American Philosophical Association Critical Thinking Definition

Critical Thinking: A Definition

I've started thinking much about critical thinking in preparation for a series of workshops that we are doing at my school, so of course, I asked myself what critical thinking has to do with life in the rhizome. As is almost always the case, I'm finding connections, but then, isn't that what the rhizome is all about? The very first characteristic of the rhizome as described by DnG is: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be (7).

The first connection that I want to explore is the role of critical thinking in cartography and decalcomania, the two mapping heuristics that DnG discuss. I think that these have been the two most difficult principles of rhizomatics for me. Perhaps critical thinking will give me a way to wrap my head around these concepts.

Let me start with a definition of critical thinking, not such a trivial task, as I have found out. Critical thinking tends to be one of those catch-all terms that everyone uses, nodding to each other in presumed agreement, while meaning slightly or totally different things. To my mind, critical thinking is a cluster of mental heuristics that increase my chances of reasonably and scientifically observing some slice of the world and deciding what to do or to believe about what I observe. Critical thinking helps me more skillfully respond to my world. What are these mental heuristics? I've found several lists, but the 1990 Delphi Report from the American Philosophical Association (Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction) provides perhaps as solid a starting point as we are likely to get. The Executive Summary of APA's Delphi Report says:

  • We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair- minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.

They later list 6 primary skills with sub-skills:
Critical Thinking Skills
  • Categorization
  • Decoding Significance
  • Clarifying Meaning
  • Examining Ideas
  • Identifying Arguments
  • Analyzing Arguments
  • Assessing Claims
  • Assessing Arguments
  • Querying Evidence
  • Conjecturing Alternatives
  • Drawing Conclusions
  • Stating Results
  • Justifying Procedures
  • Presenting Arguments
  • Self-examination
  • Self-correction
This is a fairly workable list and grouping, but a tighter grouping is provided by Sohindar Sachdev in the book Critical Thinking Through Technology in Science and Mathematics Education (2001). Sachdev groups 19 different critical thinking skills into three categories:

  1. Interpretive Reasoning - "the cognitive processes by which we begin to understand the information that has been remembered or observed."
  2. Strategic Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we develop the conclusion provided by interpretive reasoning."
  3. Adaptive Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we extend the knowledge beyond the criteria established by strategic reasoning."

Of course, I immediately see ways that I differ from these definitions. I start my critical thinking with observation, which neither of these definitions seem to do. To my mind, observation is an interpretive act, and if you are not observing in some systematic, critical way, then you are likely to see or not see most anything. But I don't choose to quibble about this just now. I think the above definitions of critical thinking form a useful starting point for my thinking about critical thinking, so I'm willing to see how far this boat will row.

In short, then, critical thinking is one way that I increase my chances for coming to know my world and positioning myself within it. If I think with some skill and grace, then I will better align with the world and make my way through it. As I mentioned in my previous post about the work of becoming an individual, "you work out the meaning of your life by the constant positioning, realignment, connecting and reconnecting of yourself with all the other selves in the rhizome." Critical thinking is one of the ways that we position, realign, connect, and reconnect ourselves with the world. It can be a fine way. It is the academic way, the path of Western intellectualism and science. Is it a rhizomatic way? I have my suspicions, but more on that later.
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The landmark 1990 APA Delphi Report describes the findings of the two year project to articulate an international expert consensus definition of critical thinking, including its core cognitive skills. The experts identify the characteristics of an ideal critical thinker, and present specific recommendations relating to critical thinking instruction and assessment.

"The Critical Thinking Movement" of the 1980s witnessed a growing accord that the heart of education lies exactly where traditional advocates of a liberal education always said it was -- in the processes of inquiry, learning and thinking rather than in the accumulation of disjointed skills and senescent information. By the decade's end the movement to infuse the K-12 and post-secondary curricula with critical thinking had gained remarkable momentum. The momentum continues to build now, in the 21st Century, as employers, educators, and policy-makers continue to endorse the development of students' critical thinking as an essential educational priority. Then, and perhaps still today, the successes of "The Critical Thinking Movement" raised vexing questions for educators: Which skills, exactly, are the ones that comprise the core group of critical thinking skills? What pedagogical approaches are most effective to teach for critical thinking, and not simply about critical thinking? What assessment strategies and tools work best for the assessment of critical thinking as a required student learning outcome?

When asked by the individual professor or teacher seeking to introduce critical thinking into her own classroom, such questions are difficult enough. But they took on social, fiscal, and political dimensions when asked by campus curriculum committees, school district offices, boards of education, and the educational testing and publishing industries. Given the central role played by philosophers in articulating the value, both individual and social, of critical thinking, in analyzing the concept of critical thinking, in designing college level academic programs in critical thinking, and in assisting with efforts to introduce critical thinking  into the K-12 curriculum, it is little wonder that the American Philosophical Association took great interest in the critical thinking movement and its impact on the profession. In December of 1987, the APA, through its Committee on Pre-College Philosophy asked Dr. Peter Facione to serve as the lead investigator to coordinate an international effort to determine the extent to which experts agreed on the definition of critical thinking for purposes of college level teaching and assessment. The result became known as  the Delphi Report, a document which continues to influence critical thinking theory, teaching, and assessment in the full spectrum of academic disciplines and professional fields.

A key result of the inquiry is the articulation by the panel of critical thinking experts of a conceptualization of critical thinking in terms of two dimensions: cognitive skills and affective dispositions. Section II of the report describes the Delphi research methodology. Section III address the skill dimension of critical thinking and Section IV focuses on the dispositional dimension of critical thinking.  The Delphi Report concludes with fifteen recommendations pertaining to critical thinking instruction and assessment.

For commercial or resale reprint permissions of the APA Delphi Report or " Critical Thinking What It Is and Why It Counts "  contact Insight Assessment.

Insight Assessment's comprehensive array of critical thinking test skills and dispositions test instruments are based on the Delphi Expert Consensus Definition of Critical Thinking.  Research has shown that these instruments predict strength in critical thinking in authentic problem situations and success on professional licensure examinations. Contact us to learn more.

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