Education is in need of Critical Thinking

In 2012 when it was suggested that I change my thesis topic to examine critical thinking, and more specifically in the domain I work in – the emergency services – I thought my supervisor was a bit, well… odd.  Why examine something that everyone does?  After all, everyone is a critical thinker, aren’t they?  I mean, if the people were not critical thinkers, how can they function?

How wrong was I?

Over the past three years as I have ventured further into the topic of the critical thinking, the more I have become aware that most people do not think critically, but rather think critically with a bias.  I know, at this point you are going – huh!  But stay with me.

To start out we need to consider what is critical thinking, is it a general skill, context specific or both?  Is it an outcome or a process, or both?  To confound this, the answer to each of these questions is yes.  To expand on this, let’s look at a brief history in the development of critical thinking.

Complication in seeking clarity around the term ‘critical thinking’ may derive from conjecture about when the term first appeared in the educational lexicon.  Many authors indicate that ideas concerning critical and reflective thinking have a history dating back to Socrates and Plato and more recently Hume, Mill, and Dewey.  However, after many years of writing about critical thinking by scholars and researchers, there are numerous definitions exist in the psychological, philosophical, and educational domains.  Further, the inter-changeability of the term critical thinking with problem-solving, lateral thinking, reflective thinking, critical analysis, and critical evaluation adds an additional layer of confusion.

However, what is common to all of these definitions is that critical thinking encompasses the abilities of analysis, inductive and deductive reasoning, evaluation, and decision making.   The literature has also identified several critical thinking dispositions such as open-mindedness; the desire to seek reason; the desire to be well-informed; and a flexible disposition.   Further, critical thinking is aided through engagement with reflective thinking is an “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey, 1910, p.6).  Ennis (2011), incorporating the earlier work of Dewey, proposed that “critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” (p. 10).

As it relates to the current education regime, critical thinking becomes effective if a person engages in thinking that looks at multiple aspects of an issue, does not discount information even though this information may be contrary to the person’s views/opinions, reasons from logic and justifies decisions/opinions based on the available evidence.  Critical thinking is self-directed when the thinker calls the shots and is not prompted by another, e.g. a teacher or colleague.

It is this last paragraph that drives this post.  I do not think that the education system is currently creating critical thinkers.  Those who do think contrary to the current educational orthodoxy do so, I assert, in spite of their teachers.  This is not to say that there are not great teachers who encourage and support individual and critical thinking.  I have met and had the pleasure of being educated by them during my current doctoral program, and a graduate course I am doing with Melbourne University.  And I have no doubt many of you reading this could articulate your experiences, but I focussing on the rule rather than the exceptions we think of.  I also assert that the stifling of critical thinking also stifles individual thought and creativity.

One example was demonstrated in a recent social media campaign surrounding the current Australian government’s decision to fund Bjorn Lomborg’s Australian Consensus Centre at the University of Western Australia.  Several academics took to Twitter to criticise Lomborg as a choice to establish this new centre.  Further, “the UWA vice-chancellor Paul Johnson cancelled the contract for the centre, saying the scale of the strong and passionate emotional reaction was one that the university did not predict” (source).

More recently, Flinders University is “gauging the opinion of its staff before committing itself to the centre, in an attempt to avoid the UWA’s situation. Academics are thought to be split on the merits of hosting Lomborg” (source).  An additional news report states that “Flinders University students are “repulsed” by the prospect of a new policy centre associated with controversial Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg, who has long been accused of downplaying the dangers posed by global warming” (source).

I acknowledge that using global warming/climate change as a point of focus is controversial and I did so with this in mind.  I am not advocating one way or the other, but, want to highlight that while both of the institutions mentioned above advertise their research records and indicate support for academic freedom, it is clear that the majority of the staff and student do not.  And I assert that this derision of someone who has alternatives views runs contrary to development and engagement with academic freedom and critical thinking.  Currently, as I analyse the situation, emotion overrides logic and he/she who shouts the loudest emotionally, is right.  In these times I am often reminded of one of my favourite quotes from the movie, The Mission:

If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.

If these august institutions do truly want to encourage critical thinking that should embrace the centre proposed and critically analyse the issue and produce arguments based on that critical analysis.  Sadly, this is not happening.  This is one of many examples I have noticed on my critical thinking journey.  I may write about the others as I get my thoughts together.

Let me know what you think.


Dewey, J. (1910).  How we think. New York, NY: Heath & Co.

Ennis, R. H. (2011).  Critical Thinking: Reflection and Perspective Part I.  INQUIRY: Critical Thinking Across The Disciplines, 26(1), 4-18.


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