Critical Thinking: An Academic Perspective Research Paper Starter

Critical Thinking: An Academic Perspective

(Research Starters)

The article begins by defining "critical thinking," a multifaceted concept that requires people to think abstractly, to contextualize material into a personalized framework, and parallels a “constructivist” standpoint. Despite the fact that critical thinking appears to be a sophisticated intellectual construct, school systems generally avoid incorporating activities that induce this advanced cognitive mechanism. Ideas for teachers who are interested in integrating a critical model (i.e., "the questioning circle") into their instruction are presented. Finally, populations for which critical thinking is more suitable are reviewed, as well as populations that might particularly struggle with the esoteric nature associated with this style of thought.

Educational Psychology: Critical Thinking: An Academic Perspective

Keywords Critical Thinking; Constructivist Perspective; Developmental Perspective; Reductionist Perspective; Questioning Circle; Triarchic Theory


In an attempt to understand how students learn most efficiently, educational psychologists have broached various pedagogical issues and ascertained their proficiency, rigor, and contributions toward academia. Critical thinking is a concept that has been examined from various angles, with regard to how it enhances the learning process, along with the advantages, disadvantages, and limitations that this thinking style imparts. Much research (Glevey, 2006; Paul & Elder, 2006; Vansieleghem, 2005), asserts that the actual definition of critical thinking is somewhat abstract and varied. Heiman (1985) describes critical thinking as an internal dialogue, whereby a person ponders and dissects the material that is being learned. As opposed to passively receiving information, critical thinkers internally apply the knowledge that they receive against their personal frames of reference. They devise specific questions that need further contemplation, and brainstorm relevant examples that help illuminate the material. Additionally, they use exploratory and imaginative methods that are conceptual in nature, and which do not typically yield right and wrong answers.

By nature, instructors who assign writing activities elicit more critical thinking skills than those that evaluate students based upon testing assessments that are commonly formatted into multiple-choice, true/false, or fill-in-the-blank questions (Jackson, 2006). The latter requires people to think deductively by narrowing down options until the correct answer remains. Writing, on the other hand, allows people to expressively justify their opinions, and it is typically their style and way with words that validates their convictions.

Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum

Meyers (1986) maintains that coursework should contain critical thinking elements across the curriculum. Budding writers should not limit their critical expression to English class; they should be challenged in this arena from teachers who specialize in various subjects (e.g., English, Biology, History, Math, etc.). For example, a biology student who is studying the ecology of giraffes might speculate what life would be like as a giraffe. This student might look through the lens of the giraffe while drafting up a paper, and reflect on questions such as "based on my bodily dimensions, what food might be more accessible?" or "within my natural habitat, how would I escape a predator?"

Likewise, a history student might wonder how life would unfold if aspects of Ancient Rome were to take place in today's culture. In both of these instances, the initial concern undertaken by the critical thinker is not related to the accuracy of facts; not until the offset and exploration of such an imaginative process will a student comparatively unearth the scientific and historical certainties. Theoretically, this type of "thinking outside the box" leaves a lasting and complex impression by merging objective material with the learner's subjective and hypothetical reasoning. In contrast, memorizing a list of historical dates and scientific details is less memorable, and thus more fleeting.

Davis-Seaver (2000) operationalizes critical thinking through the following definition:

… purposeful thinking that uses the skills of problem solving, decision making, evaluation, and metacognition to resolve conflicts, arrive at solutions and understand depth. It is that part of the creative thinking process that analyzes and evaluates the appropriateness and logicalness of the creative process outcome (pp. 9-10).

She contends that there are interconnected concepts that coincide with the existence of critical thinking, including abstract thinking, (the thought processes that are not necessarily based in reality) and creative thinking, which are innovative and unique revelations. Critical thinking draws upon people's ability to think hypothetically about intangible, unrealistic, metaphoric, or time-infinite (e.g., past or futuristic) events.


Included in the definition of critical thought offered by Garside (1996) is the critical thinker who does not blindly accept universal truths, but rather approaches phenomena with a healthy dose of skepticism, and the ability to see the strengths and weaknesses in any given claim. This pattern is ideally exemplified in an educational environment, and students should be given the opportunity to raise questions and challenge data that is put forth by their professors. Furthermore, Garside (1996) asserts that "critical thinking involves a set of skills that are most effectively taught within the context of a subject area. Since it is impossible to think critically about something of which one knows nothing, critical thinking is dependent on a sufficient base of knowledge" (p. 215). Meyers (1986) shares this sentiment and indicates that the sequence of critical thinking transmission should begin with a concrete understanding of information, which gradually forays into more abstraction. In other words, science students should learn basic tenets before creating their own theoretical milieu.

Further Insights

The Reductionist Perspective

Most schools utilize a converse set of procedures, such as biology students who begin by examining theoretical, abstract concepts before transitioning into hands-on laboratory activities that are concrete. This corresponds with the reductionist ideal described by Davis-Seaver (2000), which is one of three perspectives (i.e., reductionist, developmental, constructist) attributed with the etiology of critical thinking. The reductionist perspective breaks down thinking patterns to their simplest form, and therefore focuses on skill mastery, or the obtainment of concrete knowledge that needs to exist before critical thinking can occur. In other words, before a student philosophizes about the various aspects of U.S. government, and compares current policies against the "rise and fall" of Ancient Rome, that student needs to have a solid understanding of governmental policies that currently reign in America, as well as those that existed in Rome.

The Developmental Perspective

This is contrasted with the developmental perspective, that emphasizes age-appropriate maturation that must be established before engaging in critical thinking, and is associated with theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, and Erikson. Just as a young child would not be expected to run a marathon due to biological and physiological constraints that have yet to be cultivated, children are intellectually unequipped with the intellectual mechanisms that necessitate processing information in a critical manner. Dewey (1910) points out that experiences that are relevant to adults naturally transform from concrete to abstract. Because children are inexperienced toward the everyday actions carried out by adults (e.g., paying bills, taxes, voting) such experiences remain theoretical until the child transitions into adulthood, during which those same activities become a normative, practical, and concrete part of life.

The Constructivist Perspective

Finally, constructivism is the perspective that resonates with most critical thinking advocates, which purports that critical thinking is experiential, pertinent to one's life, requires curiosity and reflection, and can be accomplished at any age. This perspective assumes that as children confront relevant coursework, a natural sense of inquisitiveness ensues, which should be nurtured by teachers who encourage them to probe, investigate, and scrutinize what has been presented.

Maiorana (1992) explains the nature of critical thinking within the context of everyday life. Humans are curious by nature, and when confronted with information that is puzzling, problematic, or discordant with their values, possess an...

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