Everyone’s heard of “critical thinking” and “problem solving,” but what do these terms really mean and how do they interact? Can a person be good at critical thinking but not at problem solving, or vice versa? These terms appear in many state academic content standards assessed as part of the accountability tests used to measure student learning, so it seems appropriate to search for a deeper understanding of them.

Critical thinking as a concept developed over hundreds of years. However, the term “critical thinking” was coined in the late 20th century about the same time that computers were being developed and used in education and research. Scriven (1987, Presentation at the International Conference on Critical Thinking) suggested this definition:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief or action.

He indicates that critical thinking is not restricted to subject matter expertise but is based on universal intellectual values such as clarity, precision, or accuracy. From an educational perspective, Bloom’s Taxonomy (circa 1946), a classification system that helps categorize learning skills and behavior essential to learning, is embedded within the definition, specifically the part of the taxonomy of learning related to the cognitive domain:

  • Remembering (Knowledge)
  • Understanding (Comprehension)
  • Applying (Application)
  • Analyzing (Analysis)
  • Creating (Synthesis)
  • Evaluating (Evaluation)

These six developmental levels are used to identify major cognitive process categories. Many university courses use Bloom’s Taxonomy to build tables to help define and make concrete critical thinking skills.

Thinking Skills Purpose Simple Actions Example Questions
Knowledge Memorization, recall Recognize, list, describe What do we know about _____?

What are the principles of _____?

How does _____ relate to what we learned before?

Comprehension Interpret meaning Generalize, explain, estimate Summarize how ______ operates.

What will happen if _____ is applied to _____?

What does ______ mean?

Application Apply knowledge to new situation or context, show or solve Implement, carry out, apply, hypothesize How could _____ be used to _____?

What is a counter argument for _____?

Analysis Break down, examine, observe change Compare, organize, deconstruct What are the differences between _____ and _____?

What are the implications of _____?

How are _____ and _____similar?


Synthesis Combining elements into some thing new, such as a new pattern Design, plan, construct, produce What is the cause of ______, and why?

What is another way to look at ______?


In addition, employers want employees who have critical thinking and problem solving skills, as shown below (American Management Association, 2010).


From an academic point of view, the two concepts differ in that problem solving might be considered a subject-specific skill and critical thinking more generalizable. However, in the practical sense, these two concepts are very closely aligned and can be learned and practiced.

In one respect, critical thinking is a skill that resides in the asking of questions to gather information that will help solve a problem or develop a product or service. This idea is closely related to both creativity and innovation. You can improve your critical thinking skills and, hence, your problem-solving ability.

A critical thinker has an insatiable curiosity and doesn’t take things at face value.

Two questions to ask when determining the value of information are:

  • Does this information make sense?
  • What does my common sense, intuition, experience, and education tell me about this information?

Answering these critical thinking questions means learning more about the information and its source. By evaluating the depth and breadth of the situation through good critical thinking questions, critical thinking and problem solving skills can be improved.

So, what do the terms “critical thinking” and “problem solving” really mean and how do they interact? Well, critical thinking is what we do to solve problems. A critical thinker tends to be good at solving problems, and a problem solver is usually good at thinking critically. The two terms are intertwined. Critical thinking in particular is becoming more and more important in the world in we live in. Our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will need to be critical thinkers that can solve complex problems using creativity and innovation.

Tools like Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge help educators gauge how students interact with the academic content standards to guide classroom instruction and assessment. However, it is up to everyone — students, teachers, parents, and communities — to encourage and teach our kids how to think critically and to solve problems so that they may have success in all future endeavors.