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12 common barriers to critical thinking (and how to overcome them).

As you know, critical thinking is a vital skill necessary for success in life and work. Unfortunately,  barriers to critical thinking  can hinder a person’s ability. This piece will discuss some of the most common  internal and external barriers to critical thinking  and what you should do if one of them hinders your ability to think critically.

Table of Contents

Critical Thinking Challenges

You already know that  critical thinking  is the process of analyzing and evaluating a situation or person so that you can make a sound judgment. You normally use the judgment you derive from your critical thinking process to make crucial decisions, and the choices you make affect you in workplaces, relationships, and life’s goals and achievements.

Several  barriers to critical thinking  can cause you to skew your judgment. This could happen even if you have a large amount of data and information to the contrary. The result might be that you make a poor or ineffective decision instead of a choice that could improve your life quality. These are some of the top obstacles that hinder and distort the ability to think critically:

1. Using Emotions Instead of Logic

Failing to remove one’s emotions from a critical thinking analysis is one of the hugest barriers to the process. People make these mistakes mainly in the relationship realm when choosing partners based on how they “make them feel” instead of the information collected.

The correct way to decide about a relationship is to use all facts, data, opinions, and situations to make a final judgment call. More times than not, individuals use their hearts instead of their minds.

Emotions can hinder critical thinking in the employment realm as well. One example is an employee who reacts negatively to a business decision, change, or process without gathering more information. The relationship between that person and the employer could become severed by her  lack of critical thinking  instead of being salvaged by further investigations and rational reactions.

2. Personal Biases

Personal biases can come from past negative experiences, skewed teachings, and peer pressure. They create a huge obstacle in critical thinking because they overshadow open-mindedness and fairness.

One example is failing to hire someone because of a specific race, age, religious preference, or perceived attitude. The hiring person circumvents using critical thinking by accepting his or her biases as truth. Thus, the entire processes of information gathering and objective analysis get lost in the mix.

3. Obstinance

Stubbornness almost always ruins the critical thinking procedure. Sometimes, people get so wrapped up in being right that they fail to look at the big picture. Big-picture thinking is a large part of critical thinking; without it, all judgments and choices are rash and incomplete.

4. Unbelief

It’s difficult for a person to do something he or she doesn’t believe in. It’s also challenging to engage in something that seems complex. Many people don’t think critically because they believe they must be scholarly to do so. The truth is that  anyone  can think critically by practicing the following steps:

  • 1. Gather as much data as possible.
  • 2. Have an opinion, but be open to changing it.
  • 3. Understand that assumptions are not the truth, and opinions are not facts.
  • 4. Think about the scenario, person, or problem from different angles.
  • 5. Evaluate all the information thoroughly.
  • 6. Ask simple, precise, and abundant questions.
  • 7. Take time to observe.
  • 8. Don’t be afraid to spend time on the problem or issue.
  • 9. Ask for input or additional information.
  • 10. Make it make sense.

5. Fear of Failure or Change

Fear of change and failure often hinders a person’s critical thinking process because it doesn’t allow thinking outside the box. Sometimes, the most efficient way to resolve a problem is to be open to changing something.

That change might be a different way of doing something, a relationship termination, or a shift of positions at a workplace. Fear can block out all possible scenarios in the critical thinking cycle. The result is often one-dimensional thinking, tunnel vision, or proverbial head-banging.

6. Egocentric Thinking

Egocentric thinking is also one of the main barriers to critical thinking. It occurs when a person examines everything through a “me” lens. Evaluating something properly requires an individual to understand and consider other people’s perspectives, plights, goals, input, etc.

7. Assumptions

Assumptions are one of the negative  factors that affect critical thinking . They are detrimental to the process because they cause distortions and misguided judgments. When using assumptions, an individual could unknowingly insert an invalid prejudgment into a stage of the thought process and sway the final decision.

It’s never wise to assume anything about a person, entity, or situation because it could be 100 percent wrong. The correct way to deal with assumptions is to store them in a separate thought category of possibilities and then use the data and other evidence to validate or nullify them.

XYZ  might  be why ABC happened, but there isn’t enough information or data to conclude it. The same concept is true for the rest of the possibilities, and thus, it’s necessary to research and analyze the facts before accepting them as truths.

8. Group Thinking

Group thinking is another one of the  barriers to critical thinking  that can block sound decisions and muddy judgments. It’s similar to peer pressure, where the person takes on the viewpoint of the people around him or her to avoid seeming “different.”

This barrier is dangerous because it affects how some people think about right and wrong. It’s most prevalent among teens. One example is the “everybody’s doing it (drugs, bullying), so I should too” mindset.

Unfortunately, this barrier can sometimes spill over into the workplace and darken the environment when workers can’t think for themselves. Workers may end up breaking policies, engaging in negative behavior, or harassing the workers who don’t conform.

Group thinking can also skew someone’s opinion of another person before the individual gets a chance to collect facts and evaluate the person for himself. You’ve probably heard of smear campaigns. They work so well against targets because the parties involved don’t use the critical thinking process at all.

9. Impulsivity

Impulsivity is the tendency to do things without thinking, and it’s a bona fide critical thinking killer. It skips right by  every  step in the critical thinking process and goes directly to what feels good in the moment.

Alleviating the habit takes practice and dedication. The first step is to set time aside when impulsive urges come to think about all aspects of the situation. It may take an impulsive person a while to develop a good critical thinking strategy, but it can work with time.

10. Not Knowing What’s Fact and Opinion

Critical thinking requires the thinker to know the difference between facts and opinions. Opinions are statements based on other people’s evaluative processes, and those processes may not be critical or analytical. Facts are an unemotional and unbiased piece of data that one can verify. Statistics and governmental texts are examples.

11. Having a Highly Competitive Nature

A “winning” mindset can overshadow the fair and objective evaluation of a problem, task, or person and undermine critical thinking. People who  think competitively  could lose sight of what’s right and wrong to meet a selfish goal that way.

12. Basing Statements on Popularity

This problem is prevalent in today’s world. Many people will accept anything a celebrity, political figure, or popular person says as gospel, but discredit or discount other people’s input. An adept critical thinker knows how to separate  what’s  being said from  who  said it and perform the necessary verification steps.

The Ultimate Guide To Critical Thinking

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  • 5 Creative and Critical Thinking Examples In Workplace
  • 10 Best Books On Critical Thinking And Problem Solving
  • 12 Critical Thinking Interview Questions and Scenarios With Sample Answers
  • How To Promote Critical Thinking In The Workplace

How To Overcome Barriers in Critical Thinking

If you can identify any of the above-mentioned  barriers , your critical thinking may be flawed. These are some tips for overcoming such barriers:

1. Know your flaws.

The very first step toward improving anything is to know and admit your flaws. If you can do that, you are halfway to using better critical thinking strategies.

2. Park your emotions.

Use logic, not emotion, when you are evaluating something to form a judgment. It’s not the time to think with your heart.

3. Be mindful of others.

Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes to understand their stance. A little empathy goes a long way.

4. Avoid black-and-white thinking.

Understand that there’s always more than one way to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Additionally, consider that not every person is all bad or all good.

5. Dare to be unpopular.

Avoid making decisions to please other people. Instead, evaluate the full lot of information and make the decision you feel is best.

6. Don’t assign unjustified merit.

Don’t assume someone is telling the truth or giving you more accurate information because of his or her name or status. Evaluate  all  people’s input equally.

7. Avoid judging others.

Try to keep biases and prejudices out of your decision-making processes. That will make them fair and just.

8. Be patient with yourself.

Take all the days you need to pick apart a situation or problem and resolve it. Don’t rush to make hasty decisions.

9. Accept different points of view.

Not everyone will agree with you or tell you what you want to hear.

10. Embrace change.

Don’t ever be afraid of changing something or trying something new. Thinking outside the box is an integral part of the critical thinking process.

Now you know the answers to the question,  “What are the challenges of critical thinking?”  Use the information about the  barriers to critical thinking  to improve your critical thinking process and make healthier and more beneficial decisions for everyone.

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Further Reading...

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How To Become a Polymath in 4 Steps  

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12 critical thinking interview questions and scenarios with sample answers  .

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

10 Barriers to Critical Thinking & Tips to Overcome Them

students overcoming barriers to critical thinking

Critical thinking is an essential life skill, especially in an age where deceptions like “my truth” and “your truth” run rampant. 

It allows us to think our way through issues and arrive at effective solutions, and it is a skill that deserves the dedication it takes to hone it.

In some cases, there are invisible barriers to critical thinking that must first be broken down before progress can be made. 

Because it is so vitally important for our teens to develop such skills—to think for themselves in a world pressuring them to tow the line—I think it’s worth addressing potential obstacles in their way. 

Here are 10 common barriers to critical thinking that may reveal themselves as you seek to teach this vital skill. 

1. Lack of Practice

Considering what causes a lack of critical thinking , the word “practice” comes to mind. 

The phrase “practice makes progress” rings true when developing critical thinking skills .

Critical thinking may be discussed at length and encouraged theoretically, but is it expressed in the assignments or exercises our teens do on a daily basis?

Sadly, many assignments simply ask for regurgitated facts from a textbook that require little to no real thinking. 

If we want to see our students thrive in the realm of critical thinking, we need to provide them with opportunities to practice and apply what they’ve learned in real-life situations.

2. Perceived Inability to Teach It

The idea that you’re not capable of teaching such a thing may just become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

If you believe you can’t teach critical thinking, you may not even try. If you do try, you may be plagued by self-doubt that shakes your confidence. 

If you’ve ever thought …

“Why is critical thinking so difficult?”

You’re not alone.

It can be hard to plainly identify what critical thinking is and how to teach it. That’s one of the main reasons we created Philosophy Adventure —to provide an intriguing way to teach critical thinking effectively.

20 Questions: Exercises in Critical Thinking

Get a Question-Based Critical Thinking Exercise—Free!

Introduce critical thinking gently & easily with thought-provoking exercises.

3. Normalcy Bias

Normalcy bias is a subconscious response that falsely assures things will remain the same as they always were. 

Every type of bias works against critical thinking as it uses emotion to make decisions rather than rational thought rooted in truth.

This bias encourages our minds to ignore danger and new information in favor of maintaining the safety and security of our “regular” lives. 

For example, normalcy bias leads us to believe that freedom will always be free despite growing threats to quench it. 

Frankly, it’s a dangerous barrier to critical thinking with the potential for lasting consequences.

4. Group-Think

The group-think effect is a phenomenon where individuals conform to the beliefs of others in order to avoid appearing different. 

It can lead to mass conformity in which society grows blind to flaws in opinion-based reasoning. 

Why think for yourself when someone else can do it for you? It’s a sobering thought—and a major obstacle to critical thinking—but I fear it’s one that is sweeping the world.

This is an especially tough barrier for teenagers who are often desperate to be accepted and liked by their peers. 

Rather than relying on critical thinking to decipher between right and wrong, they may cave to peer pressure because “everyone else is doing it.”

This barrier is yet another poignant example of why it’s so important to help our children develop critical thinking skills.  

5. Distorted View of Truth

We’re also susceptible to having a distorted view of what is fact and what isn’t. If we’re not careful, our view of truth can be distorted by misleading opinions.

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

Passionate people with deeply held beliefs are often willing to loudly defend them. 

Such passion and charisma can seduce teens and adults alike who may not fully know what they believe— or why they believe it . 

Of all the psychological obstacles to critical thinking, fear is a weighty one. 

I humbly suggest that it is the fear of failure or the fear of change that is most likely to act as a hindrance to critical thinking. 

Sometimes, when we look at an issue from every angle, we find that the only right reaction is to change. 

Likewise, if we fear failure, we’re likely to not act or try at all. 

And when it comes to trying to discern the truth in order to act upon it, not doing so can be far worse than the perceived failure itself. 

7. Viewing Everything Through the Lens of “Self”

Some people call it “egocentric thinking.” Whatever the name, it is the tendency to think about the world only as it relates to us. 

This self-centered thinking is natural, but there’s great value in training our minds to be able to view issues from another’s point of view. When problem-solving, it’s important to consider other perspectives.

This is particularly true when dealing with people who may be affected by our actions.

8. Past Experiences

Past experiences, relationships, even trauma can change us in a number of ways. 

What happened in the past surrounding any given thing most certainly influences how we think and feel about that thing in the future. 

But it’s important to recognize past experiences for what they are—a single moment (or period) of time.

They should not define our thoughts, nor should they dictate our actions as we seek to answer life’s questions objectively.  

Undoubtedly, it can be difficult to put such things in perspective so, and it calls for self-control, but it’s important to train our teens to try.  

Relying exclusively on the past to make decisions today can lead to negative outcomes as it relies on information that may not be true. 

9. Assumptions

Assumptions dampen our ability to learn. Though often flawed, assumptions quench our desire  to ask questions because we think we already know the answers. 

What a sad state to be stuck in because the truth is …

We don’t know what we don’t know.

How can we learn what we don’t know if we never root out the truth in a given matter?

Similarly, some people assume that because they don’t understand something, then it must be impossible to learn. 

That’s simply not true. We have an innate ability to learn new things, and critical thinking helps us do just that—with integrity.  

10. Time Constraints

There’s so much to learn in school that it can be hard to find the time to invest in critical thinking discussion and activities . 

This skill can often be moved to the side while teens learn about world history and how to write a proper essay—both of which are no doubt important. 

But I would argue that critical thinking gives students the foundation to not only better digest the material learned but to excel in it. 

How to Overcome Common Barriers to Critical Thinking 

We’ve established that critical thinking is an essential part of becoming a discerning adult, unmoved by news biases or passionate, emotional language. 

That being said, how do we break through the barriers that hinder critical thinking and move forward to teach such a significant skill?

You can help your students better develop their critical thinking skills by encouraging thoughtful questions and debate. 

When consuming news from around the world, inspire them to challenge their initial emotional reactions to the information presented. Teach them how to seek impartial data and use that to form an educated opinion. 

Providing real-world examples and connections between topics is a great way to encourage teens to think more deeply about a subject. 

Rather than presenting multiple choice answers or fill-in-the-blanks, ask them to talk through the question out loud based on the information they’ve been given.  

You can also try a fun exercise with these critical thinking questions for kids .

The ability to clearly vocalize beliefs and express thoughts is a priceless skill, and one that we have weaved into every lesson of Philosophy Adventure :

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

will your children recognize truth?

Critical thinking is a learned skill that requires practice (and breaking down barriers when they arise). 

However, the ability to identify logical fallacies in arguments and recognize deception is well worth investing in. 

Recognizing potential barriers that are obstructing that end goal is a solid first step. 

About The Author

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Stacy Farrell

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

9 Deadly Critical Thinking Barriers (And How to Eliminate Them)

Anthony metivier.

  • November 9, 2023
  • Critical Thinking , Podcast

Podcast: Download

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The answer is simple:

It’s because they’re lurking inside you. 

And if you don’t know that these barriers are standing between you and exploding your thinking abilities, you’re powerless to improve your situation.

Starting right now, let’s identify and remove the biggest barriers. 

You’ll experience greater clarity of mind just by knowing what they are and how to get them out of your life. 

Let’s dive in.

The 9 Most Common Barriers to Critical Thinking (And How to Overcome Them)

As you go through this list, keep a journal.

Write down the ones that pose the biggest issue for you.

Then make time on your calendar to deal with each. 

Rest assured, without putting in the time, nothing will change.

But when you do, your independent thinking abilities will explode. In fact, your critical thinking abilities will improve overall .

One: Letting The World Revolve Around You

Most of us experience inner talk .  And it’s normal to include yourself and your experiences in the topics you think about.

But those who have excellent critical thinking skills know how to contextualize their SRIN. 

What is SRIN?

Self-referential Inner Narrative. 

Others call this the “blah blah blah” monkey-mind.

blah blah blah

No matter what you call it, if you can’t think about contexts larger than your immediate self, it will be impossible to think critically. 

Here’s what to do instead: 

  • Notice when you say or think things like, “I don’t personally know anyone this has happened to.” 
  • Stop and think about the larger context at the level of your neighborhood, your city, your region, your country, your continent, your hemisphere and the world. Where relevant, include the entire universe.
  • Imagine a topic through the eyes of at least one other person. In autobiographical memory studies, this is called shifting from the field perspective to the observer perspective.
  • Ask about what would be true even if you did not exist. 

For more help, these critical thinking examples will help you think through other perspectives.

Two: Lack Of Critical Thinking Skills

If you want to remove the obstacles to critical thinking you’re experiencing, some study will be involved. 

Critical thinking books abound and it is worth spending time with some of the best. Look for books that include examples and exercises . 

a student walking with some books

You’ll also want to think about a particular goal for critical thinking that you have. For example, do you want to think better as a student preparing for law school? Or do you need thinking skills for being a better contributor to your family or neighborhood? 

Setting a goal can help guide which resources you choose and your study and practice plan . 

Three: Not Knowing Your Cognitive Biases

We are all included to make serious errors in our thinking.

But we’re not alone in making them. Far from it. 

In fact, because all of us operate from having a human brain, psychologists have identified patterns.

These are called cognitive biases .

One that I suffer from quite badly is called “ recency bias .” Basically, it’s very tempting for me to judge reality based on the most recent events, rather than looking at the broad scope of history.

I use all of the tips on this page to cope and improve. One of the most helpful benefits of critical thinking is the ability to engage in continual discussions with friends about history. It’s something I continue to read for one simple reason.

a long history castle

The more you know and discuss the past, the more you are automatically reminded of a bias like this.

What cognitive biases are strongest in your life? 

Four: Being In A Hurry

We’re all in a rush once in a while. 

But it’s one of the biggest critical thinking challenges all the same. 

If you don’t stop and think, mistakes are so much easier to make. 

One of my favorite tools for making sure I don’t rush into making decisions without thinking about them is called W.R.A.P.

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality Test
  • Attain Distance
  • Prepare To Fail

As can see, it has tools in it to help you slow down.

It’s also a superior alternative to “trusting your gut.” In fact, Chip and Dan Heath who came up with it in their book Decisive did a lot of research on it for the book. 

They show that relying on gut instinct is often very harmful. (And it’s often a cognitive bias that drives us to rely on it anyway.)

How do you remember to use the W.R.A.P. technique? You need to get thinking about it deep into your procedural memory . 

For that, a Memory Palace will help. Grab this free course so you know how to create and use one:

Magnetic Memory Method Free Memory Improvement Course

Five: Lack Of Scientific Literacy

Unfortunately, a lot of people leave school not knowing how to evaluate research. They often have limited numeracy skills.

They also barely understand some of the core principles of science, such as:

  • Sampling and generalizability
  • Probability and coincidence
  • Correlation and causation
  • Differentiating fact from opinion
  • Logical reasoning

To remove these barriers from your life, make sure to learn what science is really all about. This is the kind of understanding that can help save your life as you think better. And the best part is that it will boost your concentration skills, something far too many people lack .

Six: Exhaustion

Of all the most common barriers to critical thinking, not being well rested destroys our decision-making abilities. 

Sleep and memory go together, and we need to remember to think critically in the first place. Please be sure to privilege your rest. 

a women is sleeping on a blue pillow

Seven: Lack Of Communication Skills

Thinking is more than a two-way street. It’s a complex network of many freeways, highways, streets and cul de sacs.

You need to communicate with many people and you need to do it well. 

Some people don’t have a big enough vocabulary, so need to learn how to remember more words .

Others lack writing skills.

Yet others are not yet able to read fast enough so that they can talk and write enough to effectively communicate.

One way to improve in all these areas is to create a 90-day research and communication goal. 

For example, I spent 90-days learning about the art of memory in the sixteenth century. To practice building my communication skills, I spoke with many people about it, wrote frequently and read the suggestions I got from others. 

To remove your critical thinking barriers, spend the next 90 days reading about it. Find a philosophy discussion group. Start a blog or journal privately about what you’re learning.

It will help you tremendously.

a discussion group

Eight: Fear Of Failure

A lot of people are so afraid to make mistakes that they never take action. 

Well, critical thinking is itself an action. If you never get started, you won’t be able to learn from the mistakes you will inevitably make. 

This barrier circles us back to the problem of the ego and SRIN. You might be overly protective of yourself because you’re stuck in a self-referential loop.

How to get past this comes down to:

  • Recognizing the issue
  • Committing to get past it
  • Setting a plan for when you’re going to start taking risks

One quick win would be to join a debate club. This will give you meeting deadlines and specific topics for which you need to be prepared. You’ll have removed this common barrier in no time.

Nine: Inability To Improvise

Of all the critical thinking strategies out there, you need to be able to think on your feet. 

One of the reasons people fear failure so much is that they’re just not used to opening their mouths, making mistakes and being able to pivot. 

open the mouth

I’ve learned to do this by giving lots of speeches from memory and other kinds of presentations. 

And I’ve also learned and memorized a lot about logic and philosophy , in more than just one language.

Spend some time learning a language to break through this barrier. Practicing speaking in a new language will give you verbal dexterity that improves your ability to improvise in your mother tongue. 

The Best Time To Remove Your Barriers Was Yesterday

Thanks for reading this post.

There are obviously more barriers than the ones we’ve gone over today, but as you can see, the nine I’ve listed are massive.

My suggestion?

Get started on just one at a time.

Follow-up with the resources I’ve provided.

Familiarize yourself with those cognitive biases and improve your science literacy. 

And if you want to get started practicing your writing skills, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you ever spot me suffering from issues in my thinking, please let me know. I always want to improve!

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4 Responses

This article is a true masterpiece

Thank you so much for this incredible work

It’s my pleasure, Olena.

Any particular critical thinking barriers you’re facing lately?

There are way more articles on critical thinking than I expected. Thank you so much.

My pleasure. I might have more coming soon, so please stay tuned.

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Break through these 5 common critical thinking barriers

Break through these 5 common critical thinking barriers

Can you think of the last time you made a decision? It was probably about one second ago, even though you may not have realized it.

Our days are filled with choices, from pressing the snooze button on the morning alarm to selecting what to eat for dinner. On average, adults make around 35,000 decisions a day . If you average 16 hours of waking time, that's almost 36 decisions per minute.

Most decisions are entirely unconscious, like whether or not to scratch an itch or having a knee-jerk reaction to the expression on your significant other's face. Others, though, require a more careful and critical examination.

Critical thinking is one of the most valuable skills we can possess in our personal and professional lives. It allows us to analyze information, make sound decisions, and solve problems. However, many people find it difficult to think critically.

This article will discuss what critical thinking is, why it's important, and how you can overcome common critical thinking barriers.

What is critical thinking?

The origin of critical thinking can be traced back thousands of years to the teaching practice of the Greek philosopher Socrates. After discovering that many people couldn't explain the truth of their statements, he encouraged people to ask questions that go deep into their thoughts before accepting them.

Socrates used open-ended questions to stimulate critical thinking and uncover assumptions, a process that bears his name today — Socratic Questioning. It’s grounded in the belief that thoughtful questioning allows the student to examine ideas logically and determine their validity.

Socrates' method of questioning set the stage for thoughtful reflection. Today, the Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as "the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking to improve it." Unlike automatic or subconscious thought, thinking critically requires you to actively use intellectual tools to reach conclusions rather than relying on subconscious processes. This strengthens decision-making skills.

Critical thinking consists of two components:

  • A set of skills used to process information and beliefs
  • The act of consciously applying those skills as a guide for behavior

Each of these components is equally important during the critical thinking process.

What is the critical thinking process?

Critical thinking barriers: Steps on a wall

Critical thinkers evaluate evidence and analyze information before making a judgment. The process requires higher-order thinking skills such as sorting, analyzing, comparing data, and assessing logic and reason.

The critical thinking process consists of five primary elements :

  • Identify the claims. Organize arguments into basic statements and conclusions.
  • Clarify the arguments. Look for inconsistencies and ambiguities in statements.
  • Establish the facts. Verify whether the claims are reasonable, identify missing or omitted information, apply logic, and check for possible contradictions.
  • Evaluate the logic. Analyze whether the assumptions align with the conclusions.
  • Make the decision. Evaluate the argument using evidence, logic, and supporting data to increase the weight, contradictions, poor reasoning, or lack of evidence to decrease the weight.

Finding accuracy in ideas and challenging assumptions are essential parts of this process. Observing these two steps closely enables critical thinkers to form their own conclusions.

Why is it important to think critically?

Success in both business and life depends on the ability to think critically.

Human nature doesn't permit us to be completely objective. Instead, we each have our own viewpoints, close-mindedness, and social conditioning that influence our objective thinking capability. Everyone experiences distorted thinking and cognitive biases, leading to irrational thought processes. Critical thinking ability is necessary to overcome the limitations of irrational thinking.

Thinking critically is beneficial because it:

  • Promotes problem solving and innovation
  • Boosts creativity and curiosity
  • Encourages deeper self-reflection, self-assertion, and independence
  • Improves career opportunities
  • Builds objectivity and open-mindedness

Critical thinking isn't about reaching the "right" answer — it's about challenging the information you're given to make your own conclusions. When you can question details and think for yourself, you're less likely to be swayed by false claims, misleading arguments, and emotional manipulation.

5 common critical thinking barriers and how to break through them

It's possible to break through critical thinking barriers

The ability to think critically is essential to our personal and professional development. To become excellent critical thinkers, we must embrace a growth mindset — the idea that we can cultivate intelligence through learning and practice. This includes stepping out of our comfort zone to push our thinking patterns and checking in to correct ourselves as needed.

Very few of us can think critically without hitting a couple of roadblocks. These critical thinking barriers can come in many forms, including unwarranted assumptions, personal biases, egocentric thinking, and emotions that inhibit us from thinking clearly. By becoming aware of these common challenges and making a conscious effort to counter them, we can improve our critical thinking skills and learn to make better decisions.

Here are five of the most commonly encountered critical thinking barriers, how to spot them, and what you can do to overcome them.

1. Confirmation bias

What it is: Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to see new information as an affirmation of our existing beliefs and opinions. People with this bias disregard opposing points of view in favor of evidence that supports their position.

Why it occurs: Confirmation bias results from our emotional inclination to see the world from our perspective. Having quick reflexes keeps us safe, so we interpret information from our own perspective because it enables us to react instinctively . Another explanation is that our minds struggle with the parallel processing of two opposing arguments, so we only process the one we already believe because it’s easier.

How to overcome it: Confirmation bias may be the hardest bias to defeat . It’s difficult to not hold preconceived notions, but you can train your mind to think differently. Make an effort to be open-minded and look at situations from an alternative perspective. When we're aware of our own confirmation biases and diligently watch out for them, we can avoid favoring specific facts when evaluating arguments.

2. Self-serving bias

What it is : The self-serving bias concerns how we place attribution for results. An individual with this bias externalizes blame for any undesirable results, yet takes credit for success.

Why it occurs: Researchers have found that people with a self-serving bias make attributions based on their need to maintain a high level of self-esteem . Our minds fear losing confidence if we take responsibility for failure or negative outcomes.

How to overcome it: You can counteract self-serving bias by maintaining a growth mindset. To have a growth mindset, you must be able to admit your errors, examine personal biases, and learn to take criticism. To overcome a self-serving bias, practice self-compassion. Accepting your imperfections and being kind to yourself when you fall short of your goals can help you maintain confidence.

3. Normalcy bias

What it is: The normalcy bias arises from our instinctual need for safety. Using this bias, we tend to overlook new information and common sense so that nothing changes and we can continue to live our lives as usual.

Why it occurs: The normalcy bias is a protection mechanism, a form of denial. Usually active when facing a traumatic event, this bias shuts down the mind to protect us from things that are too painful or confusing to comprehend.

How to overcome it: Although it is the brain's attempt to protect us, the normalcy bias can be harmful — and even dangerous — if it keeps us from facing reality. The best way to overcome it is to face facts and truth head-on, no matter how difficult it may be.

4. Availability heuristic

What it is: The availability heuristic occurs when we rely on the first piece of information that comes to mind without weighing other possibilities, even when it may not be the best option. We assume that information that is more readily accessible is more likely to be true.

Why it occurs: This heuristic stems from the brain’s use of shortcuts to be efficient. It can be used in a wide variety of real-life situations to facilitate fast and accurate estimation.

How to overcome it: Some real-world scenarios (like probability estimations) can benefit from the availability bias, so it's neither possible nor advisable to eliminate it entirely. In the event of uncertainty, however, we must be aware of all relevant data when making judgments, not just that which comes readily to mind.

5. Sunk cost fallacy

What it is: The sunk cost fallacy arises from the instinctual need for commitment. We fall victim to this illusion when we continue doing something even if it's irrational, simply because we’ve already invested resources that we can’t get back.

Why it occurs: The sunk cost fallacy occurs when we’re affected by feelings of loss, guilt, or regret. These innate feelings are hard to overcome — research has found that even rats and mice struggle with sunk costs when pursuing a reward. Because of this tendency, when we feel like we've already put considerable effort into organizing our information and pursuing a result, we tell ourselves that we can’t waste it by changing course.

How to overcome it: Instead of dwelling on past commitments, pay attention to the present and future. Thinking with logical reasoning, in terms of concrete actions instead of feelings, is vital.

Be ABLE to think critically despite barriers

Thinking critically is an essential skill for self-learners . Making sound decisions starts with recognizing our critical thinking barriers. Practicing self-compassion and self-awareness are excellent ways to identify biases in your thinking. From there, you can begin working toward overcoming those obstacles. When you have no critical thinking barriers in your way, you can develop and strengthen the skills that will help you succeed.

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How to Identify and Remove Barriers to Critical Thinking

An illustration of an office worker jumping over a brick wall representing barriers to critical thinking.

Critical Thinking: Structured Reasoning

Even a few simple techniques for logical decision making and persuasion can vastly improve your skills as a leader. Explore how critical thinking can help you evaluate complex business problems, reduce bias, and devise effective solutions.

Critical Thinking: Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is a central business skill, and yet it's the one many people struggle with most. This course will show you how to apply critical thinking techniques to common business examples, avoid misunderstandings, and get at the root of any problem.

Contrary to popular belief, being intelligent or logical does not automatically make you a critical thinker.

People with high IQs are still prone to biases, complacency, overconfidence, and stereotyping that affect the quality of their thoughts and performance at work. But people who scored high in critical thinking —a reflection of sound analytical, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities—report having fewer negative experiences in and out of the office.

Top 5 Barriers to Critical Thinking

To learn how to think critically, you’ll need to identify and understand what prevents people from doing so in the first place. Catching yourself (and others) engaging in these critical thinking no-no’s can help prevent costly mistakes and improve your quality of life.

Here are five of the most common barriers to critical thinking.

Egocentric Thinking

Egoism, or viewing everything in relation to yourself, is a natural human tendency and a common barrier to critical thinking. It often leads to an inability to question one’s own beliefs, sympathize with others, or consider different perspectives.

Egocentricity is an inherent character flaw. Understand that, and you’ll gain the open-minded point of view required to assess situations outside your own lens of understanding.

Groupthink and Social Conditioning

Everyone wants to feel like they belong. It’s a basic survival instinct and psychological mechanism that ensures the survival of our species. Historically, humans banded together to survive in the wild against predators and each other. That desire to “fit in” persists today as groupthink, or the tendency to agree with the majority and suppress independent thoughts and actions.

Groupthink is a serious threat to diversity in that it supports social conditioning, or the idea that we should all adhere to a particular society or culture’s most “acceptable” behavior.

Overcoming groupthink and cultural conditioning requires the courage to break free from the crowd. It’s the only way to question popular thought, culturally embedded values, and belief systems in a detached and objective manner.

Next Article

5 of the Best Books on Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving


Drone Mentality and Cognitive Fatigue

Turning on “autopilot” and going through the motions can lead to a lack of spatial awareness. This is known as drone mentality, and it’s not only detrimental to you, but those around you, as well.

Studies show that monotony and boredom are bad for mental health . Cognitive fatigue caused by long-term mental activity without appropriate stimulation, like an unchanging daily routine full of repetitive tasks, negatively impairs cognitive functioning and critical thinking .

Although you may be tempted to flip on autopilot when things get monotonous, as a critical thinker you need to challenge yourself to make new connections and find fresh ideas. Adopt different schools of thought. Keep both your learning and teaching methods exciting and innovative, and that will foster an environment of critical thinking.

The Logic Tree: The Ultimate Critical Thinking Framework


Personal Biases and Preferences

Everyone internalizes certain beliefs, opinions, and attitudes that manifest as personal biases. You may feel that you’re open minded, but these subconscious judgements are more common than most people realize. They can distort your thinking patterns and sway your decision making in the following ways:

  • Confirmation bias: favoring information that reinforces your existing viewpoints and beliefs
  • Anchoring bias: being overly influenced by the first piece of information you come across
  • False consensus effect: believing that most people share your perspective
  • Normalcy bias: assuming that things will stay the same despite significant changes to the status quo

The critical thinking process requires being aware of personal biases that affect your ability to rationally analyze a situation and make sound decisions.

Allostatic Overload

Research shows that persistent stress causes a phenomenon known as allostatic overload . It’s serious business, affecting your attention span, memory, mood, and even physical health.

When under pressure, your brain is forced to channel energy into the section responsible for processing necessary information at the expense of taking a rest. That’s why people experience memory lapses in fight-or-flight situations. Prolonged stress also reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles executive tasks.

Avoiding cognitive impairments under pressure begins by remaining as calm and objective as possible. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and slow your thoughts. Assume the role of a third-party observer. Analyze and evaluate what can be controlled instead of what can’t.

Train Your Mind Using the 9 Intellectual Standards

The bad news is that barriers to critical thinking can really sneak up on you and be difficult to overcome. But the good news is that anyone can learn to think critically with practice.

Unlike raw intelligence, which is largely determined by genetics , critical thinking can be mastered using nine teachable standards of thought:

  • Clarity: Is the information or task at hand easy to understand and free from obscurities?
  • Precision: Is it specific and detailed?
  • Accuracy: Is it correct, free from errors and distortions?
  • Relevance: Is it directly related to the matter at hand?
  • Depth: Does it consider all other variables, contexts, and situations?
  • Breadth: Is it comprehensive, and does it encompass other perspectives?
  • Logical: Does it contradict itself?
  • Significance: Is it important in the first place?
  • Fairness: Is it free from bias, deception, and self-interest?

When evaluating any task, situation, or piece of information, consider these intellectual standards to hone your critical thinking skills in a structured, practiced way. Keep it up, and eventually critical thinking will become second nature.

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Overcoming Obstacles to Critical Thinking

The ability to think critically will benefit students throughout their lives. Here are a few tips on how to get started teaching it.

A young boy stands thinking in front of a blackboard covered with question marks.

The ability to think critically is one skill separating innovators from followers. It combats the power of advertisers, unmasks the unscrupulous and pretentious, and exposes unsupported arguments. Students enjoy learning the skill because they immediately see how it gives them more control. Yet critical thinking is simple: It is merely the ability to understand why things are they way they are and to understand the potential consequences of actions.  

Devastating Consequences, Tremendous Opportunities

Young people—without significant life experience and anxious to fit in—are especially vulnerable to surface appeal. Sometimes that appeal actively discourages analysis, as is the case with the targeted advertising that affects buying and eating habits. Students may choose friends for the wrong reasons, leading to heartache. Later on, decisions about joining the military or pursuing another career or about becoming a parent will have indelible effects on their lives.

Every educator is in a position to teach students how to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions, and think for themselves. Because critical thinking is so important, some believe that every educator has the obligation to incorporate the application of critical thinking into his or her subject area. This helps students evaluate prepackaged conclusions and clears a path for original thoughts. Practicing critical thinking in the classroom may mean discussing the quality of a textbook, considering whether traditional beliefs about a subject are accurate, or even discussing the teacher’s instructional style.

A World of Illusions

Seeing beyond superficial appearances is especially important today because we are surrounded by illusions, many of them deliberately created. The effects may be subtle yet profound. While we seek out and appreciate some illusions, such as films and novels, others can make us miserable or even kill us. We need to know if foods that taste perfectly fine can hurt us in the short term (as with Salmonella contamination) or in the long term (cholesterol). A virus might be so dangerous that we should avoid public places, and political candidates promising to clean up government can end up being more corrupt than their predecessors. We want to know if items we purchase are durable or junk, and whether people we’re attracted to are truly as considerate as they seem at first. Students are constantly being presented with information not only in the classroom, but also from their friends, parents, the internet, films, television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. They need tools to analyze all the input.

Making a Start in Teaching Critical Thinking

The first step in teaching critical thinking is to help students recognize how easily false ideas can creep into their belief systems. For example:

1) People believe stories because they are the ones available. Most people identify Thomas Edison as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. Although Edison perfected a commercially successful design, he was preceded in the experimentation by British inventors Frederick de Moleyns and Joseph Swan, and by American J. W. Starr. Sometimes stories become accepted because they are simple, sensational, entertaining, or already popular. But just because a story is available doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

2) Beliefs may justify past actions. In July 2006, half the respondents to a Harris Poll said they believed that when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, that country possessed weapons of mass destruction. But back in 2004, the CIA had already concluded that Iraq possessed no stockpiles of illicit weapons. Even reliable, readily available facts had not superseded the mistaken impression that many still held.

3) People may not recognize the significance of their own perceptions. In November 2005, a suicide bomber struck the Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan. On the eighth floor, Ita Martin heard a loud noise. Yet it was not until she turned on CNN that she learned a bomb had gone off. “Oh, my God, I’m in that hotel!” she exclaimed. Had she trusted her own ears and eyes, she would have left the building much more quickly.

4) People may not want to question their beliefs. Students don’t need much convincing that two of the biggest enemies of the truth are people whose job it is to sell us incomplete versions of the available facts, and the simple absence of accurate information. They may need more convincing that a significant problem is their own desire to believe what feels comfortable.

Students can be reminded that companies advertising products take advantage of our desires; they don’t describe the benefits of their competitors’ products any more than a man asking a woman to marry him encourages her to date other men before deciding. It’s a social reality that people encourage one another to make important decisions with limited facts.

When students are shown how to gather information, question what appears obvious, and think through possible consequences, they’ll be able to make decisions based on facts, not myths or propaganda. Years later, students may forget some details of a subject, but they’ll never forget the teacher who taught them how to think more effectively.

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An Evaluative Review of Barriers to Critical Thinking in Educational and Real-World Settings

Associated data.

No new data were created or analyzed in this study. Data sharing is not applicable to this article.

Though a wide array of definitions and conceptualisations of critical thinking have been offered in the past, further elaboration on some concepts is required, particularly with respect to various factors that may impede an individual’s application of critical thinking, such as in the case of reflective judgment. These barriers include varying levels of epistemological engagement or understanding, issues pertaining to heuristic-based thinking and intuitive judgment, as well as emotional and biased thinking. The aim of this review is to discuss such barriers and evaluate their impact on critical thinking in light of perspectives from research in an effort to reinforce the ‘completeness’ of extant critical thinking frameworks and to enhance the potential benefits of implementation in real-world settings. Recommendations and implications for overcoming such barriers are also discussed and evaluated.

1. Introduction

Critical thinking (CT) is a metacognitive process—consisting of a number of skills and dispositions—that, through purposeful, self-regulatory reflective judgment, increases the chances of producing a logical solution to a problem or a valid conclusion to an argument ( Dwyer 2017 , 2020 ; Dwyer et al. 2012 , 2014 , 2015 , 2016 ; Dwyer and Walsh 2019 ; Quinn et al. 2020 ).

CT has long been identified as a desired outcome of education ( Bezanilla et al. 2019 ; Butler et al. 2012 ; Dwyer 2017 ; Ennis 2018 ), given that it facilitates a more complex understanding of information ( Dwyer et al. 2012 ; Halpern 2014 ), better judgment and decision-making ( Gambrill 2006 ) and less dependence on cognitive bias and heuristic thinking ( Facione and Facione 2001 ; McGuinness 2013 ). A vast body of research (e.g., Dwyer et al. 2012 ; Gadzella 1996 ; Hitchcock 2004 ; Reed and Kromrey 2001 ; Rimiene 2002 ; Solon 2007 ), including various meta-analyses (e.g., Abrami et al. 2008 , 2015 ; Niu et al. 2013 ; Ortiz 2007 ), indicates that CT can be enhanced through targeted, explicit instruction. Though CT can be taught in domain-specific areas, its domain-generality means that it can be taught across disciplines and in relation to real-world scenarios ( Dwyer 2011 , 2017 ; Dwyer and Eigenauer 2017 ; Dwyer et al. 2015 ; Gabennesch 2006 ; Halpern 2014 ). Indeed, the positive outcomes associated with CT transcend educational settings into real-world, everyday situations, which is important because CT is necessary for a variety of social and interpersonal contexts where good decision-making and problem-solving are needed on a daily basis ( Ku 2009 ). However, regardless of domain-specificity or domain-generality of instruction, the transferability of CT application has been an issue in CT research (e.g., see Dumitru 2012 ). This is an important consideration because issues with transferability—for example, in real-world settings—may imply something lacking in CT instruction.

In light of the large, aforementioned body of research focusing on enhancing CT through instruction, a growing body of research has also evaluated the manner in which CT instruction is delivered (e.g., Abrami et al. 2008 , 2015 ; Ahern et al. 2019 ; Cáceres et al. 2020 ; Byerly 2019 ; Dwyer and Eigenauer 2017 ), along with additional considerations for and the barriers to such education, faced by teachers and students alike (e.g., Aliakbari and Sadeghdaghighi 2013 ; Cáceres et al. 2020 ; Cornell et al. 2011 ; Lloyd and Bahr 2010 ; Ma and Liu 2022 ; Ma and Luo 2021 ; Rear 2019 ; Saleh 2019 ); for example, those regarding conceptualisation, beliefs about CT, having feasible time for CT application and CT’s aforementioned transferability. However, there is a significant lack of research investigating barriers to CT application by individuals in real-world settings, even by those who have enjoyed benefits from previous CT instruction. Thus, perhaps the previously conjectured ‘something lacking in CT instruction’ refers to, in conjunction with the teaching of what CT consists of, making clear to students what barriers to CT application we face.

Simply, CT instruction is designed in such a way as to enhance the likelihood of positive decision-making outcomes. However, there are a variety of barriers that can impede an individual’s application of CT, regardless of past instruction with respect to ‘how to conduct CT’. For example, an individual might be regarded as a ‘critical thinker’ because they apply it in a vast majority of appropriate scenarios, but that does not ensure that they apply CT in all such appropriate scenarios. What keeps them from applying CT in those scenarios might well be one of a number of barriers to CT that often go unaddressed in CT instruction, particularly if such instruction is exclusively focused on skills and dispositions. Perhaps too much focus is placed on what educators are teaching their students to do in their CT courses as opposed to what educators should be recommending their students to look out for or advising what they should not be doing. That is, perhaps just as important for understanding what CT is and how it is conducted (i.e., knowing what to do) is a genuine awareness of the various factors and processes that can impede CT; and so, for an individual to think critically, they must know what to look out for and be able to monitor for such barriers to CT application.

To clarify, thought has not changed regarding what CT is or the cognitive/metacognitive processes at its foundation (e.g., see Dwyer 2017 ; Dwyer et al. 2014 ; Ennis 1987 , 1996 , 1998 ; Facione 1990 ; Halpern 2014 ; Paul 1993 ; Paul and Elder 2008 ); rather, additional consideration of issues that have potential to negatively impact CT is required, such as those pertaining to epistemological engagement; intuitive judgment; as well as emotional and biased thinking. This notion has been made clear through what might be perceived of as a ‘loud shout’ for CT over at least the past 10–15 years in light of growing political, economic, social, and health-related concerns (e.g., ‘fake news’, gaps between political views in the general population, various social movements and the COVID-19 pandemic). Indeed, there is a dearth of research on barriers to CT ( Haynes et al. 2016 ; Lloyd and Bahr 2010 ; Mangena and Chabeli 2005 ; Rowe et al. 2015 ). As a result, this evaluative perspective review aims to provide an impetus for updating the manner in which CT education is approached and, perhaps most importantly, applied in real-world settings—through further identifying and elaborating on specific barriers of concern in order to reinforce the ‘completeness’ of extant CT frameworks and to enhance the potential benefits of their implementation 1 .

2. Barriers to Critical Thinking

2.1. inadequate skills and dispositions.

In order to better understand the various barriers to CT that will be discussed, the manner in which CT is conceptualised must first be revisited. Though debate over its definition and what components are necessary to think critically has existed over the 80-plus years since the term’s coining (i.e., Glaser 1941 ), it is generally accepted that CT consists of two main components: skills and dispositions ( Dwyer 2017 ; Dwyer et al. 2012 , 2014 ; Ennis 1996 , 1998 ; Facione 1990 ; Facione et al. 2002 ; Halpern 2014 ; Ku and Ho 2010a ; Perkins and Ritchhart 2004 ; Quinn et al. 2020 ). CT skills—analysis, evaluation, and inference—refer to the higher-order, cognitive, ‘task-based’ processes necessary to conduct CT (e.g., see Dwyer et al. 2014 ; Facione 1990 ). CT dispositions have been described as inclinations, tendencies, or willingness to perform a given thinking skill (e.g., see Dwyer et al. 2016 ; Siegel 1999 ; Valenzuela et al. 2011 ), which may relate to attitudinal and intellectual habits of thinking, as well as motivational processes ( Ennis 1996 ; Norris 1994 ; Paul and Elder 2008 ; Perkins et al. 1993 ; Valenzuela et al. 2011 ). The relationship between CT skills and dispositions has been argued to be mutually dependent. As a result, overemphasising or encouraging the development of one over the other is a barrier to CT as a whole. Though this may seem obvious, it remains the case that CT instruction often places added emphasis on skills simply because they can be taught (though that does not ensure that everyone has or will be taught such skills), whereas dispositions are ‘trickier’ (e.g., see Dwyer 2017 ; Ku and Ho 2010a ). That is, it is unlikely that simply ‘teaching’ students to be motivated towards CT or to value it over short-instructional periods will actually meaningfully enhance it. Moreover, debate exists over how best to train disposition or even measure it. With that, some individuals might be more ‘inherently’ disposed to CT in light of their truth-seeking, open-minded, or inquisitive natures ( Facione and Facione 1992 ; Quinn et al. 2020 ). The barrier, in this context, is how we can enhance the disposition of those who are not ‘inherently’ inclined. For example, though an individual may possess the requisite skills to conduct CT, it does not ensure the tendency or willingness to apply them; and conversely, having the disposition to apply CT does not mean that one has the ability to do so ( Valenzuela et al. 2011 ). Given the pertinence of CT skills and dispositions to the application of CT in a broader sense, inadequacies in either create a barrier to application.

2.2. Epistemological (Mis)Understanding

To reiterate, most extant conceptualisations of CT focus on the tandem working of skills and dispositions, though significantly fewer emphasise the reflective judgment aspect of CT that might govern various associated processes ( Dawson 2008 ; Dwyer 2017 ; Dwyer et al. 2014 , 2015 ; King and Kitchener 1994 , 2004 ; Stanovich and Stanovich 2010 ). Reflective judgment (RJ) refers to a self-regulatory process of decision-making, with respect to taking time to engage one’s understanding of the nature, limits, and certainty of knowing and how this can affect the defense of their reasoning ( Dwyer 2017 ; King and Kitchener 1994 ; Ku and Ho 2010b ). The ability to metacognitively ‘think about thinking’ ( Flavell 1976 ; Ku and Ho 2010b ) in the application of critical thinking skills implies a reflective sensibility consistent with epistemological understanding and the capacity for reflective judgement ( Dwyer et al. 2015 ; King and Kitchener 1994 ). Acknowledging levels of (un)certainty is important in CT because the information a person is presented with (along with that person’s pre-existing knowledge) often provides only a limited source of information from which to draw a conclusion. Thus, RJ is considered a component of CT ( Baril et al. 1998 ; Dwyer et al. 2015 ; Huffman et al. 1991 ) because it allows one to acknowledge that epistemological understanding is necessary for recognising and judging a situation in which CT may be required ( King and Kitchener 1994 ). For example, the interdependence between RJ and CT can be seen in the way that RJ influences the manner in which CT skills like analysis and evaluation are conducted or the balance and perspective within the subsequent inferences drawn ( Dwyer et al. 2015 ; King et al. 1990 ). Moreover, research suggests that RJ development is not a simple function of age or time but more so a function of the amount of active engagement an individual has working in problem spaces that require CT ( Brabeck 1981 ; Dawson 2008 ; Dwyer et al. 2015 ). The more developed one’s RJ, the better able one is to present “a more complex and effective form of justification, providing more inclusive and better integrated assumptions for evaluating and defending a point of view” ( King and Kitchener 1994, p. 13 ).

Despite a lesser focus on RJ, research indicates a positive relationship between it and CT ( Baril et al. 1998 ; Brabeck 1981 ; Dawson 2008 ; Dwyer et al. 2015 ; Huffman et al. 1991 ; King et al. 1990 )—the understanding of which is pertinent to better understanding the foundation to CT barriers. For example, when considering one’s proficiency in CT skills, there might come a time when the individual becomes so good at using them that their application becomes something akin to ‘second nature’ or even ‘automatic’. However, this creates a contradiction: automatic thinking is largely the antithesis of reflective judgment (even though judgment is never fully intuitive or reflective; see Cader et al. 2005 ; Dunwoody et al. 2000 ; Hamm 1988 ; Hammond 1981 , 1996 , 2000 )—those who think critically take their time and reflect on their decision-making; even if the solution/conclusion drawn from the automatic thinking is ‘correct’ or yields a positive outcome, it is not a critically thought out answer, per se. Thus, no matter how skilled one is at applying CT skills, once the application becomes primarily ‘automatic’, the thinking ceases to be critical ( Dwyer 2017 )—a perspective consistent with Dual Process Theory (e.g., Stanovich and West 2000 ). Indeed, RJ acts as System 2 thinking ( Stanovich and West 2000 ): it is slow, careful, conscious, and consistent ( Kahneman 2011 ; Hamm 1988 ); it is associated with high cognitive control, attention, awareness, concentration, and complex computation ( Cader et al. 2005 ; Kahneman 2011 ; Hamm 1988 ); and accounts for epistemological concerns—consistent not only with King and Kitchener’s ( 1994 ) conceptualisation but also Kuhn’s ( 1999 , 2000 ) perspective on metacognition and epistemological knowing . This is where RJ comes into play as an important component of CT—interdependent among the requisite skills and dispositions ( Baril et al. 1998 ; Dwyer et al. 2015 )—it allows one to acknowledge that epistemological understanding is vital to recognising and judging a situation in which CT is required ( King and Kitchener 1994 ). With respect to the importance of epistemological understanding, consider the following examples for elaboration.

The primary goal of CT is to enhance the likelihood of generating reasonable conclusions and/or solutions. Truth-seeking is a CT disposition fundamental to the attainment of this goal ( Dwyer et al. 2016 ; Facione 1990 ; Facione and Facione 1992 ) because if we just applied any old nonsense as justification for our arguments or solutions, they would fail in the application and yield undesirable consequences. Despite what may seem like truth-seeking’s obvious importance in this context, all thinkers succumb to unwarranted assumptions on occasion (i.e., beliefs presumed to be true without adequate justification). It may also seem obvious, in context, that it is important to be able to distinguish facts from beliefs. However, the concepts of ‘fact’ or ‘truth’, with respect to how much empirical support they have to validate them, also require consideration. For example, some might conceptualise truth as factual information or information that has been or can be ‘proven’ true. Likewise, ‘proof’ is often described as evidence establishing a fact or the truth of a statement—indicating a level of absolutism. However, the reality is that we cannot ‘prove’ things—as scientists and researchers well know—we can only disprove them, such as in experimental settings where we observe a significant difference between groups on some measure—we do not prove the hypothesis correct, rather, we disprove the null hypothesis. This is why, in large part, researchers and scientists use cautious language in reporting their results. We know the best our findings can do is reinforce a theory—another concept often misconstrued in the wider population as something like a hypothesis, as opposed to what it actually entails: a robust model for how and/or why a given phenomenon might occur (e.g., gravity). Thus, theories will hold ‘true’ until they are falsified—that is, disproven (e.g., Popper [1934] 1959 , 1999 ).

Unfortunately, ‘proof’, ‘prove’, and ‘proven’—words that ensure certainty to large populations—actually disservice the public in subtle ways that can hinder CT. For example, a company that produces toothpaste might claim its product to be ‘clinically proven’ to whiten teeth. Consumers purchasing that toothpaste are likely to expect to have whiter teeth after use. However, what happens—as often may be the case—if it does not whiten their teeth? The word ‘proven’ implies a false claim in context. Of course, those in research understand that the word’s use is a marketing ploy, given that ‘clinically proven’ sounds more reassuring to consumers than ‘there is evidence to suggest…’; but, by incorrectly using words like ‘proven’ in our daily language, we reinforce a misunderstanding of what it means to assess, measure and evaluate—particularly from a scientific standpoint (e.g., again, see Popper [1934] 1959 , 1999 ).

Though this example may seem like a semantic issue, it has great implications for CT in the population. For example, a vast majority of us grew up being taught the ‘factual’ information that there were nine planets in our solar system; then, in 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet—no longer being considered a ‘major’ planet of our solar system. As a result, we now have eight planets. This change might be perceived in two distinct ways: (1) ‘science is amazing because it’s always developing—we’ve now reached a stage where we know so much about the solar system that we can differentiate celestial bodies to the extent of distinguishing planets from dwarf planets’; and (2) ‘I don’t understand why these scientists even have jobs, they can’t even count planets’. The first perspective is consistent with that of an individual with epistemological understanding and engagement that previous understandings of models and theories can change, not necessarily because they were wrong, but rather because they have been advanced in light of gaining further credible evidence. The second perspective is consistent with that of someone who has failed to engage epistemological understanding, who does not necessarily see that the change might reflect progress, who might be resistant to change, and who might grow in distrust of science and research in light of these changes. The latter point is of great concern in the CT research community because the unwarranted cynicism and distrust of science and research, in context, may simply reflect a lack of epistemological understanding or engagement (e.g., to some extent consistent with the manner in which conspiracy theories are developed, rationalised and maintained (e.g., Swami and Furnham 2014 )). Notably, this should also be of great concern to education departments around the world, as well as society, more broadly speaking.

Upon considering epistemological engagement in more practical, day-to-day scenarios (or perhaps a lack thereof), we begin to see the need for CT in everyday 21st-century life—heightened by the ‘new knowledge economy’, which has resulted in exponential increases in the amount of information made available since the late 1990s (e.g., Darling-Hammond 2008 ; Dwyer 2017 ; Jukes and McCain 2002 ; Varian and Lyman 2003 ). Though increased amounts of and enhanced access to information are largely good things, what is alarming about this is how much of it is misinformation or disinformation ( Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy in Schools 2018 ). Truth be told, the new knowledge economy is anything but ‘new’ anymore. Perhaps, over the past 10–15 years, there has been an increase in the need for CT above and beyond that seen in the ‘economy’s’ wake—or maybe ever before; for example, in light of the social media boom, political unrest, ‘fake news’, and issues regarding health literacy. The ‘new’ knowledge economy has made it so that knowledge acquisition, on its own, is no longer sufficient for learning—individuals must be able to work with and adapt information through CT in order to apply it appropriately ( Dwyer 2017 ).

Though extant research has addressed the importance of epistemological understanding for CT (e.g., Dwyer et al. 2014 ), it does not address how not engaging it can substantially hinder it—regardless of how skilled or disposed to think critically an individual may be. Notably, this is distinct from ‘inadequacies’ in, say, memory, comprehension, or other ‘lower-order’ cognitively-associated skills required for CT ( Dwyer et al. 2014 ; Halpern 2014 ; see, again, Note 1) in that reflective judgment is essentially a pole on a cognitive continuum (e.g., see Cader et al. 2005 ; Hamm 1988 ; Hammond 1981 , 1996 , 2000 ). Cognitive Continuum Theory postulates a continuum of cognitive processes anchored by reflective judgment and intuitive judgment, which represents how judgment situations or tasks relate to cognition, given that thinking is never purely reflective, nor is it completely intuitive; rather, it rests somewhere in between ( Cader et al. 2005 ; Dunwoody et al. 2000 ). It is also worth noting that, in Cognitive Continuum Theory, neither reflective nor intuitive judgment is assumed, a priori, to be superior ( Dunwoody et al. 2000 ), despite most contemporary research on judgment and decision-making focusing on the strengths of RJ and limitations associated with intuitive judgment ( Cabantous et al. 2010 ; Dhami and Thomson 2012 ; Gilovich et al. 2002 ). Though this point regarding superiority is acknowledged and respected (particularly in non-CT cases where it is advantageous to utilise intuitive judgment), in the context of CT, it is rejected in light of the example above regarding the automaticity of thinking skills.

2.3. Intuitive Judgment

The manner in which human beings think and the evolution of which, over millions of years, is a truly amazing thing. Such evolution has made it so that we can observe a particular event and make complex computations regarding predictions, interpretations, and reactions in less than a second (e.g., Teichert et al. 2014 ). Unfortunately, we have become so good at it that we often over-rely on ‘fast’ thinking and intuitive judgments that we have become ‘cognitively lazy’, given the speed at which we can make decisions with little energy ( Kahneman 2011 ; Simon 1957 ). In the context of CT, this ‘lazy’ thinking is an impediment (as in opposition to reflective judgment). For example, consider a time in which you have been presented numeric data on a topic, and you instantly aligned your perspective with what the ‘numbers indicate’. Of course, numbers do not lie… but people do—that is not to say that the person who initially interpreted and then presented you with those numbers is trying to disinform you; rather, the numbers presented might not tell the full story (i.e., the data are incomplete or inadequate, unbeknownst to the person reporting on them); and thus, there might be alternative interpretations to the data in question. With that, there most certainly are individuals who will wish to persuade you to align with their perspective, which only strengthens the impetus for being aware of intuitive judgment as a barrier. Consider another example: have you ever accidentally insulted someone at work, school, or in a social setting? Was it because the statement you made was based on some kind of assumption or stereotype? It may have been an honest mistake, but if a statement is made based on what one thinks they know, as opposed to what they actually know about the situation—without taking the time to recognise that all situations are unique and that reflection is likely warranted in light of such uncertainty—then it is likely that the schema-based ‘intuitive judgment’ is what is a fault here.

Our ability to construct schemas (i.e., mental frameworks for how we interpret the world) is evolutionarily adaptive in that these scripts allow us to: make quick decisions when necessary and without much effort, such as in moments of impending danger, answer questions in conversation; interpret social situations; or try to stave off cognitive load or decision fatigue ( Baumeister 2003 ; Sweller 2010 ; Vohs et al. 2014 ). To reiterate, research in the field of higher-order thinking often focuses on the failings of intuitive judgment ( Dwyer 2017 ; Hamm 1988 ) as being limited, misapplied, and, sometimes, yielding grossly incorrect responses—thus, leading to faulty reasoning and judgment as a result of systematic biases and errors ( Gilovich et al. 2002 ; Kahneman 2011 ; Kahneman et al. 1982 ; Slovic et al. 1977 ; Tversky and Kahneman 1974 ; in terms of schematic thinking ( Leventhal 1984 ), system 1 thinking ( Stanovich and West 2000 ; Kahneman 2011 ), miserly thinking ( Stanovich 2018 ) or even heuristics ( Kahneman and Frederick 2002 ; Tversky and Kahneman 1974 ). Nevertheless, it remains that such protocols are learned—not just through experience (as discussed below), but often through more ‘academic’ means. For example, consider again the anecdote above about learning to apply CT skills so well that it becomes like ‘second nature’. Such skills become a part of an individual’s ‘mindware’ ( Clark 2001 ; Stanovich 2018 ; Stanovich et al. 2016 ) and, in essence, become heuristics themselves. Though their application requires RJ for them to be CT, it does not mean that the responses yielded will be incorrect.

Moreover, despite the descriptions above, it would be incorrect, and a disservice to readers to imply that RJ is always right and intuitive judgment is always wrong, especially without consideration of the contextual issues—both intuitive and reflective judgments have the potential to be ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ with respect to validity, reasonableness or appropriateness. However, it must also be acknowledged that there is a cognitive ‘miserliness’ to depending on intuitive judgment, in which case, the ability to detect and override this dependence ( Stanovich 2018 )—consistent with RJ, is of utmost importance if we care about our decision-making. That is, if we care about our CT (see below for a more detailed discussion), we must ignore the implicit ‘noise’ associated with the intuitive judgment (regardless of whether or not it is ‘correct’) and, instead, apply the necessary RJ to ensure, as best we can, that the conclusion or solution is valid, reasonable or appropriate.

Although, such a recommendation is much easier said than done. One problem with relying on mental shortcuts afforded by intuition and heuristics is that they are largely experience-based protocols. Though that may sound like a positive thing, using ‘experience’ to draw a conclusion in a task that requires CT is erroneous because it essentially acts as ‘research’ based on a sample size of one; and so, ‘findings’ (i.e., one’s conclusion) cannot be generalised to the larger population—in this case, other contexts or problem-spaces ( Dwyer 2017 ). Despite this, we often over-emphasise the importance of experience in two related ways. First, people have a tendency to confuse experience for expertise (e.g., see the Dunning–KrugerEffect (i.e., the tendency for low-skilled individuals to overestimate their ability in tasks relevant to said skill and highly skilled individuals to underestimate their ability in tasks relevant to said skills); see also: ( Kruger and Dunning 1999 ; Mahmood 2016 ), wherein people may not necessarily be expert, rather they may just have a lot of experience completing a task imperfectly or wrong ( Dwyer and Walsh 2019 ; Hammond 1996 ; Kahneman 2011 ). Second, depending on the nature of the topic or problem, people often evaluate experience on par with research evidence (in terms of credibility), given its personalised nature, which is reinforced by self-serving bias(es).

When evaluating topics in domains wherein one lacks expertise, the need for intellectual integrity and humility ( Paul and Elder 2008 ) in their RJ is increased so that the individual may assess what knowledge is required to make a critically considered judgment. However, this is not necessarily a common response to a lack of relevant knowledge, given that when individuals are tasked with decision-making regarding a topic in which they do not possess relevant knowledge, these individuals will generally rely on emotional cues to inform their decision-making (e.g., Kahneman and Frederick 2002 ). Concerns here are not necessarily about the lack of domain-specific knowledge necessary to make an accurate decision, but rather the (1) belief of the individual that they have the knowledge necessary to make a critically thought-out judgment, even when this is not the case—again, akin to the Dunning–Kruger Effect ( Kruger and Dunning 1999 ); or (2) lack of willingness (i.e., disposition) to gain additional, relevant topic knowledge.

One final problem with relying on experience for important decisions, as alluded to above, is that when experience is engaged, it is not necessarily an objective recollection of the procedure. It can be accompanied by the individual’s beliefs, attitudes, and feelings—how that experience is recalled. The manner in which an individual draws on their personal experience, in light of these other factors, is inherently emotion-based and, likewise, biased (e.g., Croskerry et al. 2013 ; Loftus 2017 ; Paul 1993 ).

2.4. Bias and Emotion

Definitions of CT often reflect that it is to be applied to a topic, argument, or problem of importance that the individual cares about ( Dwyer 2017 ). The issue of ‘caring’ is important because it excludes judgment and decision-making in day-to-day scenarios that are not of great importance and do not warrant CT (e.g., ‘what colour pants best match my shirt’ and ‘what to eat for dinner’); again, for example, in an effort to conserve time and cognitive resources (e.g., Baumeister 2003 ; Sweller 2010 ). However, given that ‘importance’ is subjective, it essentially boils down to what one cares about (e.g., issues potentially impactful in one’s personal life; topics of personal importance to the individual; or even problems faced by an individual’s social group or work organisation (in which case, care might be more extrinsically-oriented). This is arguably one of the most difficult issues to resolve in CT application, given its contradictory nature—where it is generally recommended that CT should be conducted void of emotion and bias (as much as it can be possible), at the same time, it is also recommended that it should only be applied to things we care about. As a result, the manner in which care is conceptualised requires consideration. For example, in terms of CT, care can be conceptualised as ‘concern or interest; the attachment of importance to a person, place, object or concept; and serious attention or consideration applied to doing something correctly or to avoid damage or risk’; as opposed to some form of passion (e.g., intense, driving or over-powering feeling or conviction; emotions as distinguished from reason; a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object or concept). In this light, care could be argued as more of a dispositional or self-regulatory factor than emotional bias; thus, making it useful to CT. Though this distinction is important, the manner in which care is labeled does not lessen the potential for biased emotion to play a role in the thinking process. For example, it has been argued that if one cares about the decision they make or the conclusion they draw, then the individual will do their best to be objective as possible ( Dwyer 2017 ). However, it must also be acknowledged that this may not always be the case or even completely feasible (i.e., how can any decision be fully void of emotional input? )—though one may strive to be as objective as possible, such objectivity is not ensured given that implicit bias may infiltrate their decision-making (e.g., taking assumptions for granted as facts in filling gaps (unknowns) in a given problem-space). Consequently, such implicit biases may be difficult to amend, given that we may not be fully aware of them at play.

With that, explicit biases are just as concerning, despite our awareness of them. For example, the more important an opinion or belief is to an individual, the greater the resistance to changing their mind about it ( Rowe et al. 2015 ), even in light of evidence indicating the contrary ( Tavris and Aronson 2007 ). In some cases, the provision of information that corrects the flawed concept may even ‘backfire’ and reinforce the flawed or debunked stance ( Cook and Lewandowsky 2011 ). This cognitive resistance is an important barrier to CT to consider for obvious reasons—as a process; it acts in direct opposition to RJ, the skill of evaluation, as well as a number of requisite dispositions towards CT, including truth-seeking and open-mindedness (e.g., Dwyer et al. 2014 , 2016 ; Facione 1990 ); and at the same time, yields important real-world impacts (e.g., see Nyhan et al. 2014 ).

The notion of emotion impacting rational thought is by no means a novel concept. A large body of research indicates a negative impact of emotion on decision-making (e.g., Kahneman and Frederick 2002 ; Slovic et al. 2002 ; Strack et al. 1988 ), higher-order cognition ( Anticevic et al. 2011 ; Chuah et al. 2010 ; Denkova et al. 2010 ; Dolcos and McCarthy 2006 ) and cognition, more generally ( Iordan et al. 2013 ; Johnson et al. 2005 ; Most et al. 2005 ; Shackman et al. 2006 ) 2 . However, less attention has specifically focused on emotion’s impact on the application of critical thought. This may be a result of assumptions that if a person is inclined to think critically, then what is yielded will typically be void of emotion—which is true to a certain extent. However, despite the domain generality of CT ( Dwyer 2011 , 2017 ; Dwyer and Eigenauer 2017 ; Dwyer et al. 2015 ; Gabennesch 2006 ; Halpern 2014 ), the likelihood of emotional control during the CT process remains heavily dependent on the topic of application. Consider again, for example; there is no guarantee that an individual who generally applies CT to important topics or situations will do so in all contexts. Indeed, depending on the nature of the topic or the problem faced, an individual’s mindware ( Clark 2001 ; Stanovich 2018 ; Stanovich et al. 2016 ; consistent with the metacognitive nature of CT) and the extent to which a context can evoke emotion in the thinker will influence what and how thinking is applied. As addressed above, if the topic is something to which the individual feels passionate, then it will more likely be a greater challenge for them to remain unbiased and develop a reasonably objective argument or solution.

Notably, self-regulation is an important aspect of both RJ and CT ( Dwyer 2017 ; Dwyer et al. 2014 ), and, in this context, it is difficult not to consider the role emotional intelligence might play in the relationship between affect and CT. For example, though there are a variety of conceptualisations of emotional intelligence (e.g., Bar-On 2006 ; Feyerherm and Rice 2002 ; Goleman 1995 ; Salovey and Mayer 1990 ; Schutte et al. 1998 ), the underlying thread among these is that, similar to the concept of self-regulation, emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to monitor (e.g., perceive, understand and regulate) one’s own feelings, as well as those of others, and to use this information to guide relevant thinking and behaviour. Indeed, extant research indicates that there is a positive association between EI and CT (e.g., Afshar and Rahimi 2014 ; Akbari-Lakeh et al. 2018 ; Ghanizadeh and Moafian 2011 ; Kaya et al. 2017 ; Stedman and Andenoro 2007 ; Yao et al. 2018 ). To shed light upon this relationship, Elder ( 1997 ) addressed the potential link between CT and EI through her description of the latter as a measure of the extent to which affective responses are rationally-based , in which reasonable desires and behaviours emerge from such rationally-based emotions. Though there is extant research on the links between CT and EI, it is recommended that future research further elaborate on this relationship, as well as with other self-regulatory processes, in an effort to further establish the potentially important role that EI might play within CT.

3. Discussion

3.1. interpretations.

Given difficulties in the past regarding the conceptualisation of CT ( Dwyer et al. 2014 ), efforts have been made to be as specific and comprehensive as possible when discussing CT in the literature to ensure clarity and accuracy. However, it has been argued that such efforts have actually added to the complexity of CT’s conceptualisation and had the opposite effect on clarity and, perhaps, more importantly, the accessibility and practical usefulness for educators (and students) not working in the research area. As a result, when asked what CT is, I generally follow up the ‘long definition’, in light of past research, with a much simpler description: CT is akin to ‘playing devil’s advocate’. That is, once a claim is made, one should second-guess it in as many conceivable ways as possible, in a process similar to the Socratic Method. Through asking ‘why’ and conjecturing alternatives, we ask the individual—be it another person or even ourselves—to justify the decision-making. It keeps the thinker ‘honest’, which is particularly useful if we’re questioning ourselves. If we do not have justifiable reason(s) for why we think or intend to act in a particular way (above and beyond considered objections), then it should become obvious that we either missed something or we are biased. It is perhaps this simplified description of CT that gives such impetus for the aim of this review.

Whereas extant frameworks often discuss the importance of CT skills, dispositions, and, to a lesser extent, RJ and other self-regulatory functions of CT, they do so with respect to components of CT or processes that facilitate CT (e.g., motivation, executive functions, and dispositions), without fully encapsulating cognitive processes and other factors that may hinder it (e.g., emotion, bias, intuitive judgment and a lack of epistemological understanding or engagement). With that, this review is neither a criticism of existing CT frameworks nor is it to imply that CT has so many barriers that it cannot be taught well, nor does it claim to be a complete list of processes that can impede CT (see again Note 1). To reiterate, education in CT can yield beneficial effects ( Abrami et al. 2008 , 2015 ; Dwyer 2017 ; Dwyer and Eigenauer 2017 ); however, such efficacy may be further enhanced by presenting students and individuals interested in CT the barriers they are likely to face in its application; explaining how these barriers manifest and operate; and offer potential strategies for overcoming them.

3.2. Further Implications and Future Research

Though the barriers addressed here are by no means new to the arena of research in higher-order cognition, there is a novelty in their collated discussion as impactful barriers in the context of CT, particularly with respect to extant CT research typically focusing on introducing strategies and skills for enhancing CT, rather than identifying ‘preventative measures’ for barriers that can negatively impact CT. Nevertheless, future research is necessary to address how such barriers can be overcome in the context of CT. As addressed above, it is recommended that CT education include discussion of these barriers and encourage self-regulation against them; and, given the vast body of CT research focusing on enhancement through training and education, it seems obvious to make such a recommendation in this context. However, it is also recognised that simply identifying these barriers and encouraging people to engage in RJ and self-regulation to combat them may not suffice. For example, educators might very well succeed in teaching students how to apply CT skills , but just as these educators may not be able to motivate students to use them as often as they might be needed or even to value such skills (such as in attempting to elicit a positive disposition towards CT), it might be the case that without knowing about the impact of the discussed barriers to CT (e.g., emotion and/or intuitive judgment), students may be just as susceptible to biases in their attempts to think critically as others without CT skills. Thus, what such individuals might be applying is not CT at all; rather, just a series of higher-order cognitive skills from a biased or emotion-driven perspective. As a result, a genuine understanding of these barriers is necessary for individuals to appropriately self-regulate their thinking.

Moreover, though the issues of epistemological beliefs, bias, emotion, and intuitive processes are distinct in the manner in which they can impact CT, these do not have set boundaries; thus, an important implication is that they can overlap. For example, epistemological understanding can influence how individuals make decisions in real-world scenarios, such as through intuiting a judgment in social situations (i.e., without considering the nature of the knowledge behind the decision, the manner in which such knowledge interacts [e.g., correlation v. causation], the level of uncertainty regarding both the decision-maker’s personal stance and the available evidence), when a situation might actually require further consideration or even the honest response of ‘I don’t know’. The latter concept—that of simply responding ‘I don’t know’ is interesting to consider because though it seems, on the surface, to be inconsistent with CT and its outcomes, it is commensurate with many of its associated components (e.g., intellectual honesty and humility; see Paul and Elder 2008 ). In the context this example is used, ‘I don’t know’ refers to epistemological understanding. With that, it may also be impacted by bias and emotion. For example, depending on the topic, an individual may be likely to respond ‘I don’t know’ when they do not have the relevant knowledge or evidence to provide a sufficient answer. However, in the event that the topic is something the individual is emotionally invested in or feels passionate about, an opinion or belief may be shared instead of ‘I don’t know’ (e.g., Kahneman and Frederick 2002 ), despite a lack of requisite evidence-based knowledge (e.g., Kruger and Dunning 1999 ). An emotional response based on belief may be motivated in the sense that the individual knows that they do not know for sure and simply uses a belief to support their reasoning as a persuasive tool. On the other hand, the emotional response based on belief might be used simply because the individual may not know that the use of a belief is an insufficient means of supporting their perspective– instead, they might think that their intuitive, belief-based judgment is as good as a piece of empirical evidence; thus, suggesting a lack of empirical understanding. With that, it is fair to say that though epistemological understanding, intuitive judgment, emotion, and bias are distinct concepts, they can influence each other in real-world CT and decision-making. Though there are many more examples of how this might occur, the one presented may further support the recommendation that education can be used to overcome some of the negative effects associated with the barriers presented.

For example, in Ireland, students are not generally taught about academic referencing until they reach third-level education. Anecdotally, I was taught about referencing at age 12 and had to use it all the way through high school when I was growing up in New York. In the context of these referencing lessons, we were taught about the credibility of sources, as well as how analyse and evaluate arguments and subsequently infer conclusions in light of these sources (i.e., CT skills). We were motivated by our teacher to find the ‘truth’ as best we could (i.e., a fundament of CT disposition). Now, I recognise that this experience cannot be generalised to larger populations, given that I am a sample size of one, but I do look upon such education, perhaps, as a kind of transformative learning experience ( Casey 2018 ; King 2009 ; Mezirow 1978 , 1990 ) in the sense that such education might have provided a basis for both CT and epistemological understanding. For CT, we use research to support our positions, hence the importance of referencing. When a ‘reference’ is not available, one must ask if there is actual evidence available to support the proposition. If there is not, one must question the basis for why they think or believe that their stance is correct—that is, where there is logic to the reasoning or if the proposition is simply an emotion- or bias-based intuitive judgment. So, in addition to referencing, the teaching of some form of epistemology—perhaps early in children’s secondary school careers, might benefit students in future efforts to overcome some barriers to CT. Likewise, presenting examples of the observable impact that bias, emotions, and intuitive thought can have on their thinking might also facilitate overcoming these barriers.

As addressed above, it is acknowledged that we may not be able to ‘teach’ people not to be biased or emotionally driven in their thinking because it occurs naturally ( Kahneman 2011 )—regardless of how ‘skilled’ one might be in CT. For example, though research suggests that components of CT, such as disposition, can improve over relatively short periods of time (e.g., over the duration of a semester-long course; Rimiene 2002 ), less is known about how such components have been enhanced (given the difficulty often associated with trying to teach something like disposition ( Dwyer 2017 ); i.e., to reiterate, it is unlikely that simply ‘teaching’ (or telling) students to be motivated towards CT or to value it (or its associated concepts) will actually enhance it over short periods of time (e.g., semester-long training). Nevertheless, it is reasonable to suggest that, in light of such research, educators can encourage dispositional growth and provide opportunities to develop it. Likewise, it is recommended that educators encourage students to be aware of the cognitive barriers discussed and provide chances to engage in CT scenarios where such barriers are likely to play a role, thus, giving students opportunities to acknowledge the barriers and practice overcoming them. Moreover, making students aware of such barriers at younger ages—in a simplified manner, may promote the development of personal perspectives and approaches that are better able to overcome the discussed barriers to CT. This perspective is consistent with research on RJ ( Dwyer et al. 2015 ), in which it was recommended that such enhancement requires not only time to develop (be it over the course of a semester or longer) but is also a function of having increased opportunities to engage CT. In the possibilities described, individuals may learn both to overcome barriers to CT and from the positive outcomes of applying CT; and, perhaps, engage in some form of transformative learning ( Casey 2018 ; King 2009 ; Mezirow 1978 , 1990 ) that facilitates an enhanced ‘valuing’ of and motivation towards CT. For example, through growing an understanding of the nature of epistemology, intuitive-based thinking, emotion, bias, and the manner in which people often succumb to faulty reasoning in light of these, individuals may come to better understand the limits of knowledge, barriers to CT and how both understandings can be applied; thus, growing further appreciation of the process as it is needed.

To reiterate, research suggests that there may be a developmental trajectory above and beyond the parameters of a semester-long training course that is necessary to develop the RJ necessary to think critically and, likewise, engage an adequate epistemological stance and self-regulate against impeding cognitive processes ( Dwyer et al. 2015 ). Though such research suggests that such development may not be an issue of time, but rather the amount of opportunities to engage RJ and CT, there is a dearth of recommendations offered with respect to how this could be performed in practice. Moreover, the how and what regarding ‘opportunities for engagement’ requires further investigation as well. For example, does this require additional academic work outside the classroom in a formal manner, or does it require informal ‘exploration’ of the world of information on one’s own? If the latter, the case of motivational and dispositional levels once again comes into question; thus, even further consideration is needed. One way or another, future research efforts are necessary to identify how best to make individuals aware of barriers to CT, encourage them to self-regulate against them, and identify means of increasing opportunities to engage RJ and CT.

4. Conclusions

Taking heed that it is unnecessary to reinvent the CT wheel ( Eigenauer 2017 ), the aim of this review was to further elaborate on the processes associated with CT and make a valuable contribution to its literature with respect to conceptualisation—not just in light of making people explicitly aware of what it is, but also what it is not and how it can be impeded (e.g., through inadequate CT skills and dispositions; epistemological misunderstanding; intuitive judgment; as well as bias and emotion)—a perspective consistent with that of ‘constructive feedback’ wherein students need to know both what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. This review further contributes to the CT education literature by identifying the importance of (1) engaging understanding of the nature, limits, and certainty of knowing as individuals traverse the landscape of evidence-bases in their research and ‘truth-seeking’; (2) understanding how emotions and biases can affect CT, regardless of the topic; (3) managing gut-level intuition until RJ has been appropriately engaged; and (4) the manner in which language is used to convey meaning to important and/or abstract concepts (e.g., ‘caring’, ‘proof’, causation/correlation, etc.). Consistent with the perspectives on research advancement presented in this review, it is acknowledged that the issues addressed here may not be complete and may themselves be advanced upon and updated in time; thus, future research is recommended and welcomed to improve and further establish our working conceptualisation of critical thinking, particularly in a real-world application.


The author would like to acknowledge, with great thanks and appreciation, John Eigenauer (Taft College) for his consult, review and advice regarding earlier versions of this manuscript.

Funding Statement

This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Data availability statement, conflicts of interest.

The author declares no conflict of interest.

1 Notably, though inadequacies in cognitive resources (apart from those explicitly set within the conceptualisations of CT discussed; e.g., see Section 2.1 ) are acknowledged as impediments to one’s ability to apply CT (e.g., a lack of relevant background knowledge, as well as broader cognitive abilities and resources ( Dwyer 2017 ; Halpern 2014 ; Stanovich and Stanovich 2010 )), these will not be discussed as focus is largely restricted to issues of cognitive processes that ‘naturally’ act as barriers in their functioning. Moreover, such inadequacies may more so be issues of individual differences than ongoing issues that everyone , regardless of ability, would face in CT (e.g., the impact of emotion and bias). Nevertheless, it is recommended that future research further investigates the influence of such inadequacies in cognitive resources on CT.

2 There is also some research that suggests that emotion may mediate enhanced cognition ( Dolcos et al. 2011 , 2012 ). However, this discrepancy in findings may result from the types of emotion studied—such as task-relevant emotion and task-irrelevant emotion. The distinction between the two is important to consider in terms of, for example, the distinction between one’s general mood and feelings specific unto the topic under consideration. Though mood may play a role in the manner in which CT is conducted (e.g., making judgments about a topic one is passionate about may elicit positive or negative emotions that affect the thinker’s mood in some way), notably, this discussion focuses on task-relevant emotion and associated biases that negatively impact the CT process. This is also an important distinction because an individual may generally think critically about ‘important’ topics, but may fail to do so when faced with a cognitive task that requires CT with which the individual has a strong, emotional perspective (e.g., in terms of passion , as described above).

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11 Common Barriers To Critical Thinking – A Simple Guide

Critical thinking is the capacity to think in a clear and rational way . It’s a perspective related to what one should do and what one believes.

But what makes critical thinking a harder task to do. There are some barriers that come in the way of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is just not about collecting information. If you have a good IQ and know a lot of things, you can totally nail it.

A person can do critical thinking only if he can conclude results from his knowledge.

11 Most Common Barriers To Critical Thinking

5 Barriers To Critical Thinking

In this blog post, we’ll talk about the most common barriers to critical thinking and how you can overcome them.

1. Not Being Able To Tell The Difference Between A Fact And An Opinion

The first barrier to critical thinking is confusing facts with opinions. Facts are indisputable and indubitable , whereas opinions are not.

Here are some examples of facts you can easily check:

2. The Person Is Too Self-Obsessed To See Anything Else:

It is the most difficult barrier that makes a person see nothing but themselves. These people consider themselves as an important asset for the world.

This barrier won’t let you acknowledge other people. 

Critical thinking demands to analyze different aspects to test their validity. Also, finding good aspects of these perspectives is a portion of critical thinking.

But being self-obsessed is the most difficult barrier to overcome.

3. A Trend Of Brainstorming Together – A Barrier To Critical Thinking:

The nature of critical thinking stands on famous objectives, beliefs, and ideas. When people think collectively, it hardens for everyone to think in their own space.

Critical thinking requires that people have to think differently while in a group.

To break this barrier, everyone in the group must maintain their individuality .

4. Barriers To Critical Thinking – Emotions Are Heavier Than The Logic:

People are becoming more sensitive to the opposite views as time passes. So when people have to face the challenge of disagreement , logic flies out of the window.

And then irrelevant reactions take the place of logic that defies reason and disturbs management.

It’s a barrier to deciding based on emotions and emotion-based decision-making is bad for organizations.

5. The Competition Is Real Hard:

The greater interest of both sides is in winning the argument than in reaching the truth.

6. Barriers To Critical Thinking – Overly Relying On Experiences: 

When this barrier comes to the table of discussion, there are many people who get defensive.

Every person is different. Even the geographical regions are different. So you need to consider experience as an individual’s experience.

7. Accepting Statements Of Superhumans:

This barrier occurs when we test statements based on who said it rather than merit. In such cases, people accept statements to be true.

Contrary to that, people would reject a statement if it comes from a person they don’t like.

8. Intellect Is Greater Than Excellence:

For a very long period of time, IQ i.e. intelligence quotient was a measure for intelligence.

But the passing time told us that intelligence has a different number of dimensions.

9. Blindly Going Behind What A Myth Says:

Following myths is something that relates to accepting things based on stereotyping.

As we know that stereotypes and assumptions ignore individualistic thinking. These are the factors that hinder the person’s will to analyze the facts and figures.

It also makes people believe what they are doing is right. So they won’t be able to recognize and accept that they are making assumptions.

In such conditions, people can never identify that their judgments base on stereotypes.

10. Barriers To Critical Thinking – Grinding In The Same Cycle:

We don’t mean that routine is a bad thing. But it lessens one’s ability to think in an analytical way.

If a person has to do the same thing day after day, week after week, or even for his whole life.

11. Following The Power:

You may be accepting your boss’ views about a certain topic and you think the opposite to that.

But you are doing so because of the authority of the boss and the discipline of the organization.


Critical thinking is so important because it exposes fallacies and bad reasoning.

It also plays an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks.

Do mention in a comment which barrier you think you are facing.

Leave a Comment Cancel reply

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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o’clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68–69; 1933: 91–92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot’s position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69–70; 1933: 92–93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond lane from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses. As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009, 2021), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on responsiveness to reasons (Siegel 1988). Kuhn (2019) takes critical thinking to be more a dialogic practice of advancing and responding to arguments than an individual ability.

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in spacing in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the spacing of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016a) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Facione (1990a: 25) divides “affective dispositions” of critical thinking into approaches to life and living in general and approaches to specific issues, questions or problems. Adapting this distinction, one can usefully divide critical thinking dispositions into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking. In three studies, Haran, Ritov, & Mellers (2013) found that actively open-minded thinking, including “the tendency to weigh new evidence against a favored belief, to spend sufficient time on a problem before giving up, and to consider carefully the opinions of others in forming one’s own”, led study participants to acquire information and thus to make accurate estimations.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), Black (2012), and Blair (2021).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work. It is also helpful to be aware of the prevalence of “noise” (unwanted unsystematic variability of judgments), of how to detect noise (through a noise audit), and of how to reduce noise: make accuracy the goal, think statistically, break a process of arriving at a judgment into independent tasks, resist premature intuitions, in a group get independent judgments first, favour comparative judgments and scales (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein 2021). It is helpful as well to be aware of the concept of “bounded rationality” in decision-making and of the related distinction between “satisficing” and optimizing (Simon 1956; Gigerenzer 2001).

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of strategies for teaching students to think critically, Abrami et al. (2015) found that dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), Bailin et al. (1999b), and Willingham (2019).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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  • What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

What Is Critical Thinking? | Definition & Examples

Published on May 30, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan . Revised on May 31, 2023.

Critical thinking is the ability to effectively analyze information and form a judgment .

To think critically, you must be aware of your own biases and assumptions when encountering information, and apply consistent standards when evaluating sources .

Critical thinking skills help you to:

  • Identify credible sources
  • Evaluate and respond to arguments
  • Assess alternative viewpoints
  • Test hypotheses against relevant criteria

Table of contents

Why is critical thinking important, critical thinking examples, how to think critically, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about critical thinking.

Critical thinking is important for making judgments about sources of information and forming your own arguments. It emphasizes a rational, objective, and self-aware approach that can help you to identify credible sources and strengthen your conclusions.

Critical thinking is important in all disciplines and throughout all stages of the research process . The types of evidence used in the sciences and in the humanities may differ, but critical thinking skills are relevant to both.

In academic writing , critical thinking can help you to determine whether a source:

  • Is free from research bias
  • Provides evidence to support its research findings
  • Considers alternative viewpoints

Outside of academia, critical thinking goes hand in hand with information literacy to help you form opinions rationally and engage independently and critically with popular media.

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Critical thinking can help you to identify reliable sources of information that you can cite in your research paper . It can also guide your own research methods and inform your own arguments.

Outside of academia, critical thinking can help you to be aware of both your own and others’ biases and assumptions.

Academic examples

However, when you compare the findings of the study with other current research, you determine that the results seem improbable. You analyze the paper again, consulting the sources it cites.

You notice that the research was funded by the pharmaceutical company that created the treatment. Because of this, you view its results skeptically and determine that more independent research is necessary to confirm or refute them. Example: Poor critical thinking in an academic context You’re researching a paper on the impact wireless technology has had on developing countries that previously did not have large-scale communications infrastructure. You read an article that seems to confirm your hypothesis: the impact is mainly positive. Rather than evaluating the research methodology, you accept the findings uncritically.

Nonacademic examples

However, you decide to compare this review article with consumer reviews on a different site. You find that these reviews are not as positive. Some customers have had problems installing the alarm, and some have noted that it activates for no apparent reason.

You revisit the original review article. You notice that the words “sponsored content” appear in small print under the article title. Based on this, you conclude that the review is advertising and is therefore not an unbiased source. Example: Poor critical thinking in a nonacademic context You support a candidate in an upcoming election. You visit an online news site affiliated with their political party and read an article that criticizes their opponent. The article claims that the opponent is inexperienced in politics. You accept this without evidence, because it fits your preconceptions about the opponent.

There is no single way to think critically. How you engage with information will depend on the type of source you’re using and the information you need.

However, you can engage with sources in a systematic and critical way by asking certain questions when you encounter information. Like the CRAAP test , these questions focus on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

When encountering information, ask:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert in their field?
  • What do they say? Is their argument clear? Can you summarize it?
  • When did they say this? Is the source current?
  • Where is the information published? Is it an academic article? Is it peer-reviewed ?
  • Why did the author publish it? What is their motivation?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence? Does it rely on opinion, speculation, or appeals to emotion ? Do they address alternative arguments?

Critical thinking also involves being aware of your own biases, not only those of others. When you make an argument or draw your own conclusions, you can ask similar questions about your own writing:

  • Am I only considering evidence that supports my preconceptions?
  • Is my argument expressed clearly and backed up with credible sources?
  • Would I be convinced by this argument coming from someone else?

If you want to know more about ChatGPT, AI tools , citation , and plagiarism , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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Critical thinking refers to the ability to evaluate information and to be aware of biases or assumptions, including your own.

Like information literacy , it involves evaluating arguments, identifying and solving problems in an objective and systematic way, and clearly communicating your ideas.

Critical thinking skills include the ability to:

You can assess information and arguments critically by asking certain questions about the source. You can use the CRAAP test , focusing on the currency , relevance , authority , accuracy , and purpose of a source of information.

Ask questions such as:

  • Who is the author? Are they an expert?
  • How do they make their argument? Is it backed up by evidence?

A credible source should pass the CRAAP test  and follow these guidelines:

  • The information should be up to date and current.
  • The author and publication should be a trusted authority on the subject you are researching.
  • The sources the author cited should be easy to find, clear, and unbiased.
  • For a web source, the URL and layout should signify that it is trustworthy.

Information literacy refers to a broad range of skills, including the ability to find, evaluate, and use sources of information effectively.

Being information literate means that you:

  • Know how to find credible sources
  • Use relevant sources to inform your research
  • Understand what constitutes plagiarism
  • Know how to cite your sources correctly

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search, interpret, and recall information in a way that aligns with our pre-existing values, opinions, or beliefs. It refers to the ability to recollect information best when it amplifies what we already believe. Relatedly, we tend to forget information that contradicts our opinions.

Although selective recall is a component of confirmation bias, it should not be confused with recall bias.

On the other hand, recall bias refers to the differences in the ability between study participants to recall past events when self-reporting is used. This difference in accuracy or completeness of recollection is not related to beliefs or opinions. Rather, recall bias relates to other factors, such as the length of the recall period, age, and the characteristics of the disease under investigation.

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Main Challenges When Developing Your Critical Thinking

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

Written by Argumentful

Every day we are constantly bombarded with information and opinions from all directions. The ability to think critically is more important now than it ever was.

Critical thinking allows us to evaluate arguments, identify biases, and make informed decisions based on evidence and reasoning.

However, developing this skill is not easy, and there are many challenges that can stand in our way.

In this article, we will explore the main challenges that people face when trying to develop their critical thinking skills and provide some tips and strategies for overcoming them.

• Challenge #1: Confirmation Bias

• Challenge #2: Logical Fallacies

• Challenge #3: Emotions

• Challenge #4: Lack of Information or Misinformation

• Challenge #5: Groupthink

• Challenge #6: Overconfidence Bias

• Challenge #7: Cognitive dissonance

Challenge #1: Confirmation Bias

What is confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek out information that supports your existing beliefs and ignore information that contradicts those beliefs . It can be a major obstacle to critical thinking, as it can lead us to only consider evidence that confirms our preconceived notions and dismiss evidence that challenges them.

Raymond S. Nickerson, a psychology professor considers that confirmation bias is a common human tendency that can have negative consequences for decision making and information processing.

For example, in politics, people may only consume news from sources that align with their political ideology and ignore information that challenges their beliefs.

Or in the workplace, managers may only seek out feedback that confirms their leadership style and ignore feedback that suggests they need to make changes.

How do critical thinkers fight confirmation bias?

To overcome confirmation bias, it is important to actively seek out information from a variety of sources and perspectives .

This can involve reading news articles and opinion pieces from a range of sources, engaging in discussions with people who hold different opinions, and being open to changing our own beliefs based on new evidence.

It can also be helpful to regularly question our own assumptions and biases.

Another strategy is to practice “ steel manning ” which involves actively trying to understand and strengthen arguments that challenge our own beliefs, rather than just attacking weaker versions of those arguments.

Nickerson suggests the following strategies that can be used to mitigate confirmation bias:

  • Considering alternative explanations : You can make a conscious effort to consider alternative explanations for a given set of data or evidence, rather than simply focusing on information that supports your pre-existing beliefs.
  • Seeking out disconfirming evidence : Try to actively seek out evidence that contradicts your pre-existing beliefs, rather than simply ignoring or discounting it.
  • Using formal decision-making tools : Use formal decision-making tools, such as decision trees or decision matrices, to help structure your thinking and reduce the influence of biases.
  • Encouraging group decision making : Groups can be more effective at mitigating confirmation bias than individuals, since group members can challenge each other’s assumptions and biases.
  • Adopting a scientific mindset : You can adopt a more scientific mindset, which involves a willingness to consider multiple hypotheses, test them rigorously, and revise them based on evidence.

Nickerson suggests that these strategies may be effective at mitigating confirmation bias, but notes that they may require effort and practice to implement successfully.

By being aware of confirmation bias and actively working to overcome it, we can all develop a more open-minded approach to critical thinking and make more informed decisions.

Challenge #2: Logical Fallacies

Critical thinking requires the ability to identify and analyze arguments for their strengths and weaknesses. One major obstacle to this process is the presence of logical fallacies.

What are logical fallacies?

Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning that can make an argument appear convincing, even if it is flawed .

There are many types of logical fallacies, including ad hominem attacks , false dichotomies , strawman arguments , and appeals to emotion . These fallacies can appear in everyday discourse, from political debates to advertising campaigns, and can lead to flawed conclusions and decisions.

An example of a logical fallacy is when a politician might use an ad hominem attack to undermine their opponent’s credibility rather than addressing their argument directly.

Similarly, an advertisement might use emotional appeals to distract consumers from the actual merits of a product.

For an engaging introduction into the topic, check out Ali Almossawi’s book on logical fallacies-“ An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments “. It provides a visually appealing perspective, using illustrations and examples to explain many common fallacies. It is aimed at a general audience, but provides a good overview of the topic for beginners.

How do critical thinkers fight logical fallacies?

To avoid being swayed by logical fallacies, it is important to be able to recognize them.

• One strategy is to familiarize yourself with common fallacies and their definitions .

• Additionally, it is important to analyse an argument’s premises and conclusions to identify any flaws in its reasoning.

• Finally, it can be helpful to question assumptions and consider alternative perspectives to ensure that your thinking is not influenced by logical fallacies.

A good source to do a deep dive into logical fallacies is The Fallacy Files by Gary N. Curtis – This website provides an extensive list of common logical fallacies, along with explanations and examples of each. It emphasizes the importance of being able to identify and avoid fallacies, and provides resources for improving critical thinking skills.

By developing the ability to identify and avoid logical fallacies, you can become a more effective critical thinker and make more informed decisions.

Challenge #3: Emotions

Emotions can have a significant impact on critical thinking and decision-making. Our emotional responses to information can affect our perception of it and bias our judgments. For example, if we have a strong emotional attachment to a particular belief or idea, we may be more likely to dismiss information that contradicts it and accept information that supports it, even if the information is flawed or unreliable.

Additionally, emotional reactions can also lead to impulsive decision-making, where we may act without fully considering all available information or weighing the potential consequences. This can be particularly problematic in high-stakes situations, such as in the workplace or in personal relationships.

Jennifer S. Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Karim S. Kassam explore the relationship between emotions and decision making, including the role of emotions in shaping cognitive processes such as attention, memory, and judgment. They suggest that emotions can influence decision making in both positive and negative ways, and that understanding how emotions affect decision making is an important area of research.

How do critical thinkers manage emotions?

To manage the role of emotions in critical thinking, it is important to first become aware of our emotional reactions and biases. This can be done through mindfulness practices, such as meditation or journaling, where we can reflect on our thoughts and feelings without judgment.

It can also be helpful to actively seek out diverse perspectives and information, as exposure to new and varied ideas can help to broaden our understanding and reduce emotional attachments to particular beliefs. Additionally, taking a pause before making a decision or responding to information can provide time to reflect on our emotional reactions and consider all available information in a more rational and objective manner.

Overall, recognizing the impact of emotions on critical thinking and developing strategies for managing them can lead to more informed and effective decision-making.

Challenge #4: Lack of Information or Misinformation

Critical thinking relies heavily on having accurate and reliable information. However, in today’s age of rapid information sharing, it is easy to be inundated with an overwhelming amount of information, and distinguishing fact from fiction can be a daunting task. Additionally, misinformation and propaganda can be intentionally spread to manipulate opinions and beliefs.

Pew Research Center found that many Americans are concerned about the impact of misinformation on democracy and that fake news can erode trust in institutions and hinder critical thinking.

One example of the impact of misinformation is the spread of conspiracy theories, such as the belief that climate change is a hoax. These beliefs can lead to negative consequences for us and society as a whole, such as a lack of action on climate change.

How do critical thinkers overcome the lack of information or misinformation?

To overcome the challenge of misinformation and a lack of information, critical thinkers must develop a habit of fact-checking and verifying information. This means seeking out multiple sources of information and analyzing the credibility and biases of each source. Critical thinkers must also be willing to adjust their beliefs based on new evidence and be open to changing their opinions.

Pew Research Center suggests that media literacy education can help people become more discerning consumers of information.

• A good source for developing media literacy is Unesco’s “ Media and Information Literacy: Curriculum for Teachers “: The publication emphasizes the importance of teaching students to critically evaluate information in order to become informed and responsible citizens. It provides a framework for teaching media and information literacy skills, including critical thinking, and emphasizes the need to teach students how to recognize and avoid misinformation.

• Another source worth checking out is New York Times Events’ video on How to Teach Critical Thinking in an Age of Misinformation . The speakers suggest that educators should focus on teaching students to ask probing questions, evaluate evidence, and consider alternative perspectives. They also note that critical thinking skills are especially important in an age of information overload and misinformation.

• Furthermore, it is important to be aware of your own biases and limitations when seeking out and evaluating information. Confirmation bias, discussed in Challenge #1, can also play a role in accepting misinformation or overlooking important information that does not align with our pre-existing beliefs.

By being diligent and thorough in our information gathering and evaluation, we can overcome the challenge of misinformation and make more informed decisions.

Challenge #5: Groupthink

What is groupthink.

According to Sunstein and Hastie , groupthink occurs when members of a group prioritize consensus and social harmony over critical evaluation of alternative ideas. They suggest that groupthink can lead to a narrowing of perspectives and a lack of consideration for alternative viewpoints, which can result in flawed decision-making. They argue that groupthink is particularly dangerous in situations where group members are highly cohesive, where there is a strong leader or dominant voice, or where the group lacks diverse perspectives.

The desire for group cohesion can lead to a reluctance to challenge the consensus or express dissenting opinions, resulting in flawed decision-making and missed opportunities for innovation.

One example of groupthink is the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 , where NASA engineers failed to recognize and address the risk of launching the shuttle in cold weather due to pressure from superiors and a culture of overconfidence. This led to a catastrophic failure that claimed the lives of all seven crew members.

How do critical thinkers overcome groupthink?

To overcome groupthink, it is important to encourage diversity of thought and promote constructive disagreement.

There are several strategies for avoiding groupthink, including promoting independent thinking and dissenting opinions, encouraging diverse perspectives, and engaging in active listening and critical evaluation of alternative ideas.

This can be achieved by seeking out dissenting views and challenging assumptions, creating a culture of open communication and feedback, and avoiding hierarchies that can stifle innovation and creativity. It is also important to value and reward independent thinking, even if it goes against the prevailing consensus.

For more ways to overcome group think, check out this comprehensive list of strategies from Northwestern school of education and social policy .

Developing critical thinking skills can help you to overcome groupthink and make more informed and effective decisions. By being aware of the challenges of group dynamics and actively seeking out diverse perspectives, you can cultivate a more independent and objective approach to critical thinking, ultimately leading to better outcomes and a more robust and resilient society.

Challenge #6: Overconfidence Bias

Another challenge to developing critical thinking is overconfidence bias, which is the tendency to overestimate our own abilities and knowledge. This bias can lead us to make hasty decisions or overlook important information, which can ultimately hinder our critical thinking skills.

Kahneman explains how the human mind has two modes of thinking: System 1, which is fast and intuitive, and System 2, which is slow and deliberative. He argues that overconfidence bias is a common flaw in System 1 thinking, which can lead us to overestimate our knowledge and abilities. Kahneman suggests that improving critical thinking requires training to recognize and control our overconfidence bias.

Overconfidence bias can occur in various contexts, such as in the workplace, academic settings, or even in personal relationships. For instance, you may be overconfident in your ability to complete a task at work without seeking help or feedback from colleagues, which could result in suboptimal outcomes.

Lichtenstein and Fischhoff conducted a study on overconfidence bias, in which they found that people tend to overestimate their knowledge and abilities in areas where they have limited expertise.

Tversky and Kahneman’s seminal paper on heuristics and biases discusses overconfidence bias as a common flaw in human decision-making. They suggest that overconfidence bias can lead us to make inaccurate judgments and can contribute to a wide range of cognitive biases.

How do critical thinkers overcome overconfidence bias?

To overcome overconfidence bias, you should take a more humble and reflective approach to your own abilities and knowledge. This can involve seeking feedback from others, taking the time to consider different perspectives, and being open to constructive criticism.

Kahneman suggests that improving critical thinking requires training to recognize and control our overconfidence bias.

Moore and Healy offer several strategies for reducing overconfidence bias , including increasing feedback, considering alternative explanations, and using probabilistic reasoning.

Another strategy is to cultivate a growth mindset , which emphasizes the belief that your abilities can be developed through effort and persistence. By adopting this mindset, you can avoid becoming complacent and continue to challenge yourself to develop your critical thinking skills.

Overall, overcoming overconfidence bias requires a willingness to acknowledge our own limitations and to actively seek out opportunities for growth and learning.

Challenge #7: Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs, values, or ideas. This internal conflict can create feelings of discomfort, which can lead to irrational and inconsistent behaviour. Cognitive dissonance can pose a significant challenge to critical thinking by distorting our perceptions and leading us to accept information that confirms our existing beliefs while dismissing or rationalizing away information that challenges them.

For example, a person who believes that they are a good driver may become defensive and dismissive when presented with evidence of their unsafe driving habits, such as speeding or not using a turn signal. This person may experience cognitive dissonance, as their belief in their driving ability conflicts with the evidence presented to them.

Tavris and Aronson’s book- Mistakes were made (but not by me) examines the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance in everyday life, using real-life examples to illustrate how we justify our beliefs and actions, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. It’s a worthwhile read to understand the psychological mechanisms that underlie cognitive dissonance and the implications of dissonance for understanding interpersonal conflict, group behaviour, and decision-making.

How do critical thinkers overcome cognitive dissonance?

Overcoming cognitive dissonance requires a willingness to confront and examine our own beliefs and assumptions.

Tavris and Aronson offer several strategies for recognizing and overcoming cognitive dissonance.

• we should be aware of the potential for cognitive dissonance to arise in situations where our beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours are inconsistent . By recognizing the possibility of dissonance, we can be more prepared to manage the discomfort that may result.

• we should engage in self-reflection to examine our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors more closely. By questioning assumptions and considering alternative perspectives, we may be able to reduce the cognitive dissonance we experience.

• we should seek out diverse perspectives and engage in constructive dialogue with others. By listening to and respecting different viewpoints, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and others, which may help to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Finally, the authors emphasize the importance of taking responsibility for our own actions and decisions. By acknowledging mistakes and being accountable for them, we can avoid the temptation to justify our behaviour and maintain consistency with our beliefs and attitudes.

In conclusion, developing effective critical thinking skills is essential for making informed decisions and navigating complex issues. However, there are several challenges that can hinder the development of critical thinking.

Confirmation bias, logical fallacies, emotions, lack of information or misinformation, groupthink, overconfidence bias, and cognitive dissonance are all common challenges that you may face when attempting to engage in critical thinking.

To overcome these challenges, it is important to develop strategies such as seeking out diverse perspectives, fact-checking and verifying information, and managing emotions. Additionally, it is crucial to remain open-minded and willing to consider alternative viewpoints, even if they challenge your existing beliefs. By recognizing and addressing these challenges, you can continue to improve your critical thinking skills and become more effective problem-solvers and decision-makers in your personal and professional lives.

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Warren Berger

A Crash Course in Critical Thinking

What you need to know—and read—about one of the essential skills needed today..

Posted April 8, 2024 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk

  • In research for "A More Beautiful Question," I did a deep dive into the current crisis in critical thinking.
  • Many people may think of themselves as critical thinkers, but they actually are not.
  • Here is a series of questions you can ask yourself to try to ensure that you are thinking critically.

Conspiracy theories. Inability to distinguish facts from falsehoods. Widespread confusion about who and what to believe.

These are some of the hallmarks of the current crisis in critical thinking—which just might be the issue of our times. Because if people aren’t willing or able to think critically as they choose potential leaders, they’re apt to choose bad ones. And if they can’t judge whether the information they’re receiving is sound, they may follow faulty advice while ignoring recommendations that are science-based and solid (and perhaps life-saving).

Moreover, as a society, if we can’t think critically about the many serious challenges we face, it becomes more difficult to agree on what those challenges are—much less solve them.

On a personal level, critical thinking can enable you to make better everyday decisions. It can help you make sense of an increasingly complex and confusing world.

In the new expanded edition of my book A More Beautiful Question ( AMBQ ), I took a deep dive into critical thinking. Here are a few key things I learned.

First off, before you can get better at critical thinking, you should understand what it is. It’s not just about being a skeptic. When thinking critically, we are thoughtfully reasoning, evaluating, and making decisions based on evidence and logic. And—perhaps most important—while doing this, a critical thinker always strives to be open-minded and fair-minded . That’s not easy: It demands that you constantly question your assumptions and biases and that you always remain open to considering opposing views.

In today’s polarized environment, many people think of themselves as critical thinkers simply because they ask skeptical questions—often directed at, say, certain government policies or ideas espoused by those on the “other side” of the political divide. The problem is, they may not be asking these questions with an open mind or a willingness to fairly consider opposing views.

When people do this, they’re engaging in “weak-sense critical thinking”—a term popularized by the late Richard Paul, a co-founder of The Foundation for Critical Thinking . “Weak-sense critical thinking” means applying the tools and practices of critical thinking—questioning, investigating, evaluating—but with the sole purpose of confirming one’s own bias or serving an agenda.

In AMBQ , I lay out a series of questions you can ask yourself to try to ensure that you’re thinking critically. Here are some of the questions to consider:

  • Why do I believe what I believe?
  • Are my views based on evidence?
  • Have I fairly and thoughtfully considered differing viewpoints?
  • Am I truly open to changing my mind?

Of course, becoming a better critical thinker is not as simple as just asking yourself a few questions. Critical thinking is a habit of mind that must be developed and strengthened over time. In effect, you must train yourself to think in a manner that is more effortful, aware, grounded, and balanced.

For those interested in giving themselves a crash course in critical thinking—something I did myself, as I was working on my book—I thought it might be helpful to share a list of some of the books that have shaped my own thinking on this subject. As a self-interested author, I naturally would suggest that you start with the new 10th-anniversary edition of A More Beautiful Question , but beyond that, here are the top eight critical-thinking books I’d recommend.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark , by Carl Sagan

This book simply must top the list, because the late scientist and author Carl Sagan continues to be such a bright shining light in the critical thinking universe. Chapter 12 includes the details on Sagan’s famous “baloney detection kit,” a collection of lessons and tips on how to deal with bogus arguments and logical fallacies.

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments Into Extraordinary Results , by Shane Parrish

The creator of the Farnham Street website and host of the “Knowledge Project” podcast explains how to contend with biases and unconscious reactions so you can make better everyday decisions. It contains insights from many of the brilliant thinkers Shane has studied.

Good Thinking: Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World , by David Robert Grimes

A brilliant, comprehensive 2021 book on critical thinking that, to my mind, hasn’t received nearly enough attention . The scientist Grimes dissects bad thinking, shows why it persists, and offers the tools to defeat it.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know , by Adam Grant

Intellectual humility—being willing to admit that you might be wrong—is what this book is primarily about. But Adam, the renowned Wharton psychology professor and bestselling author, takes the reader on a mind-opening journey with colorful stories and characters.

Think Like a Detective: A Kid's Guide to Critical Thinking , by David Pakman

The popular YouTuber and podcast host Pakman—normally known for talking politics —has written a terrific primer on critical thinking for children. The illustrated book presents critical thinking as a “superpower” that enables kids to unlock mysteries and dig for truth. (I also recommend Pakman’s second kids’ book called Think Like a Scientist .)

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters , by Steven Pinker

The Harvard psychology professor Pinker tackles conspiracy theories head-on but also explores concepts involving risk/reward, probability and randomness, and correlation/causation. And if that strikes you as daunting, be assured that Pinker makes it lively and accessible.

How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion , by David McRaney

David is a science writer who hosts the popular podcast “You Are Not So Smart” (and his ideas are featured in A More Beautiful Question ). His well-written book looks at ways you can actually get through to people who see the world very differently than you (hint: bludgeoning them with facts definitely won’t work).

A Healthy Democracy's Best Hope: Building the Critical Thinking Habit , by M Neil Browne and Chelsea Kulhanek

Neil Browne, author of the seminal Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, has been a pioneer in presenting critical thinking as a question-based approach to making sense of the world around us. His newest book, co-authored with Chelsea Kulhanek, breaks down critical thinking into “11 explosive questions”—including the “priors question” (which challenges us to question assumptions), the “evidence question” (focusing on how to evaluate and weigh evidence), and the “humility question” (which reminds us that a critical thinker must be humble enough to consider the possibility of being wrong).

Warren Berger

Warren Berger is a longtime journalist and author of A More Beautiful Question .

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what are some obstacles to critical thinking

6 Steps to Beat Common Critical Thinking Barriers at Work

Why is critical thinking difficult, what are the 6 barriers to critical thinking, how to overcome critical thinking barriers as a manager, what are fallacies , what are critical thinking fallacies.

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  • It requires effort: Critical thinking requires a conscious effort to analyze information, evaluate arguments, and make logical and informed decisions. This can be mentally taxing and time-consuming.
  • It goes against intuition: Critical thinking often requires us to question our assumptions, beliefs, and biases and to consider alternative perspectives that may challenge our preconceived notions. This can be uncomfortable and may need us to change our thinking or behavior.
  • Emotions can influence it: Emotions can influence our thinking and decision-making, leading us to make biased or irrational judgments. Critical thinking requires us to recognize and regulate our emotions to ensure that our review is objective and rational.
  • It requires knowledge and skills: Critical thinking requires knowledge of the relevant subject matter and the ability to apply logical reasoning and analytical skills. Without these skills, it can be challenging to evaluate information and make informed decisions.
  • It can be affected by external factors: Critical thinking can be influenced by external factors such as social and cultural norms, group dynamics, and the media. These factors can create biases and limit our ability to think critically.

Confirmation bias

Emotional bias, limited knowledge or information, time constraints, social or cultural bias.

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  • Be aware of biases: Recognize and acknowledge your own preferences and assumptions. This will help you to evaluate information objectively and consider alternative perspectives.
  • Seek out diverse perspectives: Expose yourself to a variety of viewpoints and opinions. This can help you to challenge your own beliefs and assumptions and to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.
  • Ask questions: Question everything, including your assumptions and the assumptions of others. Ask questions to clarify information, identify underlying assumptions, and evaluate arguments.
  • Analyze information: Take the time to analyze data and evaluate arguments. Use critical thinking skills, such as logic and reasoning, to assess the validity and reliability of the information.
  • Consider the context: Consider the context in which information is presented. Be aware of external factors that may influence your thinking, such as social and cultural norms, group dynamics, and the media.
  • Practice: Critical thinking is a skill that can be developed and improved with practice. Make a conscious effort to think critically in your daily life, whether it is at work, in your personal life, or in the media you consume.
  • Ad hominem fallacy: Attacking the character or personal traits of an individual rather than addressing the substance of their argument. For example, “I can’t believe anything he says; he’s a known liar.”
  • Appeal to authority fallacy: Supporting an idea with an authority figure rather than presenting evidence or logical reasoning. For example, “Dr. Smith says that this treatment is effective, so it must be true.”
  • False cause fallacy: Assuming that one event caused another simply because it happened before the second event. For example, “I wore my lucky socks, and we won the game, so my socks must have caused the win.”
  • Straw man fallacy: Misrepresenting an opponent’s argument to make it easier to attack. For example, “My opponent thinks we should do nothing about climate change, which is ridiculous.”
  • Slippery slope fallacy: Suggesting that one event will inevitably lead to a chain of events without presenting evidence or logical reasoning. For example, “If we allow gay marriage, next we’ll be allowing people to marry animals.”
  • False dichotomy fallacy: Presenting an argument as if there are only two options when in fact, there are more. For example, “Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.”
  • Hasty generalization fallacy: Making a generalization based on insufficient or unrepresentative evidence. For example, “I met one rude French person, so all French people must be rude.”
  • Red herring fallacy: Introducing an unrelated topic to distract from the main argument. For example, “I know my proposal is controversial, but what about all the good things I’ve done for this company?”
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: Assuming that one event caused another simply because it happened after the first event. For example, “I took this pill, and then my cold went away, so the pill must have cured my cold.”
  • False analogy fallacy: Comparing two things that are not similar enough to support the conclusion drawn. For example, “Driving a car is like flying a plane, so if you can do one, you can do the other.

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

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Is bias a barrier to critical thinking?

Is stress a barrier to critical thinking, what are the two main obstacles to critical thinking.

Critical Thinking Training For Managers

Critical Thinking Training For Managers Simplified

How to develop the 8 conceptual skills every manager needs, 7 ways to develop critical thinking skills as a manager, 5 steps to excellent strategic thinking skills for managers.

what are some obstacles to critical thinking

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10 elements of critical thinking – and how to develop them.

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creative idea.Concept of idea and innovation

My 6/7/24 post here – “Your Three Most Important Career Skills” – focused on the importance – and paucity – of critical thinking, critical listening, and critical reading.

Predictably, it prompted much reader response, mostly asking for elaboration.

What Comprises Critical Thinking

1. open-mindedness.

Malcolm Forbes postulated, “The role of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” Critical thinking needs receptivity to new ideas and perspectives, and willingness to reconsider one’s beliefs or opinions – no matter how fundamental – when new evidence or arguments arise.

2. Curiosity

“I’m not necessarily smarter than anyone else,” explained Albert Einstein. “I’m infinitely more curious.” He had a natural inclination – from early childhood – to ask questions, seek information, and explore various viewpoints. His favorite question: “What if…?”

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Best 5% interest savings accounts of 2024, 3. mental stamina.

Critical thinking is difficult, rigorous, almost always takes time and patience, and can be exhausting. That’s OK, but you should never let a conclusion be the place where you got tired of thinking. Push on.

4. Analysis

Analysis breaks down complex information into smaller parts, to understand its components and how they relate. It’s our left brain at work: linear, logical, methodical, sequential, rational, and objective. It engages in deductive thinking. Computers also do this.

5. Interpretation and Inference

Interpretation makes meaning out of data, relying not just on the brain, but also on experience. It’s our transcendental right brain having fun: creative, intuitive, random, holistic, and playful. It engages in inductive thinking, which today’s computers can’t do, but which A.I. is trying. Through inference, we make sensible deductions based on available information; reach reasonable, workable conclusions; and assess the viability of those conclusions.

6. Evaluation

What’s it worth? To make better decisions, we must accurately assess the credibility, relevance, and significance of information, arguments, and/or evidence.

7. Articulation

“If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old,” declared Albert Einstein, “you probably don’t understand it yourself.” Critical intake and critical output are one and the same.

8. Problem-solving

Both sides of our brains solve problems, just differently. Critical thinking is about the ability to do both with equal aplomb.

9. Self-Accountability and Reflection

Bertrand Russell advised, "In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you’ve long taken for granted." In this case – our own thinking processes, biases, and assumptions – “now and then” should mean “always and ever.”

10. Metacognition

Avid self-awareness of one's own thinking processes, cognitive strategies, and sphere of awareness can insure ongoing improvement of critical skills.

Developing Your Critical Thinking

1. think creatively.

“Curiosity is the key to creativity,” said Akio Morita, founder of Sony. Cultivate your creativity by exploring the unknown and the ambiguous. Welcome different perspectives, alternative solutions, and new thinking. Always be looking for the spark. Listen to the new guy.

2. Ask Questions

Nothing starts until there is a question – or better, multiple questions. Cultivate a curious mindset by asking probing questions. Question assumptions, biases, and implications. Nothing is off the table.

3. Seek Diverse Perspectives

Diversity is much more than demographics. “Diversity,” explained Malcolm Forbes, “is the art of thinking independently together.” Welcome a variety of viewpoints and opinions, especially those different from your own. Engage in active discussions with people who hold different beliefs. Constantly challenge what you know or believe.

4. Evaluate Information

Learn to critically – and objectively – evaluate the credibility, relevance, and reliability of sources of information. Today’s chaotic media circus, further manipulated by special interests, elevates this challenge.

5. Practice Analytical Thinking

As analytical thinking is more orderly than creative thinking, it can be practiced every day. Good idea.

6. Develop Logical Reasoning Skills

Practice deductive and inductive reasoning to draw logical conclusions from what you already have. But remember, logic and creativity are often at odds.

Things look different in the rear-view mirror, and a day (or more) later.

8. Learn Different Problem-Solving Techniques

Different problems can be solved different ways. Conversely, many problems can be solved many ways.

9. Learn Active Listening

Identify the barriers to active listening – presuppositions, for example – and eliminate them. Fast.

10. Read. Read. Read!

Reading is the most proactive and stimulating way of taking in the world, not by clicking on little blue links, but by real reading: wide, deep, and time-consuming reading, which has a positive effect on thinking. Great leaders are great readers. This we know.

None of this happens in a day, but starting it happens any day.

Eli Amdur

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(Re)considering Nature of Science Education in the Face of Socio-scientific Challenges and Injustices

Insights from a Critical-Decolonial Perspective

  • Open access
  • Published: 22 June 2024

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what are some obstacles to critical thinking

  • Haira E. Gandolfi   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-5789-0169 1  

Throughout the past decades, challenges of socio-scientific nature such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate degradation and scientific racism have brought many relevant and pressing questions to the fore of the science education field, prompting science educators into (re)thinking the purposes and roles of science education within a landscape where the links between science and socio-political challenges, injustices, citizenship and democracy have become increasingly complex. In this theoretical paper, I seek to examine what Critical Pedagogies and Decolonial Studies can bring to science education in the face of these challenges and injustices of socio-scientific nature, with a focus on the area of Nature of Science (NOS). In particular, drawing on scholarship from across these fields and on some illustrative examples from common science education topics, I seek to propose ways in which an approach to NOS grounded on a critical-decolonial perspective may be used to support the learning of school students and science teachers’ own professional learning around science’s entanglements with social justice and socio-political issues.

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1 Introduction

Over the past decades, global challenges of socio-scientific nature such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Alsop & Bencze, 2020 ), climate degradation (Gandolfi, 2023 ) and scientific racism (Guiton, 2021 ) brought many relevant and pressing questions to the fore of Science Education. Misinformation, climate change denialists and anti-vaxxers (Osborne & Pimentel, 2023 ; see also volume 31 - issues 5 and 6 in this journal), unequal distribution of health access and outcomes (Ahmed et al., 2022 ), and the return of fringe scientific racism discourses (Saini, 2019 ) have been pushing science educators—both at school and at science teacher education levels—further into (re)thinking the purposes of science teaching within a landscape where connections between scientific knowledge and practices, socio-political challenges, injustices, citizenship and democracy have become increasingly complex (Alsop & Bencze, 2020 ; Bazzul & Tolbert, 2019 ; Tolbert & Bazzul, 2017 ).

Science education across many parts of the world, however, still tends to be grounded on a ‘technical rationality’ view (Rezende & Ostermann, 2020 ), with both science as a body of knowledge and as a school subject often being framed under a naïve positivist perspective as neutral, objective and detached from power, ideology, culture and the wider socio-political arenas. This has resulted in many approaches to school science devoid of critical engagement with complex socio-political, axiological and justice issues surrounding science (Tannock, 2020 ; Tolbert & Bazzul, 2017 ), running in direct opposition to what recent scholarship has been advocating around the relevance of innovative, ethical and socio-political awareness and participation to overcome socio-scientific challenges in socially just ways (e.g. Ahmad, 2022 ; Latour, 2020 ).

In order to challenge such naïve technical-rational scenario, recently, we have seen the strengthening of calls, including across this journal (e.g. Moura et al., 2021 ; Valladares, 2021 ; Waight et al., 2022 ), for science education to further its critical engagement with areas that have been broadly framed under the umbrella term of ‘science-in-context’ (SinC), that is: ‘ways in which science may be associated with other disciplines and other segments of societies and environments’, as summarised in a recent review by Bencze et al. ( 2020 , p. 827). Different science education initiatives have emerged in the past decades in association with this aim of exploring the links between science, society, and environments, such as those framed as science-technology-society-environment (STSE), socio-scientific issues (SSIs), socio-scientific controversies and socially-acute questions (SAQs) (Bencze et al., 2020 ).

As part of these initiatives around SinC, the specific area of Nature of Science (NOS)—generally understood as learning about science as a process of knowledge development with particular epistemic and socio-institutional features (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000 ; Erduran & Dagher, 2014 )—has been positioned as an important component that can support such initiatives (Dagher, 2020 ; Khishfe, 2023 ; Moura et al., 2021 ; Osborne & Pimentel, 2023 ). For instance, Laurence Simonneaux and Jean Simonneaux (in Bencze et al., 2020 , p. 838) recently noted the central place of NOS aspects in their work on SAQs, drawing on Paulo Freire’s view of education and its relationships with issues of socio-political issues and injustices:

[Science] education must transcend teaching of ‘content’ (e.g., laws and theories), delving into related domains such as economics and politics aimed at improvements to and transformation of the human condition. Associated with such learning, students should develop and use epistemological expertise—regarding, for instance, the nature of science, characteristics of societies and the nature of vocational knowledge. This would involve much in the way of high-level critical thinking, through such activities as identifying conflicting interests of stakeholders, evaluating risks and uncertainties, generating debate and pinpointing fallacies, cultivating socioscientific reasoning, identifying actors’ values, assessing evidence and critically analyzing research methodology.

In this paper, I then seek to explore the role that NOS might play in supporting reflections—both at school and at science teacher education levels—around the critical, socio-political and social justice elements that ground global socio-scientific challenges such as the ones outlined above. In particular, given the recent rise in interest around the potential connections between NOS and social justice (e.g. Hansson & Yacoubian, 2020 ; Waight et al., 2022 ), my aim in this paper is to contribute to such scholarship by reflecting on how an approach to NOS grounded on a critical-decolonial perspective may help bringing science’s social justice and socio-political entanglements to the forefront of science educators’ work on challenges and injustices of socio-scientific nature.

2 Science Education and Challenges and Injustices of Socio-scientific Nature

As I started to outline above, within the landscape of challenges of socio-scientific nature, different school-based and science teacher education-based initiatives have emerged in the past decades around the notion of SinC, often in close connection with what has been named as Vision II of scientific literacy, by Roberts ( 2007 ): that is, understanding science in terms of its links with societal aspects (and with environments, in some proposals). For instance, when recently discussing the STSE area, Erminia Pedretti describes it as ‘a holistic entity that focuses on relationships among science, technology, society and environment, placing science within social, technological, cultural, ethical and political contexts’ (in Bencze et al., 2020 , p. 828). On the SSIs area, Dana Zeidler explains it as grounded on an ontological position that the moral landscape of science, the activity of science and an education in science cannot be separated, that is, that normative (moral) and non-normative (e.g. processes and contents of science) components need to be intertwined in science education practices and curricula (in Bencze et al., 2020 ). Meanwhile, Laurence Simonneaux and Jean Simonneaux summarise their work with SAQs within science education as raising ‘questions regarding interdependence among cognitive, affective and judgemental (axiological) components of education and training (…)’ through engaging ‘in considerations of complex and controversial open-ended questions that are embedded in real contexts’ (in Bencze et al., 2020 , p. 837).

While reviewing the particularities of each of these SinC approaches in more depth is beyond the scope of this article—and something that has been done recently by the authors mentioned above in Bencze et al. ( 2020 )—in common, they share a focus on and concern about a reductionist approach to science education that simplifies it as solely the learning of core science contents and skills (akin to a Vision I of scientific literacy, according to Roberts, 2007 ), which they argue to ‘significantly compromise students’ education about larger contexts involving politics, economics, cultural studies, etc.’ (Bencze et al., 2020 , p. 845). In particular, as I (Gandolfi, 2021 , 2023 ) and other colleagues (Carter, 2017 ; Levinson, 2018 ; Moura et al., 2021 ; Valladares, 2021 ) have also argued, such emptying of science education practices and curricula from a critical engagement with SinC areas has little to contribute to teachers’, students’ and wider societies’ engagement with the complexity found at hearth of socio-scientific challenges.

However, as raised by Moura et al. ( 2021 ) and Valladares ( 2021 ), the most common educational approaches to STSE and SSIs seem to still be shying away from centring a crucial component in the exploration of such topics and, more generally, of the relationship between science and society: the political element. Footnote 1  While SAQs seem to be more in tune with this political dimension in their approach to SinC (see more in Bencze et al., 2020 ), this field has historically tended to explore such dimension as simply one element of SinC, with apparently less importance placed in understanding such entanglements between science and politics than, for instance, in moral-philosophical-existential perspectives (Levinson, 2018 ). That is, while central to our understanding of and action in relation to, for instance, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate degradation and scientific racism, the diverse entanglements between science and politics both at state-level governance and at public (counter)hegemonic praxial and discoursive arenas have been less prominent across the wider SinC scholarship, Footnote 2  as also noted by Levinson ( 2018 ), Bazzul ( 2020 ) and Valladares ( 2021 ).

Indeed, more than two decades ago, Hodson ( 2011 ) criticised SinC initivatives from that period as not being critical enough in their exploration of the political dimension of the relationship between science and society. According to this author, SinC done under a Vision II approach to scientific literacy has been often centred on technical-instrumental aspects (i.e. contributions of techno-scientific development to society) and/or on individualistic moral-based views on decision-making. More recently, Valladares ( 2021 ) has linked such Vision II to a ‘functionalist’ conception of science-society relationship, whilst Levinson ( 2018 ), Galamba and Matthews ( 2021 ), Moura et al. ( 2023 ), Rudolph and Horibe ( 2016 ) and Morales-Doyle ( 2017 ) have similarly called our attention to individualistic and depoliticised discourses around decision-making and citizenship in the context of certain SinC initiatives.

A couple of reasons can be linked to this scenario. First, as I mentioned in the previous section, drawing on Rezende and Ostermann ( 2020 ), science education across the world still tends to be grounded on a ‘technical rationality’ perspective detached from power, ideology, culture and the wider socio-political arena, as also noted by other colleagues (Dunlop et al., 2021 ; Eaton & Day, 2020 ; Tannock, 2020 ; Tolbert & Bazzul, 2017 ). As a result, we have a culture of school science often devoid of critical engagement with complex political issues intertwined science. Or, as argued by Moura et al. ( 2021 ), a lack of critical engagement with the concept of ‘political epistemology’, that is, with the understanding that science in not simply ‘influenced by’ or an ‘influencer of’ society, but intrinsically intertwined (or hybridized) with socio-political contexts.

Along the same lines, Bazzul ( 2020 ) has recently argued that science education has ‘domesticated’ SSIs, such as the ecological-political ones affecting communities across the world, through a sort of collaborationism with neoliberal and anti-social justice interests. Drawing on Lemke ( 2011 ), the author goes on to argue that such domestication has happened due to ‘science education [being] distinctly conservative in character’ (Bazzul, 2020 , p. 89). An example of such domestication of science, and more specifically of SinC, is presented by Galamba and Matthews ( 2021 ) in their work on the relationship between science and fascism, both historically and in contemporary discourses. In their article, the authors ask, for instance, why the complex (and diverse) relationships between science and fascist ideas—which range, contradictorily, from anti-science to scientific racism (e.g. ‘Aryan science’) ones—are not treated as a SSI and, as such, properly dealt with by SinC initiatives: ‘Not recognising the rise of fascism as a socio-scientific issue which must be openly addressed in classrooms leaves mainstream science education not recognising such a threat to democracy and inclusive societies’ (p. 584).

Such avoidance of a full recognition of (and then a critical engagement with) science’s socio-political entanglements cannot, however, be only attributed to the specific traditions of school science. As Galamba and Matthews ( 2021 ) also note in their article, written from the context of England’s education system, a widespread avoidance of political education has been particularly notable in pushing for a depoliticisation of school-based education as a whole, well beyond science education. This scenario can be positioned within a larger global movement of neoliberal educational policymaking that privileges performativity and metrification through large-scale testing, one-size-fits-all curricula, national and international standardisation and compliance-driven school inspections (Apple, 2007 ; Ball et al., 2012 ; Gandolfi & Mills, 2023 ), instead of an education grounded on notions such as social justice, critical thinking, emancipation, participation, etc. As argued by other colleagues in the wider field of education and policymaking, this landscape is intertwined with authoritarian and neoconservative policy discourses (Clarke, 2023 ; Unsworth et al., 2023 )—as recently seen for instance, in Brazil, Footnote 3  England and the USA Footnote 4 —which have been pushing the nature of curricular and pedagogical practices across the world against the kind socio-political and social-justice informed thinking and practices I have been arguing for here. For instance, in England, where I write from, we have recently seen the emergence of ‘political impartiality’ policies around curricular and pedagogical practices, culminating in the publication of a policy guidance on Political impartiality in schools in 2022 by the Department for Education (DfE, 2022 ). Among other things, these discourses have been placing on schoolteachers the expectation of presenting knowledge about socio-political issues, including SSIs, through an apparent ‘impartial’ approach and without encouraging students’ socio-political action around such issues, as also recently noted by Dunlop and Rushton ( 2021 ) in relation to climate change education and action across schools and policies in the country.

If we also consider the widely known absence of political education across many teacher education programmes across the world, both at initial and continuous development levels (cf., Picower, 2013 ; Avelar & Ball, 2019 ; Unsworth et al., 2023 ), it is then understandable that schools, and the science teaching community in particular both at school and teacher education levels, will opt out from engaging with such complex political entanglements within their own subjects. That is, science education initiatives are encouraged to stay focused on Vision I or, at best, on a technical-instrumental and individualistic approach to Vision II. However, as recently raised by colleagues working in the area of environmental education, such as Eaton and Day ( 2020 ), Tannock ( 2020 ) and Dunlop et al. ( 2021 ), such obstruction of socio-political engagement with, for instance, environmental issues is central to the maintenance of neoliberal and neocolonial paradigms within environmental education around the relationship between societies, peoples and environments, and has very little to contribute to the global challenges emerging from environmental destruction.

To attempt and challenge such depoliticised and ‘functionalist’ science education, another perspective for science literacy, Vision III (Sjöström & Eilks, 2018 )—or science education for social transformation—has been advocated more recently, drawing on seminal pieces by Hodson ( 2009 , 2011 ) and Santos ( 2009 ) that paved the way for pushing SinC approaches further into science’s socio-political entanglements. Such Vision III has been outlined as ‘a politicised science education aiming at emancipation and socio-ecojustice’ (Sjöström & Eilks, 2018 , p. 67), grounded on socio-political participation (Levinson, 2018 ) and on notions of equity and social justice (Santos, 2009 ). In particular, the work of Santos ( 2009 ), which draws on Paulo Freire’s concept of emancipation from contexts of oppression and alienation, has the potential of bringing the socio-political turn of Vision III closer to social justice demands through calling our attention to how the socio-political entanglements between science and society have particular and pervasive implications to social injustices (Morales-Doyle, 2017 ).

Valladares ( 2021 ), however, has recently criticised the lack of attention paid by both original and recent initiatives emerging from this Vision III to a more intersectional perspective on such social injustices. This author argues that Vision III might still risk universalist and one-size-fits-all approaches to how ‘participation’, ‘emancipation’ and, more widely, ‘justice’ are conceptualised and realised by science education initiatives across widely diverse socio-historical-cultural-political landscapes, such as in the contrasting cases of an ‘indigenous, female, lesbian, Latina student’ and of a ‘male, white, heterosexual, European student‘ (Valladares, 2021 , p. 570). Here, what Valladares calls our attention to is that for a truly socially just turn of science education towards transformation to happen, this needs to be grounded on an understanding of science’s socio-political entanglements through intersectional lenses: recognising not only class-based injustices emerging from capitalism and neoliberalism, etc., but also from intersections with race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc.:

It is mostly in multicultural contexts that an expanded concept of emancipation is of particular relevance for science teaching, because it has played a prominent role in the colonial process (…); it is common in these contexts for science to present itself as the only legitimate and emancipatory knowledge, competing and erasing the various alternative forms of knowledge that have been generated outside the European scientific matrix (…). Approaching science as a liberating and emancipating force that frees humans from local beliefs, myths, and ideologies in contexts where different forms of knowledge coexist (personal, popular, indigenous, traditional, rural, and mainstream academic knowledge) carries the risk of reinforcing a scientism and a neocolonialism that are commonly expressed as the educational effort of displacement, eradication, or substitution of alternative forms of knowledge for scientific knowledge, regardless of the potential value that these alternative forms of knowledge might have (…) (Valladares, 2021 , p. 581).

Emerging from this debate is then the importance of recognising the intersectional nature of science’s socio-political and social justice entanglements in the face of diverse challenges of socio-scientific nature. As noted by Valladares ( 2021 ), scientific knowledge and practices have been historically, and in contemporary times, deeply implicated in generating and supporting discourses that essentialise, other, exclude, marginalise and oppress certain groups across different societies ontologically, epistemologically and physically. As such, recognising and critically engaging with this scenario is relevant when we consider the role of science education in the face of socio-scientific challenges which are also deeply intertwined with issues of social injustices.

Let us take the case of environmental degradation and climate change as an example: an understanding of the connection between this well-known SSI with social injustices can lead us to reflecting on the role of scientific knowledge and practices—and of wider notions of scientific development—in what is known as ‘environmental injustices’: an unequal exposition of already marginalised communities to the impact of environmental degradation resulting from land, knowledge, labour and monetary exploration; and the widespread restrictions imposed onto certain groups within our neoliberal and neocolonial societies around their connections with more-than-human entities and flows within the environment, such as land, water, animals, plants, and air (Acserald, 2010 ; Braverman, 2021 ). In this particular case of SSI, it is no coincidence that the Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA) in terms of measurements of environmental impact (Young, 2021 ) generally coincide with groups facing socio-historical marginalisation, such as global South, and Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities, women, LGBTQIA + communities, etc. living anywhere in the world Footnote 5 (Voskoboynik, 2018 ; Eckstein et al., 2021 ). For instance, the historical deadly floods across Pakistan have connections both to global climate change processes that have been driven by global North countries for centuries, and to specific socio-historical processes faced by that community (i.e. colonisation by the British Empire and now neocolonial incursions by global North countries, such as the USA), which have resulted in deeply unequal, exclusionary and oppressive ways of engaging, exploiting and living from that country’s natural resources, particularly water (Ahmad, 2022 ). Another example deeply intertwined with physical, ontological and epistemological marginalisation of particular communities for (neo)colonial exploitation of natural resources for scientific-technological progress is the case of the Brumadinho tragedy in Brazil in 2019, which involved the collapse of a dam owned by the mining company Vale Footnote 6 and affected already socio-historically marginalised communities in the region.

Morales-Doyle ( 2017 ) called such entanglements between socio-scientific and social justice issues a ‘social justice science issue’ (SJSI): socio-scientific themes that are also issues of social injustice, such as environmental injustice, scientific racism and medical apartheid. Waight et al. ( 2022 , p. 1496) offers another example of SJSIs in the recent case of vaccination hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic:

The news media has continuously reported the scepticism among Black and Brown communities and their refusal to get vaccinated, furthering racialized discourses that perpetuate false narratives about nondominant communities. Rarely do these discourses address the histories of science and medical technologies by which Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, their bodies, and health have been exploited, experimented, violated, discriminated, and dehumanized in the name of science and research.

So, what might such entanglements between socio-scientific challenges with issues of social injustices (or SJSIs) be asking of science education? Drawing on Santos ( 2009 ), Valladares ( 2021 ) and Morales-Doyle ( 2017 ) above, the seem to be asking science education initiatives to lean more explicitly and meaningfully on an intersectional perspective around the socio-political turn embedded in the Vision III of scientific literacy: one that is centred on the acknowledgement that the socio-historical-cultural-political landscapes grounding socio-scientific challenges affecting, for instance, a ‘indigenous, female, lesbian, Latina student’ (i.e. a MAPA case) will be different to (albeit still interconnected with) those affecting a ‘male, white, heterosexual, European student’. Such complex landscape surrounding socio-scientific challenges is then:

Not just a socio-political issue that can be addressed by increasing democratic participation and socio-political action by individuals or groups at local (or even national) level;

Nor it is an issue of social injustice that can be simply addressed through purely techno-scientific solutions ‘made for’ marginalised communities, or through a depoliticised neoliberal take on inclusion and diversity lacking socio-political awareness Footnote 7  (Ahmed, 2007 ), as I have also argued elsewhere (Gandolfi, 2023 ). Instead, it asks of science education initiatives (at school and teacher education levels) an approach that brings social justice together with science’s socio-political entanglements.

To further contribute to such growing reflections, across the rest of this paper I examine the particular role that one area often associated with science teaching and learning at both school and teacher education levels—Nature of Science (NOS)—might play in this endeavour. I first briefly review existing scholarship looking at NOS teaching and learning, particularly in relation to socio-scientific challenges and social injustices. Drawing from such scholarship, I will move onto proposing a critical-decolonial perspective to initiatives around NOS teaching and learning, which I will then illustrate through some cases that can be used to support the learning of school students and/or science teachers’ own professional learning around science’s social justice and socio-political entanglements. Through such work, I seek not only to explore NOS ‘as it is’, but also to propose a reconsideration of what NOS could/needs to be in order to foster social justice and socio-political awareness from within science, inspired by the words of Waight et al. ( 2022 , p. 1494): ‘instead of focusing on the general public’s mistrust of science, or minoritized populations specifically, the questions should be reframed to focus on what scientific and science education communities need to do to dismantle existing injustices built in our technologies rooted in histories of colonialism and racism’.

3 Nature of Science, Socio-scientific Challenges and Injustices: An Overview

Historically, studies in the field of the Philosophy of Science have been closely implicated in understanding the processes involved in the production of scientific (and technological) knowledge, and often also central to proposals for teaching and learning of Nature of Science (NOS). According to Lederman ( 2007 ), the incorporation of philosophical aspects of science into science education has been advocated since the beginning of the twentieth century across the western world to varying degrees; in the 1930s, for instance, debates in this field across the USA and the United Kingdom were related to the ‘pupil-as-a-scientist’ approach, where learning about NOS would mean learning how to work as a scientist by following the so-called ‘scientific method’. In the subsequent decades, western science education became attached to views of science and technology ‘shaped by post-World War II celebration of science and technology and by Cold War politics’ (Allchin, 2011 , p. 526; Agar, 2012 ). As a result, the fields of History and Sociology of Science—in the western world, particularly driven by seminal works of scholars like Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour, Harry Collins, Trevor Pinch—started to receive more attention from those engaging with NOS in science education (Kelly et al., 1993 ). In particular, aspects such as the relationship between science and societies and how scientists work as social groups (e.g. collaborations, competitions and disagreements) became important for understanding NOS, including how these social features and contexts of scientific work relate to knowledge production, that is, to science’s epistemological aspects (e.g. theory construction, observations, data interpretation and experimentation). As outlined by Turner ( 1980 , p. 589) more than 40 years ago:

The intellectual content, methodological orientation, and professional organization of science cannot be separated from its social and cultural environment. Scientists in their capacity as observers and interpreters of physical nature still remain part of the larger social order, and between them and it there exists a dialectical relationship of mutual influence and interaction. As one result of this situation, scientists find that they must justify their activities to the political powers and other social institutions upon whose good will, patronage, and cooperation they depend.

Several proposals have then been developed across the past decades around NOS teaching and learning, with Hansson and Yacoubian ( 2020 , p. 2) recently summarising this area’s overall goal as ‘the teaching of what science is; how knowledge is developed within science; and in what ways societal, cultural and human elements are involved in these knowledge processes’. Within this landscape, we find, for instance, the NOS proposal widely known as the ‘consensus view’, one of the most prominent ones found in this area (Khishfe, 2023 ) and which outlines a list of the core tenets of NOS as: tentative; empirically-based; subjective (theory-laden); partially based on human inference, imagination and creativity; socially and culturally embedded; theories vs. laws; observation vs. inference (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000 ; Lederman et al., 2002 ). Recently, however, this approach has received criticism from other science educators (e.g. McComas, 2008 ; Erduran & Dagher, 2014 ; Hodson, 2014 ; Gandolfi, 2019 ; Park et al.,  2024 ) who disagree, for instance, with the rigid separation between science’s epistemological and social elements in its outline of NOS, and with the foregrounding of more empirical-philosophical elements at the expense of an in-depth engagement with those of more sociological and historical natures. Recent scholarship, albeit in different ways, has been advocating for more holistic and intertwined approaches to the diversity of epistemological and social aspects of NOS, such as seen in the works of Erduran and Dagher ( 2014 ), Allchin ( 2012 ) and Hodson ( 2014 ), and as reflected in more recent review pieces, such as by Khishfe ( 2023 ) and Park et al., ( 2024 ).

In particular, recent work have indeed focused on how these more holistic and intertwined approaches to NOS teaching and learning by school students and science teachers can be central to a more in-depth understanding of socio-scientific challenges and injustices facing communities worldwide (e.g. Park et al., 2024 ; Dagher, 2020 ; Walls, 2016 ). Bazzul ( 2020 ), for instance, reflects on the crucial role that understanding NOS can play in engaging with political struggles around climate change, environmental racism, etc., because science itself has been playing an important role on both sides of these issues: their emergence and their mitigation. Similarly, Hansson and Yacoubian ( 2020 ) recently discussed how knowledge around NOS can help challenging both the positivistic approach to scientific literacy (Vision I) and the neoliberal utilitarian take on Vision II outlined in the previous section. Galamba and Matthews ( 2021 , p. 592) also argue that teaching science only grounded on scientific knowledge (or the ‘products’ of science) ‘will do very little to tackle fascist-related views’; instead, they call our attention to how learning about, for instance, science’s socio-historical connections to social injustices can be crucial in this scenario.

However, proposals for NOS teaching and learning still have some way to go to achieve such potential, particularly in relation to centring critical, socio-political and social justice-informed perspectives. Bencze and Carter ( 2020 ), for instance, have criticised how the influence of pro-capitalist voices in shaping scientific and technological development at both state and private levels (and its implications to policymaking and discourses around SSIs) are often absent from NOS initiatives, as similarly criticised by Bazzul ( 2020 , p. 5, my emphasis): ‘The growing antiquation of current NOS research, policy, and instructional approaches related to nature of science, is not because many of these paradigms originated in the 1990’s, but because they do not take seriously enough the pressing wicked ethical, social, and existential problems of the twenty-first century’. What we might be facing then is once again the challenge of ‘domestication’ mentioned in the previous section, now in relation to NOS. That is, while understanding NOS can be indeed crucial to addressing the kinds of socio-scientific challenges and injustices I have been mentioning throughout this paper, as also advocated by Hansson and Yacoubian ( 2020 ) in their co-edited book on Nature of Science and Social Justice , not many proposals so far have attempted to properly centre socio-political and socio-justice imperatives in that kind of work, as noted by Dagher ( 2020 ) in the same book.

There are, however, some exceptions to this scenario. Moura et al. ( 2020 ), for instance, discuss the importance of learning from perspectives and experiences of scientific work and development in the Global South to a more nuanced understanding of NOS is/can be, going beyond western socio-historical constructions of discourses around science. Along the same lines and drawing on Walls’ ( 2016 ) review of NOS research across the science education community in the USA, Waight et al. ( 2022 ) call our attention to the lack of consideration of racialised experiences of scientific development in how understandings of NOS are presented by most proposals in this area.

Dagher ( 2020 ), on the other hand, explores how one of the existing NOS proposals within science education scholarship—the Family Resemblance Approach (FRA) (Erduran & Dagher, 2014 )—can be supportive of such socio-political and socio-justice work. In particular, the author highlights the more prominent space occupied by the understanding of ‘science as a social-institutional system’ in this NOS framework, which includes notions such as science’s relationships with political power structures (e.g. colonialism, race, gender) and with financial systems (e.g. commodification and commercialisation). Such approach, according to Dagher ( 2020 , p. 53), is then supportive of an exploration of socio-political and socio-justice imperatives by science teachers and science teacher educators because it can involve: ‘[e]xploring how scientific aims and values, methods, practices, knowledge, social ethos, political interests, financial considerations affect and are in turn affected by the local or global context, allows students to situate the gained knowledge in its proper perspective.’ However, such framework is still not centred on socio-political and social justice dimensions; indeed, Dagher ( 2020 ) recognises that most teaching and learning initiatives and empirical studies grounded on it remain focused on epistemic elements, less frequently engaging with socio-political and social justice-related ones.

What might still be missing here then is a more in-depth engagement with the notion of political epistemology mentioned earlier in this article, drawing on Moura et al. ( 2021 ), around how most NOS proposals deal with science’s socio-political and socio-justice entanglements. In other words, the acknowledgment that epistemic elements cannot be dissociated from such entanglements and, as such, that work with such NOS elements cannot be done without also engaging with, for instance, ‘science as a social-institutional system’. In this paper, I particularly seek to explore such possibility, hoping to contribute to the question recently raised by Hansson and Yacoubian ( 2020 , p. 14) for the science education community: ‘What NOS concepts should be given priority in science teaching with the aim of empowering students in relation to societal issues? and What could such teaching look like?’. In attempting to do so, however, I am also mindful of Moura et al.’s ( 2021 ) comment around the importance of not essentialising science through unbalanced, reductionist and one-size-fits-all approaches to NOS. In the face of the rising misinformation and fake news (Osborne & Pimentel, 2023 ), mistrust in science (Allchin, 2020 ) and use of anti-science rhetoric by fascist movements (Galamba & Matthews, 2021 ), Moura et al. ( 2021 , p. 506) remind us of the risks linked to reducing science only to its socio-political dimension:

With growth of studies on global warming and indication of scientists about the need to curb some economic activities (…) the arguments developed by critical thinkers and science studies, in general, came to be used to discredit science in relation to conclusions that would harm big capital. (…) in the words of Latour himself, it is necessary to rescue the authority of science. Nonetheless, this should not be achieved naively, as it would pave the way back to a positivist notion of neutral and depoliticized science. Indeed, it is necessary to recognize the social, cultural, and political dimensions of science. However, it is also necessary to emphasize that scientific practice cannot be reduced to its political and social dimensions, but, yes, there are times when science offers answers that must be heard and considered by society. For this, science needs to be portrayed more closely to its official practice.

In the next section, I then propose an approach to NOS teaching and learning grounded on a critical-decolonial perspective, which can be used to support the learning of school students and science teachers’ own professional learning around science’s social justice and socio-political entanglements.

4 NOS for Socio-scientific Challenges and Injustices: A Critical-Decolonial Proposal to NOS

As I have explored across this paper so far and, in particular, in the previous section, NOS has been recognised by many in the field of science education as an important element in supporting science learners’ and teachers’ understanding of socio-scientific challenges facing communities worldwide, from local to global scales. However, only recently NOS-related empirical studies and proposals have started to engage more explicitly and centrally with both science’s socio-political and social (in)justice entanglements as part of such learning about NOS, such as in Hansson & Yacoubian’s ( 2020 ) recent book. In particular, initiatives around NOS teaching and learning that are meaningfully inclusive and critical of science’s connections with issues of historical and contemporary socio-cultural and political injustices facing marginalised, minoritised, and non-mainstream communities—such as Global South and BIPOC communities, women, LGBTQIA + communities, etc. living anywhere in the world—are few across most Global North and English language-centric scholarship, a field still dominated by a small number of diverse voices (see Park et al., 2024 ; Walls, 2016 ).

To contribute to the expansion of NOS proposals into more explicit and central engagement with these socio-political and social (in)justices entanglements from a more diverse set of perspectives, in this section, I present a proposal for NOS teaching and learning grounded on Freirean Critical Pedagogy and on Decolonial Studies, both areas of academic thought and educational practice with roots outside mainstream Global North educational, philosophical and political traditions. Very few takes on NOS have engaged more concretely with these particular areas of scholarship, at least in the literature available in the English language, with some exceptions such as Bencze and Carter’s ( 2020 ) chapter—drawing on the Freirean notion of conscientização— and Moura’s ( 2020 ) chapter—drawing on a decolonial lens around the field of Cultural History of Science (CHS)—in Hansson & Yacoubian’s ( 2020 ) recent book on NOS. My proposal here is particularly inspired and informed by my ongoing experiences as a science teacher educator working directly and constantly with science schoolteachers in the Global North, but who also comes from a background first as a student and then as a science schoolteacher in the Global South. Such experiences informing this section are then both of informal nature—especially through discussions, examples, and informal lesson planning activities I have been developing alongside my different cohorts of student teachers and with experienced science teachers across the past years—and of academic ones, as collated across different teaching and learning initiatives around NOS at school and teacher education levels with which I have engaged in the past decade (e.g. Gandolfi, 2016 , 2021 ; Park et al.,  2024 ).

Freirean Critical Pedagogy is grounded on the seminal works of Paulo Freire (1921–1997), a Brazilian educator who dedicated his career (both as a literacy teacher and as a scholar) to issues of oppression, humanisation and emancipation in, through and around education across the Global South. Central concepts and ideas to his critique of mainstream educational practices—such as the banking model of education—and to his proposals for emancipatory, social justice-grounded education—such as critical consciousness, conscientização , and problem-posing—were outlined in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972) and expanded on across his subsequent works, grounded on an understanding of education itself as a socio-political endeavour:

The teacher has to ask: what kind of politics am I doing in the classroom? That is, in favor of whom am I being a teacher? The teacher must also ask against whom I am educating; of course, the teacher must also be teaching in favor or something and against something. This ‘something’ is just the political project, the political profile of society, the political ‘dream’ (Shor & Freire, 1987 , p. 46).

Through grounding his perspective about issues such as oppression, humanisation and emancipation on this understanding of education and its communities (teachers, students, families, policymakers, etc.) as socio-political arenas and subjects, Freire then calls our attention to the very socio-political dimension embedded in science education (and in science more generally) that I have been arguing across this article. While unpacking all the potential contributions of Freirean pedagogy to science education is beyond the scope of this article, Footnote 8  here I would like to foreground Freire’s particular engagement with the notion of ‘knowledge’—or his ‘theory of knowledge’—as crucial to my aim in this paper of (re)considering approaches to NOS from the standpoint of science’s socio-political and social (in)justice entanglements.

In Freirean Critical Pedagogy, knowledge is understood from the perspective of developing a critical reading of reality; that is, knowledge in science, for instance, is not simply a set of factual information about a certain phenomenon, but it also involves understanding the processes through which such information is generated, consolidated and disseminated, including the norms, values and interests underlying that information and the ability of distinguishing between, in Freire’s words, ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’ across sets of information. According to Freire, only through a critical reading of reality—that is, understanding where, how and by whom different sets of knowledge come about—is that one can develop knowledge about something: “thus it becomes necessary, not precisely to deny the fact, but to ‘see it differently’”. (Freire, 1972 , p. 52–53). This notion of ‘see[ing] it differently’ has important implications to those advocating the role that learning about NOS should play in the context of science education and, in particular, in the context of challenges of socio-scientific and social (in)justices nature. When considering, for instance, the contemporary challenges of misinformation, anti-science rhetoric, and also of mis-uses of and oppressions grounded on science across different parts of the world, in-depth understanding of NOS can be a vehicle for supporting people’s critical readings of these complex realities of science, engaging with scientific knowledges not as sets of facts, but ‘seeing them differently’, more critically, through the lens of knowledge generation, consolidation and dissemination, the norms, values and interests involved in such processes (and where, how and by whom they are driven).

Such development of a critical reading of reality is linked by Freire to another important concept in his Critical Pedagogy: critical consciousness, which can be generally understood as an in-depth understanding of how the world works in order to overcome social, economic and political contradictions of complex, unequal and oppressive realities. According to Freire, ‘the more the people unveil this challenging reality which is to be the object of their transforming action, the more critically they enter that reality. In this way they are consciously activating the subsequent development of their experience’ (Freire, 1972 , p. 53). Such critical consciousness would be developed through a process of conscientização around a couple of central educational aims, such as  power awareness (knowing that society can be made and remade by collective human action); critical literacy (analytic habits of thinking, reading, discussing, etc.); desocialisation (critically examination of widespread given social values, e.g. racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.); and self-education (overcoming anti-intellectualism).

Thus, one point that emerges from this Freirean perspective for those concerned with challenges of socio-scientific and social (in)justices nature within science education revolves around the roles that knowledge about NOS might play in, for instance, supporting students’ and science teachers’ development of power awareness and desocialisation in relation to science’s own socio-political and social justice entanglements. According to Morales-Doyle ( 2017 ) and Santos ( 2009 ), due to their inherent intertwined nature with socio-political and social (in)justice issues, SSIs and SJSIs are very good generative themes, in Freirean terms, to support NOS work. That is, SSIs and SJSIs are

Issues of social injustice that are important to students and their communities. Problem-posing educators use generative themes to organize curricula that ‘re-present’ these themes as problems for students and teachers to address together. Thus, Dos Santos suggests that science curriculum development may begin from key social issues in students’ lives as they intersect with natural, scientific, or technological phenomena (Morales-Doyle, 2017 , p. 1036).

As such, problem-posing around generative themes (of SSIs and SJSIs) could be employed by science teachers and science teacher educators in NOS teaching and learning initiatives to support their students’ exploration of science’s socio-political and social (in)justice entanglements. However, a challenge that might still emerge from such notion is one of scale and connection in the face of our mainly globalised world: if Freirean generative themes are to be grounded on issues that are important to students and their local communities:

How can such locality be also connected to issues of global scale and nature with the aim of establishing a deeper understanding—or critical reading—of the layered nature of the scale (of time, place, actors, powers, etc.) behind many SSIs and SJSIs (e.g. climate degradation, scientific racism, etc.); and

What happens when certain SSIs and SJSIs are not visibly connected to and/or apparently not seen as being of relevance to certain students and their communities?

The second question, in particular, can be of great importance for science educators working in educational communities of relative privilege in relation to many SSIs and SJSIs: if, for instance, scientific racism does not directly affect the lives of a school community in England mainly composed of white middle/upper-class students, would this mean that this should not be a generative theme to be explored in such context with the help of a critical approach to NOS? Another example, to which I will return in the next section, can be that of electronic devices: if a school community based in the global North has very little contact with and/or local concerns about where the resources for powering their mobile phones, videogames, etc. come from, would this then dismiss the possibility of engaging with the implications to global South communities of such kind of technological consumption by these global North communities? To help with this reflection around ‘scale and connection’ at the intersection between NOS and SSIs/SJSIs, here I then wish to recall the important link between Freirean Critical Pedagogy and decolonial praxis (e.g. Gandolfi, 2023 ; Kato et al., 2023 ), particularly given the origins of the former in the global South and the intertwined nature of the socio-political and social justice dimensions that ground Freire’s work with (neo)colonial /imperialist endeavours across the world.

As a general overview, decolonial perspectives seek to make visible and then challenge the socio-political and social injustice legacies of historical and contemporary (neo)colonial/imperialist endeavours. As noted by several decolonial thinkers (e.g. Grosfoguel, 2007 ; Maldonado-Torres, 2007 ; Mignolo & Walsh, 2018 ; Le Grange, 2023 ), such endeavours have played an important role in shaping, for instance, educational experiences and priorities, such as pedagogies and curricula, across the world for centuries. Hall ( 2008 , p. 774), for instance, notes the importance of education to the British colonial endeavours across the world:

[In the British Empire] Africans, Indians and other indigenous populations had to be encouraged to be different kinds of people – people who would labour, people with wants and the desires of consumers – since for enlightenment thinkers the potential to live above the level of subsistence marked the distinction between ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilisation’. They also needed to become people with particular kinds of selves, disciplined to be subject to others. One site for the making of those selves was in the formal processes of education: the bringing into being of new subjects and new subjectivities.

The legacies of such processes, often named ‘colonialities’, are ‘maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2007 , p. 243). In the case of education, philosophies, practices and structures that were central to colonial education have been shown to still shape how we approach, for instance, knowledge and curricular practices across many parts of the world through perspectives still grounded on:

Colonial diffusionism: narratives around western Europe, the USA and other global North groups being the centre of enlightened ideas and universal knowledges and experiences, with the rest of the world being framed as backwards and stagnant in terms of knowledge; this also includes symbolic control over the origins, values and relevance of ‘correct’ knowledge and practices (Fanon, 1963 ; Hall, 2008 ; Maldonado-Torres, 2007 ; Mignolo & Walsh, 2018 ).

Reinforcement of dichotomies: narratives that create opposition, grounded on rationality discourses, between the culture of colonised communities (local, indigenous, subjective, irrational) and the knowledge of the colonial powers (global, universal, homogenous, rational and neutral) (Fanon, 1963 ; Maldonado-Torres, 2007 ; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2013 ).

Epistemic injustices and epistemicides: the erasing of non-European/non-western/non-global North knowledges and practices from global and local histories and contemporaries narratives about knowledge and practice development on the grounds of them being backwards and wrong (Fricker, 2007 ).

In the field of science education, reflections on the legacies of such colonial diffusionism, reinforcement of dichotomies, epistemic injustices and epistemicides, among others, to how we approach knowledge and curriculum development have started to emerge in recent years (Author, 2021 ; Carter, 2017 ; Kato et al., 2023 ; Moura et al., 2020 ; Rezende & Ostermann, 2020 ). Such work has been mainly grounded on the recognition that science itself has also played a significant role in (neo)colonial endeavours, being often linked to how colonised communities (especially in the global South), their knowledges and their lands were exploited sources for the advancement of the so-called Western Modern Science (WMS), as noted by Roy ( 2018 , n.p.), a historian of science:

Science was itself built upon a global repertoire of wisdom, information, and living and material specimens collected from various corners of the colonial world. Extracting raw materials from colonial mines and plantations went hand in hand with extracting scientific information and specimens from colonised people.

As such, science’s diverse entanglements with past and ongoing (neo)colonial processes are themselves crucial to understanding NOS, even if still largely under-explored by NOS scholarship, with a few exceptions, such as the NOS framework proposed by Erduran and Dagher ( 2014 ), which has colonialisms as one of its elements. However, what Decolonial Studies call our attention to is that such entanglements are not simply yet another element in a very long list of NOS aspects, but they have instead strong and longstanding connections to many of the socio-scientific challenges and injustices facing communities worldwide. Let us go back to the two brief examples I raised above on scientific racism and on electronic devices and over-consumption: what connects, for instance, a relatively privileged mainly white school community in England to the socio-scientific challenges and injustices facing, for instance, Black communities also in England or communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are exactly the socio-cultural, onto-pistemolical, and economic legacies of the diverse colonial projects that have shaped the relationships between such communities across the centuries. Going back to Freirean Critical Pedagogy, students’ and teachers’ conscientização around science and its nature (NOS) would need to be inevitably intertwined with understanding its historical and contemporary socio-political connections with (neo)colonial /imperialist endeavours across the world.

So, what would an approach to teaching and learning about NOS grounded on this critical-decolonial position about science look like? Here, I do not seek to propose a completely new framework to NOS teaching and learning, as many have already been developed across the last decades by other colleagues (e.g. Allchin, 2012 ; Lederman et al., 2002 ; Erduran & Dagher, 2014 ), with their different purposes, degrees of specificity and target audiences (teachers, curriculum makers, etc.). Instead, I seek to call attention to the relevance to SSIs and SJSIs of some crucial understandings of NOS that are often absent or underrepresented in most initiatives around NOS teaching and learning, but which can be made more visible through a critical-decolonial lens.

In the items that follow, I then outline my proposal for what this critical-decolonial lens can look like—or make visible—in NOS teaching and learning, especially in relation to issues socio-scientific challenges and injustices.

Understanding science as intertwined with social, political and moral legacies and obligations

Here, a critical-decolonial perspective on NOS would ask of us to explicitly engage with the intertwined nature of science’s epistemological, socio-political and axiological dimensions, in close connection to Moura et al.’s ( 2021 ) argument around the importance of the concept of political epistemology to our understanding of the hybridized relationship between science and society within SinC. Such perspective also has the potential to support science educators exposing the myth of science’s neutrality—as also seen in Waight et al.’s ( 2022 ) proposal for an anti-racist approach to Nature of Technology (NOT)—which was largely built across the European Enlightenment period in close connection with the strategy of reinforcement of dichotomies, especially through discourses grounded on naïve rationality (Quijano, 2007 ).

Recognising that complex socio-historical processes impact the production of knowledge in science, who benefits (and who does not) from such knowledge and who is supported to be part of these knowledge communities

In this case, a critical-decolonial perspective on NOS would prompt us to critically explore socio-historical processes around scientific development (often done with the help of History of Science in contexts of science education) and their legacies to the intertwined nature between science and society, as noted in the previous item. In particular, we can further unpack how current socio-scientific challenges and injustices have not only geographical, political, and cultural dimensions, but also historical ones. As recently noted by Moura et al. ( 2023 , p. 673–674), while exploring notions of injustices and crisis often calls for a socio-political dimension, they also have a historical dimension, which is sometimes overlooked by certain SinC initiatives: 

The political context of these works and the proposals of sociopolitical action are contemporaries, which thereby overlooks key historical features of present injustices and inequalities since the historical politics of Global North and South are not present in these analyses. We sustain that if we understand science as a set of practices instead of a reified knowledge, it is fundamental to understand how these practices changed throughout time to act consciously and critically (and thus, politically) in the world.

In this scenario, we then understand contemporary challenges such as environmental crisis and degradation not only as something that has implications to our contemporary times and to our futurity, but also as something that has been happening and impacting the lives and natural worlds across, for instance, global South communities for centuries now.

Addressing the insularity of narratives about science, scientific development and voices as emanating only from the Global North

Following from the previous item, a critical-decolonial exploration of the socio-historical processes that have been grounding the development of scientific knowledges, practices and communities across different places, times, etc. allows us to more meaningfully engage with the diversity of knowledges, practices and ontologies about the world that have been central to scientific (and technological) development, both historically and nowadays, but which often do not receive equal attention from our mainstream narratives about how science and NOS. Linked to Waight et al.’s ( 2022 , p. 1507) proposal around ‘amplifying asset-based counterstories’, what we have here is the potential to delve deeper into how different communities, peoples and their knowledges and practices have been playing important roles in increasing our collective understanding about the world (Gandolfi, 2021 ), and into how they can play an important part in addressing current and future socio-scientific challenges and injustices: for instance, in the case of indigenous and land-based knowledges (e.g. agroecology in Brazil, as explored by Kato et al., 2023 ) and their well-known relevance to tackling environmental crisis and degradation. Footnote 9

Recognising oppressive aspects within historical and contemporary scientific (and technological) developments

Drawing on Freire’s notion of critical reading of reality—in particular, the notions of power awareness and desocialisation—and on a decolonial lens around the oppressive, unjust and/or inequality-affirming roles that scientific knowledge and the scientific community itself have played and can still be found playing within certain SSIs and SJSIs (e.g. scientific racism, over-exploitation of natural resources, parachute research, etc.), we can explore NOS with the aim of both unveiling these roles and reflecting on how science, its practices and voices can be reconsidered to challenge such roles. As recently noted by Bencze and Carter ( 2020 , p. 74–75):

Educating students about potentially problematic power relations, as seems applicable to pro-capitalist dispositifs described here, may, therefore, represent a kind of conscientization - a critical consciousness about a (and/or one’s own) social milieu (…) Accordingly, as Paulo Freire (1970) recommended, to be free of potential oppressors (including science education scholars), citizens need to be given full control over ‘praxis’; that is, critical, reflective, practice.

That is, we can expand our exploration of NOS by considering how different it could look like when we acknowledge the complexities, limitations and socially unjust practices and systems that emerge from science’s current entanglement with, for instance:

Corporate power, neoliberal systems of funding and unequal geopolitical presences and powers within scientific and technological development, which have been persistently shaping the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, ‘cans’ and ‘cannots’ of science, as recently made very visible by unequal participation and access across the world to the outcomes of the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Issues of rights, copyright, intellectual property and regulation within scientific and technological development, as exemplified by practices of access to, regulation of and privatisation/monetisation of biodiversity across the global South—see, for instance, the case of biodiversity prospecting across Mexican communities (Shebitz & Oviedo, 2018 ).

Such critical reading of this reality of scientific practices and development (i.e. of NOS) can then support the reconstruction work I mentioned earlier in this paper: as prompted by Waight et al. ( 2022 ), considering what NOS currently is and then what NOS could/needs to be to dismantle existing injustices built into its histories, practices, systems, etc. might be an important way forward for those of us concerned about such complexities around people’s engagement with and in science across the world.

Engaging more actively and in solidarity with the cases, examples, voices and experiences of communities that have been most impacted by socio-scientific challenges and injustice

To support the (re)consideration of what NOS is and what it needs to be in relation to socio-scientific challenges and injustices, as proposed in the previous item, engaging with cases, examples, voices and experiences of communities that have been not only made invisible through the history of science (see item #3), but also positioned in the periphery of current scientific development, knowledge, practices and outcomes (e.g. formerly colonised communities in the global South, and BIPOC communities, women, LGBTQIA + people, etc. living anywhere in the world), also becomes central. What might science—and, as a result, its ‘nature’—look like if such cases, voices, and examples were to be heard and considered when we think (and teach) about scientific development? As recently asked for by Bazzul ( 2020 ), might we learn something new, plural, and/or transdisciplinary about NOS—what it is and/or what it could be—if we were to consider, for instance, the role played by the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activist group in the US during the HIV/AIDS pandemic in 1980s that was affecting primarily gay men, as further explored by Tilsen ( 2023 )? Or how the Landless Workers Movement (MST) engages with knowledge and practice development around agroecology in the context of lands rights, food production and biodiversity in Brazil (Kato et al., 2023 )? Exploring how such cases, examples, voices and experiences of communities that have been at the centre of many socio-scientific challenges and injustices might then support an approach to NOS teaching and learning that goes beyond traditional, one-size-fits NOS frameworks, potentially offering us more meaningful insights into how science can work from more socially just perspectives.

5 Bringing a Critical-Decolonial Approach to NOS to Science Teaching: Some Brief Examples

In the previous section, I presented a critical-decolonial proposal for NOS which I hope can support the learning of school students and/or science teachers’ own professional learning around science’s social justice and socio-political entanglements, in particular, at the intersection between NOS and socio-scientific challenges and injustices. However, it is worth noting here that most teaching and learning initiatives related to both SSIs and more socio-political and social justice informed approaches to NOS have been happening in the specific disciplinary field of Biology, as seen in Khishfe’s ( 2023 ) recent review of this area. That is, other scientific disciplines such as Chemistry, Physics and Geosciences seem to be still lagging in this area, despite their historical and contemporary links to socio-scientific challenges and injustices (Author, 2021 ; Morales-Doyle, 2017 ). Nevertheless, if we aim for NOS to be more central in how socio-scientific challenges and injustices are explored in science teaching and learning, my view is that work beyond topics normally associated with Biology needs to be further supported. Therefore, in this section, I seek to illustrate how such work, when grounded on a critical-decolonial approach, can (and should) be done across diverse science disciplinary areas. In order to do so, I first present an example that could be linked to Chemistry and, potentially, Physics lessons: metals, mining and quest for resources.

As noted in the previous section, an important element of both historical and contemporary scientific developments has been related to the notion of ‘resources’, particularly raw materials extracted from the natural world (e.g. minerals, plants and other living specimens) or developed through advancements in the fields of Inorganic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Materials Sciences. Several communities across the world and across a wide range of periods have engaged with knowledge, technical and technological developments related, for instance, to mineral resources, such as the gold mining techniques developed in ancient Egypt and Nubia (current area of Sudan) (Klemm & Klemm, 2013 ); the metallurgical processes around the Wootz steel developed across what is now known as southern India (Srinivasan & Ranganath, 2004 ); the cooper, gold and silver mining undertaken by indigenous peoples from across what we know call South America (Alvim & Figueiroa, 2007 ; Author, 2016 ; Silva, 2004 ); Footnote 10  and the mining of mercury from cinnabar ore for medicinal and ornamental purposes across China (Liu, 2005 ). Drawing on item no. 3 from my proposed critical-decolonial lens, such examples can then be starting points for addressing the insularity of narratives about science, scientific development and voices as emanating only from the global North  through an asset-based perspective (Waight, 2022 ) that not only recognises these groups’ historical contributions to this area, but which can also prompt explicit NOS-related discussions around, for instance, how and why different communities might have developed different knowledges, techniques and practices around metal extraction, manufacturing and usages, questions which also have strongly links to the often called epistemological aspects of NOS (Erduran & Dagher, 2014 ).

Moving forward within this topic, in their quote first presented in the previous section, Roy ( 2018 ) also reminds us of how such long-standing quest for resources has been an important element of colonial projects, where ‘extracting raw materials from colonial mines and plantations went hand in hand with extracting scientific information and specimens from colonised people’ (n.p.). Other historians and sociologists of science (and environmental studies) have also similarly argued about the intrinsic, complex and longstanding connections between the area of mineral exploitation and the occupation, extraction and exploitation of lands, materials and indigenous peoples (among other communities) in the quest for access to knowledge about and domination over mineral resources (e.g. Castree et al., 2018 ; Silva, 2004 , Smith, 2011 ). That is the case, for instance, of research into the colonisation of the Americas and their link to metal prospection and metallurgy between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries (e.g. Alvim & Figueiroa, 2007 ; Author, 2016 ; Silva, 2004 ). So, when we explore topics related to metals, minerals, mining and extraction—as so often found across chemistry curricula across the world—is this particular side of history [item no. 2 from my proposed critical-decolonial lens]  and its legacies to our contemporary reliance on overexploitation of lands and peoples for continuous access to such kinds of resources [item no. 4 from my proposed critical-decolonial lens]  visible in how we talk about and explore NOS?

Let us take here, for instance, another more contemporary example that could be brough into chemistry and/or physics lessons: the lithium-ion batteries, which are key for most portable electronic devices widely used across modern societies, such as laptops, mobile phones and electric cars, and whose development has been recently recognised by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019. Footnote 11  Whilst these batteries have been hailed by many in the area of science and technology, including by the Nobel Prize committee, for their potential to help addressing a crucial global SSI—i.e. the energy transition from fossil fuels (as these batteries can store energy from solar and wind power, for instance)—less attention has been paid, including in science and environmental education across the global North, to where the usual metallic electrode elements in these batteries (mainly lithium and cobalt) come from and how they are exploited; that is, its ‘context of production’, as noted by Levinson ( 2018 ).

When we look at such context of production from a critical-decolonial lens, we find an overwhelming reliance on global South contexts as sources of these elements (USGS, 2012 ), Footnote 12  which can be tied to the legacy of historical material and labour networks built during colonial periods that placed lands and peoples in those contexts as sources for scientific and technological development of the colonial powers [items no. 2 and 4 from my proposed critical-decolonial lens].  In particular, the cobalt needed for these batteries comes mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—where around 50% of the world’s cobalt reserves can be currently found—whilst the lithium comes mainly from the South America’s ‘Lithium Triangle’ (across Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, with around 58% of the world’s reserve) (USGS, 2012 ), both areas with deep and complex histories of colonial exploitation, indigenous oppression for access to land and resources, and challenges to the emancipation of local communities around their engagement with both potential benefits and negative impacts of scientific and technological development, as recently explored by the Amnesty International ( 2023 ) in the case of the DRC and by Ahmad ( 2020 ) in the case of the Lithium Triangle.

Following from the example above, we cannot forget the similar case of Coltan, also in the DRC, a mineral which is the key source of tantalum and niobium for microchip production worldwide, and a context of production that has been implicated in several issues of social injustices for decades now (Ojewale, 2022 ). As further noted by Levinson ( 2018 , p. 531–532) in relation to this case:

What makes the collection and flow of huge amounts of data, crucial for the development of scientific knowledge, is gained at the expense of those who are excluded from the possibility of using, and gaining from such knowledge. The event encapsulated in the production of digital technologies is underpinned by mechanisms, real to those who suffer oppression at their actualisation, which incorporate physicochemical, social and economic mechanisms entangled with each other.

As such, a critical-decolonial approach to NOS around these examples could prompt further engagement with items no. 2 and 4, as noted above, making visible in the context of science education the that complex socio-historical processes impact the production of knowledge in science, who benefits (and who does not) from such knowledge, and who is supported to be part of these knowledge communities  [item no. 2] and the oppressive aspects within historical and contemporary scientific (and technological) development  [item no. 4].

Examples like these ones of metals with important links to the production of electronic devices and with energy transition could support even further work on the two remaining items from the critical-decolonial lens: no. 1 and 5. In the former case, considering the intertwined nature between the lithium-ion batteries and energy transition around environmental crisis and climate change, what would be the potential approach to the much-needed scientific and technological development in this area when we also consider science’s social, political and moral legacies and obligations [item no. 1] to the global South communities involved in this arena? What might science’s work in this area—i.e. NOS—needs to look like to account for issues of deep social injustices associated with it? Here, one way of supporting engagement with such reflections in science lessons would be to also engage more actively and in solidarity with the cases, examples, voices and experiences of communities that have been most impacted by socio-scientific challenges and injustices [item no. 5] by learning from these communities and how they might already be responding to such contexts of production. As noted by the Amnesty International ( 2023 ) in the case of the DRC and by Ahmad ( 2020 ) in the case of the Lithium Triangle, local responses and initiatives led by the communities in these areas have already started to attempt to counter such scenarios of unjust scientific and technological developments, particularly in relation how lands rights, copyright, intellectual property and regulation happen in such cases. So, what can teachers and students of science learn—including about NOS—from further exploring how these encounters between scientific endeavours and global South communities have been happening in concrete, real-life cases?

The ideas presented here through the example of metals, mining and the quest for resources are only illustrative suggestions for how a critical-decolonial lens brought into NOS teaching and learning might help science educators and their students delve deeper into understanding and reflecting on challenges and injustices of socio-scientific nature. As I alluded to across this article, many other topics across different science subjects could be explored under this perspective. One could, for instance, consider how this approach could help expanding discussions around the role of natural resources in the fields of Botany and Zoology: in the mapping, studying and extraction of natural resources and of local indigenous knowledges on behalf of colonial projects [items no. 1 and 3], as exemplified by well-known natural history expeditions across the Americas, Africa and Asia (Ashby & Machin, 2021 ; Das & Lowe, 2018 ); and in issues of lands rights copyright and intellectual property in the case of biodiversity research and conservation across the Global South [items no. 2, 4 and 5], as exemplified by cases of biodiversity prospection (e.g. Shebitz & Oviedo, 2018 ).

Or one could delve deeper into the points raised above about the lithium-ion batteries in relation to energy generation and transition in physics lessons. In this case, we could explore the potential implications of research and technological development in the so-called Green Energy sector driven by the global North (often privatised and for-profit endeavours) to unequal distribution of the benefits and the impacts of such transition across the global South [item no. 4], as seen in energy colonialism through occupation of space across indigenous lands and communities in South America, such as in the case of renewable energy endeavours such as hydroelectric power plants (Sánchez Contreras et al., 2023 ). From here, we could then explore how these communities across the global South have themselves been addressing thinking, research and practices around energy transition and divestment from fossil fuels outside energy colonialism endeavours [item no. 5].

Going back to the curricular area of Biology, such lens could also be helpful in exploring not only historical contributions from diverse communities to medical knowledge and development [item no. 3], but also the misuses of biomedical knowledge and research to legitimatise particular projects of classification, othering, hierarchisation and dehumanisation of certain communities both historically and contemporarily [items no. 1 and 4] (Gandolfi, 2024 ). For instance, as extensively discussed by Saini ( 2019 ), eugenics occupied an important space in Biology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, even though now discredited, it still resonates with and has been used to ground the return of scientific racism discourses and morally ambiguous approaches to DNA data extraction and use (Chan et al., 2022 ), such as in the recent case of studies based on Uyghur’s genetic data. Footnote 13  Still on this biomedical area, recognising the legacies of such histories and more contemporary cases to how marginalised communities engage with biomedical research and knowledge nowadays (Allchin, 2020 ) [item no. 2] and engaging more actively and in solidarity with their voices, concerns and experiences [item no. 5] might be one helpful strategy to (re)consider what kind of changes science might need to go through in how it engages with such communities in order to address the ongoing concerns that scientists and science educators have around mistrust and anti-science discourses (Gandolfi, 2024 ).

6 Closing Remarks

Across this article, I sought to argue about the role that NOS can have in science education in the context of growing challenges of socio-scientific and social injustice nature, following on the footsteps of important contributions to this area made by other colleagues (e.g. Carter, 2017 ; Levinson, 2018 ; Bencze et al., 2020 ). In particular, I hoped to contribute to the expansion of existing proposals around NOS teaching and learning into more in-depth and explicit engagement with science’s socio-political and social justice entanglements (Santos, 2009 ; Bazzul, 2020 ; Hansson & Yacoubian, 2020 ; Moura et al., 2021 ; Valladares, 2021 ). In doing so, I was also seeking to contribute to recent questions posed at the intersection of NOS and social justice by Hansson and Yacoubian ( 2020 , p. 14): ‘What NOS concepts should be given priority in science teaching with the aim of empowering students in relation to societal issues? and What could such teaching look like?’

To this purpose, I proposed in this article a perspective for NOS teaching and learning grounded on Freirean Critical Pedagogy and Decolonial thinking and praxis—or a critical-decolonial perspective around NOS— that can be used to support the learning of school students and/or science teachers’ own professional learning around science’s social justice and socio-political entanglements when reflecting about the ongoing challenges and injustices posed by several socio-scientific issues facing our local and global communities. However, my aim here was not to offer an ‘one-size-fits-all’ new framework for NOS, but instead to propose some guiding ideas that could be centred in NOS teaching and learning to foreground such socio-political and social justice entanglements, namely:

Understanding science as intertwined with social, political and moral legacies and obligations.

Recognising that complex socio-historical processes impact the production of knowledge in science, who benefits (and who does not) from such knowledge and who is supported to be part of these knowledge communities.

Addressing the insularity of narratives about science, scientific development and voices as emanating only from the global North.

Recognising oppressive aspects within historical and contemporary scientific (and technological) developments.

Engaging more actively and in solidarity with the cases, examples, voices and experiences of communities that have been most impacted by socio-scientific challenges and injustices.

This article is not a fully empirical one (e.g. a classroom-based study) and, as such, this proposed critical-decolonial approach to NOS would benefit from further empirical insights into its relevance to different educational levels (school, teacher education, etc.), socio-cultural contexts (e.g. global North, global South) and curricula across the world. However, here, I have drawn on my ongoing experiences as a science teacher educator in the global North in all the illustrative examples I introduced in the previous section, which are all informed by my own lessons in initial and continuous science teacher education programmes and by lesson planning activities (for school science) I have been facilitating amongst my different cohorts of student teachers in England across the past years. My aim in this article was then to offer some theoretical and practical inspirations to other science educators who, like me, have been seeking to ground their teaching practices around NOS on more socio-politically and social justice-informed perspectives that contribute to our students’ in-depth and critical understanding of the ongoing challenges and injustices of socio-scientific nature facing our local and global communities.

Politics is understood here as encompassing both governance structures and actions related to deployment of public power by the State, including communities’ responses to such structures and actions, and the entanglement between diverse hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses and practices happening at the social arena even if not directly related to official State’s governance structures and actions, as proposed by Bazzul ( 2020 ), drawing on Rancière.

Some exceptions to this trend can be found in the work of colleagues such as Bencze ( 2017 ), Bazzul and Tolbert ( 2019 ), and Carter ( 2017 ).

See, for instance: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/03/brazil-schools-teachers-indoctrination-jair-bolsonaro

See also, for instance: https://pen.org/report/book-bans-pressure-to-censor/

See more here: https://ejatlas.org/

See more here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-51220373 and https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/01/30/trail-death-after-another-dam-collapses-brazil

Drawing on Ahmed’s ( 2007 ) critique of apolitical ‘diversity work’ and the case of science education in Sweden, Fingalsson and Junkala ( 2023 , p. 5) illustrate how issues of social injustice in science education risk being reduced to ‘happy stories’ of inclusion and diversity into science, ‘rather than unhappy stories of racism’. In such cases, social justice in science education might be completely subsumed by approaches that lead to assimilation and compliance (Morales-Doyle, 2017 ) of historically marginalised groups into a field of science that is not itself transformed into a more socially just one. Instead of such a transformation of science centred on social justice, we have ‘domestication’ of these marginalised groups into collaborationism, as noted by Bazzul ( 2020 ), with a kind of science that remains centred on ‘corporate values at the expense of social justice and human dignity’, as mentioned by Michael Apple (in Barton, 2001 , p. 847).

This has already been done by other Freirean science educators, such as Santos ( 2009 ), myself (Gandolfi, 2023 ), and colleagues involved in recent special issue in the Cultural Studies of Science Education journal: https://link.springer.com/journal/11422/volumes-and-issues/18-1 .

See more in Krenak ( 2020 ) and here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/nov/22/it-is-all-about-listening-and-sharing-indigenous-solutions-to-the-carbon-divide

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Special thank you to my colleagues and students at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, from whom I have been constantly learning about the potential bridges and dialogues that can be established across Global South and Global North landscapes in the area of science education.

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Ove Arup - The Key Speech

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By 1970, Arup (then Ove Arup & Partners) was made up of several independent practices, spread across the world. 

As the 1960s drew to a close and the leaders of the various original Arup practices started to retire, it was clear there was a danger that the firm’s ethos might become diluted. There was still a collective desire to continue working together, so this felt like the right moment for Ove Arup to reflect on the firm’s nature, its values and its future. On 9 July in Winchester, Ove delivered his ‘key speech’ to all his partners from the various practices. In this speech Ove set out the aims of our firm and, in his own distinctive and philosophical way, identified the principles by which they might be achieved. Fifty years later, we continue to treasure these aims, looking to them for guidance as we face new challenges. We are inspired by the speech’s honest search for answers to the question of what work is for, what work we should pursue, and how we should best work together.

Some comments in the speech are a reminder of a different time. Ove’s remark about the attractiveness of secretaries, for example, and the social class structures that he takes as a given are reminders of inequities once widely considered to be acceptable. Rather than edit away these comments, or dismiss them as outdated and inconsequential, we instead take this opportunity to reckon with our past, to learn and to actively shape a more diverse and inclusive firm. This, too, is forecast in Ove’s 1970 vision.

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Cook County Announces $790,000 in Relief Grants to Suburban Nonprofit Arts Organizations

Cook County Government announced today that $790,000 in grants have been awarded to 100 nonprofit arts and culture organizations in suburban communities through the Cook County Arts Nonprofit Relief Grants program. 

Cook County Arts is a $5 million pilot arts initiative funded by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The pilot focuses on mitigating the lingering negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthening the suburban arts sector in the long term. 

“Culture and creativity serve as critical elements in thriving communities—that's why Cook County is supporting these vital organizations. They are essential community assets that foster human connection, joyful exchange and innovative thinking,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “Suburban nonprofit arts organizations have not had access to significant COVID recovery resources, and Cook County is proud to fill this gap for our local economy and cultural sector.” 

Program eligibility required applicants to have an active 501(c)(3) determination from the Internal Revenue Service along with a certificate of Good Standing from the Illinois Secretary of State Office; an official business address in suburban Cook; a primary mission to create, produce, present, provide or support arts and culture activities or services for the public; active operations before March 12, 2020; and total expenses of at least $20,000 in the fiscal year ending in 2019. 

Grant award amounts were based on an organization’s annual expenses in 2019: $5,000 for organizations with expenses between $20,000 and $100,000, and $10,000 for organizations with expenses over $100,000.  

Grantees come from over 30 municipalities throughout suburban Cook County and represent an array of disciplines, from theater to dance, from history to arts education, and more. 

Some grantees have already identified where Cook County funds will have a major impact. 

Martha Shuford, Board President of Big Noise Theatre in Des Plaines, stated that funds will go to purchase needed materials and equipment. 

With a mission “to deepen a human connection between audience members, performing artists, and creative staff by telling stories, sharing knowledge, and fostering social inclusion,” Big Noise Theatre’s history goes back 50 years. 

"[This funding moves] us closer toward our goal of being able to overhaul our microphone and sound system to continue providing top level entertainment for the Des Plaines community and spread the love of live theater!” Shuford said. 

The Trickster Art Gallery , in Schaumburg, will use the grant to keep its programming accessible. With a mission of increasing the visibility of Native American traditions, the organization offers a range of programs that includes arts exhibitions, cultural workshops, educational events and community gatherings.  

“By providing a platform for Native voices and fostering cross-cultural dialogue, Trickster plays a crucial role in celebrating and sustaining indigenous traditions and knowledge. This funding will help us continue to offer our youth and family camps without financial barriers to our families,” said executive director Gina Roxas.  

The Cook County Bureau of Economic Development is leading Cook County Arts, which focuses on suburban communities due to artists and organizations there being ineligible for funding from the City of Chicago.  

The application process for the Nonprofit Relief Grants opened in January 2024, officially starting Cook County Arts programming. 

The County also plans to invest $2.3 million to launch a suburban placemaking program and continue to support the arts and culture sector.    

In establishing Cook County Arts, Cook County recognized that the arts and culture sector was among the hardest-hit industries of the pandemic, and organizations continue to face significant challenges due to changing operational needs and declines in both earned and contributed revenue. 

According to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), after adjusting for inflation, the value added to the U.S. economy by performing arts centers, including festivals, fell by nearly 73 percent between 2019 and 2020. In Illinois, employment in the arts sector fell 12 percent during the same period. 

The NEA also reports that the value added by performing arts organizations is still below the pre-pandemic level.  

Cook County has partnered with Arts Alliance Illinois to create Cook County Arts. For the Nonprofit Relief Grants program, Arts Alliance Illinois conducted outreach to nonprofit organizations, hosted informational workshops and provided technical assistance to applicants. 

"We are thrilled to partner with Cook County to provide this needed support to suburban Cook nonprofit cultural organizations,” said Arts Alliance Illinois Executive Director Claire Rice. “We look forward to continuing our work with the county to build arts and cultural infrastructure and support mechanisms." 

Allies for Community Business served as the grant administrator on the Nonprofit Relief Grants effort. 

For more information, including a full list of grant recipients, visit the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development website or cookcountyarts.org.  

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The state of AI in 2023: Generative AI’s breakout year

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The latest annual McKinsey Global Survey  on the current state of AI confirms the explosive growth of generative AI (gen AI) tools . Less than a year after many of these tools debuted, one-third of our survey respondents say their organizations are using gen AI regularly in at least one business function. Amid recent advances, AI has risen from a topic relegated to tech employees to a focus of company leaders: nearly one-quarter of surveyed C-suite executives say they are personally using gen AI tools for work, and more than one-quarter of respondents from companies using AI say gen AI is already on their boards’ agendas. What’s more, 40 percent of respondents say their organizations will increase their investment in AI overall because of advances in gen AI. The findings show that these are still early days for managing gen AI–related risks, with less than half of respondents saying their organizations are mitigating even the risk they consider most relevant: inaccuracy.

The organizations that have already embedded AI capabilities have been the first to explore gen AI’s potential, and those seeing the most value from more traditional AI capabilities—a group we call AI high performers—are already outpacing others in their adoption of gen AI tools. 1 We define AI high performers as organizations that, according to respondents, attribute at least 20 percent of their EBIT to AI adoption.

The expected business disruption from gen AI is significant, and respondents predict meaningful changes to their workforces. They anticipate workforce cuts in certain areas and large reskilling efforts to address shifting talent needs. Yet while the use of gen AI might spur the adoption of other AI tools, we see few meaningful increases in organizations’ adoption of these technologies. The percent of organizations adopting any AI tools has held steady since 2022, and adoption remains concentrated within a small number of business functions.

Table of Contents

  • It’s early days still, but use of gen AI is already widespread
  • Leading companies are already ahead with gen AI
  • AI-related talent needs shift, and AI’s workforce effects are expected to be substantial
  • With all eyes on gen AI, AI adoption and impact remain steady

About the research

1. it’s early days still, but use of gen ai is already widespread.

The findings from the survey—which was in the field in mid-April 2023—show that, despite gen AI’s nascent public availability, experimentation with the tools  is already relatively common, and respondents expect the new capabilities to transform their industries. Gen AI has captured interest across the business population: individuals across regions, industries, and seniority levels are using gen AI for work and outside of work. Seventy-nine percent of all respondents say they’ve had at least some exposure to gen AI, either for work or outside of work, and 22 percent say they are regularly using it in their own work. While reported use is quite similar across seniority levels, it is highest among respondents working in the technology sector and those in North America.

Organizations, too, are now commonly using gen AI. One-third of all respondents say their organizations are already regularly using generative AI in at least one function—meaning that 60 percent of organizations with reported AI adoption are using gen AI. What’s more, 40 percent of those reporting AI adoption at their organizations say their companies expect to invest more in AI overall thanks to generative AI, and 28 percent say generative AI use is already on their board’s agenda. The most commonly reported business functions using these newer tools are the same as those in which AI use is most common overall: marketing and sales, product and service development, and service operations, such as customer care and back-office support. This suggests that organizations are pursuing these new tools where the most value is. In our previous research , these three areas, along with software engineering, showed the potential to deliver about 75 percent of the total annual value from generative AI use cases.

In these early days, expectations for gen AI’s impact are high : three-quarters of all respondents expect gen AI to cause significant or disruptive change in the nature of their industry’s competition in the next three years. Survey respondents working in the technology and financial-services industries are the most likely to expect disruptive change from gen AI. Our previous research shows  that, while all industries are indeed likely to see some degree of disruption, the level of impact is likely to vary. 2 “ The economic potential of generative AI: The next productivity frontier ,” McKinsey, June 14, 2023. Industries relying most heavily on knowledge work are likely to see more disruption—and potentially reap more value. While our estimates suggest that tech companies, unsurprisingly, are poised to see the highest impact from gen AI—adding value equivalent to as much as 9 percent of global industry revenue—knowledge-based industries such as banking (up to 5 percent), pharmaceuticals and medical products (also up to 5 percent), and education (up to 4 percent) could experience significant effects as well. By contrast, manufacturing-based industries, such as aerospace, automotives, and advanced electronics, could experience less disruptive effects. This stands in contrast to the impact of previous technology waves that affected manufacturing the most and is due to gen AI’s strengths in language-based activities, as opposed to those requiring physical labor.

Responses show many organizations not yet addressing potential risks from gen AI

According to the survey, few companies seem fully prepared for the widespread use of gen AI—or the business risks these tools may bring. Just 21 percent of respondents reporting AI adoption say their organizations have established policies governing employees’ use of gen AI technologies in their work. And when we asked specifically about the risks of adopting gen AI, few respondents say their companies are mitigating the most commonly cited risk with gen AI: inaccuracy. Respondents cite inaccuracy more frequently than both cybersecurity and regulatory compliance, which were the most common risks from AI overall in previous surveys. Just 32 percent say they’re mitigating inaccuracy, a smaller percentage than the 38 percent who say they mitigate cybersecurity risks. Interestingly, this figure is significantly lower than the percentage of respondents who reported mitigating AI-related cybersecurity last year (51 percent). Overall, much as we’ve seen in previous years, most respondents say their organizations are not addressing AI-related risks.

2. Leading companies are already ahead with gen AI

The survey results show that AI high performers—that is, organizations where respondents say at least 20 percent of EBIT in 2022 was attributable to AI use—are going all in on artificial intelligence, both with gen AI and more traditional AI capabilities. These organizations that achieve significant value from AI are already using gen AI in more business functions than other organizations do, especially in product and service development and risk and supply chain management. When looking at all AI capabilities—including more traditional machine learning capabilities, robotic process automation, and chatbots—AI high performers also are much more likely than others to use AI in product and service development, for uses such as product-development-cycle optimization, adding new features to existing products, and creating new AI-based products. These organizations also are using AI more often than other organizations in risk modeling and for uses within HR such as performance management and organization design and workforce deployment optimization.

AI high performers are much more likely than others to use AI in product and service development.

Another difference from their peers: high performers’ gen AI efforts are less oriented toward cost reduction, which is a top priority at other organizations. Respondents from AI high performers are twice as likely as others to say their organizations’ top objective for gen AI is to create entirely new businesses or sources of revenue—and they’re most likely to cite the increase in the value of existing offerings through new AI-based features.

As we’ve seen in previous years , these high-performing organizations invest much more than others in AI: respondents from AI high performers are more than five times more likely than others to say they spend more than 20 percent of their digital budgets on AI. They also use AI capabilities more broadly throughout the organization. Respondents from high performers are much more likely than others to say that their organizations have adopted AI in four or more business functions and that they have embedded a higher number of AI capabilities. For example, respondents from high performers more often report embedding knowledge graphs in at least one product or business function process, in addition to gen AI and related natural-language capabilities.

While AI high performers are not immune to the challenges of capturing value from AI, the results suggest that the difficulties they face reflect their relative AI maturity, while others struggle with the more foundational, strategic elements of AI adoption. Respondents at AI high performers most often point to models and tools, such as monitoring model performance in production and retraining models as needed over time, as their top challenge. By comparison, other respondents cite strategy issues, such as setting a clearly defined AI vision that is linked with business value or finding sufficient resources.

The findings offer further evidence that even high performers haven’t mastered best practices regarding AI adoption, such as machine-learning-operations (MLOps) approaches, though they are much more likely than others to do so. For example, just 35 percent of respondents at AI high performers report that where possible, their organizations assemble existing components, rather than reinvent them, but that’s a much larger share than the 19 percent of respondents from other organizations who report that practice.

Many specialized MLOps technologies and practices  may be needed to adopt some of the more transformative uses cases that gen AI applications can deliver—and do so as safely as possible. Live-model operations is one such area, where monitoring systems and setting up instant alerts to enable rapid issue resolution can keep gen AI systems in check. High performers stand out in this respect but have room to grow: one-quarter of respondents from these organizations say their entire system is monitored and equipped with instant alerts, compared with just 12 percent of other respondents.

3. AI-related talent needs shift, and AI’s workforce effects are expected to be substantial

Our latest survey results show changes in the roles that organizations are filling to support their AI ambitions. In the past year, organizations using AI most often hired data engineers, machine learning engineers, and Al data scientists—all roles that respondents commonly reported hiring in the previous survey. But a much smaller share of respondents report hiring AI-related-software engineers—the most-hired role last year—than in the previous survey (28 percent in the latest survey, down from 39 percent). Roles in prompt engineering have recently emerged, as the need for that skill set rises alongside gen AI adoption, with 7 percent of respondents whose organizations have adopted AI reporting those hires in the past year.

The findings suggest that hiring for AI-related roles remains a challenge but has become somewhat easier over the past year, which could reflect the spate of layoffs at technology companies from late 2022 through the first half of 2023. Smaller shares of respondents than in the previous survey report difficulty hiring for roles such as AI data scientists, data engineers, and data-visualization specialists, though responses suggest that hiring machine learning engineers and AI product owners remains as much of a challenge as in the previous year.

Looking ahead to the next three years, respondents predict that the adoption of AI will reshape many roles in the workforce. Generally, they expect more employees to be reskilled than to be separated. Nearly four in ten respondents reporting AI adoption expect more than 20 percent of their companies’ workforces will be reskilled, whereas 8 percent of respondents say the size of their workforces will decrease by more than 20 percent.

Looking specifically at gen AI’s predicted impact, service operations is the only function in which most respondents expect to see a decrease in workforce size at their organizations. This finding generally aligns with what our recent research  suggests: while the emergence of gen AI increased our estimate of the percentage of worker activities that could be automated (60 to 70 percent, up from 50 percent), this doesn’t necessarily translate into the automation of an entire role.

AI high performers are expected to conduct much higher levels of reskilling than other companies are. Respondents at these organizations are over three times more likely than others to say their organizations will reskill more than 30 percent of their workforces over the next three years as a result of AI adoption.

4. With all eyes on gen AI, AI adoption and impact remain steady

While the use of gen AI tools is spreading rapidly, the survey data doesn’t show that these newer tools are propelling organizations’ overall AI adoption. The share of organizations that have adopted AI overall remains steady, at least for the moment, with 55 percent of respondents reporting that their organizations have adopted AI. Less than a third of respondents continue to say that their organizations have adopted AI in more than one business function, suggesting that AI use remains limited in scope. Product and service development and service operations continue to be the two business functions in which respondents most often report AI adoption, as was true in the previous four surveys. And overall, just 23 percent of respondents say at least 5 percent of their organizations’ EBIT last year was attributable to their use of AI—essentially flat with the previous survey—suggesting there is much more room to capture value.

Organizations continue to see returns in the business areas in which they are using AI, and they plan to increase investment in the years ahead. We see a majority of respondents reporting AI-related revenue increases within each business function using AI. And looking ahead, more than two-thirds expect their organizations to increase their AI investment over the next three years.

The online survey was in the field April 11 to 21, 2023, and garnered responses from 1,684 participants representing the full range of regions, industries, company sizes, functional specialties, and tenures. Of those respondents, 913 said their organizations had adopted AI in at least one function and were asked questions about their organizations’ AI use. To adjust for differences in response rates, the data are weighted by the contribution of each respondent’s nation to global GDP.

The survey content and analysis were developed by Michael Chui , a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute and a partner in McKinsey’s Bay Area office, where Lareina Yee is a senior partner; Bryce Hall , an associate partner in the Washington, DC, office; and senior partners Alex Singla and Alexander Sukharevsky , global leaders of QuantumBlack, AI by McKinsey, based in the Chicago and London offices, respectively.

They wish to thank Shivani Gupta, Abhisek Jena, Begum Ortaoglu, Barr Seitz, and Li Zhang for their contributions to this work.

This article was edited by Heather Hanselman, an editor in the Atlanta office.

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