20th World Congress
    of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Education

Skills, Generalizability and Critical Thinking

Sharon Bailin
Simon Fraser University

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: Conceptualizations of critical thinking framed in terms of mental processes have been highly influential in contemporary education. Such conceptualizations have, however, been criticized by philosophers of education both because of the problematic nature of the notion of mental processes and because of their lack of a normative dimension. I argue, however, that the reliance on the notion of skills in the accounts of some of these same philosophers renders their accounts potentially subject to some of the same criticisms which they level against process conceptualizations. This problem becomes particularly salient in the debate over the generalizability of critical thinking where the introduction of the concept of skills frames the issue in terms of the transfer of an inner process or ability. I argue that critical thinking is better conceptualized in terms of the achievement of certain understanding or intellectual resources. The problem of generalizability then becomes one of determining the range of use and application of the principles and criteria which constitute our public traditions of inquiry rather than one of determining the transference of some putative mental ability.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Descriptive vs. Normative Accounts

Although there are important differences among the various proffered accounts of critical thinking prevalent in educational theory and practice, approaches can be categorized broadly into two kinds, descriptive and normative. Descriptive conceptions tend to be psychological in origin, are framed in terms of cognitive skills, and focus on the mental processes involved in thinking. The process approach holds that being good at critical thinking is basically a matter of being proficient at certain mental processes. These processes are generally thought to include such things as classifying, inferring, observing, evaluating, synthesizing, and hypothesizing (see, for example, Kirby and Kuykendall 1991:11).

Descriptive approaches have been criticized by philosophers on a number of grounds. One difficulty is that mental processes, in the sense of what goes on in the brain, are unobservable, and it is impossible to determine whether particular mental operations correlate with particular cases of good thinking. Moreover, a description at the level of brain processes would not be very helpful in attempting to foster good thinking. It seems clear, following Ryle, that terms such as classifying, observing, interpreting, or hypothesizing do not refer to mental operations at all but rather to different tasks requiring thinking (Ryle, 1949). Moreover, the nature of the task picked out by any of these terms will vary considerably depending on the context. Interpreting a graph, for example, is very different from interpreting a poem and both differ significantly from interpreting the expression in someone's voice.

The principle problem with a descriptive account, however, is that it lacks a normative dimension. Critical thinking is, however, essentially and centrally a normative concept. It refers to good thinking. It is the quality of the thinking which distinguishes critical from uncritical thinking, and this quality is determined by the degree to which the thinking meets the relevant norms and criteria. It is, then, the adherence to certain norms and criteria which is the defining characteristic of critical thinking. An account of critical thinking in purely descriptive terms leaves out what is most central to critical thinking.

In contrast to these process accounts, all the main philosophical conceptions of critical thinking have as a central concept the idea of good reasons and are, thus, explicitly normative. Ennis, for example, defines critical thinking as "reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do" and characterizes such thinking in terms of an ability dimension and disposition dimension (Ennis 1985). Siegel characterizes the critical thinker as one who is appropriately moved by reasons and one of the main aspects of critical thinking for Siegel is the reason assessment component, i.e., the ability properly to assess reasons and their ability to warrant beliefs, claims and actions (Siegel 1988). Lipman defines critical thinking as thinking that facilitates judgment because it relies on criteria, is self-correcting, and is sensitive to context (Lipman 1991). And McPeck defines critical thinking as the appropriate use of reflective scepticism within the problem area under consideration (McPeck 1981).


One of the most contentious issues in the area of critical thinking is whether critical thinking is generalizable or subject-specific, and it is here that the difference between normative and descriptive accounts becomes particularly salient. Among upholders of descriptive conceptualizations, the debate is framed in terms of the issue of transfer, i.e., whether the thinker is able to apply particular processes learned in isolation to a variety of contexts or transfer processes learned in one context to a different one. Subject matter knowledge is seen as separate from thinking skills or processes; the latter are applied to the former (see, for example, Beyer 1987:163).

Among philosophers, the debate tends to be framed in terms of subject-specificity, i.e., whether there are critical thinking skills which apply across domains or subjects or whether all such skills are specific to particular subjects. Ennis, an upholder of generalizability, argues that the proficiencies and dispositions which he describes are relevant to a variety of areas (Ennis 1989). McPeck, on the other hand, points out the centrality of subject area knowledge for critical thinking and argues that because different fields rely on different epistemologies, using different kinds of reasons and different types of arguments, what is involved in critical thinking varies from field to field (McPeck 1981).

This debate has proven to particularly intractable, and I would argue that one of the reasons is the introduction of the concept of skill into philosophical accounts. Philosophers eschew descriptive psychological accounts because they recognize the problems inherent in locating critical thinking in mental processes. Nonetheless many of their conceptions are framed, at least to some extent, in terms of skill. Thus, for example, Siegel writes of the critical thinker as possessing "a certain character as well as certain skills" (Siegel 1988:39), and makes reference to "a wide variety of reasoning skills" (Siegel 1988:41). Ennis maintains the existence of "general critical thinking abilities" (Ennis 1990:15). Lipman refers to cognitive skills such as inquiry skills, reasoning skills, information-organizing skills, and translation skills (Lipman 1991:40). And McPeck states that "there can be no completely general set of thinking skills" but that there are "some very limited general thinking skills" (McPeck 1990:12). Conceptualizing critical thinking in terms of skills, however, is potentially problematic and leads the generalizability debate in an unhelpful direction.

One of the sources of the problem is that the term skill is ambiguous. In some cases, skill is used to indicate that a person is proficient at a particular task. This is particularly true of the adjectival form (e.g., a skilled reasoner) and the adverbial form (e.g., she reasons skillfully). A skilled reasoner, for example, is one who is likely to reason well and to meet the relevant criteria for good reasoning. The focus, in these cases, is on the actual performance of the task and on the quality of the performance.

The use of the noun form, skill, as in critical thinking skills, is potentially more problematic, however. The term in this case seems to refer to something within individuals, some inner entity or ability. Conceiving of critical thinking in terms of skill in this sense implies more than simply that an individual is a competent or proficient thinker. Skill is conceived of as an identifiable operation or inner possession and is thus a mentalistic concept. The problems involved in viewing critical thinking in terms of mental operations have been outlined above.

Although philosophers arguing over generalizability do make some reference to principles, reasons, and arguments, the debate about generalizability is framed largely in terms of skills. But principles, reasons and arguments are very different sorts of things than skills. Principles, reasons, and arguments are public entities whereas skills are inner abilities. If critical thinking is viewed in terms of skills, the problem of generalizability becomes one of determining whether individuals can apply this inner ability in different domains or fields. The problem of generalizability collapses into the problem of transfer and becomes a psychological issue. In addition to the general problems with a psychologized view of critical thinking, there are particular conceptual problems inherent in the issue of transfer, e.g., the vagueness of the concepts of domain or field (what constitutes or demarcates particular domains), or the vagueness of the concept of ability (what exactly is it that is transferred).

An Alternative to Skill Talk

I believe, then, that it is a mistake to conceptualize critical thinking in terms of skill. The focus must be placed, rather, on reasoned judgment, a point which is implicit in all the philosophical accounts, and explicit in the account offered by Lipman (Lipman 1991). The pedagogical focus can then shift from issues relating to the acquisition and application of skills, with all the attendant conceptual problems, to the question of what one needs to understand in order to make reasoned judgments in particular contexts (Bailin, Case et al. 1993).

This way of viewing critical thinking highlights its contextual nature. Critical thinking always takes place in response to a particular task, question, problematic situation or challenge (including solving problems, resolving dilemmas, evaluating theories, conducting inquiries, interpreting works, and making life decisions) and such challenges always arise in particular contexts. Dealing with these challenges in a critical way involves drawing on a complex array of understandings (what colleagues and I have termed intellectual resources), the particular resources needed for any challenge depending on the specific context.

Since the adherence to the criteria which govern quality thinking and judgment in the particular area is the defining characteristic of critical thinking, it follows that the most important intellectual resource is knowledge of these criteria. These criteria are embedded in the critical practices which constitute our traditions of inquiry and provide the standard against which previously accepted beliefs, practices and institutions are criticized and revised. Another key type of intellectual resource is constituted by the many concepts which mark certain distinctions in an area or pick out certain aspects which are central to the area. Such concepts, such as necessary and sufficient conditions or premises and conclusion, provide invaluable tools for critical analysis and evaluation. Background knowledge in the relevant area is also an important determinant of the quality of thinking in the area and is thus central to the making of reasoned judgments. In addition, there may be some strategies or heuristics which, although not central to critical thinking, may be useful in the course of arriving at reasoned judgments. Finally, the mastery of the other intellectual resources is insufficient if an individual does not have a basic commitment to rational inquiry which disposes her to deploy the resources and the attitudes or habits of mind which characterize critical thinking. These include respect for reasons, an inquiring attitude, open-mindedness, and fair-mindedness, among others (Bailin, Case et al. 1993).

An approach which focuses on understanding or intellectual resources rather than on skills reframes the issue of generalizability. The question is not, then, whether a certain mental ability transfers to a variety of contexts. It is, rather, what constellation of resources is required in particular contexts in response to particular challenges and what the range of application is for particular resources.

Some resources seem to be particular to particular contexts. The principles which govern the conduct of inquiry and the criteria for evaluation in specific disciplines are examples of resources with a fairly narrow range of applicability. The principle requiring experimental control, for example, applies to experimental science but is irrelevant to literary criticism. Similarly, the criteria for evaluation of sources in historical inquiry has no relevance to the evaluation of philosophical arguments. Ennis acknowledges this point in his discussion of what he calls the epistemological version of subject-specificity, i.e., the view that "in different fields different sorts of things count as good reasons, so critical thinking varies from field to field." (Ennis 1989:8).

Some intellectual resources have a wider range of application. Many concepts, for example the conceptual distinction between necessary and sufficient condition, are relevant to making critical judgments in a variety of contexts, from philosophical argumentation to scientific inquiry. As another example, the rules of logic have a very wide field of application. Indeed, they may be seen to apply in virtually every area of critical endeavour. And habits of mind, such as open-mindedness, fair-mindedness, and a commitment to making judgments on the basis of reasoned assessment, are relevant to and necessary to thinking critically in any area.

It may initially appear that a skills approach and an approach conceptualized in terms of intellectual resources are quite similar, but there is one respect in which they are importantly different. While the former focuses on the acquisition of mental abilities, the latter focuses on the mastery of public norms and conventions. Thus the issue of generalizability is much less an issue for the latter, and to the extent to which it is, it is located in a different place. The problem becomes one of determining the range of use and application of the principles and criteria which inhabit our public traditions of inquiry rather than looking for general skills in the inner world of individuals. Thus the philosophers who discuss generalizability in terms of the generalizability of skills, principles, reasons and arguments are conflating very different kinds of things. The question of the generalizability of skills is a very different one from the question of the generalizability of principles, reasons and arguments.

I believe that this approach captures the insights inherent in the accounts of both those who argue for generalizability and those who argue for subject-specificity. First, it captures McPeck's insight regarding the centrality of knowledge for critical thinking. McPeck is obviously right to suggest that background knowledge in the particular area is a precondition for critical thinking to take place, a point clearly acknowledged in all the philosophical accounts.

The role of knowledge for critical thinking goes beyond simply the role of background knowledge as an intellectual resource, however. It includes, as well, knowledge of certain critical concepts and of the principles and criteria of inquiry. And this type of knowledge, for example knowledge of the difference between a necessary and sufficient condition or knowledge of the principles of logic, is not just background knowledge but is central to what is involved in thinking critically. Critical thinking is not, then, a matter of applying critical thinking skills to various domains of knowledge, but rather of mastering certain kinds of knowledge in the domain or domains. Facione sums up well this general point:

This domain-specific knowledge includes understanding methodological principles and competence to engage in norm-regulated practices that are at the core of reasonable judgments in those specific contexts. ... Too much of value is lost if CT is conceived of simply as a list of logical operations and domain-specific knowledge is conceived of simply as an aggregation of information (Facione 1990:10).

In this way, the intellectual resources approach, focusing as it does on public traditions of inquiry, also captures McPeck's insight regarding the different 'epistemologies' used by different fields. Although referring to different epistemologies is somewhat controversial, McPeck's point regarding the domain specificity of at least some kinds of reasons, principles and arguments is well taken.

An approach which focuses on intellectual resources also acknowledges the insight of generalists such as Ennis that some principles have a very wide scope of applicability. This insight is often masked by or confused with issues regarding the range of application of skills, however. Ennis, for example does recognize the difference between the empirical version of subject (or domain) specificity, which focuses on the issue of transfer, and the epistemological version, which focuses on what counts as good reasons in different fields (Ennis 1989). Nonetheless he still tends to frame his discussion of generalizability in terms of the existence of general abilities (Ennis 1990).

Much of the debate about generalizability is motivated by pedagogical concerns and is fueled by the question of how best to teach critical thinking. Ennis, in fact, introduces one of his articles on subject specificity with the following:

Perhaps the most controversial issue within the critical thinking movement these days is whether critical thinking should be taught separately (the "general" approach), be infused in instruction in existing subject-matter areas (the "infusion" approach), result from a student's immersion in the subject matter (the "immersion" approach), or—an oft-neglected possibility—be taught as a combination of the general approach with infusion or immersion (a "mixed" model" approach...) (Ennis 1989:4).

It is a question, then, of whether the skills of critical thinking can be taught in isolation and will be transferred to different contexts or whether they must be or are best infused into instruction in particular contexts. The pedagogical issue looks quite different, however, when critical thinking is conceptualized in terms of a response to challenges which are always contextual and when learning to think critically is conceptualized in terms of the deployment of intellectual resources which are embedded in our critical practices. On this approach, the notion of teaching critical thinking separately is incoherent. And even the notion of infusion is problematic as it seems to imply that critical thinking is something distinct from subject matter. Rather, learning to think critically is a matter of coming to understand the principles, concepts, and criteria which constitute our critical practices and are inherent in our traditions of inquiry. It is important to note, however, that neither is this approach the same as the immersion approach. It does not assume that critical thinking will automatically result from an immersion in subject matter, particularly if this is meant to refer to traditional school subjects. Critical thinking is not limited to tradition school subjects and the latter are not synonymous with our traditions of inquiry. Nor does this approach necessarily preclude a separate focus on some principles and criteria which have a wide range of applicability, e.g., the rules of logic (in addition to focusing on these in specific contexts) but this should not be seen as synonymous with teaching critical thinking. What it does imply is a pedagogical focus on the principles, concepts and criteria of particular modes of inquiry as they play a role in the making of reasoned judgments in particular contexts.

Rather than focusing on individual skills, then, this way of viewing critical thinking emphasizes traditions of inquiry and critical practices. Critical thinking is not a skill but is the engine of our critical practices, or, perhaps, a way of describing what is entailed in them. The concepts, principles, and criteria which constitute the intellectual resources for critical thinking can be seen, then, as inherent in these traditions and practices, as constitutive of them. They are not isolated, arbitrary, and inexplicable, as many students seem to view them. I have argued elsewhere that students often have problems in thinking critically because they lack epistemological understanding, i.e., an understand of the enterprise of knowledge creation and evaluation, an enterprise which is constituted by the offering and assessing of reasons (Bailin 1997). Thus particular principles, concepts and criteria may strike them as arbitrary and without reason for they fail to understand their place in the process of inquiry. They fail, in fact, to grasp the whole interconnected network of concepts, principles, procedures and purposes which constitute our critical practices. I have argued, further, that this dimension is not accommodated in conceptions of critical thinking which focus on skills and dispositions. A focus on critical practices as embodied in traditions of inquiry, however, brings to the fore this network of concepts, principles, procedures and purposes and makes clear the point of the practices and the place of particular principles and criteria within them.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Bailin, S. (1997) 'The problem with Percy: epistemology, understanding and critical thinking', paper delivered at conference Philosophy, Education and Culture, Edinburgh, Sept.

Bailin, S., Case, R., Coombs, J., & Daniels, L. (1993) A Conception of Critical Thinking for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Ministry of Education, Province of British Columbia.

Beyer, B. (1987) Practical Strategies for the Teaching of Thinking, Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Ennis, R. (1985). Goals for a critical thinking/reasoning curriculum. Champaign, Illinois, Illinois Critical Thinking Project.

Ennis, R. (1989) 'Critical thinking and subject-specificity: clarification and needed research', Educational Researcher 18, 4-10.

Ennis, R. (1990) 'The extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific: further clarification', Educational Researcher 19, 13-16.

Facione, P. (1990) Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus For Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction—The Delphi Report, Milbrae, CA: California Academic Press.

Kirby, D. and C. Kuykendall (1991) Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook.

Lipman, M. (1991) Thinking in Education, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McPeck, J. (1981) Critical Thinking and Education, New York: St. Martin's Press.

McPeck, J. (1990) 'Critical thinking and subject specificity; A reply to Ennis', Educational Researcher 19, 10-12.

Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Siegel, H. (1988) Educating Reason: Rationality, Critical Thinking, and Education, New York: Routledge.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the

20th World Congress
    of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to
    the WCP Homepage