowledge in the development of scientific and critical thinking skills (Willingham, 2008 ). Without this, it will be impossible to develop a minimally serious and convincing argument on the issue being analyzed. For example, if one does not know the transmission mechanism of a certain disease, it is likely to be very difficult to understand or justify certain patterns of social behavior when faced with it. In general, possessing appropriate scientific knowledge on the issue in question helps to make the best interpretation of the data and evidence available on this issue (OECD, 2019 ).

The search for information from reliable sources, together with its analysis and interpretation (points iv to vi ), are essential practices both in purely scientific contexts (e.g., learning about the behavior of a given physical phenomenon from literature or through enquiry) and in the application of critical thinking (e.g., when one wishes to take a personal, but informed, position on a particular socio-scientific issue). With regard to determining the credibility of information with scientific content on the Internet, Osborne et al. ( 2022 ) propose, among other strategies, to check whether the source is free of conflicts of interest, i.e., whether or not it is biased by ideological, political or economic motives. Also, it should be checked whether the source and the author(s) of the information are sufficiently reputable.

Regarding the interpretation of data and evidence, several studies have shown the difficulties that students often have with this practice in the context of enquiry activities (e.g., Gobert et al., 2018 ; Kanari & Millar, 2004 ; Pols et al., 2021 ), or when analyzing science news in the press (Norris et al., 2003 ). It is also found that they have significant difficulties in choosing the most appropriate data to support their arguments in causal analyses (Kuhn & Modrek, 2022 ). However, it must be recognized that making interpretations or inferences from data is not a simple task; among other reasons, because their construction is influenced by multiple factors, both epistemic (prior knowledge, experimental designs, etc.) and non-epistemic (personal expectations, ideology, sociopolitical context, etc.), which means that such interpretations are not always the same for all scientists (García-Carmona, 2021a ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ). For this reason, the performance of this scientific practice constitutes one of the phases or processes that generate the most debate or discussion in a scientific community, as long as no consensus is reached. In order to improve the practice of making inferences among students, Kuhn and Lerman ( 2021 ) propose activities that help them develop their own epistemological norms to connect causally their statements with the available evidence.

Point vii refers, on the one hand, to an essential scientific practice: the elaboration of evidence-based scientific explanations which generally, in a reasoned way, account for the causality, properties, and/or behavior of the phenomena (Brigandt, 2016 ). In addition, point vii concerns the practice of argumentation . Unlike scientific explanations, argumentation tries to justify an idea, explanation, or position with the clear purpose of persuading those who defend other different ones (Osborne & Patterson, 2011 ). As noted above, the complexity of most socioscientific issues implies that they have no unique valid solution or response. Therefore, the content of the arguments used to defend one position or another are not always based solely on purely rational factors such as data and scientific evidence. Some authors defend the need to also deal with non-epistemic aspects of the nature of science when teaching it (García-Carmona, 2021a ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ) since many scientific and socioscientific controversies are resolved by different factors or go beyond just the epistemic (Vallverdú, 2005 ).

To defend an idea or position taken on an issue, it is not enough to have scientific evidence that supports it. It is also essential to have skills for the communication and discussion of ideas (point viii ). The history of science shows how the difficulties some scientists had in communicating their ideas scientifically led to those ideas not being accepted at the time. A good example for students to become aware of this is the historical case of Semmelweis and puerperal fever (Aragón-Méndez et al., 2019 ). Its reflective reading makes it possible to conclude that the proposal of this doctor that gynecologists disinfect their hands, when passing from one parturient to another to avoid contagions that provoked the fever, was rejected by the medical community not only for epistemic reasons, but also for the difficulties that he had to communicate his idea. The history of science also reveals that some scientific interpretations were imposed on others at certain historical moments due to the rhetorical skills of their proponents although none of the explanations would convincingly explain the phenomenon studied. An example is the case of the controversy between Pasteur and Liebig about the phenomenon of fermentation (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2017 ), whose reading and discussion in science class would also be recommended in this context of this critical and scientific thinking skill. With the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the arguments of some charlatans in the media and on social networks managed to gain a certain influence in the population, even though scientifically they were muddled nonsense (García-Carmona, 2021b ). Therefore, the reflective reading of news on current SSIs such as this also constitutes a good resource for the same educational purpose. In general, according to Spektor-Levy et al. ( 2009 ), scientific communication skills should be addressed explicitly in class, in a progressive and continuous manner, including tasks of information seeking, reading, scientific writing, representation of information, and representation of the knowledge acquired.

Finally (point ix ), a good scientific/critical thinker must be aware of what they know, of what they have doubts about or do not know, to this end continuously practicing metacognitive exercises (Dean & Kuhn, 2003 ; Hyytine et al., 2019 ; Magno, 2010 ; Willingham, 2008 ). At the same time, they must recognize the weaknesses and strengths of the arguments of their peers in the debate in order to be self-critical if necessary, as well as to revising their own ideas and arguments to improve and reorient them, etc. ( self-regulation ). I see one of the keys of both scientific and critical thinking being the capacity or willingness to change one’s mind, without it being frowned upon. Indeed, quite the opposite since one assumes it to occur thanks to the arguments being enriched and more solidly founded. In other words, scientific and critical thinking and arrogance or haughtiness towards the rectification of ideas or opinions do not stick well together.

5 Final Remarks

For decades, scientific thinking and critical thinking have received particular attention from different disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, pedagogy, and specific areas of this last such as science education. The two types of knowledge represent intellectual processes whose development in students, and in society in general, is considered indispensable for the exercise of responsible citizenship in accord with the demands of today’s society (European Commission, 2006 , 2015 ; NRC, 2012 ; OECD, 2020 ). As has been shown however, the task of their conceptualization is complex, and teaching students to think scientifically and critically is a difficult educational challenge (Willingham, 2008 ).

Aware of this, and after many years dedicated to science education, I felt the need to organize my ideas regarding the aforementioned two types of thinking. In consulting the literature about these, I found that, in many publications, scientific thinking and critical thinking are presented or perceived as being interchangeable or indistinguishable; a conclusion also shared by Hyytine et al. ( 2019 ). Rarely have their differences, relationships, or common features been explicitly studied. So, I considered that it was a matter needing to be addressed because, in science education, the development of scientific thinking is an inherent objective, but, when critical thinking is added to the learning objectives, there arise more than reasonable doubts about when one or the other would be used, or both at the same time. The present work came about motivated by this, with the intention of making a particular contribution, but based on the relevant literature, to advance in the question raised. This converges in conceiving scientific thinking and critical thinking as two intellectual processes that overlap and feed into each other in many aspects but are different with respect to certain cognitive skills and in terms of their purpose. Thus, in the case of scientific thinking, the aim is to choose the best possible explanation of a phenomenon based on the available evidence, and it therefore involves the rejection of alternative explanatory proposals that are shown to be less coherent or convincing. Whereas, from the perspective of critical thinking, the purpose is to choose the most defensible idea/option among others that are also defensible, using both scientific and extra-scientific (i.e., moral, ethical, political, etc.) arguments. With this in mind, I have described a proposal to guide their development in the classroom, integrating them under a conception that I have called, metaphorically, a symbiotic relationship between two modes of thinking.

Critical thinking is mentioned literally in other of the curricular provisions’ subjects such as in Education in Civics and Ethical Values or in Geography and History (Royal Decree 217/2022).

García-Carmona ( 2021a ) conceives of them as activities that require the comprehensive application of procedural skills, cognitive and metacognitive processes, and both scientific knowledge and knowledge of the nature of scientific practice .

Kuhn ( 2021 ) argues that the relationship between scientific reasoning and metacognition is especially fostered by what she calls inhibitory control , which basically consists of breaking down the whole of a thought into parts in such a way that attention is inhibited on some of those parts to allow a focused examination of the intended mental content.

Specifically, Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina (2020) assume that critical thinking is at the basis of rational or scientific skepticism that leads to questioning any claim that does not have empirical support.

As discussed in the introduction, the inquiry-based approach is also considered conducive to addressing critical thinking in science education (Couso et al., 2020 ; NRC, 2012 ).

Epistemic skills should not be confused with epistemological knowledge (García-Carmona, 2021a ). The former refers to skills to construct, evaluate, and use knowledge, and the latter to understanding about the origin, nature, scope, and limits of scientific knowledge.

For this purpose, it can be very useful to address in class, with the help of the history and philosophy of science, that scientists get more wrong than right in their research, and that error is always an opportunity to learn (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ).

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Critical Thinking in Science: Fostering Scientific Reasoning Skills in Students

Thinking like a scientist is a central goal of all science curricula.

As students learn facts, methodologies, and methods, what matters most is that all their learning happens through the lens of scientific reasoning what matters most is that it’s all through the lens of scientific reasoning.

That way, when it comes time for them to take on a little science themselves, either in the lab or by theoretically thinking through a solution, they understand how to do it in the right context.

One component of this type of thinking is being critical. Based on facts and evidence, critical thinking in science isn’t exactly the same as critical thinking in other subjects.

Students have to doubt the information they’re given until they can prove it’s right.

They have to truly understand what’s true and what’s hearsay. It’s complex, but with the right tools and plenty of practice, students can get it right.

What is critical thinking?

This particular style of thinking stands out because it requires reflection and analysis. Based on what's logical and rational, thinking critically is all about digging deep and going beyond the surface of a question to establish the quality of the question itself.

It ensures students put their brains to work when confronted with a question rather than taking every piece of information they’re given at face value.

It’s engaged, higher-level thinking that will serve them well in school and throughout their lives.

Why is critical thinking important?

Critical thinking is important when it comes to making good decisions.

It gives us the tools to think through a choice rather than quickly picking an option — and probably guessing wrong. Think of it as the all-important ‘why.’

Why is that true? Why is that right? Why is this the only option?

Finding answers to questions like these requires critical thinking. They require you to really analyze both the question itself and the possible solutions to establish validity.

Will that choice work for me? Does this feel right based on the evidence?

How does critical thinking in science impact students?

Critical thinking is essential in science.

It’s what naturally takes students in the direction of scientific reasoning since evidence is a key component of this style of thought.

It’s not just about whether evidence is available to support a particular answer but how valid that evidence is.

It’s about whether the information the student has fits together to create a strong argument and how to use verifiable facts to get a proper response.

Critical thinking in science helps students:

  • Actively evaluate information
  • Identify bias
  • Separate the logic within arguments
  • Analyze evidence

4 Ways to promote critical thinking

Figuring out how to develop critical thinking skills in science means looking at multiple strategies and deciding what will work best at your school and in your class.

Based on your student population, their needs and abilities, not every option will be a home run.

These particular examples are all based on the idea that for students to really learn how to think critically, they have to practice doing it. 

Each focuses on engaging students with science in a way that will motivate them to work independently as they hone their scientific reasoning skills.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning centers on critical thinking.

Teachers can shape a project around the thinking style to give students practice with evaluating evidence or other critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking also happens during collaboration, evidence-based thought, and reflection.

For example, setting students up for a research project is not only a great way to get them to think critically, but it also helps motivate them to learn.

Allowing them to pick the topic (that isn’t easy to look up online), develop their own research questions, and establish a process to collect data to find an answer lets students personally connect to science while using critical thinking at each stage of the assignment.

They’ll have to evaluate the quality of the research they find and make evidence-based decisions.


Adding a question or two to any lab practicum or activity requiring students to pause and reflect on what they did or learned also helps them practice critical thinking.

At this point in an assignment, they’ll pause and assess independently. 

You can ask students to reflect on the conclusions they came up with for a completed activity, which really makes them think about whether there's any bias in their answer.

Addressing Assumptions

One way critical thinking aligns so perfectly with scientific reasoning is that it encourages students to challenge all assumptions. 

Evidence is king in the science classroom, but even when students work with hard facts, there comes the risk of a little assumptive thinking.

Working with students to identify assumptions in existing research or asking them to address an issue where they suspend their own judgment and simply look at established facts polishes their that critical eye.

They’re getting practice without tossing out opinions, unproven hypotheses, and speculation in exchange for real data and real results, just like a scientist has to do.

Lab Activities With Trial-And-Error

Another component of critical thinking (as well as thinking like a scientist) is figuring out what to do when you get something wrong.

Backtracking can mean you have to rethink a process, redesign an experiment, or reevaluate data because the outcomes don’t make sense, but it’s okay.

The ability to get something wrong and recover is not only a valuable life skill, but it’s where most scientific breakthroughs start. Reminding students of this is always a valuable lesson.

Labs that include comparative activities are one way to increase critical thinking skills, especially when introducing new evidence that might cause students to change their conclusions once the lab has begun.

For example, you provide students with two distinct data sets and ask them to compare them.

With only two choices, there are a finite amount of conclusions to draw, but then what happens when you bring in a third data set? Will it void certain conclusions? Will it allow students to make new conclusions, ones even more deeply rooted in evidence?

Thinking like a scientist

When students get the opportunity to think critically, they’re learning to trust the data over their ‘gut,’ to approach problems systematically and make informed decisions using ‘good’ evidence.

When practiced enough, this ability will engage students in science in a whole new way, providing them with opportunities to dig deeper and learn more.

It can help enrich science and motivate students to approach the subject just like a professional would.

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  1. 6 Main Types of Critical Thinking Skills (With Examples)

    scientific definition critical thinking

  2. The benefits of critical thinking for students and how to develop it

    scientific definition critical thinking

  3. Critical Thinking Definition, Skills, and Examples

    scientific definition critical thinking

  4. Figure 1 from Critical Thinking: Definition and Structure

    scientific definition critical thinking

  5. Science-Based Strategies For Critical Thinking

    scientific definition critical thinking

  6. Critical thinking components diagram, outline symbols vector

    scientific definition critical thinking


  1. Critical rationalism Meaning

  2. Research Methods in Psychology Lecture#02 Definition and Steps of Scientific Method

  3. Critical Thinking: Why bother?

  4. What is Critical Thinking ?

  5. Critical Thinking Tools podcast

  6. GCSE Science Question: Can You Solve This?


  1. Critical Thinking

    1. History 2. Examples and Non-Examples 2.1 Dewey's Three Main Examples 2.2 Dewey's Other Examples 2.3 Further Examples 2.4 Non-examples 3. The Definition of Critical Thinking 4. Its Value 5. The Process of Thinking Critically 6. Components of the Process

  2. Critical thinking

    Critical thinking is the analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments in order to form a judgement by the application of rational, skeptical, and unbiased analyses and evaluation. [1]

  3. What Is Critical Thinking?

    Critical thinking is the ability to effectively analyze information and form a judgment. To think critically, you must be aware of your own biases and assumptions when encountering information, and apply consistent standards when evaluating sources. Critical thinking skills help you to: Identify credible sources Evaluate and respond to arguments

  4. Critical thinking

    critical thinking, in educational theory, mode of cognition using deliberative reasoning and impartial scrutiny of information to arrive at a possible solution to a problem.

  5. Understanding the Complex Relationship between Critical Thinking and

    Critical thinking is generally understood as the broader construct ( Holyoak and Morrison, 2005 ), comprising an array of cognitive processes and dispostions that are drawn upon differentially in everyday life and across domains of inquiry such as the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

  6. Defining Critical Thinking

    Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

  7. Critical Thinking: A Model of Intelligence for Solving Real-World

    4. Critical Thinking as an Applied Model for Intelligence. One definition of intelligence that directly addresses the question about intelligence and real-world problem solving comes from Nickerson (2020, p. 205): "the ability to learn, to reason well, to solve novel problems, and to deal effectively with novel problems—often unpredictable—that confront one in daily life."

  8. Critical Thinking Definition, Skills, and Examples

    Critical thinking refers to the ability to analyze information objectively and make a reasoned judgment. It involves the evaluation of sources, such as data, facts, observable phenomena, and research findings.

  9. What is Critical Thinking?

    Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

  10. Science and the Spectrum of Critical Thinking

    Both the scientific method and critical thinking are applications of logic and related forms of rationality that date to the Ancient Greeks. The full spectrum of critical/rational thinking includes logic, informal logic, and systemic or analytic thinking. This common core is shared by the natural sciences and other domains of inquiry share, and ...

  11. (PDF) Critical thinking: Definition and Structure

    Ennis (1964) put forth a definition: "critical thinking is reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do" (p. 555). ... A New Sustainability Model - A Four ...

  12. Teaching critical thinking

    Understanding and thinking critically about scientific evidence is a crucial skill in the modern world. We present a simple learning framework that employs cycles of decisions about making and acting on quantitative comparisons between datasets or data and models. With opportunities to improve the data or models, this structure is appropriate ...

  13. Frontiers

    Scientific thinking is the ability to generate, test, and evaluate claims, data, and theories (e.g., Bullock et al., 2009; Koerber et al., 2015 ). Simply stated, the basic tenets of scientific thinking provide students with the tools to distinguish good information from bad. Students have access to nearly limitless information, and the skills ...

  14. Teaching critical thinking in science

    Scientific inquiry includes three key areas: 1. Identifying a problem and asking questions about that problem. 2. Selecting information to respond to the problem and evaluating it. 3. Drawing conclusions from the evidence. Critical thinking can be developed through focussed learning activities.

  15. Critical Thinking

    Abstract: Critical thinking for the adult learner can very well signify success or failure of the degree goal. Internal factors such as fear, emotions, and reflections of experiences can impact decision making. External factors such as social media, friends, and literature can also impact decision making.

  16. What Are Critical Thinking Skills and Why Are They Important?

    Critical thinking is the ability to interpret, evaluate, and analyze facts and information that are available, to form a judgment or decide if something is right or wrong. More than just being curious about the world around you, critical thinkers make connections between logical ideas to see the bigger picture.

  17. 35 Scientific Thinking and Reasoning

    Scientific thinking refers to both thinking about the content of science and the set of reasoning processes that permeate the field of science: induction, deduction, experimental design, causal reasoning, concept formation, hypothesis testing, and so on.

  18. PDF The Nature of Scientific Thinking

    Section 1: How Scientists Think Lesson 1: In What Ways Do Scientists Come to Their Understandings? Lesson 2: How Might Patterns of Scientific Thinking Impact Our Own Learning? Lesson 3: What are Some Characteristics of 21stCentury Scientific Thinking? Lesson 4: What is Synthetic Thinking? An In-Depth Example from 21stCentury Science

  19. Critical Thinking and Scientific Thinking

    What Is Scientific Thinking? The objective of scientific thinking is the acquisition of knowledge. The more we know, the more we can hope to know. Scientific thinking begins by imagining what the outcome of a problem may be, observing the situation, and then making notes and changing the initial hypothesis.

  20. Critical Thinking in Science

    Critical thinking in science is important largely because a lot of students have developed expectations about science that can prove to be counter-productive.

  21. Critical Thinking in Science: What Are the Basics?

    Abstract. em>This paper reviews some of the most critical issues in science in terms of scientific thinking, and reasoning. Many students arrive at college poorly prepared to function in the ...

  22. Scientific Thinking and Critical Thinking in Science Education

    1 Introduction In consulting technical reports, theoretical frameworks, research, and curricular reforms related to science education, one commonly finds appeals to scientific thinking and critical thinking as essential educational processes or objectives.

  23. Critical Thinking in Science: Fostering Scientific Reasoning Skills in

    Critical thinking is essential in science. It's what naturally takes students in the direction of scientific reasoning since evidence is a key component of this style of thought. It's not just about whether evidence is available to support a particular answer but how valid that evidence is. It's about whether the information the student ...