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What Is Critical Thinking - And How Do We Teach It?

  • Rebekah Wilson The Old Schoolhouse
  • 2010 3 Feb
What Is Critical Thinking - And How Do We Teach It?

When a person reads the newspaper or listens to someone speak on a subject, he is receiving information. What does God want us to do with that information? Accept it at face value? Or do we use the brains that God gave us? Why do the minds of some people seem to work more logically or successfully than others'? A few months ago, news outlets told us there was a "coup" in Honduras. Is that true? Is it accurate? College and university professors give out reams of information. Will our children quietly take notes, regurgitate what they memorize, and pass a test, or will they raise their hands and ask questions? 

It is easier to just sit back and believe what we see and hear. For example, here's a statement most of us have probably heard before: "We need to radically change our way of life because of global warming." Do we? Here's another one: "We must make sure that every American has health insurance." Is that workable? Decisions about issues like these should be made only after careful consideration, not because of an emotional feeling or as a result of media manipulation. These can be tough issues even for adults, and it is our duty to equip our children to evaluate information and draw wise conclusions. 

As parents, it is our duty to develop the habit of critical thinking in our own minds and also to encourage that habit in the minds of our children. There is a purpose for the mind: to think. God wants us to think carefully, critically, about information we receive. 

A Definition

So what is critical thinking? It is both a concept and a process. 

The concept begins with definitions. Critical is defined as follows: "exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation."1 Thinking is defined as "the process of using your mind to consider something carefully."2 Critical thinking is not simply accepting the information we receive. It is actively using the brains that God gave us to carefully process and evaluate the information we receive. Based on those evaluations, conclusions are reached, and based on those conclusions, we make decisions about how to act and what to believe. 

A Process 

The process is a series of steps that determine how much information will be retained and how well we understand the information. It is generally accepted that there are six steps in the critical thinking process. 

1. The concept is planted in the mind. 

2. The mind actively thinks about the information. 

3. The mind applies the concept to something. 

4. The mind analyzes the information. 

5. The mind synthesizes the information. 

6. The mind evaluates the concept and information and then comes to a conclusion. 

A Simple Illustration 

Teaching 2 + 2 = 4 will provide a simplified and easily understood working example of these six steps: 

1. The concept is planted in the mind. Two apples plus two apples equals four apples, the concept being two similar objects plus two similar objects equals four similar objects. When teaching, it is vital to have the child's attention. If the child is not focused, the seeds (concept and information) are being scattered but not planted. Also, the child must be mature enough to understand the concept; otherwise, it goes right over his head. However, once planted, the idea or concept begins to wiggle about in the child's mind. 

2. The mind begins to actively think about the information. The child ponders the new concept and tries to make it into something he can better understand. He will try to fit, maneuver, and work the concept into knowledge he already possesses. It is usually true that the more a child knows, the easier it is to grasp a new concept. 

3. The mind tries to apply the concept to something. This is the step in which the use of visual aids is very important. Visual aids help the child understand instantaneously—they work like glue on the brain to cement information in place. As the familiar saying goes, "A picture is worth a thousand words." That is so very true! For example, saying "two apples plus two apples" easily helps the child visualize and comprehend the concept. 

Some children may question you at this point, asking for verification that what they are thinking is correct. Be open to their questions! They are working through the process of understanding a new concept and are trying to make sure they understand it correctly; their questions indicate that the process is working just like the noise from your coffee maker lets you know that your coffee is being perked. Questions are a central part of critical thinking. If a child is not allowed to ask questions, the habit of critical thinking can be stifled, and he may learn and memorize information incorrectly, which leads to faulty conclusions. 

At this point, the child has gained a basic understanding of the concept and sometimes has memorized it, but he is not thinking yet, and he certainly is not practicing critical thinking. The child may be able to recite information and even use that information in the future, but the child is not fully aware of the concept yet and has not reached a final, logical conclusion. This is where the phrase "jumped to the wrong conclusion" comes from. The child has reached this point but stops and doesn't complete the final steps needed in order to formulate a logical, well-rounded conclusion. Instead, his conclusion is faulty or falls apart under questioning. 

4. The mind analyzes the information. The child counts 2 apples, counts 2 more apples, and concludes that there are 4 apples. He may be examining, breaking down, inspecting, investigating, refining, exploring, reasoning, and more before he sees that 2 + 2 = 4. He is analyzing this information from all sides and angles. Mentally he begins to comprehend and memorize the information. It now becomes fact and makes logical sense. 

5. The mind synthesizes the information. To synthesize is to use. Your body uses food and water to synthesize what the body needs: energy and building material. With critical thinking, the child will use the concept and information in a logical way. This is crucial because the child is demonstrating that he understands the concept fully. 

Now take the child beyond the first example, that two apples plus two apples equals four apples. Test the child and see if he understands that two oranges plus two bananas equals four fruits. Two boys and two girls equals four children. At this step, the child understands the information and can use it in a logical and proper manner. 

This is also where the famous "why" question comes in. If your child can explain why 2 + 2 = 4, he has mastered this area. Your questions will reveal if the child truly understands and is thinking logically. These questions—why, where, how, when, and what—allow the child to pull all the information together and head toward a final evaluation and a logical conclusion—one he can fully explain and defend with the use of facts and unbiased logical thought processing. Occasionally this step goes hand in hand with the applying and/or analyzing steps. 

6. The mind evaluates the concept and information and then comes to a conclusion. The child has come full circle. Presented with information, the child carefully evaluated the information and reached a conclusion. The child understands that 2 + 2 will always result in a total of 4, regardless of what kinds of similar items are being counted. The child would be able to defend the conclusion that 2 + 2 = 4. 

A Classic Illustration 

A classic working example everyone can relate to can be found in the stories about Sherlock Holmes—the epitome of critical thought in action. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the introductory story about Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, gives the perfect example of critical thinking when Sherlock Holmes first meets Dr. Watson. For those who are unaware of Doyle's classic tales, Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes meet and Holmes suddenly states (he does not ask, but rather states as a conclusion) that Dr. Watson has been in Afghanistan. 

Dr. Watson is astonished that anyone would know this and asks if someone has told Holmes this information. Sherlock Holmes then explains his deductive reasoning, to the delight of Dr. Watson: 

I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, "Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan." The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished. (Study in Scarlet, 1887)

Were you able to pick out the steps Sherlock Holmes's mind went through to reach that logical conclusion? The next time you begin to ponder a new concept or thought, pay attention to what your brain is doing. You might be able to pick out the different steps you are going through while processing and evaluating the information. Some steps do closely resemble others, and some can even be worked through simultaneously. The first step (concept) and the final step (conclusion) are always the same, however, and come first and last, respectively. 

An Insight 

Don't confuse critical thinking with learning, intelligence, or education. Learning and education are two different things held together by the same thread: learning means you are given information and can remember it; education means you can use that information and apply it to the world around you. Education, not learning, produces intelligence. Critical thinkers are not born; they are formed through the educational process. They are nurtured and trained until critical thinking becomes an unconscious habit that influences all aspects of their lives. 

A Challenge 

Children are naturally curious about the world around them and what the parent teaches and exposes them to. As homeschoolers, we have the perfect forum to instill the critical thinking process in our children from a very young age. Many homeschooling parents do this unconsciously and with a little effort can greatly improve a child's critical thinking skills. Homeschooled children, for the most part, are individual and independent thinkers who often question the "why's" of something rather than accept the standard answer. In a world filled with bleating sheep that are easily led and manipulated, the child who thinks critically will stand out and make wise choices. 

*This article published on February 3, 2010.

Rebekah Wilson is a happy wife and mother of eight homeschooled children. Rebekah is the author of

The Hope Chest: A Legacy of Love and the Grandmother's Hope Chest series. Currently she is earning her B.S. (in elementary and special education) online, taking 17-22 units per semester and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Rebekah, as the mother of three autistic boys and children with multiple learning disabilities, hopes to use her degree to bless homeschoolers who face similar circumstances. You can visit her at 

Copyright 2009. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, Fall 2009. Used with permission. Visit them at For all your homeschool curriculum needs visit the Schoolhouse Store.