Thinking & critical thinking

We are not logical, but rationalizers, story-tellers interested in consistency and emotional comfort rather than the truth.

Howard Rankin


This page discusses thinking with suggestions on how to think better and become critical thinkers. It includes a discussion of critical thinking and related topics, a critical thinking curriculum developed by Robert H. Ennis, with dispositions, outcomes, 15 abilities for critical thinking, and its assessment is included. Also a process for critical thinking, quality standards for critical and scholarly thinking, and references to develop Civic Online thinking & reasoning.

Critical thinking

Critical thinking, is more of a state of mind a person makes to consciously use deep metacognition to think, reason, and reflect with the focus on the accuracy and validity of information used to decide what to believe or do, based on argument, reasoning, logic, and proof. It can be thought of encompassing decision making and reasoning to recognize the limitations of words and ideas and how they reflect reality to make ethical decisions that are not driven by whim, false assumptions, and biased views of others. To achieve this a person has to understanding how our brain works, how we learn, how we are motivated, how emotions, biases, and our flaws can influence and sometimes control our decisions making and behaviors.

Let's constrast this by considering some major sub tasks used while thinking critically.

Purpose of critical thinking

Thinking and reasoning is mostly driven to support each person's present understand of their culture, social groups norms and each individual's current beliefs and understandings. Information is gathered to support the most comfortable position; and to do otherwise requires strong emotional support to be open minded and willing to accept a new way of thinking, one which can be unfamiliar and most likely stressful to assume and use to take new and unfamiliar actions. Emotional support and willingness to accept the unfamiliar can be nourished to develop critical thinking abilities and dispositions to achieve critical thinking outcomes.

However, Critical thinking is supposed to use wisdom and morality to balance thinking and emotions so our emotions do not unknowingly drive our decisions and behavior and we make wise decisions based on the best available information for the best possible ethical outcomes.

Attributes of critical thinking

To think better, we need suggestions on how to process information better and dispositions or habits of mind that will promote deep comprehesive thinking, or critical thinking. Below are some processes and related attributes which can be used when critically thinking. They could be integrated with the disposition, outcomes, and abilities of Robert Ennis's critical thinking curriculum.


Attributes related to disposition or habits of mind

Robert Ennis dispositions - that encourage the above

Historical information

Thinking and reasoning have been a purpose of education if not the main goal of education and included in almost every educational philosophy and school's mission statements.

Education in Greek times was a study of thinking for argument to establishing truth. The study of dialectic reasoning (logic) and rhetoric (emotional speaking) were taught to achieve this.

Over the years thinking, speaking, and reasoning were central to education to develop an educated person who is prepared with broad knowledge, strong values, ethics, and a desire for civic engagement to be willing and able to deal with complex diverse situations in society and change as necessary to survive and achieve the good life (liberal education).

  • book cover1935 Earl Marlott asks, Does America believe in thinking? He sees that in schools completing projects become more important than the principles and concepts behind them and believes it is important to think and conceptualize the thinking process (critical thinking, conflict resolution, & metacognition) to be educated.
  • 1935 I.W. Howerth claims the science method and dispositions to use it, which he calls the scientific spirit, is being reduced in importance to prioritizing scientific knowledge deemed important to learn in his book Teaching to Use your Mind.
  • 1953 Arthur Bestor in Educational Wasteland, saw progressive education as unscholarly and believed it prompts low standards.
  • 1988 E.D. Hirsch wrote his book, Cultural Literacy, to provide a source of information of what everyone needs to know to be literate.
  • 2016 Fareen Zakaria makes an arguement for the importance of a liberal arts education to teache how to write clearly, express yourself convincingly, and to think analytically in his book: In Defense of Liberal Education.
  • Education related to being human.

Today it is more controversial to teach thinking than to teach facts:

Teaching and encouraging critical thinking requires some confusion and ambiguty which can be uncomfortable.

Critical Thinking Curriculum

Robert H. Ennis, University of Illinois, UC (Revised 6/20/02) 1

Critical thinking, as the term is generally used these days, roughly means reasonable and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.2 In doing such thinking, one is helped by the employment of a set of critical thinking dispositions and abilities outlined below, which can serve as a set of comprehensive goals for a critical thinking curriculum and its assessment.

Pedagogical and psychometric usefulness, not elegance or mutual exclusiveness, is the purpose of this outline. It could be used for an overall critical thinking curriculum outline, or as a comprehensive table of specifications for critical thinking assessment. In practice, one will ordinarily select portions to emphasize.

It is only a critical thinking content outline. It does not specify grade level, curriculum sequence, emphasis, teaching approach, or type of subject-matter content involved (standard subject-matter content, general knowledge content, symbolic content, streetwise-knowledge content, special knowledge content, etc.).

Examples, qualifications, and more detail can be found in some items listed at the end.


Ideal critical thinkers are disposed to

  1. Care that their beliefs be true3, and that their decisions be justified; that is, care to "get it right" to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    • Seek alternative hypotheses, explanations, conclusions, plans, sources, etc., and be open to them
    • Endorse a position to the extent that, but only to the extent that, it is justified by the information that is available
    • Be well informed4
    • Consider seriously other points of view than their own
  2. Care to present a position honestly and clearly, theirs as well as others. This includes the dispositions to
    • Be clear about the intended meaning of what is said, written, or otherwise communicated, seeking as much precision as the situation requires
    • Determine, and maintain focus on, the conclusion or question
    • Seek and offer reasons
    • Take into account the total situation
    • Be reflectively aware of their own basic beliefs
  3. Care about the dignity and worth of every person (a correlative disposition)5. This includes the dispositions to
    • Discover and listen to others' view and reasons
    • Avoid intimidating or confusing others with their critical thinking prowess, taking into account others' feelings and level of understanding
    • Be concerned about others' welfare

Outcomes for Critical Thinking      Robert H. Ennis, 6/20/02

  1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives.
  2. Tries to be well-informed.
  3. Judges well the credibility of sources.
  4. Identifies conclusions, reasons, and assumptions.
  5. Judges well the quality of an argument, including the acceptability of its reasons, assumptions, and evidence.
  6. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position.
  7. Asks appropriate clarifying questions.
  8. Formulates plausible hypotheses; plans experiments well.
  9. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context.
  10. Draws conclusions when warranted, but with caution.
  11. Integrates all items in this list when deciding what to believe or do.

 Fifteen Abilities
Ideal critical thinkers have the ability to:

The first three abilities involve elementary clarification

  1. Focus on a question to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    • Identify or formulate a question
    • Identify or formulate criteria for judging possible answers
    • Keep the situation in mind
  2. Analyze arguments to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    • Identify conclusions
    • Identify stated reasons
    • Identify unstated reasons
    • Identify and handle irrelevance
    • See the structure of an argument
    • Summarize
  3. Ask and answer questions of clarification and/or challenge, such as, to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    • Why?
    • What is your main point?
    • What do you mean by…?
    • What would be an example?
    • What would not be an example (though close to being one)?
    • How does that apply to this case (describe a case, which might well appear to be a counter example)?
    • What difference does it make?
    • What are the facts?
    • Is this what you are saying: ____________?
    • Would you say some more about that?

The next two abilities involve the basis for the decision.

  1. Judge the credibility of a source. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions): to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    • Expertise
    • Lack of conflict of interest
    • Agreement among sources
    • Reputation
    • Use of established procedures
    • Known risk to reputation
    • Ability to give reasons
    • Careful habits
  2. Observe, and judge observation reports. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions, except for the first): to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
    • Minimal inferring involved
    • Short time interval between observation and report
    • Report by the observer, rather than someone else (that is, the report is not hearsay)
    • Provision of records.
    • Corroboration
    • Possibility of corroboration
    • Good access
    • Competent employment of technology, if technology is useful
    • Satisfaction by observer (and reporter, if a different person) of the credibility criteria in Ability # 4 above.

The next three abilities involve inference

  1. Deduce, and judge deduction
    • Class logic
    • Conditional logic
    • Interpretation of logical terminology in statements, including
      • Negation and double negation
      • Necessary and sufficient condition language
      • Such words as "only", "if and only if", "or", "some", "unless", "not both".
  2. Induce, and judge induction
    • To generalizations. Broad considerations:
      • Typicality of data, including sampling where appropriate
      • Breadth of coverage
      • Acceptability of evidence
    • To explanatory conclusions (including hypotheses)
      • Major types of explanatory conclusions and hypotheses:
        • Causal claims
        • Claims about the beliefs and attitudes of people
        • Interpretation of authors’ intended meanings
        • Historical claims that certain things happened (including criminal accusations)
        • Reported definitions
        • Claims that some proposition is an unstated reason that the person actually used
      • Characteristic investigative activities
        • Designing experiments, including planning to control variables
        • Seeking evidence and counter-evidence
        • Seeking other possible explanations
      • Criteria, the first five being essential, the sixth being desirable
        • The proposed conclusion would explain the evidence
        • The proposed conclusion is consistent with all known facts
        • Competitive alternative explanations are inconsistent with facts
        • The evidence on which the hypothesis depends is acceptable.
        • A legitimate effort should have been made to uncover counter-evidence
        • The proposed conclusion seems plausible
  3. Make and judge value judgments:Important factors:
    • Background facts
    • Consequences of accepting or rejecting the judgment
    • Prima facie application of acceptable principles
    • Alternatives
    • Balancing, weighing, deciding

The next two abilities involve advanced clarification.

  1. Define terms and judge definitions. Three dimensions are form, strategy, and content.
    • Form. Some useful forms are:
      •  Synonym
      •   Classification
      •   Range
      •   Equivalent-expression
      •   Operational
      •   Example and non-example
    • Definitional strategy
      •   Acts
        • Report a meaning
        • Stipulate a meaning
        • Express a position on an issue (including "programmatic" and "persuasive" definitions)
      • Identifying and handling equivocation
    • Content of the definition
  2. Attribute unstated assumptions (an ability that belongs under both clarification and, in a way, inference)

The next two abilities involve supposition and integration.

  1. Consider and reason from premises, reasons, assumptions, positions, and other propositions with which they disagree or about which they are in doubt -- without letting the disagreement or doubt interfere with their thinking ("suppositional thinking")
  2. Integrate the other abilities and dispositions in making and defending a decision

The first twelve abilities are constitutive abilities. The next three are auxiliary critical thinking abilities: Having them, though very helpful in various ways, is not constitutive of being a critical thinker.

  1. Proceed in an orderly manner appropriate to the situation. For example:
    • Follow problem solving steps
    • Monitor their own thinking (that is, engage in metacognition)
    • Employ a reasonable critical thinking checklist
  2. Be sensitive to the feelings, level of knowledge, and degree of sophistication of others
  3. Employ appropriate rhetorical strategies in discussion and presentation (orally and in writing), including employing and reacting to "fallacy" labels in an appropriate manner. Examples of fallacy labels are "circularity," "bandwagon," "post hoc," "equivocation,""non sequitur," and "straw person."6

Summary and Comments

In brief, the ideal critical thinker is disposed to try to get it right, to present a position honestly and clearly, and to care about the worth and dignity of every person; furthermore the ideal critical thinker has the ability to clarify, to seek and judge well the basis for a view, to infer wisely from the basis, to imaginatively suppose and integrate, and to do these things with dispatch, sensitivity, and rhetorical skill.

In presenting this outline of critical dispositions and abilities, I have only attempted to depict, rather than defend, them. The defense would require much more space than is available, but would follow two general paths:

  1. examining the traditions of good thinking in existing successful disciplines of inquiry, and
  2. seeing how we go wrong when we attempt to decide what to believe or do.

In any teaching situation, whether it be a separate critical thinking course or module, or one in which the critical thinking content is infused in or immersed in standard subject-matter content, or some mixture of these; all of the dispositions, as well as the suppositional and integration abilities (# 11 and #12) and auxiliary abilities (#13 through #15) are applicable all the time and should permeate the instruction.

In this essay, I have only attempted to outline a usable and defensible set of critical thinking goals, including criteria for making judgments. Space limitations have precluded their application to curriculum and assessment, though I have done so elsewhere. However, goals are the place to start. I hope this outline provides a useful basis on which to build curricula and assessment procedures.

Other Sources

Here are some other sources (in which similar ideas are presented in varying degrees of detail and exemplification). [The present item is in outline form with no examples.]

  • Ennis, Robert H. (1985).A logical basis for measuring critical thinking skills, Educational Leadership, 43(2), 44-48. [incorporates examples]
  • Ennis, Robert H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In Joan B. Baron and Robert J. Sternberg (eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice.
  • New York: W. H. Freeman. Pp. 9-26. [incorporates examples]
  • Ennis, Robert H. (1991). Critical thinking: A streamlined conception. Teaching Philosophy, 41 (1), 5-25. [incorporates examples]
  • Ennis, Robert H. (1996).Critical thinking. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. [a text book: the most detail, incorporates many examples]
  • Ennis, Robert H. (2001). Goals for a critical thinking curriculum and its assessment. In Arthur L. Costa (Ed.), Developing minds (3rd Edition). Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Pp. 44-46. [paragraph format with no examples]
  • Ennis, Robert H. (2002). A super streamlined conception of critical thinking. On Web site: One page. [the least detail, no examples]


  1. This is a revised and expanded version of a presentation at the Sixth International Conference on Thinking at MIT, Cambridge, MA, July, 1994.
  2. This is a judgment about the central tendencies of standard usage of the term "critical thinking", and is based on many years’ experience participating in, reading, and listening to discussions about critical thinking.
  3. With respect to epistemological constructivism (the view that truth is constructed): In expressing a concern about true belief, this conception of critical thinking accepts the view that our concepts and vocabulary are constructed by us, but also that (to oversimplify somewhat) the relationships among the referents of our concepts and terms are not constructed by us. We can have true or false beliefs about these. With respect to pedagogical constructivism (the view that students learn best when they construct their own answers to problems and questions): For some (but not all) goals and types of learning, the pedagogical-constructivism view has empirical support, but it should not be confused with epistemological constructivism. In particular, the validity of pedagogical constructivism (to the extent that it is valid) does not imply the validity of epistemological constructivism. They are totally different ideas.
  4. Several of the dispositions (1d, 2e, and 3a) contribute to being well-informed (1c), but are separate dispositions in their own right.
  5. The first two major dispositions are constitutive dispositions. That is, they are definitionally part of this conception of critical thinking. This, the third major disposition, is a correlative disposition. That is, it is intended to accompany critical thinking. The lack of it makes critical thinking less valuable, or even dangerous. On the other hand, a criticism of critical thinking for a definitional omission of caring for the worth and dignity of every person could well be based on the unreasonable assumption that the concept, critical thinking, should represent everything that is good, an overwhelming requirement indeed.
  6. The fallacy-labels aspect of #15 is partly rhetorical, and partly constitutive of critical thinking. The constitutive parts are covered in #1-#12, leaving the rhetorical part under #15. These labels are useful to know and understand (at least as shorthand), but dangerous when used by, or in the company of, people who do not understand them fully, because the terms are so easy to apply and misapply and, on occasion, are intimidating.
  7. Ideas on curriculum and assessment, and the nature of critical thinking. in Theory Into Practice Vol. 32, No. 3, Teaching for Higher Order Thinking by Robert H. Ennis. (Summer, 1993), pp. 179-186 (8 pages) Published By: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
metacognition bubble

Critical Thinking,
Thought process,
Metacognition - thinking about thinking

Be disposed to try to get it right.

  1. Identify a purpose for thinking - Take time to understand your purpose and periodically check if the purpose is changing.
  2. Answer a question or solve a problem - Take time to understand and state the question. Identify related questions. Consider different types of arguments to use to present information.
  3. Make assumptions - Identify assumptions and determine
    how they are creating a perspective or point of view.
  4. Use intuition to make observations for selecting sufficient data and facts from valid experiences and sources to make clear, precise, reliable, and relevant explanations (facts, concepts, generalizations, definitions, models, relationships, principles, laws).
  5. Identify different perspectives or points of view - take time to contemplate different perspectives. The strengths and weaknesses for each and determine if it is fair and unbiased.
  6. Use related ideas (facts, concepts, generalizations, definitions, models, relationships, principles, laws) - Identify the key ideas used, what their meanings are, if they are being used with precision, and how they relate to other ideas.
  7. Identify inferences, judgments, conclusions, solutions, decisions - Make conclusions which are only supported by observational evidence and reliable sources and check the assumptions and perspectives for consistency.
  8. Identify implications and consequences for conclusions, inferences, judgments, and decisions - Take time to consider consequences and the positive and negative implications for all possible conclusions. Check for consistency and the fit with assumptions and perspectives.


Quality standards for critical & scholarly thinking


star image

Clear - idea or group of ideas are easy to understand.

Precise - accurate and exact explanation of the idea or ideas with appropriate and sufficient detail.

Reliable - consistently good quality and able to be trusted.

Logical - ideas fit together without discrepancies and sufficiently support the conclusions.

Relevant - idea or ideas fit the purpose.

Consistent - idea or ideas are supported by observation, current research, or wisdom of practice. Novel ideas are developed with plausible explanations.

Comprehensive - contains necessary and sufficient big ideas and supporting information to communicate the idea or group of ideas with complexity and connectedness with multiple perspectives.

Unbiased - fair nonprejudicial presentation of information.



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