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The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking

The goal of the NCECT is to articulate, preserve, and foster intellectual standards in critical thinking research, scholarship, and instruction. The NCECT is a creation of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. The council presently consists of about 8,000 leading educators.

A Draft Statement of Principles
Elements of Thought
Universal Intellectual Standards
Valuable Intellectual Traits

A Draft Statement of Principles


The goals of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction are as follows:

  1. To articulate, preserve, and foster high standards of research, scholarship, and instruction in critical thinking.

  2. To articulate the standards upon which "quality" thinking is based and the criteria by means of which thinking, and instruction for thinking, can be appropriately cultivated and assessed.

  3. To assess programs which claim to foster higher-order critical thinking.

  4. To disseminate information that aids educators and others in identifying quality critical thinking programs and approaches which ground the reform and restructuring of education on a systematic cultivation of disciplined universal and domain specific intellectual standards.


Founding Principles

  1. There is an intimate interrelation between knowledge and thinking.

  2. Knowing that something is so is not simply a matter of believing that it is so, it also entails being justified in that belief (Definition: Knowledge is justified true belief).

  3. There are general, as well as domain-specific, standards for the assessment of thinking.

  4. To achieve knowledge in any domain, it is essential to think critically.

  5. Critical thinking is based on articulable intellectual standards and hence is intrinsically subject to assessment by those standards.

  6. Criteria for the assessment of thinking in all domains are based on such general standards as: clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, significance, fairness, logic, depth, and breadth, evidentiary support, probability, predictive or explanatory power. These standards, and others, are embedded not only in the history of the intellectual and scientific communities, but also in the self-assessing behavior of reasonable persons in everyday life. It is possible to teach all subjects in such a way as to encourage the use of these intellectual standards in both professional and personal life.

  7. Instruction in critical thinking should increasingly enable students to assess both their own thought and action and that of others by reference, ultimately, to standards such as those above. It should lead progressively, in other words, to a disciplining of the mind and to a self-chosen commitment to a life of intellectual and moral integrity.

  8. Instruction in all subject domains should result in the progressive disciplining of the mind with respect to the capacity and disposition to think critically within that domain. Hence, instruction in science should lead to disciplined scientific thinking; instruction in mathematics should lead to disciplined mathematical thinking; instruction in history should lead to disciplined historical thinking; and in a parallel manner in every discipline and domain of learning.

  9. Disciplined thinking with respect to any subject involves the capacity on the part of the thinker to recognize, analyze, and assess the basic elements of thought: the purpose or goal of the thinking; the problem or question at issue; the frame of reference or points of view involved; assumptions made; central concepts and ideas at work; principles or theories used; evidence, data, or reasons advanced, claims made and conclusions drawn; inferences, reasoning, and lines of formulated thought; and implications and consequences involved.

  10. Critical reading, writing, speaking, and listening are academically essential modes of learning. To be developed generally they must be systematically cultivated in a variety of subject domains as well as with respect to interdisciplinary issues. Each are modes of thinking which are successful to the extent that they are disciplined and guided by critical thought and reflection.

  11. The earlier that children develop sensitivity to the standards of sound thought and reasoning, the more likely they will develop desirable intellectual habits and become open-minded persons responsive to reasonable persuasion.

  12. Education - in contrast to training, socialization, and indoctrination - implies a process conducive to critical thought and judgment. It is intrinsically committed to the cultivation of reasonability and rationality.


History and Philosophy

Critical thinking is integral to education and rationality and, as an idea, is traceable, ultimately, to the teaching practices — and the educational ideal implicit in them — of Socrates of ancient Greece. It has played a seminal role in the emergence of academic disciplines, as well as in the work of discovery of those who created them. Knowledge, in other words, has been discovered and verified by the distinguished critical thinkers of intellectual, scientific, and technological history. For the majority of the idea's history, however, critical thinking has been "buried," a conception in practice without an explicit name. Most recently, however, it has undergone something of an awakening, a coming-out, a first major social expression, signaling perhaps a turning-point in its history.

This awakening is correlated with a growing awareness that if education is to produce critical thinkers en mass, if it is to globally cultivate nations of skilled thinkers and innovators rather than a scattering of thinkers amid an army of intellectually unskilled, undisciplined, and uncreative followers, then a renaissance and re-emergence of the idea of critical thinking as integral to knowledge and understanding is necessary. Such a reawakening and recognition began first in the USA in the later 30's and then surfaced in various forms in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, reaching its most public expression in the 80's and 90's. Nevertheless, despite the scholarship surrounding the idea, despite the scattered efforts to embody it in educational practice, the educational and social acceptance of the idea is still in its infancy, still largely misunderstood, still existing more in stereotype than in substance, more in image than in reality.

The members of the Council (some 8000 plus educators) are committed to high standards of excellence in critical thinking instruction across the curriculum at all levels of education. They are, therefore, concerned with the proliferation of poorly conceived "thinking skills" programs with their simplistic — often slick — approaches to both thinking and instruction. If the current emphasis on critical thinking is genuinely to take root, if it is to avoid the traditional fate of passing educational fad and "buzz word," it is essential that the deep obstacles to its embodiment in quality education be recognized for what they are, reasonable strategies to combat them formulated by leading scholars in the field, and successful communication of both obstacles and strategies to the educational and broader community achieved.

To this end, sound standards of the field of critical thinking research must be made accessible by clear articulation and the means set up for the large-scale dissemination of that articulation. The nature and challenge of critical thinking as an educational ideal must not be allowed to sink into the murky background of educational reform and restructuring efforts, while superficial ideas take its place. Critical thinking must assume its proper place at the hub of educational reform and restructuring. Critical thinking — and intellectual and social development generally — are not well-served when educational discussion is inundated with superficial conceptions of critical thinking and slick merchandizing of "thinking skills" programs while substantial — and necessarily more challenging conceptions and programs — are thrust aside, obscured, or ignored.


Elements of Thought

If teachers want their students to think well, they must help students understand at least the rudiments of thought, the most basic structures out of which all thinking is made. In other words, students must learn how to take thinking apart. All thinking is defined by the eight elements that make it up. Eight basic structures are present in all thinking.  Whenever we think, we think for a purpose within a point of view based on assumptions leading to implications and consequences.  We use concepts, ideas, and theories to interpret data, facts, and experiences in order to answer questions, solve problems, and resolve issues.  Thinking, then, generates purposes, raises questions, uses information, utilizes concepts, makes inferences, makes assumptions, generates implications, and embodies a point of view. Students should understand that each of these structures has implications for the others. If they change their purpose or agenda, they change their questions and problems. If they change their questions and problems, they are forced to seek new information and data, and so on. Students should regularly use the following checklist for reasoning to improve their thinking in any discipline or subject area:

  1. All reasoning has a purpose.
    1. State your purpose clearly.
    2. Distinguish your purpose from related purposes.
    3. Check periodically to be sure you are still on target.
    4. Choose significant and realistic purposes.

  2. All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, solve some problem.
    1. State the question at issue clearly and precisely.
    2. Express the question in several ways to clarify its meaning and scope.
    3. Break the question into sub-questions.
    4. Distinguish questions that have definitive answers from those that are a matter of opinion and from those that require consideration of multiple viewpoints.

  3. All reasoning is based on assumptions (beliefs you take for granted).
    1. Clearly identify your assumptions and determine whether they are justifiable.
    2. Consider how your assumptions are shaping your point of view.

  4. All reasoning is done from some point of view.
    1. Identify your point of view.
    2. Seek other points of view and identify their strengths and weaknesses.
    3. Strive to be fair-minded in evaluating all points of view.

  5. All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence.
    1. Restrict your claims to those supported by the data you have.
    2. Search for information that opposes your position, as well as information that supports it.
    3. Make sure that all information used is clear, accurate, and relevant to the question at issue.
    4. Make sure you have gathered sufficient information.

  6. All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas.
    1. Identify key concepts and explain them clearly.
    2. Consider alternative concepts or alternative definitions of concepts.
    3. Make sure you are using concepts with care and precision.

  7. All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.
    1. Infer only what the evidence implies.
    2. Check inferences for their consistency with each other.
    3. Identify assumptions that lead you to your inferences.

  8. All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequences.
    1. Trace the implications and consequences that follow from your reasoning.
    2. Search for negative as well as positive implications.
    3. Consider all possible consequences.

Universal Intellectual Standards


Universal intellectual standards are standards which must be applied to thinking whenever one is interested in checking the quality of reasoning about a problem, issue, or situation. To think critically entails having command of these standards. To help students learn them, teachers should pose questions which probe student thinking, questions which hold students accountable for their thinking, questions which, through consistent use by the teacher in the classroom, become internalized by students as questions they need to ask themselves.

The ultimate goal, then, is for these questions to become infused in the thinking of students, forming part of their inner voice, which then guides them to better and better reasoning. While there are a number of universal standards, the following are the most significant:


  1. Clarity - Could you elaborate further on that point? Could you express that point in another way? Could you give me an illustration? Could you give me an example?

    Clarity is the gateway standard. If a statement is unclear, we cannot determine whether it is accurate or relevant. In fact, we cannot tell anything about it because we don’t yet know what it is saying. For example, the question "What can be done about the education system in America?" is unclear. In order to address the question adequately, we would need to have a clearer understanding of what the person asking the question is considering the "problem" to be. A clearer question might be "What can educators do to ensure that students learn the skills and abilities which help them function successfully on the job and in their daily decision-making?"


  2. Accuracy - Is that really true? How could we check that? How could we find out if that is true?

    A statement can be clear but not accurate, as in "Most dogs are over 300 pounds in weight."


  3. Precision - Could you give more details? Could you be more specific?

    A statement can be both clear and accurate, but not precise, as in "Jack is overweight." (We don’t know how overweight Jack is, one pound or 500 pounds.)


  4. Relevance - How is that connected to the question? How does that bear on the issue?

    A statement can be clear, accurate, and precise, but not relevant to the question at issue. For example, students often think that the amount of effort they put into a course should be used in raising their grade in a course. Often, however, the "effort" does not measure the quality of student learning, and when this is so, effort is irrelevant to their appropriate grade.


  5. Depth - How does your answer address the complexities in the question? How are you taking into account the problems in the question? Is that dealing with the most significant factors?

    A statement can be clear, accurate, precise, and relevant, but superficial (that is, lacks depth). For example, the statement "Just say No," which is often used to discourage children and teens from using drugs, is clear, accurate, precise, and relevant. Nevertheless, it lacks depth because it treats an extremely complex issue, the pervasive problem of drug use among young people, superficially. It fails to deal with the complexities of the issue.


  6. Breadth - Do we need to consider another point of view? Is there another way to look at this question? What would this look like from a conservative standpoint? What would this look like from the point of view of...?

    A line of reasoning may be clear accurate, precise, relevant, and deep, but lack breadth (as in an argument from either the conservative or liberal standpoint which gets deeply into an issue, but only recognizes the insights of one side of the question.)


  7. Logic - Does this really make sense? Does that follow from what you said? How does that follow? But before you implied this and now you are saying that; how can both be true?

    When we think, we bring a variety of thoughts together into some order. When the combination of thoughts are mutually supporting and make sense in combination, the thinking is "logical." When the combination is not mutually supporting, is contradictory in some sense, or does not "make sense," the combination is not logical.

Valuable Intellectual Traits

Intellectual traits, or virtues, are interrelated intellectual habits that enable students to discipline and improve mental functioning. Teachers need to keep in mind that critical thinking can be used to serve two incompatible ends: self-centeredness or fair-mindedness. As students learn the basic intellectual skills that critical thinking entails, they can begin to use those skills in either a selfish or in a fair-minded way. For example, when students are taught how to recognize mistakes in reasoning (commonly called fallacies), most students readily see those mistakes in the reasoning of others but do not see them so readily in their own reasoning. Often they enjoy pointing out others' errors and develop some proficiency in making their opponents' thinking look bad, but they don't generally use their understanding of fallacies to analyze and assess their own reasoning.
It is thus possible for students to develop as thinkers and yet not to develop as fair-minded thinkers. The best thinkers strive to be fair-minded, even when it means they have to give something up. They recognize that the mind is not naturally fair-minded, but selfish. And they understand that to be fair-minded, they must also develop particular traits of mind, traits such as intellectual humility, intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, faith in reason, and fair-mindedness. Teachers should model and discuss the following intellectual traits as they help their students become fair-minded, ethical thinkers.  

  1. Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of one's knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one's native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of one's viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies the lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of such foundations, of one's beliefs.

  2. Intellectual Courage: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically "accept" what we have "learned." Intellectual courage comes into play here, because inevitably we will come to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for non-conformity can be severe.

  3. Intellectual Empathy: Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief. This trait correlates with the ability to reconstruct accurately the viewpoints and reasoning of others and to reason from premises, assumptions, and ideas other than our own. This trait also correlates with the willingness to remember occasions when we were wrong in the past despite an intense conviction that we were right, and with the ability to imagine our being similarly deceived in a case-at-hand.

  4. Intellectual Integrity: Recognition of the need to be true to one's own thinking; to be consistent in the intellectual standards one applies; to hold one's self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one's antagonists; to practice what one advocates for others; and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’s own thought and action.

  5. Intellectual Perseverance: Having a consciousness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations; firm adherence to rational principles despite the irrational opposition of others; a sense of the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight.

  6. Faith In Reason: Confidence that, in the long run, one's own higher interests and those of humankind at large will be best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions by developing their own rational faculties; faith that, with proper encouragement and cultivation, people can learn to think for themselves, to form rational viewpoints, draw reasonable conclusions, think coherently and logically, persuade each other by reason and become reasonable persons, despite the deep-seated obstacles in the native character of the human mind and in society as we know it.

  7. Fair-mindedness: Having a consciousness of the need to treat all viewpoints alike, without reference to one's own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of one's friends, community or nation; implies adherence to intellectual standards without reference to one's own advantage or the advantage of one's group.