What It Means To Think Critically


by Terry Heick

What does ‘critical thinking’ mean?

Well, that depends on who you ask. For educators, as a term critical thinking is similar to words like democracy, global, and organic: You hear people use them all the time, but no one seems to understand exactly what they mean.

This kind of etymological opacity lends itself to them being misused, fumbled awkwardly, and abused. Over the long term, such abuse empties it of meaning until we all either throw it around casually in the middle of an overly complex sentence to bolster our own credibility, or avoid the term altogether.

If we can, for the purpose of the here and now, agree that critical thinking means something along the lines of thinking to produce judgment, then we’re already two thirds of the way to making some kind of new meaning ourselves here.

Critical thinking is among the first causes for change (personal and social), but is a pariah in schools –for no other reason than it conditions the mind to suspect the form and function of everything it sees, including your classroom and everything being taught in it.

Of course, critical thinking without knowledge is embarrassingly idle, like a farmer without a field. They need each other—thought and knowledge. They can also disappear into one another as they work. Once we’ve established that—that they’re separate, capable of merging, and need one another—we can get at the marrow and fear of this whole thing.

More than definition and clarification, we need contextualization–to look around the term as we use it and see when and how it’s used, and what kind of reaction it elicits when that happens. Here, there’s a lot to look at: how to teach it, how to assess it, what role it plays in the learning process, how to use it in misleading school mission statements, how to casually drop it in classroom walkthroughs or walkthrough documents (in a way that implies I’m not exactly sure how this lesson should be made better, so I’ll instead encourage you to ‘encourage the kids to think critically,’ or, There is so much abstraction in your class that I have no idea what’s happening but boy there’s probably a lot of critical thinking going on). says that critical thinking is:

“Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.”

A paper published in 2004 by a professor at Harvard says that definitions for critical thinking are “available in various sources are quite disparate and are often narrowly field dependent,” offering a psychology-based definition as “Critical thinking examines assumptions, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, and assesses conclusions.”

In the same paper, Philosopher Richard Paul and educational psychologists Linda Elder define critical thinking as “That mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.”

In education, critical pedagogy and critical thinking overlap almost entirely. The definitions above, while focus on the thinking, don’t focus much on the criticism. In critical thinking, the thinking is only a strategy to arrive at informed criticism, which is itself is a starting pointing for understanding one’s self and/or the world around you. While in function it can run parallel to the scientific method, science intends to arrive an unbiased, neutral, and zero-human conclusion.

In critical thinking, there is no conclusion; it is constant interaction with changing circumstances and new knowledge that allows for broader vision which allows for new evidence which starts the process over again. Critical thinking has at its core raw emotion and tone.


To think critically about something is to claim to first circle its meaning entirely—to walk all the way around it so that you understand it in a way that’s uniquely you. The thinker works with their own thinking tools–schema. Background knowledge. Sense of identity. Meaning Making is a process as unique to that thinker as their own thumb print. There is no template.

After circling the meaning of whatever you’re thinking critically about—a navigation necessarily done with bravado and purpose—the thinker can then analyze the thing. In thinking critically, the thinker has to see its parts, its form, its function, and its context. After this kind of survey and analysis you can come to evaluate it–bring to bear your own distinctive cognition on the thing so that you can point out flaws, underscore bias, emphasize merit—to get inside the mind of the author, designer, creator, or clockmaker and critique his work. 

This clockmaker that has made this clock.

This poet that has conjured this poem.

This scientist that has worked for months on this study to prove or disprove this ambitious theory.

This historian that has contextualized this historical movement in a series of documents and artifacts that now deserve contextualization of their own.

To think critically requires you to aggregate knowledge, form some kind of understanding, get inside the mind of the clockmaker, judge their work, and then articulate it all for a specific form (e.g., argumentative essay) and audience (e.g., teacher). Think about what that means.

It’s easy for teachers to see the role of critical thinking in a more macro process. By analyzing and critiquing the work of others—especially experts—students have to temporarily merge minds with them (or else they’re just producing conjecture that sounds smart). By thinking critically, they learn here by imitation—for a moment, running alongside others who, among other functions, act as pacesetters. By combining this kind of angled thought with master workers and their works, we force students to dance with giants—or the holograms of giants.

The tone here is intimidating for developing thinkers—or should be anyway. It’s a tone that is simultaneously intellectual, collaborative, and defiant. It says, “I’ve come to understand this complex thing worthy of study—which probably represents a more significant achievement than anything I’ve ever produced in my life—and then bring judgment upon it. I am both capable of all of this, and willing to do it in a way that itself will be judged.”

This is the kind of courage that takes years to grow.

What It Means To Think Critically; image attribution flickr user vancouverfilmschool


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Why Capturing Imagination Is Important For Deeper Learning –


by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought PD

I miss teaching.

Not so much the rigors of bells, short breaks, endless supervision duty, multiple preps, rushed lunches, and the paperwork. But I miss the actual moments in my classes where I captured the imagination of students. I still get that privilege when I facilitate our professional development, but there’s something different about hooking a student into a moment of profound thinking. Not only because it is a moment of enlightenment but also because it is a gateway to deeper learning.

Much has been made of the importance of effective instruction, including in my recent piece, 3 Questions To Help Make ‘Deeper Learning’ Work, and I do think it is essential and sometimes overlooked in pursuit of student engagement. But in most of my conversations with or readings from the ‘science of learning’ advocates, I’m generally left feeling like they’re leaving out something significant.

While I certainly think long term memory is important, as is direct instruction, I’m almost always left wanting by these kinds of writings that seem to end at knowledge and leave out understanding and deeper abstract conceptual learning.

— Drew Perkins (@dperkinsed) January 6, 2023

Getting students to learn more deeply requires their cognitive engagement, and that rarely comes without them being interested. Yes, it is true that learning often leads to motivation, as students feel a sense of success and efficacy. Certainly, the opposite is intuitively true; when a student is struggling and left feeling defeated, their motivation will be halted. While knowledge is necessary for deeper learning, it is not sufficient.

Capturing the imagination of students can take many forms, and I would argue that all of them brush up against the power of questions waiting to be answered. Sometimes they are ‘in the moment’ kinds of phenomenon, planned by the teacher to inspire awe, create cognitive dissonance, or allow students to experience something new.

Other times they are more macro. Perhaps a teacher who, over the course of a semester, models thinking in a way that pushes and inspires student thinking. Or a Project-Based Learning experience, like our Straw Project Exemplar, that is meant to surface those ‘a-ha’ moments. Or perhaps an engagement with content and knowledge in ways that connect to the ideas, thoughts, and questions of others like Socratic Seminar, World Cafe Conversations, or a structured protocol like the ones developed by one of our partners, the NSRF.

In my high school psychology classroom, I used all kinds of things to lead student thinking and capture their curiosity. When teaching about sensation and perception, I brought in a magician to perform for them. For our unit on consciousness, I led them through a brief meditation exercise. When we studied disorders, we took a field trip to a local psychiatric hospital.

In my government classroom, I had our local Kentucky State Representative ask them to propose budget policy recommendations that fit the needs of his constituents. In my economics classroom, I brought in an official from the Federal Reserve System and another time, as part of a Project-Based Learning experience, asked students to pitch an entrepreneurial idea for a new sneaker. In my middle school history class we placed a live call into C-SPAN and were featured on a national news program when we visited a local veterans home.

None of those kinds of things necessarily lead to deeper learning, and we have to be mindful that exciting moments with our classes and students aren’t sufficient either. But paired with dynamic inquiry and effective instruction, they all have the potential to move students from a mindset of compliance by generating interest and spurring beautiful questions.

In fact, it isn’t always necessary to plan things of this scale. It is quite possible to capture student imagination and curiosity with simple exercises like the Question Formulation Technique.

Imagine the wondering questions that might emanate from elementary science students when asked to generate questions from this QFT Question Focus:

The amount of water on the earth now is the same as when dinosaurs existed.

Or what if we asked students studying civil rights to engage in a Visible Thinking Making Meaning Routine to define racism after watching Carlos Hoyt’s TEDx Talk demonstration with sugar and salt?

To achieve deeper learning, we can’t forget the principles of effective instruction to help students learn important knowledge. But cognitive engagement should not be limited to knowledge acquisition and changes in long-term memory. In fact, as Zach Groshell and I discussed in this recent podcast chat, there is considerable overlap between the ‘science of learning’ and ‘deeper learning’. Considering how to hook and hold student curiosity and use it to leverage them into critical thinking is key.

It isn’t good enough to loiter in the Remember and Understand levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. It is when students engage through processes like analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and creating that learners create deeper learning connections that transfer and endure for years to come.


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