This literature review will examine the emergence of critical thinking in history and its impact on education. Early work in critical thinking and methods for teaching critical thinking will be reviewed as well as modern day use of critical thinking. Finally, this paper will examine the benefits of critical thinking in the classroom.
Purpose of critical thinking
Dr. Richard Paul (2006) defines critical thinking as the “disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any set of circumstances.” It is essentially using the best information available to make the best decisions possible. Critical thinking relies on one’s ability to ask themselves questions about a given topic or situation and be critical of the answers those questions generate.
This can lead to questions based on previous questions. These should result in a deeper understanding of the topic or situation at hand. At the very least, one realizes that they need further information before they can make the right decision. If critical thinking is practiced properly the thinker is being a critic of his own thoughts at all times, deciding if they are fair-minded and appropriate. This requires intellectual humility and discipline that is developed over time and with practice (Paul 2006).
History of Critical Thinking
Over 2,500 years ago Socrates was challenging intellectuals of his time through series of questions which ultimately explored the depth and logic of their ideas. This probing questioning often uncovered many public speakers as smooth talkers with shallow ideas, inadequate evidence and self-contradictory ideas (Paul, 1997). Socrates believed that one cannot simply take the word of those in authority to have a strong grasp or insight into all matters simply due to their position. He showed that, like anyone else, they were prone to confusion and irrational thought. By asking deep and profound questions, he was able to ascertain just how worthy an idea was of belief (Paul, 1997).
The method described above is now referred to as “Socratic Questioning” and is the best known critical thinking teaching strategy (Paul, 1997). While it is useful for the questioner to understand the depth of knowledge of his target, it is perhaps even more valuable to the person being questioned. When one undergoes such questioning, they will themselves see the holes in their logic, and any irrational thought or lack of thought in their ideas. Socratic questioning highlights the need for clarity and logical consistency, something that is crucial for all critical thinkers.
In his time, Socrates was able to question commonly held beliefs and explanations and find which of these were reasonable and logical and those which, although appealing, were not. These beliefs and explanations might lack evidence or even rational foundation and Socrates often brought this to light through his teaching through questioning (Paul, 1997).