Do you understand what critical thinking means? Is there an indicator when thinking becomes or transforms into critical thinking?

The phrase "critical thinking" has become widely used in this field and it is a skill which students are told they must learn. The challenge is that this phrase can have multiple descriptions when educators are asked to define it. The descriptions provided by students are even more varied and often described using clichés such as "thinking outside of the box", or they can come closer to what this concept means when they relate it to problem-solving.

This poses a challenge for the inclusion of critical thinking in a list of skills students need to learn because there isn't a clear standard regarding how best to teach it, along with an uncertainty about the precise length of time that it can take students to learn it, which means it may be difficult for one educator to teach critical thinking within the time allowed for their class. It may be even more challenging to assess how students are progressing as they attempt to learn and work with this skill. What can help instructors is to understand the essence of critical thinking by examining different types of thinking, and use this knowledge to transform their instructional strategies and practices.

Levels of Thinking

As a person evolves from childhood into young adulthood, and then full adulthood as determined by their graduation from high school, they have also developed a specific mindset that includes their beliefs about the learning process. They have been conditioned to learn in a passive manner because of an educational system that established classes as being teacher-led. Now as an adult, that is their perception about learning. When they enter a traditional college classroom the format is still the same, with the instructor guiding the process. While students are expected to be responsible they still have not fully become active participants.

In contrast, if adults take a class from an online school there is an expectation they will be active participants and know how to think for themselves. Yet they believe learning occurs in a specific manner without knowing that their mind can learn in other ways. The online class environment is student-centered, and adult students are expected to think in a way that is different than what they were previously taught, and likely to be different than how they presently think as informal learners. This means a strategy is needed to prompt their intellectual development, which can cause growth in their mental capacity. There are three levels of thinking to consider as you work with your students: Automatic Thinking, Active Thinking, and Critical Thinking.

Automatic Thinking

The mind is always at work and thinking is an automatic process. People think during all awake time, unless they have trained themselves to meditate and quiet their thoughts. Automatic thinking occurs naturally and includes thoughts about the current environment, along with thoughts that are based upon physical needs, emotions, or external stimuli. It also consists of self-talk, internalized dialogue, superficial thoughts, established thought patterns, and existing mental structures. Automatic thinking also occurs as input is acquired through the five senses, when the mind relies upon perceptual filters to interpret the information received.

As the mind follows instructions on a repetitive basis, mental habits are formulated. This is where "auto-pilot" comes into play, which consists of the mental habits and shortcuts that adults create for lower order tasks. For example, if you are used to driving to a destination without consciously thinking about how to get there, you established a mental shortcut which allows you to get to your destination with a mental habit.

Information processing is another automatic thinking process we are aware of but do not always have to consciously control. As we sort through information received, some of it is retained in our working memory and anything that is considered irrelevant is discarded. The mind is bombarded with information received every day, from what is heard on television to advertisements that try to catch our attention.

Active Thinking

The next level of thinking after automatic thinking is active thinking. This occurs when we are consciously aware of how we are thinking and may include activities such as participating in a discussion or following instructions.

During active thinking, most of the messages received can filter through; however, if an advertisement or something being said to us were to catch our attention, the mind would transition from automatic thinking to active or conscious thinking and awareness. Active thinking also includes reading, writing, speaking, stating opinions, and problem solving using informal logic. For example, if a financial analysis was required it would mean taking numbers and putting them into a format or equation to be calculated, categorized, manipulated, or computed. That is also a form of active thinking.

Active thinking is usually how students define critical thinking, by stating it is a matter of "thinking hard" about a topic or subject. They are consciously aware of the topic and recalling the knowledge they currently possess about it.

Critical Thinking

The third type of thinking is the domain of critical thinking, which is not automatic and must be triggered or activated. It can be activated for a specific purpose and learned as a skill. Students can trigger it when they need to work with more than their existing knowledge, beliefs, and opinions. A triggering event can be unexpected, unknown, or something unique. Critical thinking is done with a purpose. For example, when a student needs to research a topic and the subject is presently unknown to them. Instead of filling their paper with direct quotes they can question the information received to find answers, and then analyze the information obtained.

It can also enhance problem-solving when a student needs an answer they cannot arrive at on their own. When students write papers, they will provide more of their analysis and less from their sources because they have examined evidence and re-examined their beliefs or assumptions. Critical thinking involves a search for compelling evidence that solidifies a new idea, analysis, or perspective. Thinking becomes critical when students are unable to develop the required answers or provide the necessary information from their knowledge base. Critical thinking involves examining information and ideas that are outside of closely held beliefs and ideas, which are relied upon during active thinking.

Active thinking utilizes an existing mental structure, where as critical thinking is an examination of and disposition towards changing that mental model. When students are in this mode they can consider alternative perspectives and solutions. When adult students can learn and use critical thinking on a regular basis, they will find their mindset is transformed. No longer will they accept information without searching for evidence to support the premise used in whatever was written or spoken. Students find their discussion question responses and written assignments transform from being an opinion piece or research report to a statement of their analysis with information from sources used as evidence to back up their thoughts and ideas. In other words, students can think for themselves once they learn critical thinking as a skill.

Why Critical Thinking is Critical for Learning

Everyone benefits from the use of critical thinking and it includes students, instructors, and schools. It helps students think for themselves, becoming highly productive and performing at their very best. They are receiving the maximum benefit possible from their degree program through the development of new mental habits and skills, and they are more likely to stay in their classes and program. However, this does not occur without any challenges. Students are challenged by learning the process, and then using it correctly and consistently in their courses. The challenge for instructors is knowing how to teach this process as a skill, how long they need to teach it, and how to measure it to determine that it is being used correctly.

It is easy to ask students to demonstrate critical thinking but even more challenging to develop a mental model for them to follow, and that means it must be prompted so that students watch it in action and can then emulate the process. Thinking becomes critical when students provide more than a superficial or cursory response, and in place of opinions they develop well-documented and well-research position statements and analyses.

Critical thinking is not a natural process, although there are times when it is possible for adults to have a period of reflection when they are prompted by unplanned or unexpected changes. Thinking also becomes critical when students no longer rely upon perceptual filters to determine what is accepted as true and correct, with a willingness to evaluate beliefs and change when they find compelling evidence. Critical thinking matters for adult education because it is at the heart of every student's developmental growth and ongoing progress.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.

As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.

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