If we were to step inside 1,000 classrooms across the United States, how much critical thinking would we see?
We see ‘critical thinking’ name-dropped and splattered across school mission statements throughout the country. Elementary, middle, and high schools proclaim their commitment to cultivating critical thinkers, and recognize the importance of critical thinking skills that employers look for in potential employers. But to what extent are schools and teachers and curricula actually accomplishing the goal of developing lifelong learners who think critically?
Of all the dialogue spoken in a single class period, what percentage of it is worded in the form of questions, versus statements or directions?
Of the questions asked, to what degree do they promote, require, allow for, or otherwise nurture higher-level thinking?
We’ve curated a list of 40 quotes about critical thinking — the purpose of compiling this collection is to provide perspective on what critical thinking looks, sounds, and feels like (and what it doesn’t) so that educators and education leaders can cross-reference their curricular and instructional materials. In addition to inspiring teachers, these quotes about critical thinking might also be used as prompts to generate reflection, writing, and discussion among students about the value of critical thinking to a society, and what happens in a society where critical thinking is diminishing.
40 Of The Best Quotes About Critical Thinking
A. A. Milne: “The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. A second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. A first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.”
Adrienne Rich: “Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.
Albert Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
Anaïs Nin: “When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.”
Anatole France: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.”
Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Bell Hooks: “Critical thinking requires us to use our imagination, seeing things from perspectives other than our own and envisioning the likely consequences of our position.”
Bertrand Russell: “The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.”
Carol Wade: “People can be extremely intelligent, have taken a critical thinking course, and know logic inside and out. Yet they may just become clever debaters, not critical thinkers, because they are unwilling to look at their own biases.”
Christopher Hitchens: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
Confucius: “Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.”
Daniel Levitin: “Critical thinking is not something you do once with an issue and then drop it. It requires that we update our knowledge as new information comes in.”
Desmond Tutu: “My father used to say, ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
Duke Ellington: “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”
Elon Musk: “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it is like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”
Howard Zinn: “We all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas.”
James Baldwin: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”
Jean Piaget: “The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive, and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”
John Dewey: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving…conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.”
Jonathan Haidt: “We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board)..”
J. William Fulbright: “We must dare to think about ‘unthinkable things’ because when things become ‘unthinkable,’ thinking stops and action becomes mindless.”
Lawrence Balter: “You want to prepare your child to think as they get older. You want them to be critical in their judgments. Teaching a child, by your example, that there’s never any room for negotiating or making choices in life may suggest that you expect blind obedience, but it won’t help them, in the long run, to be discriminating in choices and thinking.”
Leo Tolstoy: “Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for critical thinking.”
Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”
Mason Cooley: “The critical spirit never knows when to stop meddling.”
Max Beerbohm: “The one real goal of education is to leave a person asking questions.”
Naomi Wolf: “Obstacles, of course, are developmentally necessary: they teach kids strategy, patience, critical thinking, resilience, and resourcefulness.”
Noam Chomsky: “I try to encourage people to think for themselves, to question standard assumptions…Don’t take assumptions for granted. Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can’t. Be willing to ask questions about what is taken for granted. Try to think things through for yourself.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A mind stretched by new ideas never goes back to its original dimensions.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail.”
Randi Weingarten: “Standardized testing is at cross purposes with many of the most important purposes of public education. It doesn’t measure big-picture learning, critical thinking, perseverance, problem-solving, creativity, or curiosity; yet, those are the qualities great teaching brings out in a student.”
Richard Dawkins: “Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.”
Richard Feynman: “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
Robert Grudin: “To act vulgarly we must be ignorant not only of other people but of ourselves, not only of the nature of our action but of its ramifications in the world at large. To act vulgarly, we must indulge our own ignorance in large, mutually supportive groups. By vulgarity, I mean a comprehensive cultural laxity that spawns monstrosities and is fed by a corporate system that has abandoned long-term development in favor of quarterly profits, by media whose moral standards are based on viewer share, and by a system of higher education that has sold out its image of the humanities and critical thinking as the main bases for consciousness and values.”
Sadhguru: “When your mind is full of assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs, it has no penetration, it just repeats past impressions.”
Stanley Kubrick: “If chess has any relationship to film-making, it would be in the way it helps you develop patience and discipline in choosing between alternatives at a time when an impulsive decision seems very attractive.”
Steve Jobs: “Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Terry Heick: “Critical thinking is certainly a ‘skill’ but when possessed as a mindset–a playful and humble willingness–it shifts from a labor to an art. It asks, ‘Is this true? By what standard?”
Thomas J. Watson, Sr.: “Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the danger of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of crackpot than the stigma of conformity.”
Sir William Bragg: “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.”
William James: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
After reading the quotes about critical thinking, which ones most resonate with you? Which quotes about critical thinking embody what you’re already doing well in the classroom? Which ones signal a need to revise your current approach or strategies?