a Critic Of Your Thinking
By Dr. Linda Elder and Dr. Richard Paul
Learning the Art of Critical Thinking
There is nothing more
practical than sound thinking. No matter what your circumstance
or goals, no matter where you are, or what problems you face, you
are better off if your thinking is skilled. As a manager, leader,
employee, citizen, lover, friend, parent---in every realm and situation
of your life, good thinking pays off. Poor thinking, in turn, inevitably
causes problems, wastes time and energy, engenders frustration and
Critical thinking is
the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you
are capable of in any set of circumstances. The general goal of
thinking is to “figure out the lay of the land” in any
situation we are in. We all have multiple choices to make. We need
the best information to make the best choices.
What is really going
on in this or that situation? Are they trying to take advantage
of me? Does so-and-so really care about me? Am I deceiving myself
when I believe that…? What are the likely consequences of
failing to …? If I want to do …, what is the best way
to prepare for it? How can I be more successful in doing…?
Is this my biggest problem, or do I need to focus my attention on
to such questions is the daily work of thinking. However, to maximize
the quality of your thinking, you must learn how to become an effective
"critic" of your thinking. And to become an effective
critic of your thinking, you have to make learning about thinking
Ask yourself these--rather
unusual--questions: What have you learned about how you think? Did
you ever study your thinking? What do you know about how the mind
processes information? What do you really know about how to analyze,
evaluate, or reconstruct your thinking? Where does your thinking
come from? How much of it is of “good” quality? How
much of it is of “poor” quality? How much of your thinking
is vague, muddled, inconsistent, inaccurate, illogical, or superficial?
Are you, in any real sense, in control of your thinking? Do you
know how to test it? Do you have any conscious standards for determining
when you are thinking well and when you are thinking poorly? Have
you ever discovered a significant problem in your thinking and then
changed it by a conscious act of will? If anyone asked you to teach
them what you have learned, thus far in your life, about thinking,
would you really have any idea what that was or how you learned
If you are like most,
the only honest answers to these questions run along the lines of:
“Well, I suppose I really don’t know much about my thinking
or about thinking in general. I suppose in my life I have more or
less taken my thinking for granted. I don’t really know how
it works. I have never really studied it. I don’t know how
I test it, or even if I do test it. It just happens in my mind automatically.“
It is important to realize
that serious study of thinking, serious thinking about thinking,
is rare. It is not a subject in most colleges. It is seldom found
in the thinking of our culture. But if you focus your attention
for a moment on the role that thinking is playing in your life,
you may come to recognize that, in fact, everything you do, or want,
or feel is influenced by your thinking. And if you become persuaded
of that, you will be surprised that humans show so little interest
To make significant gains
in the quality of your thinking you will have to engage in a kind
of work that most humans find unpleasant, if not painful--intellectual
work. Yet once this thinking is done and we move our thinking to
a higher level of quality, it is not hard to keep our thinking at
that level. Still, there is the price you have to pay to step up
to the next level. One doesn’t become a skillful critic of
thinking over night, any more than one becomes a skillful basketball
player or musician over night. To become better at thinking, you
must be willing to put the work into thinking that skilled improvement
This means you must be
willing to practice special “acts” of thinking that
are initially at least uncomfortable, and sometimes challenging
and difficult. You have to learn to do with your mind “moves”
analogous to what accomplished athletes learn to do (through practice
and feedback) with their bodies. Improvement in thinking, in other
words, is similar to improvement in other domains of performance
where progress is a product of sound theory, commitment, hard work,
Consider the following
key ideas, which, when applied, result in a mind practicing skilled
thinking. These ideas represent just a few of the many ways in which
disciplined thinkers actively apply theory of mind to the mind by
the mind in order to think better. In these examples, we focus on
the significance of thinking clearly, sticking to the point (thinking
with relevance), questioning deeply, and striving to be more reasonable.
For each example, we provide a brief overview of the idea and its
importance in thinking, along with strategies for applying it in
life. Realize that the following ideas are immersed in a cluster
of ideas within critical thinking. Though we chose these particular
ideas, many others could have instead been chosen. There is no magic
in these specific ideas. In short, it is important that you understand
these as a sampling of all the possible ways in which the mind can
work to discipline itself, to think at a higher level of quality,
to function better in the world.
1. Clarify your thinking
Be on the look-out for vague, fuzzy, formless, blurred thinking.
Try to figure out the real meaning of what people are saying. Look
on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Try to figure out the
real meaning of important news stories. Explain your understanding
of an issue to someone else to help clarify it in your own mind.
Practice summarizing in your own words what others say. Then ask
them if you understood them correctly. You should neither agree
nor disagree with what anyone says until you (clearly) understand
Our own thinking usually
seems clear to us, even when it is not. But vague, ambiguous, muddled,
deceptive, or misleading thinking are significant problems in human
life. If we are to develop as thinkers, we must learn the art of
clarifying thinking, of pinning it down, spelling it out, and giving
it a specific meaning. Here’s what you can do to begin. When
people explain things to you, summarize in your own words what you
think they said. When you cannot do this to their satisfaction,
you don’t really understand what they said. When they cannot
summarize what you have said to your satisfaction, they don’t
really understand what you said. Try it. See what happens.
- Strategies for clarifying
- State one point at
- Elaborate on what
- Give examples that
connect your thoughts to life experiences.
- Use analogies and
metaphors to help people connect your ideas to a variety of things
they already understand (for example, critical thinking is like
an onion. There are many layers to it. Just when you think you
have it basically figured out, you realize there is another layer,
and then another, and another and another and on and on).
one format you can use:
- I think …(state
your main point)
- In other words…(elaborate
your main point)
- For example…(give
an example of your main point)
- To give you an analogy…(give
an illustration of your main point)
other people’s thinking, consider asking the following:
- Can you restate your
point in other words? I didn’t understand you.
- Can you give an example?
- Let me tell you what
I understand you to be saying. Did I understand you correctly?
2. Stick to the Point
Be on the look out for fragmented thinking, thinking that leaps
about with no logical connections. Start noticing when you or others
fail to stay focused on what is relevant. Focus on finding what
will aid you in truly solving a problem. When someone brings up
a point (however true) that doesn’t seem pertinent to the
issue at hand, ask: “How is what you are saying relevant to
the issue?” When you are working through a problem, make sure
you stay focused on what sheds light on, and thus helps address
the problem. Don’t allow your mind to wander to unrelated
matters. Don’t allow others to stray from the main issue.
Frequently ask: “What is the central question? Is this or
that relevant to it? How?”
When thinking is relevant,
it is focused on the main task at hand. It selects what is germane,
pertinent, related. It is on the alert for everything that connects
to the issue. It sets aside what is immaterial, inappropriate, extraneous,
and beside the point. What is relevant directly bears upon (helps
solve) the problem you are trying to solve. When thinking drifts
away from what is relevant, it needs to be brought back to what
truly makes a difference. Undisciplined thinking is often guided
by associations (this reminds me of that, that reminds me of this
other thing) rather than what is logically connected (“If
a and b are true, then c must also be true”). Disciplined
thinking intervenes when thoughts wander from what is pertinent
and germane and concentrates the mind on the things that help it
figure out what it needs to figure out.
questions to make sure thinking is focused on what is relevant:
? Am I focused on the main problem or task?
? How is this connected? How is that?
? Does my information directly relate to the problem or task?
? Where do I need to focus my attention?
? Are we being diverted to unrelated matters?
? Am I failing to consider relevant viewpoints?
? How is your point relevant to the issue we are addressing?
? What facts are actually going to help us answer the question?
What considerations should be set aside?
? Does this truly bear on the question? How does it connect?
Be on the look out for questions. The ones we ask. The ones we fail
to ask. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Listen to
how people question, when they question, when they fail to question.
Look closely at the questions asked. What questions do you ask,
should you ask? Examine the extent to which you are a questioner,
or simply one who accepts the definitions of situations given by
Most people are not skilled
questioners. Most accept the world as it is presented to them. And
when they do question, their questions are often superficial or
“loaded.” Their questions do not help them solve their
problems or make better decisions. Good thinkers routinely ask questions
in order to understand and effectively deal with the world around
them. They question the status quo. They know that things are often
different from the way they are presented. Their questions penetrate
images, masks, fronts, and propaganda. Their questions make real
problems explicit and discipline their thinking through those problems.
If you become a student of questions, you can learn to ask powerful
questions that lead to a deeper and more fulfilling life. Your questions
become more basic, essential, and deep.
for formulating more powerful questions:
- Whenever you don’t
understand something, ask a question of clarification.
- Whenever you are
dealing with a complex problem, formulate the question you are
trying to answer in several different ways (being as precise as
you can) until you hit upon the way that best addresses the problem
- Whenever you plan
to discuss an important issue or problem, write out in advance
the most significant questions you think need to be addressed
in the discussion. Be ready to change the main question, but once
made clear, help those in the discussion stick to the question,
making sure the dialogue builds toward an answer that makes sense.
Questions you can ask
to discipline your thinking:
? What precise question are we trying to answer?
? Is that the best question to ask in this situation?
? Is there a more important question we should be addressing?
? Does this question capture the real issue we are facing?
? Is there a question we should answer before we attempt to answer
? What information do we need to answer the question?
? What conclusions seem justified in light of the facts?
? What is our point of view? Do we need to consider another?
? Is there another way to look at the question?
? What are some related questions we need to consider?
? What type of question is this: an economic question, a political
question, a legal question, etc.?
4. Be Reasonable
Be on the lookout for reasonable and unreasonable behaviors —
yours and others. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface.
Listen to what people say. Look closely at what they do. Notice
when you are unwilling to listen to the views of others, when you
simply see yourself as right and others as wrong. Ask yourself at
those moments whether their views might have any merit. See if you
can break through your defensiveness to hear what they are saying.
Notice unreasonableness in others. Identify times when people use
language that makes them appear reasonable, though their behavior
proves them to be otherwise. Try to figure out why you, or others,
are being unreasonable. Might you have a vested interested in not
being open-minded? Might they?
One of the hallmarks
of a critical thinker is the disposition to change one’s mind
when given good reason to change. Good thinkers want to change their
thinking when they discover better thinking. They can be moved by
reason. Yet, comparatively few people are reasonable. Few are willing
to change their minds once set. Few are willing to suspend their
beliefs to fully hear the views of those with which they disagree.
How would you rate yourself?
for becoming more reasonable:
Say aloud: “I’m
not perfect. I make mistakes. I’m often wrong.” See
if you have the courage to admit this during a disagreement: “Of
course, I may be wrong. You may be right.”
Practice saying in your
own mind, “I may be wrong. I often am. I’m willing to
change my mind when given good reasons.” Then look for opportunities
to make changes in your thinking.
Ask yourself, “When
was the last time I changed my mind because someone gave me better
reasons for his (her) views than I had for mine?” To what
extent are you open to new ways of looking at things? To what extent
can you objectively judge information that refutes what you already
4. Realize that you are being close-minded if you:
a. are unwilling
to listen to someone’s reasons
b. are irritated
by the reasons people give you
c. become defensive
during a discussion.
After you catch yourself being close-minded, analyze what was going
on in your mind by completing these statements:
a. I realize I was
being close-minded in this situation because….
b. The thinking I
was trying to hold onto is….
c. Thinking that
is potentially better is….
d. This thinking
is better because….
In closing, let me remind
you that the ideas in this article are a very few of the many ways
in which critical thinkers bring intellectual discipline to bear
upon their thinking. The best thinkers are those who understand
the development of thinking as a process occurring throughout many
years of practice in thinking. They recognize the importance of
learning about the mind, about thoughts, feelings and desires and
how these functions of the mind interrelate. They are adept at taking
thinking apart, and then assessing the parts when analyzed. In short,
they study the mind, and they apply what they learn about the mind
to their own thinking in their own lives.
The extent to which any
of us develops as a thinker is directly determined by the amount
of time we dedicate to our development, the quality of the intellectual
practice we engage in, and the depth, or lack thereof, of our commitment
to becoming more reasonable, rational, successful persons.
Elder, L. and Paul, R.
(2004). Adapted from The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Strategic
Thinking: 25 Weeks to Better Thinking and Better Living.
Gets Us Into Trouble Because We Often:
- jump to conclusions
- fail to think-through
- lose track
of their goal
- are unrealistic
- focus on the
- fail to notice
- accept inaccurate
- ask vague questions
- give vague
- ask loaded
- ask irrelevant
- confuse questions
of different types
- answer questions
we are not competent to answer
- come to conclusions
based on inaccurate or irrelevant information
- ignore information
that does not support our view
- make inferences
not justified by our experience
- distort data
and state it inaccurately
- fail to notice
the inferences we make
- come to unreasonable
- fail to notice
- often make
- miss key ideas
- use irrelevant
- form confused
- form superficial
- misuse words
- ignore relevant
- cannot see
issues from points of view other than our own
- confuse issues
of different types
- are unaware
of our prejudices
- think narrowly
- think imprecisely
- think illogically
- think one-sidedly
- think simplistically
- think hypocritically
- think superficially
- think ethnocentrically
- think egocentrically
- think irrationally
- do poor problem
- make poor decisions
- are poor communicators
- have little
insight into our own ignorance
how-to list for dysfunctional living
Most people have no notion of what it means to take charge of their
lives. They don’t realize that the quality of their lives
depends on the quality of their thinking. We all engage in numerous
dysfunctional practices to avoid facing problems in our thinking.
Consider the following and ask yourself how many of these dysfunctional
ways of thinking you engage in:
- Surround yourself
with people who think like you. Then no one will criticize you.
- Don’t question
your relationships. You then can avoid dealing with problems within
- If critiqued by a
friend or lover, look sad and dejected and say, “I thought
you were my friend!” or “I thought you loved me!”
- When you do something
unreasonable, always be ready with an excuse. Then you won’t
have to take responsibility. If you can’t think of an excuse,
look sorry and say, “I can’t help how I am!”
- Focus on the negative
side of life. Then you can make yourself miserable and blame it
- Blame others for
your mistakes. Then you won’t have to feel responsible for
your mistakes. Nor will you have to do anything about them.
- Verbally attack those
who criticize you. Then you don’t have to bother listening
to what they say.
- Go along with the
groups you are in. Then you won’t have to figure out anything
- Act out when you don’t
get what you want. If questioned, look indignant and say, “I’m
just an emotional person. At least I don’t keep my feelings
- Focus on getting what
you want. If questioned, say, “If I don’t look out
for number one, who will?”
As you see, the list
is almost laughable. And so it would be if these irrational ways
of thinking didn’t lead to problems in life. But they do.
And often. Only when we are faced with the absurdity of dysfunctional
thinking, and can see it at work in our lives, do we have a chance
to alter it. The strategies outlined in this guide presuppose your
willingness to do so.
This article was adapted from the book, Critical
Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life,
by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.