Critical thinking has been described in many ways. The philosophers Michael Scriven and Richard Paul, in 1987, in describing critical thinking emphasized on the evaluation, synthesis, and analysis of information. The philosopher Peter Facione, in 2005, suggested that critical thinking is purposeful and self-regulatory judgment. It involves interpretation, analysis, evaluation, explanation, and self-regulation. More recently, in 2018, the Foundation of Critical Thinking described critical thinking as self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking, which involves effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as overcoming egocentrism and sociocentrism.
Over the years, scholars have argued about being able to blend the idea of critical thinking within formal education. The significance of this idea was reflected when in 1983 the California State University system introduced the requirement of undergraduate students to complete a course on critical thinking. This came to be known as critical thinking pedagogy which involves “an understanding of the relationship of language to logic, leading to the ability to analyze, criticize and advocate ideas, reason inductively and deductively, and reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief.”
The introduction of critical thinking pedagogy is referred to as the Big Bang moment of teaching critical thinking in higher education. It allegedly led to what is often called the critical thinking movement. However, before and after this historical moment, philosophers, educationists, psychologists, and scientists have proposed significant perspectives on critical thinking and education.
One of the earliest figures proposing critical thinking in education is the psychologist, philosopher, and educationist John Dewey. Dewey developed what came to be known as the progressive education model, which involves learning through discovery-based activities. He opposed rote memorization and suggested the idea of learning by doing.
Dewey believed that education should facilitate creative intelligence and prepare students to live effectively in society. In his book How We Think, published in 1910, Dewey argued that thinking should be a means to clear doubt. He suggested that students should be given effective learning activities meant for problem-solving.
For this, Dewey suggested a science-inspired method of reasoning, which involved proposing a tentative solution, till more evidence is gathered to either confirm or disprove it. Dewey termed this type of reasoning as reflective thinking, which he defined as “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.” Scholars have suggested that reflective thinking is the same as critical thinking, making Dewey one of the first individuals to incorporate critical thinking within education.
Like Dewey, the educationist, philosopher, and often considered to be the father of critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire opposed the traditional methods of education. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1970, Freire criticized the educational system, calling it banking education, in which students are passive beings and teachers simply deposit information in their minds. Freire suggested that banking education does not encourage dialogue with students and completely inhibits critical thinking.
In contrast, Freire proposed the problem-posing method, in which the teacher and student become co-investigators of knowledge. The problem-posing method encourages a dialog and invites the oppressed to explore their reality as a problem that can be transformed, and not something that is fixed.
According to Freire, the aim of education is to make students develop a critical consciousness that will help them understand the roots of social, political, and economic oppression - a form of critical thinking that will create awareness of society. Freire’s ideas came to be known as critical pedagogy, which encourages learners to confront their knowledge, ideas, and biases to question the power dynamics in society and develop new ways of thinking.
In similar ways to Dewey and Freire, the philosopher Robert Ennis believed that critical thinking in individuals should be developed in aspects of everyday life, something that is not covered in their formal education. Ennis, in this way, views critical thinking as a lifelong perspective. For this, Ennis suggested the idea of transfer - being able to apply learnings in everyday aspects of life, beyond academics.
In this regard, Ennis proposed a framework of four approaches - general, infusion, immersion, and mixed. In the general approach, critical thinking is taught independently of the regular course. In the infusion approach, critical thinking is blended within the regular course, in which critical thinking skills are made explicit. In the immersion approach, critical thinking is blended into the regular course, and critical thinking skills are not made explicit. Finally, in the mixed approach, there is a combination of the general approach combined with either the infusion or the immersion approach. According to research, the mixed approach has been found to be the most effective in learning critical thinking as well as transfer.
Apart from Dewey, Freire, and Ennis, the teaching style of the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman is considered to promote critical thinking. Along with his contributions to physics, Feynman has been widely known for his teaching style, which came to be known as the Feynman technique, after he passed away in 1988. The Feynman technique involves understanding, simplifying, and explaining difficult concepts. It is about simplifying substantive and complex concepts and explaining them in their simplest forms.
The Feynman technique involves four steps - (1) identifying a concept to learn, (2) understanding and explaining the concept in simple terms, (3) reviewing the concept and identifying gaps, and (4) simplifying the concept further and creating analogies for a better understanding. The Feynman technique enables active learning and not just passive re-reading and memorization. It also enables a deep understanding of an idea or concept. Both of these aspects promote critical thinking.
Further, the Feynman technique is associated with autodidactism and heutagogy. Autodidactism is self-directed learning, which involves taking initiative in acquiring knowledge. Heutagogy is self-determined learning, which involves reflecting upon learning experiences. Both autodidactism and heutagogy are features of critical thinking. This indicates that the Feynman technique is not just an effective learning method, but it is also useful in developing critical thinking.
Philosophers, educationists, psychologists, and scientists, from the early 20th century, have suggested ways in which critical thinking can be blended into formal education. According to them, traditional methods of learning should be shunned, and instead, education should incorporate critical thinking to make learners indulge in active learning and deep understanding, develop problem-solving skills, confront biases, be aware of various societal issues, and develop new ways of thinking.
To know more about critical thinking, refer to my podcast - Psychology, Critical Thinking, and Society