Critical Thinking Part One: Critical Thinking And Imagination

What is critical thinking? One element of critical thinking that most everyone agrees on is “higher order thinking,” which includes evaluating the appropriateness of evidence, the truth of propositions, and the soundness of arguments. My former principal, Dave Lehman, wrote a series of articles which get to the heart of the matter of critical thinking and how to teach it. He quoted Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, as saying: “From the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving.” Dave argues that this statement is a good beginning but incomplete. I agree. Other elements need to be included, like imagination, emotional regulation, and self-reflection.

In the 1960s, Roger Sperry and others carried out experiments on the human brain. They cut the corpus callosum, which is a large bundle of neurons connecting the right and left halves or hemispheres of the upper portion of the brain. His experiments disclosed differences in how the two hemispheres functioned. These differences seemed at first to be consistent with earlier theories about rational thinking and creativity. The left was thought of as the critical thinker, the languaged brain, analytical and sequential. The right was thought of as artistic, holistic, creative.

More recent brain research has shown this early conclusion to be inaccurate.  Both hemispheres have been found to be involved, in some way, in all human activities. The differences between the functioning of the two hemispheres have been found to be more subtle. The different areas of the brain work in a more interrelated fashion. You can’t understand how the brain works by only studying it as distinct parts. Likewise, you can’t understand how a person thinks critically without studying emotion, creativity, self-reflection and imagination.

‘Critical’ comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, able to discern, and ‘krinein’, to sift, judge, or separate. To separate, as in analyze or break down into component parts. But ‘discern’ also means to perceive or understand what is not immediately obvious or what might be beyond your previous viewpoint. It means to perceive, as much as possible, the whole or the truth.

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you proceed to answer this question, which frequently comes up in my class on the history of human ideas: “Why did early humans create so much art?” Or maybe, “Why did they do any art?” Students often reply, “They did it because it was fun.” But that answer needs to be questioned further. Students need to empathetically place themselves in the world of ancient humans. They could start by visualizing, for example, a world without any buildings. They need to immerse themselves in more information. One form of art created was extensive wall paintings in caves in southern Europe, Africa, Australia and other places. In France, for example, some of the caves were extremely difficult and possibly dangerous to access. Access involved crawling though long, narrow tunnels. Students decided to research in different groups various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, other species populating the world back then, tools, possible origins of language. A group of five or six studied the paintings in detail and then reproduced the art on the walls of a rarely used stairwell of the school. One day, when the work was complete, this group had the students line up. And one by one they entered the stairwell. It felt like a cave. The only sound was the music of a flute. The only light source was a series of small lanterns placed near the painted walls. When we had all entered and sat down on the cave floor, I led the students in a visualized journey into what being in the caves might have been like. Then the student-artists discussed the paintings.

We created the activity together. I bet most still remember the experience. It enabled the class to feel engaged and develop a more in-depth perspective. They could then analyze evidence, evaluate theories and derive their own conclusions.

This type of activity is not limited to history classes. In an English class, you could imaginatively journey into situations depicted in a novel. Or in a science class you could journey though a cell or the orbits of electrons. Or outside of class you could journey into the mind of a friend that you had an argument with. Critical thinking is not just logic or problem solving. It requires imagination.

My next blog will be about an enjoyable way to strengthen and teach with the student’s natural ability to imagine. Other elements of critical thinking and mindfulness will come up in future blogs.



Lehman, David. “Thinking About Teaching Thinking Part 1, What’s The Urgency?” Connections. : 10- 14.

Lehman, David. “Thinking About Teaching Thinking Part 2, How Can We Do It?” Connections. : 7-15.

McGilchrist, Iain, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven, Connecticut, : Yale University Press, 2009.

The photo is of my student’s cave art.