Critical Thinking: What’s its Place in Adult Learning?

What is Critical Thinking?

This website ( provides a digestible overview of what critical thinking is.

To summarize, critical thinking is a complex combination of skills characterized by the attribute below. While reading the following, think of activities that would encourage these factors of critical thinking in students:

  • Rationality: reason over emotions, require evidence and analyze credibility of evidence, seek best explanations, analyze confusion, ask questions.
  • Self-Awareness: recognize influences and biases in ourselves and in the source.
  • Honesty: recognize emotional impulses, selfish motives, and other modes of self-deception.
  • Open-mindedness: consider a variety of viewpoints, accept new explanations because it explains evidences better, remain open to alternative explanations, etc.
  • Discipline: when we are precise, meticulous, comprehensive, and exhaustive.
  • Judgement: recognize the relevance and/or merit of alternative assumptions and perspectives

From the website:

  • Critical thinkers are by nature skeptical. They approach texts with the same skepticism and suspicion as they approach spoken remarks.
  • Critical thinkers are active, not passive.  They ask  questions and analyze. They consciously apply tactics and strategies to uncover meaning or assure their understanding. 
  • Critical thinkers do not take an egotistical view of the world. They are open to new ideas and perspectives.  They are willing to challenge their beliefs and investigate competing evidence.

In contrast, passive non-critical thinkers have a simplistic view of the world (issues are very black and white) and non-critical thinkers are very egotistical about their views.

What is the Place of Critical Thinking in Adult Learning?

What is the importance of Adult Learners possessing Critical Thinking Skills? Brufee (as quoted in Elizabeth Barkley’s book, Student Engagement Techniques 2010), “We construct and maintain knowledge not by examining the world but by negotiating with one another in communities of knowledgeable peers (p.28).” This important aspect of learning is not made possible without critical thinking.

Adult learners need critical thinking in order to analyze and negotiate new information in relation to what they already know.  In the digital age, learners are constantly bombarded with information. Critical thinking enables them to analyze the information not only for content but for credibility and relevance.This skill helps propel them forward in learning more about a subject matter. The activity of processing and analyzing information is a form of Active Learning.

How can it be Promoted by Adult Educators?

As cited on the The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) website, “Richard Paul in Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World, argues that students learn best in dialogical and dialectical situations and advises educators to use the following strategies (Paul 1990:245).” I’ve listed some of strategies on the left side of the table and the definitions on the right (from various sources). Later posts will discuss instructional strategies that encourage critical thinking in adult learners.

Strategy Definition
Socratic Questioning Teaching by asking rather than telling. (Source:
Co-operative learning Small teams, each with students of different levels of ability, use a variety of learning activities to improve their understanding of a subject. (Source:
Multilogical issues Use any question that is complex enough to generate several ways of looking at it. (Source:
Reflective self-criticism Think about a proposition you believe as true. what would it take to convince you that your belief is wrong?(
Recognizing bias (in media) Recognizing when a writer’s personal opinions come through in a story or news report; he or she is revealing a bias. (source)

Keep reading the blog for instructional strategies that encompass the elements listed in the left column of the table above. To see all posts about Critical Thinking, click the Critical Thinking category in the sidebar.


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