What constitutes good thinking?

Thinking lies at the heart of leadership and innovation. More specifically, good thinking—thinking that is cognitively disciplined rather than impulsive—may be the hallmark of those who lead and succeed. Our technical world of ubiquitous information requires students to mature into nimble, efficient problem solvers prepared to analyze and generate ideas. While constant, adaptive feeds fuel steady arcs of dread and opportunity, those who do not learn to master the information may be destined to be in turn mastered by the information. Learning designers ought to ask, what constitutes good thinking? More importantly we need to place urgency and intentionality on developing deep learning, good thinking, and virtuous dispositions.

Good thinking is a broad term that incorporates multiple approaches to intentional cognitions. Good thinking includes critical thinking, analytics, creative thinking, and problem solving. To become a good thinker requires both skills and disciplined commitments to clarity and accuracy. In other words, it is not enough to know how to evaluate sources of information; one must commit to ongoing evaluations preceding declarations of knowledge and belief. In this way, good thinking becomes as much a character trait as a learned skill.

What is Good Thinking?

The history of curriculum and learning design has seen waxing and waning of the relative importance of teaching thinking. A quick tour through some schools and classrooms today would yield a mix of emphases. Many learning environments emphasize content with a few thinking opportunities. Other learning environments orient around complex thinking and inquiry approaches including engineering designs, problem-based and project-based learning, or small group seminars. A thinking-based curriculum begins with rich content but emphasizes idea generation, idea critique, and creative production.

Thirty years ago, Raymond Nickerson, formerly of BBN Technologies and now a research professor at Tufts University in Boston, addressed the question of why we should teach thinking. Nickerson argued that the reasons for teaching thinking may vary based on our context or vocational perspectives. For instance, one might teach thinking because it leads to innovation and economic opportunity. Others view teaching thinking as foundational for self-governance and a just democracy. Teaching students to become good thinkers nurtures virtue, patience, and trustworthy character. Nickerson cautioned that schools and their communities must acknowledge that even when students become good thinkers, they will not always agree and arrive at the same conclusions. Sometimes schools resist a complex thinking curriculum because it is easier to focus on concrete fact and detail knowledge. It is easier to align a scope and sequence around content, and it is easier to benchmark progress on basic skills and recollection of information.

We can do better than that. Nickerson began to describe what constitutes complex thinking thirty years ago, and I want to recognize and extend upon his descriptions. Going through the list you might notice that there are considerable differences between the characteristics of good thinking and the type of thinking most people regularly employ. Perhaps this is evidence of why learning designs ought to diligently assume to task of fostering good thinking.

  • Good thinkers use evidence skillfully and impartially.
  • Good thinkers organize their thoughts and articulate them concisely and coherently.
  • Good thinkers distinguish between valid and invalid inferences.
  • Good thinkers value clarity and procession in their communication.
  • Good thinkers suspend judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision.
  • Good thinkers know the difference between reasoning and rationalizing.
  • Good thinkers attempt to anticipate probable consequences of alternative actions before choosing among them.
  • Good thinkers understand the concept of degrees of belief.
  • Good thinkers understand the value and cost of information, know how to seek information, and know when seeking more information makes sense.
  • Good thinkers see similarities and patterns when they are not superficially apparent.
  • Good thinkers recognize discrepancies and the potential consequences of discrepancies.
  • Good thinkers know how to learn independently and equally as important, have an abiding interest to learn independently.
  • Good thinkers apply problem-solving techniques appropriately in domains other than those in which they were learned.
  • Good thinkers can structure informally represented problems in such a way that formal techniques or heuristics can be used to solve them.
  • Good thinkers listen carefully to the ideas of others.
  • Good thinkers know the difference between winning and argument and being right.
  • Good thinkers understand that authentic problems may have more than one possible solution, and those solutions may differ in numerous respects and may be difficult to compare in terms of a single figure of merit.
  • Good thinkers seek to carefully understand the problem before they begin to generate possible solutions.
  • Good thinkers know how to apply validated solutions to problems, and they know when problems require innovative solutions.
  • Good thinkers effectively remove irrelevancies from arguments and accurately restate the essence of the argument.
  • Good thinkers understand the differences between assumptions, conclusions, and hypotheses.
  • Good thinkers habitually question their own views when confronting new evidences.
  • Good thinkers attempt to understand the assumptions associated with their beliefs and the consequences that might follow from their beliefs.
  • Good thinkers assess the validity of beliefs against the intensity of which those beliefs are held.
  • Good thinkers can represent differing viewpoints without distortion, exaggeration, or caricaturization.
  • Good thinkers acknowledge that their understandings are always limited, and welcome opportunities to examine those understandings.
  • Good thinkers acknowledge the possibility of bias and prejudgment within their beliefs and their capacity to examine evidence.

Including Good Thinking in Learning Design

There is a principle that holds true year after year. If teachers do not intentionally make a plan to develop good thinkers, students will most likely focus on short-term fact and detail knowledge with little critical engagement. Developing capacity and disposition toward good thinking seems countercultural to most teaching and learning design. However, even small intentional efforts toward good thinking can impact students.

Begin by being clear on what constitutes good thinking. It is quite difficult to develop a set of skills in students if the teachers and curriculum designers are not completely clear on what the skills look like in practice. Faculty or planning teams should talk about aspects of good thinking and define exactly what it looks like for the grade-level and/or subjects they teach.

Second, design learning activities for students where they have an opportunity to practice good thinking. Good thinking will never develop in learning tasks that require basic memorization or rote exercises. While those types of learning tasks are necessary at times, the thinking curriculum must be predominant and regularly engaged.

Third, talk often with students about what constitutes good thinking. Define it. Give examples of good thinking. Model good thinking, and celebrate instances of good thinking among the students. Consider the descriptions of good thinking listed above as the principles of a responsible and mature intellectual approach to life. Students ought to internalize the principles, and the teacher ought to motivate them toward an intellectual life guided by the principles.

Finally, use reflective learning techniques to help students increase metacognitive awareness of how they are learning to follow these principles. While the teacher guides and directs the students toward good thinking, we want the students themselves to become self-monitors of good thinking over time. Developing the skills and habits of good thinking will not happen overnight. It will take consistent effort and intentionality. However, as students mature through adolescence and into adulthood, the facts and details of the curriculum fade away, but the principles of good thinking will remain.


[While Nickerson has written extensively on thinking and cognition, the particular selection that included his descriptions of good thinking is found at the following: Nickerson, R. S. (1987). Why teach thinking? In J. B. Baron & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice (pp. 27-38). New York, NY: Freeman and Company.]

Todd KettlerComment