Critical Thinking: Principles and Practices of Learning

Effective Thinking

Creative thinking (divergent thinking) and critical thinking (convergent thinking) are two powerful aspects of effective thinking that are essential to the process of learning, assessing what we learn, and attaining success in life. Of these two types of thinking, we are much more familiar with creative thinking - the process of gathering and generating possible solutions or conclusions to a problem or issue. Often referred to as the process of brainstorming or initiating bright ideas or novel suggestions, it increases our chances of finding solutions to life's dilemmas. On the other hand, critical thinking is the process of actively seeking to understand, analyze, and evaluate the value, importance or significance of information. Creative thinking and critical thinking complement each other and, if used adequately, result in effective thinking. Effective thinking, then, resolves real life challenges by generating viable options (creating thinking) and by contemplating the effects (critical thinking).

Many students come to college utilizing creative thinking skills and express their opinions and attitudes on a variety of topics. Unfortunately, they believe that the act of expressing one’s opinion is sufficient. To their rude awakening, they soon realize that college professors expect the acquisition and demonstration of higher-order skills, in particular those that require one to analyze, evaluate, and arrive at rational decisions. We call this critical thinking. Michael Scriven and Richard Paul of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking provide a comprehensive 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."

Too often we...enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

-John F. Kennedy

You may have a series of questions in response to this definition. "What does it all mean? Is being a critical thinker that important? Do I need to become a critical thinker? Can't you just tell me what I need to do?" To address these questions, let us examine college professors" expectations of you--the student.

Professors' Expectations of You

Life's complexities require us to be active not passive learners. This entails not only expanding our knowledge-base, but critically examining what we see, hear, and sense to determine if we accept or reject what we experience. According to Browne and Keeley, authors of your text, Asking the Right Questions, "Critical thinking provides a set of filters that expert opinions need to go through before you rely on it," as all ideas are not equally valuable and require more rational selection. Your professors see many benefits to critical thinking and rational skills development. It helps you identify what is sound and faulty about your reasoning, as well as the reasoning of others, and sort out sense from nonsense. These benefits are delineated below:

  • Increases academic knowledge
  • Encourages intellectual curiosity
  • Strengthens the ability to analyze and evaluate topics of interest in academia
  • Promotes understanding of social diversity and worldviews
  • Improves research, writing, and oral communication skills
  • Helps to construct and deconstruct arguments to rationally defend one's opinions
  • Fosters independent learning and strong group participation

Summary

Critical thinking promotes serious, informed and rational exchange between writers or speakers and their readers or audience and augments the way we learn and live. It promotes awareness of the need for opinions coupled with knowledge, and it involves the process of careful thought prior to reaching a conclusion or making a decision to adopt a belief or course of action. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, "When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." That is the beauty of critical thinking.