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Critical Thinking: More than Words?

By Ryan Bretag | @ryanbretag

This past summer, I sat around a fire with friends talking about life and the world today. As it usually does, the topic of education emerged. Before long, we were knee-deep in a debate about what students needed to be successful, and I pulled out the ace in my pocket: "we need to help them become better, deeper thinkers with the habits that promote genius".

With nods and similar statements, the conversation started to move forward.

Game. Set... Not so fast.

Just as we began to shift topics, a student teacher in the group chimed in with, "what does that really mean when we talk about critical thinking and critical thinkers". We sat pondering for what seemed like hours before ideas began to flow.

There were talks about Blooms Taxonomy that left many of us unsatisfied the more we explored it. There were talks about information literacy and research but it seemed too narrow. Some brought in the notions of creativity and innovation leading us down the rabbit hole even further. In the end, we left it alone - a discussion too intense and too deep for a summer night.

But, two things emerged for me that night.

Number One

From that night forward, I can no longer hear someone say "critical thinking" without asking for clarification on exactly what they are saying.

We hear it all the time: critical thinking. We educators let it roll off our tongues with great ease and leverage it as a clear target of our educational philosophy, goals, vision, etc.

But let me ask you this, what is critical thinking and what are the skills, attributes, and characteristics that help to define it? Has your community engaged in deep discussions on critical thinking or is it left vague, an abstract term that sounds good but is left to chance on it development? "Who taught you to think" and how do people come to think better?


It is used too frequently and has been left to our own individual perspectives on what it exactly means at any given moment. If we are going to move forward systemically and as a community, it is not enough to simply let such important concepts be tossed around without any consideration for what they actually mean.

Number Two

Since that summer fireside chat, I've been charting the characteristics, traits, and  attributes that go into defining critical thinking. This has resulted in a pile of ideas that cross over, duplicate, and contradict.


With over 100 concepts from over 20 sources and growing*, it is overwhelming but it also paints an interesting picture. What implications does this have for those that believe critical thinking needs to be a foundational element in schools? How does one begin to approach these concepts vertically and horizontally in authentic ways?

The conversations are deep and at times difficult. They can at times feel like philosophical waxing. Reaching consensus, however, on the concepts that make up critical thinking position us for rich, pragmatic discussions on learning and teaching.

Final Thoughts

What are you doing with critical thinking in your school? How is it being approached organizationally?

If we believe in critical thinking, it has to be more than words stated leaving individuals to figure out. It requires the community to approach it with rigor and fidelity beginning with a working definition and a breakdown of concepts that moves us forward together. If not, critical thinking is at best left to chance in one room schoolhouses and at worse nothing more than a conversation piece that make schools sound/feel viable.

Ryan Bretag

Coordinator of Instructional Technology

*This chart was started and shared with me by a colleague at my current school who gave me permission to build upon it. While some of the characteristics obviously cross-over, this working build is geared towards getting everything on paper.

(Image: Creativity, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from hersenspinsels's photostream)

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