Critical Thinking in Educational Psychology

Subject: Education
Pages: 9
Words: 2249
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: College


One of the key objectives of education is to enable learners to make rational decisions about their actions and beliefs. It is required to develop one of the core competencies of modern society, which is critical thinking. The importance of such effort nowadays is explained by the need to navigate through the multiple streams of information and make informed decisions regarding its reliability and trustworthiness. However, in both theoretical and practical applications, there are certain controversies regarding the ways how to teach individuals to think critically and what are the outcomes of these efforts. Hence, the overall framework and associated issues of critical thinking are further explored to identify potential improvements in the area of educational psychology.

Definitions and Descriptions

Critical thinking as a psychological construct was defined and described in various contexts. The basic definition of the term is the ability to analyze facts to form a judgment. However, given the complexity of critical thinking, various alternatives are considered based on the aspects of rationality, skepticism, and the analysis of factual evidence. For instance, The Foundation for Critical Thinking (n.d.) explains it as the intellectually controlled process aimed to conceptualize, define, and synthesize the information collected through “observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (para. 3). The utilitarian perspective suggests that critical thinking refers to the set of principles used to assign individual rights or duties to determine how benefits and vulnerabilities of social cooperation are distributed (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018). Alternatively, recent educational perspectives assert that critical thinking is the ability to think like scientists, which means that one is able to “generate, test, and evaluate claims, data, and theories” (Schmaltz et al., 2017, para. 1). Hence, the definitions of critical thinking are extensive, while the core idea behind is to elucidate the information to make reasonable judgments applicable to the specific problem, issue, or situation.

Apart from the definitions, critical thinking is a merit that requires practice to be applied in real-life conditions. In terms of educational psychology, it means that any individual will face dilemmas, logical and illogical arguments, and sets of misleading information required to be validated and comprehended (Schmaltz et al., 2017). These factors might emerge from personal lifestyles and attitudes towards knowledge acquisition, which eventually is complicated to handle if a straightforward educational intervention is applied. Considerably, the acquisition of critical thinking skills depends on the external settings that promote free discussion and opinion sharing rather than a strict emphasis on instructing learners to provide only correct answers for sporadic questions. However, depending on the psychological context, these aspects could be tailored in several ways, which requires a better understanding of the critical thinking origins as a concept.

Historical Background

The use of critical thinking as a term to describe an educational objective date back to the American philosopher John Dewey. More commonly, he described it as ‘reflective thinking’ and defined it as an individual effort to consider any belief that emerges from knowledge based on evidence that leads to meaningful conclusions (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018). Furthermore, Dewey admitted that critical thinking is a habit that is based on the scientific attitude of the mind, referring to the past ideas voiced by Francis Bacon and John Locke. Basically, it suggests that Dewey’s ideas were inspired by the past explorations of other philosophers, while his own efforts were primarily focused on the conceptualization of critical thinking as an educational goal.

Practical applications of critical thinking as a methodological approach were further introduced in the 1930s. Specifically, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018) mentioned the effort of deploying Evaluation Staff development tests among the schools participating in the study introduced by the Progressive Education Association, seeking to apply critical thinking in practice. Consecutively, the focus of critical thinking framework development was shifted from experimental to practical applications, such as the introduction of analytical and assessment toolkits like Bloom’s influential taxonomy. Eventually, it led to the foundation of the critical thinking theory and the development of principles and categories that support the need for cognitive educational objectives.

Since the 1980s, the state of California hosted tens of thousands of educators focused on exploring the idea of integrating the principles of critical thinking in their teaching efforts. Furthermore, the state university system was refined with a mandatory requirement of undertaking a critical thinking course for all undergraduate students. The next effort in promoting critical thinking for education included the development of standardized tests for abilities and dispositions by the American Philosophical Association (APA) in the 1980s (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018). Consistently, critical thinking as an educational paradigm became fabulous and evolved as a methodological tool for educational facilities.

The deployment of critical thinking as a norm for acquiring primary education in different societies was not adopted uniformly. The notable successor in this field in Sweden, formally promoted the responsibility of schools to ensure that each compulsory school graduate should be able to formulate opinions independently. Since 2011, the Swedish educational system transformed towards the requirement of critically examining the input information and arguments voiced by students in the area of natural sciences and, particularly, physics. For instance, school students were prompted to ask the Swedish minister of energy to reply on what sources are used for energy production with guaranteed follow-up questions and replies. Hence, it enabled the other schooling representatives to engage in innovative, student-centric communication to enhance the scope of the knowledge delivery.

In the United States, the need for proactive teaching of critical thinking was voiced by President Barack Obama as a part of the Race to Top program. The speech aimed to encourage teaching unions to promote the quality of studies based on opinion sharing rather than a vocational approach to listening and purely comprehending the needs of others. The idea was to promote the aspects of listening, finding strengths and weaknesses, and seek for alternative solutions required to address the problem. However, it is obvious that it was comprehended as a call to support minorities rather than a wish to be developed, which is another constraint towards the way of critically adopting the ways of existence.

The aforementioned examples show that critical thinking as a psychological concept became deeply integrated into the area of education. Meanwhile, there is a concern about whether the underlying methods to teach it are sufficient. Specifically, there is a tone of uncertainty on whether critical thinking is still considered a distinct topic to be taught or simply integrated into other discussion mediums in the overall curriculum. Hence, further analysis of the current critical thinking practices is required.

Critical thinking is considered an important skill required to be developed through learning. However, there is a debate on how to maintain the balance between critical and creative thinking to ensure that future graduates are able to make innovations rather than a debate on philosophical realms of the past. Specifically, critical thinking is based on the idea of exploring facts related to past activities, while creative thinking requires envisioning future benefits based on the current beliefs (Wechsler et al., 2018). It means that creativity might be a subject for critique since one does not necessarily require to be grounded on past events. From an educational perspective, it creates complexity in linking two concepts into a distinct framework and ensures that learners clearly understand the difference between creativity and criticism. Hence, critical thinking could be eventually associated with negative reactional behaviors, while in fact should be taught as the objective vision of what happens and how it could be handled.

Another issue related to critical thinking is the individual approach of how to ensure that learners comprehend it. Despite the progressive engagement efforts described in the previous chapter, many educational facilities still promote the idea of subject-focused learning that restricts using secondary information to construct persuasive responses to assignments. In fact, such an approach is reasonable when it comes to the subjects in natural sciences, while has a negative effect when authorship courses are limited to be consulted under the supervision of the course owners. Specifically, it means that some graduates might be challenged with real-life situations when asked to consult as many as possible external sources to construct an idea related to a specific business problem. Hence, it is important to convey the differences between critical thinking and instructional learning, focusing on the benefits of combining both.

Critical thinking was broadly explored by academic researchers and practitioners in terms of underlying methods of teaching. However, Schmaltz et al. (2017) admitted that despite the efforts of educating students to analyze critically, many believe that the full moon causes people to behave oddly and acknowledge the existence of Bigfoot and Chupacabra. To address these issues, the authors referred to the idea of promoting evidence-based approaches in scientific thinking, where the focus on addressing cognitive biases and logical fallacies is made. Nappi (2017) suggested that the issue should be addressed through the approach of correct questioning that requires recall of students through the high-level, stepwise interactions rather than direct intervention in searching for the correct answer. Considerably, these studies emphasize the importance of student engagement in discussion of issues rather than the persuasion of own beliefs based on individual lifestyles, watching movies, and creating imaginative constructs that mislead the understanding of the common world principles.

Another approach related to the development of critical thinking through education is the argumentation approach. Ferguson and Bubikova-Moan (2019) proposed a framework that links argumentation to epistemic cognition and critical thinking through the process of students’ knowledge acquisition. While the study appears to be mostly theoretical, it shows that alternative, small-time interventions implemented in the classroom scenario eventually leads to the elevated interest of students to argue on focused subjects. It is further supported by the idea that knowledge acquisition is supported by the beliefs related to the nature of its origins, including relative certainty, simplicity, and the source of its amalgamation (Mejia et al., 2019). Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that argumentation brings positive effects in discussing controversial points, setting individual positions in terms of acceptance or rejection, and making valid conclusions based on the obtained information.

Finally, recent observations related to critical thinking clearly outline the issue of the deep structure behind that should be explored prior to the development of new learning practices. Specifically, Willingham (2019) suggests that students fail to comprehend complex problems if those are communicated on the plain emotional infrastructure, referring to the ways of communicating vague theory. Considering that theories, in one or another way, are required to be comprehended for the practical application, Willingham (2019) suggests that it is reasonable to use the problem comparison technique. It requires students to analyze two problems with a deep context, provide insights, and discuss the outputs in a form of group discussion or an assessment center. However, such an approach might be limited to specific institutional needs and require additional interventions on behalf of schooling administration and collaborative efforts that provide both paper-based and electronic access to academically verified educational materials.

Additional Remarks

Critical thinking is a considerably broad topic. While the major focus in this study is relating one to educational psychology, it is worth discussing the subject as the one relevant to the post-graduate activities. Specifically, it is worth admitting that many organizations tend to practice customized tests and assessments aimed to identify how an individual behaves in non-standard situations and what professional actions should be taken, Ferguson and Bubikova-Moan (2019) admitted that such practices often create confusion about the consistency of critical thinking skills inside and outside the academic environment. The same concern could be told about the disproportional effect of learning a specific subject and occupying an alternative job. Furthermore, the critical thinking process in times of information sharing on the web becomes obscured, since fellow learners eventually become too engaged with advertising, computer games, and social networking without having a concrete purpose behind it. Hence, educational practices are unlikely to cover the complexities behind critical thinking in full and require additional research to systemize relevant interventions.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The notion of critical thinking nowadays is an important psychological construct that enables people to search for information, analyze it, and make the meaningful conclusions. It incorporates various methods, starting from the reading and comprehension and leading to argumentation and contrasting. However, current educational practices suggest that the integration of critical thinking norms is complicated and obscured by numerous factors such as the presence of misleading information, disobedience, and the lack of focus on the subject. It creates a problem with addressing logical fallacies and comprehending the real nature of the world. Hence, the problem of developing critical skills primarily stems from the idea of matching needs versus interests, where teachers as more educated personalities should be more capacitive and flexible.

To address the importance of developing critical thinking in education, the following strategies are proposed. First, it is important to ensure that the student-centric educational curriculum is enabled. It means that all students have equal rights to demonstrate opinions and discuss those with peers. Second, relevant materials such as case studies should be used to motivate student engagement in the topic discussion. Finally, it is mandatory to ensure that teachers are well-prepared to deliver innovative, problem-focused material to be discussed in class rather than using standardized tools that diminish individual ability to demonstrate critical thinking skills. However, the implementation of such an effort might require several years, whereas the need for individuals that think critically raises exponentially.


Ferguson, L. E. & Bubikova-Moan, J. (2019). Argumentation as a pathway to critical thinking. In B. Garssen, D. Godden, G. R. Mitchell & J. H. M. Wagemans (Eds.), Proceedings of the Ninth Conference of the International Society for the Study of Argumentation (pp. 352-362). Amsterdam: Sic Sat.

Nappi, J.S. (2017). The importance of questioning in developing critical thinking skills. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 84(1), 30-41.

Mejia, A., Marino, J.P., & Molina, A. (2019). Incorporating perspective analysis into critical thinking performance assessments. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(3), 456-467. Web.

Schmaltz, R.M., Jansen, E., & Wenckowski, N. (2017). Redefining critical thinking: Teaching students to think like scientists. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 459. Web.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2018). Critical thinking. Web.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking (n.d.). Defining critical thinking. Web.

Wechsler, S.M., Saiz, C., Rivas, S.F., Vendramini, C.M.M., Almeida, L.S., Mundim, M.C., & Franco, A. (2018). Creative and critical thinking: Independent or overlapping components? Thinking Skills and Creativity, 27, 114-122. Web.

Willingham, D.T. (2019). How to teach critical thinking. Web.