Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.12A, 21-29
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access 21
Critical Thinking in Health Sciences Education: Considering
“Three Waves”
Renate Kahlke1, Jonathan White2
1Department of Educational Policy Studies, Faculty of Education, Un i ve rsity of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
2Department of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Alberta, Edmont on, Canada
Received September 6th, 2013; revised October 6th, 2013; accepted October 13th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Renate Kahlke, Jonathan White. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
provided the original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all
Copyrights © 2013 are reserved for SCIRP and the owner of the intellectual property Renate Kahlke, Jonathan
White. All Copyright © 2013 are gu arded by law and by SCI RP as a gua r di an .
Historically, health science education has focused on content knowledge. However, there has been in-
creasing recognition that education must focus more on the thinking processes required of future health
professionals. In an effort to teach these processes, educators of health science students have looked to the
concept of critical thinking. But what does it mean to “think critically”? Despite some attempts to clarify
and define critical thinking in health science education and in other fields, it remains a “complex and con-
troversial notion that is difficult to define and, consequently, difficult to study” (Abrami et al., 2008, p.
1103). This selected review offers a roadmap of the various understandings of critical thinking currently
in circulation. We will survey three prevalent traditions from which critical thinking theory emerges and
the major features of the discourses associated with them: critical thinking as a set of technical skills, as a
humanistic mode of accessing creativity and exploring self, and as a mode of ideology critique with a goal
of emancipation. The goal of this literature review is to explore the various ways in which critical think-
ing is understood in the literature, how and from where those understandings emerge, and the debates that
shape each understanding.
Keywords: Critical Thinking; Medical Education; Nursing Education; Higher Education; Adult Education;
Social Work Education; Higher-Order Learning
Introduction: What Is Critical Thinking?
Over the years, many attempts have been made to create a
general definition of critical thinking (e.g. Black, 2008; Facione,
1990). Given analytic philosophy’s emphasis on reasoning and
logic, many departments of philosophy have claimed expertise
over critical thinking (Brookfield, 2012). However, there are
many different ways of understanding critical thinking, ema-
nating from a wide variety of epistemological and theoretical
positions (Brookfield, 2012). Many authors have lamented that
critical thinking means many different things to different peo-
ple, and that there is a lack of consensus (e.g. Black, 2008;
Fischer, Spiker, & Riedel, 2009). However, we believe that the
fragmentation of discourses on critical thinking may be repre-
sentative of fundamental differences in epistemological and
normative beliefs—that is, what critical thinking means varies
depending on what people believe about how and why we en-
gage in thought. Further, individuals’ understandings of critical
thinking may vary depending on the disciplinary and practice
contexts in which the thinking takes place. The term critical
thinking can hold many different meanings, both within and
between traditions.
Thus, instead of attempting to define critical thinking, em-
bracing some traditions while excluding others, this literature
review will treat critical thinking as an array of “kinds of think-
ing and styles of reasoning” (Mason, 2009, p. 13), each ema-
nating from different theoretical and normative positions, and
different disciplinary and practice contexts. Each critical think-
ing tradition, with its attendant assumptions, will have strengths
and weaknesses for educational theory; thus, like Yanchar, Slife,
& Warne (2008), we hold that “no approach is likely to be uni-
versally accepted or to provide sufficient resources for critical
analysis across all fields and under all circumstances” (p. 269).
Rather, it is important to understand the roots and assumptions
behind these various perspectives in order to understand and
critically evaluate them in context. In introducing her edited
book on critical thinking, Re-thinking Reason, Walters (1994a)
proposes an historical progression of critical thinking scholar-
ship beginning with a “first wave”—where critical thinking is
understood as a set of logical procedures “that are analytical,
abstract, universal, and objective” (p. 1). The “first wave” fo-
cuses on improving reasoning processes. Because this approach
largely looks at critical thinking as a set of skills, techniques or
procedures, it has also been referred to as the technical or in-
strumental approach (Jones-Devitt & Smith, 2007); we will
refer to it as the “technical” approach here.
The “second wave” of critical thinking scholarship is led by
scholars who believe that purely technical approaches amount
to a reduction of critical thinking to a set of procedures. Second
wave scholars seek to emphasize the creative, “affective, theo-
retical, and normative presuppositions” (Walters, 1994a, p. 2)
that they believe to be inherent in critical thinking. The second
wave offers a constructivist critique of the idea that knowledge
can be objectively accessed; it seeks to embrace the “liberal
humanist assertion that critical thinking be understood contex-
tually” (McLaren, 1994, p. xii). Critical thinking in the second
wave becomes a highly contextual and creative process. Be-
cause of this interest in reasserting the role of human unique-
ness, self-exploration, and social interaction, like McLaren
(1994), we have called Walters’s (1994a) second wave the
humanist” tradition in critic al thinking.
In his forward to Walters’s book, McLaren (1994) suggests
the addition of a “third wave” of critical thinking theory,
which “speak[s] to critical pedagogy’s concern with reasoning
as a sociopolitical practice” (p. xii), drawing on the deconstruc-
tionism in critical theory and critical pedagogy. Like Walters’s
(1994a) second wave, McLaren’s (1994) third wave under-
stands knowledge as inherently constructed, and takes social
deconstruction as its guiding philosophy. The normative di-
mension of the “third wave” is emphasized, understanding
thinking as always-already a political project. Since the third
wave is linked to issues of social justice and emancipation, I
have called it the “emancipatory” approach to critical thinking.
Figure 1 maps these three traditions in critical thinking theory
and indicates their relationship to other concepts that will be
discussed later in this paper.
Because of its applicability across disciplinary contexts, Wal-
ters and McLaren’s framework will be used in this review as a
way of positioning various approaches to critical thinking ac-
cording to their epistemological and normative assumptions;
however, not all approaches will fit squarely within one “wave”
or another. Many approaches draw on elements of more than
one “wave,” and understandings may shift depending on the
practice context. Moreover, these “waves” might be better
thought of as traditions, since they do not occur as a linear his-
torical progression. For example, Walters’ first wave—where
critical thinking is a set of technical skills, understood through
analytic philosophy’s concern with reasoning processes—is
still very much the dominant understanding today (Brookfield,
2012). Similarly, McLaren’s (1994) third wave does not neces-
sarily follow on the heels of the second wave, particularly given
that it emanates from much earlier ideas about critical thinking
linked to critical pedagogy, such as Paulo Freire’s concept of
critical consciousness first developed in Pedagogy of the Op-
pressed (Freire, 1996) and first published in Portuguese in 1968.
The remainder of this review will look at each “wave” in Wal-
ters and McLaren’s framework, attending to how these dis-
courses have been taken up in the health sciences.
Technical Critical Thinking
The technical approach to critical thinking is still the domi-
nant approach today (Brookfield, 2012; Jones-Devitt & Smith,
2007; Yanchar, Jackson, Hansen & Hansen, 2012). This ap-
proach is derived from the discipline of analytic philosophy
(Brookfiel d, 2012) and—though some defi nitions of critical think-
ing within this category also recognize that there may be dispo-
sitions or attitudes that contribute to critical thinking (e.g. Faci-
one, 2011; Fischer, Spiker, & Reidel, 2009; Halpern, 2009)—pri-
marily looks at critical thinking as a set of techniques or general
Figure 1.
Three traditions in critical thinking.
Open Access
skills that can be taught.
Technical understandings of critical thinking are connected
to specific techniques such as “recognizing logical fallacies,
distinguishing between bias and fact, opinion and evidence,
judgement and valid inference, and becoming skilled at using
different forms of reasoning (inductive, deductive, formal, in-
formal, analogical, and so on)” (Brookfield, 2012, pp. 32-33). It
is heavily linked to—sometimes overlapping or encompass-
ing—other constructs, such as reasoning (Black, 2008; Bowell
& Kemp, 2001; Facione, 2011; Lipman, 1988; Mason, 2009;
Missimer, 1994; Nosich, 2005; Thomson, 2001), problem-
solving (Mason, 2009; Nosich, 2005), evidence appraisal
(Brookfield, 2012; Halpern, 2003; Thomson, 2001), and reflec-
tion (Abu-Dabat, 2011; Black, 2008; Garrison, 1992; Halpern,
2003; Nosich, 2005). This approach is present in the majority
of critical thinking “self-help” resources, offering solutions for
teaching and learning critical thinking skills (e.g., Bowell &
Kemp, 2001; Epstein, 2003; Halpern, 2003; Nosich, 2005,
Thomson, 2001).
The Delphi Consensus: A Definition
The technical understanding of critical thinking is far from
conceptually coherent. Definitions of critical thinking within
this tradition abound (e.g., Black, 2008; Ennis, 1962; Facione,
1990, Lipman, 1988); recent reviews of the literature have “re-
vealed many different conceptions of CT [critical thinking]
with only a modest degree of overlap” (Fischer et al., 2009, p.
5). In 1990, Peter Facione (1990) published the American Phi-
losophical Association’s Delphi Report, to which many major
critical thinking theorists contributed (including Robert Ennis,
Mathew Lipman, Stephen Norris, Richard Paul and Mark
Weinstein). Although the Delphi Report has not served to pro-
vide a single definition for critical thinking (Fischer et al.,
2009), it is likely the most widely recognized and contributed to
definition of critical thinking in circulation; moreover, it covers
many concepts that consistently reappear in debates about
critical thinking in the technical tradition.
The report defines critical thinking broadly, as
purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in in-
terpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as
explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological,
criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which
that judgment is based. CT [critical thinking] is essential
as a tool of inquiry. (Facione, 1990, p. 2)
This definition focuses on critical thinking as reasoning,
evaluation and judgment. The Delphi Report also indicates a set
of six critical thinking skills required to make such judgments,
including interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, expla-
nation and self-regulation. The majority of these skills are un-
derstood as part of “the” reasoning process—in order to think
through a problem or issue, the thinker goes through a process
of gathering, interpreting, analyzing and evaluating information,
making inferences and generating an explanation or decision
based on that information. Like other conceptualizations of
critical thinking, the report also lists a series of affective dispo-
sitions, which are said to support critical thinking, these include:
inquisitiveness, concern to become well-informed, alertness,
trust in the inquiry process, self-confidence in one’s reasoning
skill, open-mindedness, flexibility in considering alternatives
and opinions, understanding of others’ opinions, fair-minded-
ness, honesty in evaluating one’s own biases and prejudices,
prudence in judgement, willingness to reconsider or re-evaluate
judgments, clarity, orderliness, diligence, reasonableness, care,
persistence, and precision (Facione, 1990). These skills and
attitudes provide a starting point for a definition of critical
thinking in the technical tradition, though these are contested
even within this tradition. The sections below look at the many
ways in which the meaning of critical thinking is contested
both within and between traditions.
Major Debat es
Several major debates exist within the technical critical
thinking tradition. First, scholars in the technical tradition ques-
tion the extent to which critical thinking requires the affective
dispositions or attitudes discussed above—as opposed to in-
cluding only reasoning skills. Although the Delphi report de-
fined critical thinking as encompassing both skills and disposi-
tions, the contributors were quite divided on this issue—only a
two-thirds majority agreed that dispositions could be included
in a definition of critical thinking (Facione, 1990). Perhaps the
reason that this issue is so contentious is that a focus on affec-
tive dispositions to some extent takes critical thinking away
from the domain of purely technical reasoning procedures, a
hallmark of critical thinking in this tradition. Instead, critical
thinking is at least in part a quality of the thinker, rather than
strictly a behaviour. While technical critical thinking skills
might be teachable, the educational processes involved in
changing attitudes or dispositions—if, in fact, dispositions can
be changed—continues to be murky ground (Tishman, Jay, &
Perkins, 1993).
Second, debates continue to rage around the extent to which
critical thinking skills are domain specific, as opposed to a set
of general and transferable skills and abilities. Many early criti-
cal thinking scholars argued that critical thinking is comprised
of a general set of skills that, once learned, can be applied to
any subject. Ennis (1989, 1990) is credited with championing
this approach. McPeck (1990, 1994), on the other hand, argues
that critical thinking skills are particular to a subject and disci-
pline; a certain amount of disciplinary fluency is required in
order to engage in critical thinking in any subject, and critical
thinking in one domain does not necessarily transfer to others.
However, more recent scholars dealing with these debates often
conclude that critical thinking is both a set of skills and disposi-
tions (Halpern, 2003; Simpson & Courtney, 2002), and that it is
to an extent subject specific, but that there are also aspects of
critical thinking that can cross disciplinary boundaries (Brook-
field, 2012; Gambrill, 2012; Halpern, 2003; Nosich, 2005).
Technical understandings of critical thinking have also come
under fire from the quarters of feminist and cultural studies
(Norris, 1995). According to critics, a technical approach to
critical thinking is inherently tied to western logocentric con-
ceptions of rationality that exclude feminist ways of knowing
(Thayer-Bacon, 1000; Walters, 1994(b); Warren, K. 1994) and
knowledges of non-Western cultures (Norris, 1995; Thayer-
Bacon, 2000). Critics from critical theory and critical pedagogy
suggest that the technical approach to critical thinking fails to
provide an adequate normative dimension, a sense of the in-
herently political goals of critical thinking (Giroux, 1994;
McLaren, 1994; Kaplan, 1994; Warren, T. 1994). These cri-
tiques have spawned the second and third waves of critical
thinking scholarship and will be discussed further below.
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Technical Critical Thinking in the Health Sciences
As in the broader literature, technical approaches to critical
thinking dominate the literature on critical thinking in the
health sciences (Morrall & Goodman, 2012; Walthew, 2004;
Yanchar et al., 2008). This model of critical thinking takes as
its premise that critical thinking is a set of skills that can be
taught and learned through a series of rational systems of evi-
dence analysis (Yanchar et al., 2008). In the health sciences,
technical critical thinking takes on particular characteristics
related to the thought processes engaged by health professionals.
Most often, it is connected to clinical and diagnostic thinking
processes. Critical thinking as clinical or diagnostic thinking is
directly linked to terms such as clinical reasoning (Alfaro-Le-
Fevre, 2013; Crosby, 2011; Gambrill, 2012; Jones-Devitt &
Smith, 2007; Kreiter & Bergus, 2009; Krupat, Sprague, Wol-
paw, Haidet, & O’Brien, 2011), clinical judgement (Alfaro-
LeFevre, 2013; Brunt, 2005; Gambrill, 2012), clinical decision-
making (Aberegg, O’Brien, Lucarelli, & Terry, 2008; Gambrill,
2012; Macpherson & Owen, 2010; Simpson & Courtney, 2002;
Worrell & Profetto-McGrath, 2007), diagnostic reasoning (Kru-
pat et al., 2011), scientific reasoning, (Gambrill, 2012), problem
solving (Gambrill, 2012; Heron, 2006; Jones-Devitt & Smith,
2007; Krupat et al., 2011; Simpson & Courtney, 2002; Worrell
& Profetto-McGrath, 2007) and, in the discipline of Nursing,
nursing process (Gordon, 2000; Staib, 2003; Worrell & Pro-
fetto-McGrath, 2007).
All of these terms relate to the process of taking in and eva-
luating complex clinical information from a variety of sources,
but differ slightly depending on what is being “thought” in
critical thinking—whether or not critical thinking requires a
“problem,” for example (Simpson & Courtney, 2002)—or the
outcome of critical thinking—whether or not critical thinking
requires a decision (Martin, 2002). Sometimes these terms are
synonymous with critical thinking; at other times distinctions
are made. For example, Alfaro-Lefevre suggests that clinical
reasoning is a type of critical thinking particular to the clinical
context. Simpson and Courtney (2002) posit that problem solv-
ing is a decision-focussed process that is not synonymous with
critical thinking, but requires critical thinking in order to be
done effectively. Although scholars and researchers disagree on
the relationship between these terms and critical thinking, there
is significant overlap in the literature to the extent that the
above terms often appear as almost synonymous with critical
thinking (Simpson & Courtney, 2002; Victor-Schmil, 2013).
Humanist Critical Thinking
McLaren (1994) distinguishes the “second wave” of critical
thinking through its “liberal humanist assertion that critical
thinking be understood contextually” (p. xii). This understand-
ing of critical thinking reacts to “first wave” assertions that
critical thinking can be understood as a set of universal and
abstract skills or procedures (Walters, 1994a). These assertions,
second wave thinkers argue, are inherently linked to dominant
western, patriarchal and logocentric ways of knowing (Phelan
& Garrison, 1994; Thayer-Bacon, 2000; Walters, 1994a; War-
ren, K, 1994). Instead, thinkers of the second wave seek to
humanise technical understandings of critical thinking, replac-
ing claims to objectivity with subjectivity, abstraction with
contextualization and positivist notions of Truth with socially
constructed truths.
These thinkers see critical thinking as subjective in that “the
thinker is always present in the act of thinking, and it is pre-
cisely her active participation, with its attendant affective,
theoretical, and normative presuppositions, from which any
analysis of fair-mindedness must proceed” (Walters, 1994a, p.
2). This understanding of critical thinking often stems from a
feminist position that seeks to understand critical thinking
through “nonanalytic modes of thinking, such as imagination
and empathic intuition, as well as the straightforwardly logical
ones defended by conventional critical thinking” (Walters,
1994a, p. 11). In general, scholars in this tradition seek either to
overturn or modify dominant discourses about critical thinking
which stress the importance (and possibility) of individual ra-
tional thought by emphasizing the subjectivity of thought, in-
cluding a reclamation of individual creativity (Walters, 1994a)
and an understanding that there are multiple ways of thinking
and knowing (Thayer-Bacon, 2000).
This claim to subjectivity also means that critical thinking is
not an abstract process that can claim an objective Truth, but is
highly contextual: “just as subjects cannot be separated from
the process of thinking, so thinking itself cannot be separated
from the context in which it arises” (Walters, 1994a, p. 16).
Critical thinking is always a biased activity, predicated on a
particular worldview and drawing on particular normative as-
sumptions (Paul, 1994; Warren, T, 1994). Thinking takes place
in a particular time and place, and under particular social condi-
tions. Critical thinking is far from abstract and universal, but is
ambiguous, malleable and contextual.
As much as humanist critical thinking theorists emphasize
the subjectivity and individual creativity of thinking, humanist
critical thinking is also often linked to a constructivist episte-
mology. The context within which the individual thinks and
constructs his or her ways of knowing is a social one. Thus,
construction of knowledge is always a social process and can-
not be disconnected from the broad social constructs within
which it is embedded (Warren, 1994). Thayer-Bacon (2000), in
particular, seeks to replace the image of the contemplative,
solitary thinker with the image of critical thinking as a quilting
bee, where construction of knowledge—or quilts—occurs in a
social setting, and where the contributions of individual think-
ers—or quilters—may be quite different, but all contribute
pieces to the construction of knowledge and ideas and cannot
be understood in isolation. In this understanding of thought and
knowledge, there is no objective Truth “out there,” but multiple
socially produced and co-created truths.
Humanist Approaches in the Health Sciences
Likewise, in the health sciences, there are calls for the recla-
mation of subjectivity, creativity and social constructivist un-
derstandings of critical thinking. Humanist approaches to criti-
cal thinking often appear under the umbrella of critical or nar-
rative reflection, and most often emerge in the disciplines of
Social Work (Harrison, 2009) and Nursing (Walthew, 2004),
and in initiatives calling for a revival of the humanities in medi-
cine and medical education (Cave & Clandinin, 2007; Charon,
2004; Charon et al., 1995; Clandinin & Cave, 2008; Doukas,
McCullough & Wear , 2012 ).
In particular, calls for an attendance to the creativity and sub-
jectivity of critical thinking has long been emphasized as a
crucial component of critical thinking in the disciplines of
Nursing (Chan, 2012; Brunt, 2005; May, Edell, Butell, Doughty,
Open Access
& Langford, 1999; Popil, 2011; Scheffer & Rubenfeld, 2000;
Staib, 2003; Sorensen & Yankech, 2008; Walthew, 2004;
Worrell & Profetto-McGrath, 2007) and Social Work (Gibbons
& Gray, 2004; Johnston, 2009; Jones-Devitt & Smith, 2007;
Miller, Harnek Hall & Tice, 2009). At times, humanist scholars
add a relatively narrow emphasis on creativity to largely tech-
nical understandings of critical thinking. When Scheffer and
Rubenfeld (2000) replicated Facione’s (1990) Delphi Consen-
sus, replacing Facione’s philosophy-experts with experts in
Nursing, they found that “nursing experts believe that CT
[critical thinking] in nursing includes two more affective com-
ponents, ‘creativity’ and ‘intuition’” (p. 357). The addition of
these subjective and affective components to the largely objec-
tivist understanding of critical thinking replicated from the
original Delphi study represents a shift or challenge to that
dominant technical understanding of critical thinking. Creativ-
ity and intuition, with their attendant ambiguity, are not entirely
objective or technical procedures. According to Walthew
nurse educators consider critical thinking a complex
process that included rational, logical thinking, reflective
of traditional theories of critical thinking, and areas of the
affective domain more commonly associated with female
ways of thinking and knowing. They particularly empha-
sized listening to other people’s points of view, empa-
thizing, and sensing. (p. 411)
In the health sciences, humanist critical thinking has also
been linked to social constructivist understandings of the world
(Gibbons & Gray, 2004; Jones, 2006; Miller et al., 2009;
Yanchar et al., 2012). As King and Kitchener (1990) have sug-
gested in their Reflective Judgment Model, these perspectives
view the development of critical thinking as intrinsically con-
nected to understanding knowledge as abstract and constructed
rather than concrete and certain (Mezirow, 1998). Gibbons and
Gray (2004), in particular, advocate for a constructivist under-
standing of critical thinking in social work education. In their
critical thinking, rather than claiming objectivity, is value-
laden thinking—much more than common sense. We en-
gage with the world and with others and our judgments,
conclusions, ideas, and opinions flow from these interac-
tions—never from a standpoint of detached objectivity.
The importance is, therefore, to make the values, judg-
ments and decision-making explicit, rather than to claim
that they are not there and to see critical thinking as cru-
cial to the process of constructing knowledge, meaning
and understanding. (Gibbons & Gray, 2004, p. 37)
In other words, for critical thinking scholars in this tradition,
critical thinking means understanding that thought and knowl-
edge are an active process tied to belief and, hence, bias. The
key to critical thinking is in articulating, analyzing and altering
the assumptions on which ideas and decisions are based. This
emphasis on creativity and contextuality moves clinical think-
ing away from popular culture images of health science practi-
tioners, particularly physicians, who detach themselves in order
to coldly and “clinically” analyze the evidence to obtain a cor-
rect diagnoses. Instead, humanist critical thinking suggests that
practitioners create knowledge in a social context, within a
particular facility and society, with patients and with each other.
Additionally, it suggests that there might be multiple “right”
answers, and that reasoning and diagnostic processes must be
subject to review and revision.
More radical understandings of critical thinking in the hu-
manist tradition, such as those connected to feminist and con-
structivist perspectives, often overlap with emancipatory under-
standings of critical thinking. As I have suggested, the three
critical thinking traditions that provide the framework for this
literature review are not discreet categories, but often overlap
and intersect. Thus, some understandings of critical thinking
may fall under multiple categories. Scheffer and Rubenfeld’s
(2000) articulation of critical thinking in Nursing as a creativity
and intuition-enhanced version of the technical understanding
of critical thinking found in Facione’s (1990) Delphi study falls
simultaneously under technical and humanist approaches to
critical thinking. Likewise, Gibbons and Gray’s (2004) look at
critical thinking in Social Work education contains humanist
critical thinking scholars’ understanding of critical thinking as a
creative, constructivist process as well as elements of emanci-
patory understandings of critical thinking where thought is
always a political project and critical thinking is linked to social
Emancipatory Critical Thinking
Like humanist approaches to critical thinking, McLaren’s
(1994) third wave is often discussed as a reaction to dominant
technical discourses about critical thinking. However, this un-
derstanding of critical thinking has a long history that has
evolved somewhat separately from technical understandings of
critical thinking stemming from analytic philosophy. Instead,
“third wave” critical thinking is informed by critical pedagogy
and critical theory.
Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy
The founders of critical theory—such as Horkheimer,
Adorno and Marcuse of the Frankfurt School (Wiggerhaus,
1986)—were interested in how people could be taught to use
critical thought to uncover ideological structures and unveil the
ways in which they are oppressed (Adorno, 1990; Horkheimer,
1995; Marcuse, 1968). The purpose of this thinking is to illu-
minate unjust social structures within capitalism and pave the
way for a more just society. In other words, “critical theory’s
diagnosis of the social world is inherently a normative enter-
prise, since it involves judgments that the world ought not to be
as it is, or about what is wrong with it” (Finlayson, 2005, p.
Stemming from critical theory, emancipatory critical think-
ing has direct links to Paulo Freire’s work on critical con-
sciousness, a significant concept within critical pedagogy.
Critical consciousness is the reflective process through which
people awaken and become aware of their own conditions of
oppression (Freire, 1996, 2008). In other words, following the
project of critical theory, critical consciousness—a term that
Freire often interchanges with “critical thought” or “critical
thinking”—is about coming to see the oppressive social hierar-
chies and the “systems of class, race, and gender oppression”
(McLaren, 1994, p. xi) that support those hierarchies.
Emancipatory Critical Thinking
Building on Freire’s work, critical pedagogues like bell
hooks (2010), Peter McLaren (1994), Henry Giroux (1994,
Open Access 25
2006), and Stephen Brookfield (2012) have entered critical
thinking debates in education. The emancipatory understanding
of critical thinking is marked by two main distinctions. First,
these theorists, like those in the humanist tradition, insist that
knowledge is constructed; second, they insist that all thought
has a strong normative dimension and that critical thinking
must involve analyzing and articulating the thinker’s political
goals—usually working toward social justice.
Like humanist critical thinking, critical thinking scholars in
the emancipatory tradition have objected to the positivist un-
dercurrent in technical critical thinking; they argue that knowl-
edge is socially constructed and, thus, that critical thinking is
always contextual rather than universal (McLaren, 1994). Ac-
cording to Giroux (1994), “at the core of what we call critical
thinking [in the technical tradition], there are two major as-
sumptions that are missing. First, there is a relationship be-
tween theory and facts; second, knowledge cannot be separated
from human interests, values and norms” (p. 201). Put another
way, Giroux is arguing that facts—often thought of as objective
knowledge—are not objective, but always stem from theory, a
particular constructed frame of reference; in his thinking, the
theoretical is thus intimately connected with human assump-
tions, values and norms.
As McLaren (1994) argues, emancipatory critical thinking
theorists are critical of the lack of a strong normative dimension
in both technical and humanist traditions. Although, as Brook-
field (2012) reminds us, some scholars within the technical
tradition have at times articulated a purpose, it has been seen as
insufficient to many theorists working in the emancipatory
tradition. Technical critical thinkers often see critical thinking’s
pupose in maintaining democratic processes—individuals must
be able to think critically about arguments made in the public
sphere in order to make informed choices that are not com-
pelled by propaganda (Brookfield, 2012; Facione, 2011;
Thayer-Bacon, 2000). The Delphi Consensus (Facione, 1990)
states that the goal of all education is to create citizens who will
demonstrate the critical thinking skills and dispositions “which
consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a
rational and democratic society” (p. 2). However, according to
emancipatory critical thinking scholars, the failure to articulate
what such a society might look like, and the problematic claim
to neutrality inherent in technical critical thinking discourses
often means that critical thinking in the technical tradition falls
into the service of dominant ideologies (Jones-Devitt & Smith,
2007). According to Aronowitz (1998) “the idea of the educator
as a disinterested purveyor of ‘objective’ knowledge, the incon-
trovertible ‘facts’ that form the foundation of dominant values,
is itself a form of ideological discourse” (p. 14). Likewise,
McLaren (1994) argues that technical and humanist under-
standings of critical thinking do not sufficiently articulate their
political project or the role of the thinker in maintaining current
social relations. In his words,
there is a difference between the second wave liberal hu-
manist assertion that critical thinking be understood con-
textually (a position that does not sufficiently situate crit-
ical thinkers in relationship to their own complicity in re-
lations of domination and oppression) and the criticalist
[third wave] assertion that one’s intellectual labor must be
understood ethicopolitically in the context of a particular
political project. (p. xiii).
Because they believe that knowledge is not objective and
bias is inescapable, critical thinking theorists in this tradition
see critical thinking as ideology critique, drawing on critical
theory. Critical thinking is then the process of simultaneously
analyzing the assumptions or premises that are held at a broad
societal level—the assumptions on which ideology is based—
and on an individual level—the assumptions on the basis of
which individuals make decisions. Understanding and unpack-
ing these assumptions opens up possibilities for shifting para-
digms or worldviews, rather than accepting ideologically driven
assumptions as truths. Though, ironically, the normative goals
of emancipatory critical thinking are not always articulated,
critical thinking from this tradition has a decidedly anti-ca-
pitalist bent, stemming from its Marxist roots as discussed
Emancipatory Approaches in the Health Sciences
The call for emancipatory critical thinking is also present in
the health sciences (Brunt, 2005; Ford & Profetto-McGrath,
1994; Getzlaf & Osborne, 2010; Gibbons & Gray, 2004; Jones,
2006; Jones-Devitt & Smith, 2007; Kumagai & Lypson, 2009;
Teo, 2011). Morrall and Goodman (2012) write:
by ‘critical thinking’ we mean going beyond accepting
pre-existing social, professional or economic orders to
challenge the very basis of our practices and thinking
processes and to engage in critical thinking as exemplified
in the works of the Frankfurt School.” (Conclusion, para.
This form of critical thinking rests on the assumption that
power is unequally distributed in society and that an attendance
to paradigms and assumptions on which knowledge is based is
required in order to remedy that inequality. Yanchar et al. (2008)
propose that critical thinking in the health sciences should in-
volve “identification and evaluation of ideas, particularly im-
plicit assumptions and values, that guide the thinking, decisions,
and practices of oneself and others” (p. 270). This view of
critical thinking is particularly evident in the discipline of So-
cial Work (Gibbons & Gray, 2004; Jones, 2006; Miller, Tice, &
Harnek Hall, 2011; Morley, 2008), but also often appears in
Nursing (Ford & Profetto-McGrath, 1994; Nokes, Nickitas,
Keida, & Neville, 2005; Morrall & Goodman, 2012).
Given that social inequalities often manifest themselves as
disparities in health status and access to health care, in order to
effectively act as stewards of health, health science students and
practitioners have a particular obligation to fight social ine-
qualities. Frenk et al.’s (2010) emphasis on the role of health
science professionals as change agents in healthcare systems
suggests that this understanding of critical thinking might be on
the rise. Published in The Lancet, a major journal with a broad
focus and broad audience, this report has had a large impact.
Recent publications by Getzlaf and Osborne (2005), Gibbons
and Gray (2004), Jones-Devitt and Smith (2007), Miller et al.
(2011) and Morrall and Goodman (2012) all show the connec-
tion between the call for health professionals as advocates for
change and the ways in which critical thinking skills can be
used to uncover ideological assumptions that perpetuate the
system as it is.
The term critical thinking has a long history and its meaning
Open Access
has been contested for the better part of a century. We have
highlighted the multiple traditions through which critical
thinking can and has been understood. Although the framework
proposed by Walters (1994a) and McLaren (1994) offers one
way of delineating these traditions, this framework is far from
stable or exclusive; Brookfield (2000, 2012), for example, of-
fers two alternative ways of understanding the range of aca-
demic traditions on which concepts of critical thinking are
based. Brookfield’s frameworks significantly overlap both with
Walters and McLaren’s framework and with each other.
Given that there is no consensus on what defines critical
thinking as a construct, as Yanchar et al. (2008) suggest, “no
approach [to critical thinking] is likely to be universally ac-
cepted or to provide sufficient resources for critical analysis
across all fields and under all circumstances” (p. 296). As a
result, the conceptual framework presented in this review is
loosely held; we will treat critical thinking as an array of “kinds
of thinking and styles of reasoning” (Mason, 2009, p. 13) that
may change with the context within which it is taken up. We
hold that critical thinking can and should be understood differ-
ently in different contexts and where there are different goals.
The aim of this review is to provide one framework for analyz-
ing various perspectives on critical thinking, so that educators
might better analyze and articulate their own meanings, as-
sumptions and goals when they invite their students to “think
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