Critical Thinking Summarized in ONE WORD!

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Teaching Ideas, Themantics

Critical thinking is an abstract concept that is hard to define, but here we look at an easy way to understand it.

Understanding the requirements of critical thinking can be a tricky task for students and teachers. While everyone has their own ideas about what “critical thinking” is and what it looks like in IB Psych’ exam answers, this post provides a simple and straightforward answer. 

I like to define critical thinking as “a critical reflection of the value and validity of one’s knowledge and understanding.” Now, that’s a pretty technical and rather abstract definition, so it needs simplifying in order to be useful. While I believe we can summarize critical thinking in a single word, we first need to identify what the “knowledge and understanding” is that we’re talking about.

Remember the key to knowledge and understanding in Psychology lies in these two questions:

  1. How and why do we think and act the way we do? (Behaviour and Cognition)
  2. How do we know? (Evidence – studies)

Answering these questions using the content from the IB Psychology curriculum is the knowledge and understanding. Now we’re ready to critically reflect on it.

So what is the one magical word that defines critical thinking?


It’s that simple. If we go a step further and break the whole IB Psychology course down into three simple levels of questions…

  1. What is….

  2. How does…

  3. But…

…we can now see how that critical thinking is just saying “but…” (and then of course being able to offer a clear explanation of what it is you’re doubting).

The first step in critical thinking is asking the question. The second step is trying to answer it.

Is it really that simple?

Think about it: you have to know the behaviours, cognitions, variables and research methods that you’re referring to: cultural dimensions, hormones, social cognitive theory, experiments, etc. Then you have to explain how these affect behaviour, or how they are affected by other factors. You also have to show you know this based on evidence.

So critical thinking is just asking “But…” 

Read more: Five types of IB Psychology Exam Questions (Link)

Example #1

Topic: Cultural Dimensions

  1. What is…a cultural dimension? What is individualism/collectivism?
  2. How does… a cultural dimension influence behaviour? How does individualism/collectivism influence behaviour?
  3. But…are we making too many assumptions? But….are all people from one culture the same? But…are there alternative explanations? But…is the evidence valid and reliable? But…is the research correlational or causal? But…what are the practical applications of this knowledge, and are there limitations to these applications?

To reiterate: The first step in critical thinking is asking the question. The second step is trying to answer it.

Teacher Tip: Where’s your butt?


“Where’s your BUTT?” will be a new question my students will get sick of me asking when I’m reading their essay drafts.

A catchy way to remind students to show their critical thinking could be just to ask them “where’s your butt?” when you’re reading their essays and giving feedback. This is something we came up with on our recent IB Psych Teachers Workshop in Florida (see latest listings for workshops here).

The same feedback could be useful for developing critical thinking in extended essays as well. I think it would also work across other subjects, including TOK.

Example #2

Topic: Research methods used to study the brain

  1. What is…a common research method used to study the brain? What is a true experiment?
  2. How do… researchers use true experiments to study the brain?
  3. But…are there other valuable methods? But…there are limitations to this method, including… But…are there ethical issues with using this method? etc.

If you look at any of the topics or exam requirements you’ll see that these basic questions can underlie all of the curriculum. This is another way of outlining the three levels of thinking and learning that are fundamental to the themantic model of curriculum design.

There we have it – a simple way to think about critical thinking. Now why do so many students find it so difficult? What’s a post for another day.

Disagree? Leave a comment. Or perhaps you can challenge me with a topic whose critical thinking requirements can’t be simplified like this? I’m always up for a challenge and one reason I post these ideas is to have them criticized so I know if they’re valid or not.