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What is Critical Thinking?




Girl looking out of a windowIn this first of a series of blog posts on English for Academic Purposes, Lawrence Lawson,  a teacher at Palomar College, USA, demystifies the term “critical thinking”.

“Why do I need my raincoat?” I asked my grandmother. It was itchy, hot, and I didn’t want to wear it.

“Look outside. Why do you think you should wear it?” she replied.

Dark clouds covered the sky; puddles vibrated with new rain. I collected these clues, connected them, and shouted, “Because it’ll keep me dry!” Instantly, my raincoat changed from something uncomfortable to something necessary and important.

With one question, my grandmother encouraged me to think critically about my world, make connections, and discover my own answers—something teachers want students to do every day.

But what is critical thinking?

A critical thinking approach asks students to do something with information being learned. Teachers can set small goals, or learning outcomes, to give students targets to hit—for example: “After this lesson, you will share with a partner three reasons why people emigrate to other countries.” The readings, questions, and exercises in the lesson encourage students to use language to discover their three reasons. Students and teachers work together to understand, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the lesson’s content to reach the stated outcomes—all skill categories in Bloom’s Taxonomy, a resource that outlines goals of the learning process. By providing students with learning outcomes, students can critically think about information and develop their own meaningful answers.

How can teachers encourage critical thinking?

Questions are important tools in the critical thinking process. Questions encourage students to reflect on and apply their knowledge to new questions. Yet how do we help students answer difficult, thought-provoking questions? We don’t present them with a selection of answers and hope they choose wisely. We provide them with skills to find their own answers, and we make them care about the answers.

My grandmother presented clues and asked me to consider them until I found an answer. For her, my understanding of the weather wasn’t enough. She wanted me to analyze why the weather would influence my choice of dress for the day. She wanted me to think of my own answer; she made the answer matter. By asking questions, she helped me realize the importance my own answer and the value of my thinking process.

Because I cared about the answer, I worked hard and meaningfully with the clues I had to find it. Care encourages critical thinking, and critical thinking creates a meaningful learning process students remember long after they leave your classroom.

Lawrence Lawson is a key contributor to the new course series from OUP called Q Skills for Success. See how Q Skills for Success incorporates critical thinking.

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  1. Lawrence,

    Thanks for this nice explanation and start to the “Q” blog posts!

    When I teach critical thinking to ESL students, I usually tell them to ask the critical questions WHY, HOW, and WHO SAYS (and then again, WHY?!). This can help explain the need to move beyond descriptive writing, in which ideas are repeated (which is valued highly in some cultures), toward analytic writing, where ideas are explained, critiqued, evaluated, and applied (which is valued highly in most English-speaking academic circles).

    Nigel Caplan,
    Assistant Professor (and Q author!),
    University of Delaware English Language Institute

  2. Nigel,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I’m with you: I use as many “why” and “how” questions as I can in my classroom. I find that by using these questions, students are able to access a deeper level of thinking about the topics we’re covering.

    Eventually, the asking of “why” and “how” questions become so automatic, students begin asking them of each other and me without prompting. A good step forward!


  3. i do agree with you, questions that stimulate thinking and help the students notice their misconceptions and underlying contradictory assumptions are maybe the best tool for fostering critical thinking, but the problem is in some societies ((like Iran)the teacher is not free to ask every question, in the domains of religion and politics, for example you have to be cautious, in the name of “infusing doubts” they charge you, and you will have a destiny not better than Socrates.

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