The 8 Elements of Critical Thinking

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We live in a world that is increasingly inundated with all types of information. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning till we go to bed at night, our minds are incessantly stimulated and a big part of this stimulation stems from our digital devices. It is  true that there has never been a time in human history where information and knowledge are as plentiful and readily accessible as they are today. 

In fact, most of the world's knowledge is now stored in the cloud and is only a click away. Is this a good thing? Definitely, it is. Democratisation of knowledge is a colossal feat comparable only to the invention of fire, electricity, and the Internet. However, with the overabundance of information comes the problem of infobesity which is a cognitive state that results from too much consumption of junk information.  Solution? Critical thinking!

critical thinking skills
This visual is inspired by Elesapiens work 



What is critical thinking?

I like to think of critical thinking as an analytic framework, a conceptual structure that weaves together a set of interconnected thinking skills and reasoning abilities. Critical thinking is therefore not a monolithic skill and certainly not a single cognitive ability. It is the ensemble of reasoning mechanisms that enable us to synthesize, analyze, process, and evaluate information. It is, as Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it, a 'careful goal-directed thinking'. The purpose of critical thinking is to inform our behaviours, actions, decisions and to "improve our ability to reason and generate strong arguments" (Hanscomb, 2016, p. 3). 

The word critical in critical thinking implies two things: First, it implies the existence of a non-critical state of thinking which is the default state underlying the human mind. In this non-critical state, the mind becomes a warehouse of facts, a receptacle of unfiltered ideas and arguments. The taken for granted becomes the norm. Conversely,  in the critical state the mind makes use of complex cognitive processes to filter out information and evaluate judgements. The taken for granted is problematised and put to the question. This dichotomy of critical versus uncritical is grounded within a general discussion of thinking skills taxonomies. 

Bloom's taxonomy, first originated in 1956, is probably one of the most popular taxonomies that attempt to categorize educational objectives into several thinking skills organized along a continuum of cognitive complexity with higher order thinking skills at one end and lower order thinking skills at the other. In 2001, Anderson and Krathwohl revised Bloom's taxonomy and introduced the following six verbs: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. As Howard et al (2015) argued, "most students focus on the first three parts of this cognitive complexity. Critical thinking and creativity depend on the three more advanced parts of cognitive complexity: analyzing, evaluating, and creating" (p. 134)

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Indeed, we are thinking animals but only when we become aware of our thinking, that is, when we engage in meta-thinking (thinking about thinking), that we take the first step towards becoming critical thinkers. 

The second implication of the word critical refers to the existence of implicitly biased or distorted norms and that it is the job of critical thinkers  to uncover and expose these distortions. One pertinent example in this regard is the phenomenon of fake news. The ability to recognize misinformation is a pure function of critical thinking. Being able to critically appraise and filter information allows one to develop clearer processes of thinking which is why critical thinking is seldom defined as 'the ability to think clearly and rationally' .

5 important critical thinking skills

Critical thinking, as stated earlier, is an analytic framework that consists of several thinking skills some of which include: 

1- Asking questions

The ability to think critically starts with posing serious and deep questions regarding what is normatively considered valid and true knowledge. Questions are precursors of deep learning. They drive one's quest to uncover different perspectives, opinions, and dispositions. Critical thinkers do not ask questions for the sake of questions but to spark learning and discovery. They are motivated by a restless need to learn.

2- Problem solving

Critical thinkers are goal oriented. Their objective is to find solutions to emerging problems. These solutions can come in different forms and formats. Whether it is to find the valid version of a piece of news, uncover the hidden motives behind an author's statement, understand why things are the way they are, or to simply disambiguate a faulty line of reasoning and refute what appears to be solid arguments, critical thinkers are constantly propelled by an ethical and intellectual obligation to seek alternative perspectives, solutions, and ways of knowing. 

3- Analysing

Analytical practice is at the core of critical thinking. The abilities to ask questions and problem-solve are only effective when coupled with rigorous analytic practice. Analysis is where sifting chaff from grain takes place. It entails looking at hints, hidden markers, implicit associations and implications and making informed decisions. Critical analysts are sharp observers. They do not simply look but they see and envision what the laymen can not readily see.  

4- Evaluating

Critical thinkers assess information against multiple criteria and never take propositions for granted. They consider knowledge as socially constructed and relative and is therefore always prone to contention, fallacies, and falsifications. Evaluation involves scrutinizing various sources and perspectives, taking into account excluded voices, and silent viewpoints.

5- Inferring

Inferring is another key critical thinking skill. It allows one to draw conclusions from analyzed data before making any educated guess. 

Elements of critical thinking

Critical thinking is a process that is composed of a number of elements. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy outlined 11 components of the critical thinking process: observing, feeling, wondering, imagining, inferring, knowledge, consulting, identifying, judging, and deciding. I adapted Stanford's categorisation of the elements of critical thinking and synthesized them into 8 key elements:

1- Observing

At the observation phase, one notices inconsistencies, irregularities, and abnormalities in their immediate environment. Observing is all about acknowledging the presence of an issue or a problematic that requires further investigation and scrutiny. 

2- Wonder

After observing data, one wonders about possible scenarios, plans, actions, behaviours, etc that could have been applied but were not. Wondering is about posing questions and imagining possible answers.

3- Gather information

To seek answers to their questions, critical thinkers gather information from different sources. Their goal is to cover the issue from different angles and explore as many perspectives as possible. All possible sources of data are vetted with an eye on inconsistencies, differences, divergences and contradictions.

4- Analyze

Analysis is an important element of the critical thinking process. It is through analysis that critical thinkers deconstruct arguments, reveal implicit biases, and explore alternative viewpoints. Analysis is a methodical process that entails examining and re-examining data searching for patterns of thought and identifying structural discrepancies

5- Synthesize

The next step after collecting data from multiple sources and analyzing it is to synthesize it. Critical thinkers put disparate ideas, assumptions, facts, and propositions together and combine them into an overarching argument. Effective synthesis requires deeper levels of understanding because one can only deconstruct and combine ideas after they have fully internalized them. 

6- Reflect

Reflection is another central element of the critical thinking process. Reflection is an iterative process in which one re-assesses their analytical and argumentative logic searching for possible influences, biases, and prejudices that might have impacted their reasoning.

7- Identify

After gathering information, analyzing it and reflecting on it, the critical thinker is now in a position to identify problematic areas and isolate inconsistencies.  The key is to narrow the broad scope of an argument and deconstruct its structure in such a way that it becomes easier to tackle, one problem at a time.

8- Decide

The last element of the critical thinking process is taking decisions. As I stated earlier, the purpose behind critical thinking is for us to be able to make informed decisions, that is, decisions based on solid facts and arguments. The previous elements of the critical thinking process all work together to help one decide what course of action to take, which arguments to advance, what kind of behavior to change or adopt, and so on. 

Characteristics of critical thinkers

Critical thinkers are normal individuals like everybody else except that they have developed strong cognitive filters that help them navigate the world in  more nuanced ways. Given their preoccupation with deeper forms of understanding , critical thinkers have developed unique characteristics including:

➥ Empathetic: Critical thinkers are empathetic individuals. They acknowledge and understand the feelings of others, build affinities and sympathise with them.

➥ Flexible: critical thinkers are guided by logical and reasoned argumentation and therefore have no problem changing their positions and beliefs whenever a new convincing evidence emerges.  

➥ Hard working: Critical thinkers do not take shortcuts. They compare and contrast different sources, vet resources, debate arguments, uncover hidden relations and interconnections, and put the work necessary to reach what they believe are valid conclusions. 
 
➥ Independent: Critical thinkers do not swear allegiance to any creed, dogma, tribe, or ideology. Their creed is logic and reason. They thrive in intellectual freedom and have a deeper sense of responsibility and respect for others. Critical thinkers are self-directed and independent life-long learners.

➥ Reflective: Critical thinkers are reflective individuals. They constantly reflect on their actions, thinking processes, emotions, and feelings. They always seek to uncover new shades of meanings, discover hidden feelings and reactions, and optimize their reflective practice.

➥ Objective: Critical thinkers recognize their biases and personal assumptions and are explicit about their influences. Their methodology is evidence-based.

➥ Observant: Critical analysts have an acute sense of observation and a sharp eye for detail. They view the minutiae of everyday life as possible sources of insightful data and the path towards enlightening hunches. 


Examples of what critical thinkers can do

Critical thinkers are able to :
  • Identify fallacious arguments and provide counter-arguments.
  • Conceptualize and analyze ideas effectively.
  • Synthesize information from various sources into solid arguments.
  • Evaluate information, compare and contrast it, and identify argumentative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Structure arguments along a clear and logical order breaking down complex concepts into digestible ideas.
  • Use different forms of data collection methods to gather information including observation, experience, reading, reflection, etc.
  • Read between and beneath lines, access hidden meanings, and expose implications.

More sources
Defining critical thinking (The Foundation for Critical Thinking)
Critical thinking (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Addison Wesley Longman
What is critical thinking (University of Louisville)
Critical thinking and problem solving (The University of Tennessee)
Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956).Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay
Hanscomb, S. (2016). Critical thinking : The basics. Taylor & Francis Group.
Howard, L. w., Tang, T. L., & Austin, M. J (2015). Teaching Critical Thinking Skills: Ability, Motivation, Intervention, and the Pygmalion Effect.J Bus Ethics 128:133–147. DOI 10.1007/s10551-014-2084-0