Performance of American school children

Critical thinking is a term that has long been bandied about in educational circles, and is often lamentably associated with the reduced performance of American school children when compared with those of similar age in other developed countries. But the precise meaning of “critical thinking” — the intellectual skill set it implies and the cultural attitude towards thought that it assumes — are not always made clear, or clearly understood. Critical thinking is generally understood as educated and skeptical analysis with an eye towards improving the soundness of a thought (Elder & Paul 2002). But this definition still does not provide a great deal of clarity, and in fact opens the door to many kinds of thinking that might appear to be critical, but that are in fact not conducive to greater success, whether academic otherwise. An examination of some of the other factors to be considered when defining critical thinking is necessary in order to critically improve this definition into something more valuable.

Fair-mindedness is another major factor in critical thinking; it is very possible to skeptically analyze and even dismantle almost any argument through what looks like critical thinking, but mental manipulation can often have the same appearance (Elder & Paul 2006). In order o be true critical thinking, the tinker must attempt to remove all bias from their thought process, and determine first what is truly know by the facts presented. Making assumptions is a necessary part of almost any thinking process, but facts and inferences should come before any assumptions or conclusions (Elder & Paul 2002; Elder & Paul 2006). The essence of critical thinking, then, might be found in the differentiation between inference and assumption, and the withholding of all assumptions until one is ultimately necessary (Elder & Paul 2002).

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Language and communication are also key to the concept of thinking in general, and critical thinking specifically. Without the possibility for communication, no thought is externally useful or able to be discussed, therefore thinking itself can be defined “as the activity of the brain that can potentially be communicated” (Kirby & Goodpaster 2007). Language is the way almost all human thought is communicated, and the efficacy of one’s language ability has a direct causal effect on the effectiveness of their ideas (Alwasilah 2002). Unbiased skeptical analysis, then, can only take place in well thought out and logically related linguistic steps, then, if it is to be at all useful, and possibly if the thought is to originate in the brain at all (Kirby & Goodpaster 2007; Alwasilah 2002). Without developing the necessary language skills, and individual is left not only handicapped in their ability to understand situations and develop their own critical analysis of them but they are also completely unable to communicate their analysis and its conclusions to other individuals, making critical thinking virtually non-existent for that individual and hugely limiting their ability to effect change.

Critical thinking, then, is the unbiased skeptical analysis of information developed and communicated in discrete and unequivocal linguistic segments. A work experience of mine from a few years ago demonstrates this pretty clearly. It was the Christmas shopping season and I was working in a small toy store where we offered gift wrapping, and where we still wrote out the receipts by hand (no barcode scanners or computerized registers). There was a line form the register counter at the back of the store to the entrance, a pile of gifts on the back counter being wrapped, and the manager has just gone to lunch when one of the registers went berserk.

I wasn’t officially in charge, but as the most senior employee there I knew we had to do something. The register couldn’t be used, but we had a huge mass of people waiting to buy their presents. Most of them would be getting wrapped, I assumed from experience, and most of the people having their presents wrapped would probably be leaving and coming back fro them (the wiat for wrapping was half-an-hour). I quickly assessed the situation and made a decision: I would continue working at my register because I was the fastest one there. I asked the employee at the other register and one of the gift wrappers to start writing receipts in the line so that by the time they got to the register, all I would have to do is ring them up and mark their gifts for wrapping. The gift wrapping slowed down a bit with the loss of a worker, but the line began to move very rapidly. This meant that those not getting their presents wrapped were done sooner, and even those who would be coming pack to pick up their gifts could get out of the line sooner — everyone was saved some time. When the manage got back, she couldn’t fix the other register and just took over as a third set of hands gift wrapping.

Our line stayed long for the next three hours, and if it hadn’t been moving quickly I’m sure we would have lsot some customer. Critical thinking was important here for quickly determining a solution based on the facts and my knowledge of the past, and for communicating that solution to others so that it could be carried out. My boss actually has people writing receipts in line whenever it’s busy now because she has seen the amount of time it can save everyone. Though this might not be the most essential scenario I have ever engaged in critical thinking, it was enough to make me happy.


Alwasilah, a. (2002). “Critical thinking crucial to global success.” Jakarta Post May 2, pp. 7.

Elder, L. & Paul, R. (2002). “Critical thinking: Distinguishing between inferences and assumptions.” Journal of developmental education 25(3), pp. 34-5.

Elder, L. & Paulr, R. (2006). Critical Thinking:Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life. New York: Prentice Hall.

Kirby, G. & Goodpaster, J. (2007). Thinking. New York: Prentice Hall.

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