Critical thinking, critical thinking, critical judgment: can we disentangle all this?

What is the difference between mind, thought and critical judgment? What is the role of school and what to do with it in the classroom? Here are some ideas if you are intrigued!

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Until recently, I never stopped to wonder about the difference between critical thinking, critical thinking and critical judgment. As stupid as it may seem, I have always made it my own duty to develop the critical "mind-thinking-judgment" of my students, and also that of my own daughters ... without knowing the fundamental differences between them. three concepts. I therefore delved into the subject and I share with you my thoughts on the place of school, in particular.

Distinguish the concepts

The critical mind that nourishes critical thinking

At first, thecritical mind is a general predisposition that the human has to interpret various realities, tangible or not, in a critical way, that is to say in a way to appreciate something from criteria predetermined by the thinker. In this regard, the mind nourishes the thought.

Critical thinking: mobilizing reason in reflective activity

For its part, the critical thinking is the ability to mobilize reason in reflective activity. Indeed, in a world in constant effervescence, where we are constantly bombarded with information, it allows us to take the time to analyze objectively (or rather by aiming for objectivity) what the universe sends us. It allows us to go beyond the simple theoretical and informative activity at the base of our own knowledge, created from that of others and of what emerges from nature, to question it and draw, in a way, our own conclusions. according to an investigative activity. The aim of this exercise is to take action: “coherent relativism encourages action as much as it does reason” (Barrau, 2016, p. 82). Thought influences action essentially on two levels: on the one hand, to decide what to believe or not to believe and, on the other hand, to decide how to act on the basis of this belief or refutation.

The activity is rigorous and it is coherent: “coherent relativism (…) is an additional requirement. He does not deny the importance of truth nor its effectiveness within a system, but he questions, beyond that, the legitimacy of this system ”(Barrau, 2016, p. 80). This coherence is affirmed thanks to a rigor which makes that the critical thinker goes further in his intellectual activity: he verifies the sources, compares them with other sources, he identifies the nuances, he identifies the bases of consensus and 'objectification.

In the process, he becomes aware of his own biases and he openly questions them. It also intersects with the opinions of others, especially at a time when traditional so-called “social” media are increasingly pouring out premasked information in the form of editorials.

Critical thinking is therefore a complex intellectual activity since it is self-regulated, self-correcting and the result of metacognitive activity. On the one hand, it allows a certain rectification of his own thought to flesh out the quality of conceptions of reality which are, in fact, dynamic. We correct our conceptions on a regular basis and, beyond the awareness of our own cognitive biases, we use reason to override them in our quest for a certain truth, as objective as possible. On the other hand, this high-level thinking requires the ability to think about yourself in the process of thinking (are you still following me?) Adopting a critical posture not only on our beliefs, but also on our own (meta) cognitive mechanisms. In short, critical thinking is the antidote to “magical” thinking.

Critical judgment, or the search for objectivity

Critical thinking leads to critical judgment, which is, essentially a search for objectivity. This research is, in fact, a criterion-referenced evaluative activity:

What will make it possible to produce a good judgment will be the use of criteria, that is to say of reference points or even of "reliable reasons", or in other words, the reasons of which the greatest acceptance shared by public opinion comes from a sure, objective character recognized as trustworthy by specialists in the field. The criteria can be very varied in their forms, be formal or informal, but their primary function is "to provide a basis for comparison". To ensure the value of the judgment, they meet three conditions: adequacy to the problem, soundness and reliability.

- Kerhom, 2016

The search for truth is accomplished in a process of objectification where a certain consensus is imposed in the knowledge and fixes various scales distinguishing what is acceptable or plausible in a given community from what is not. The objectification criteria are therefore shared and recognized within the said community.

If we recap ...

Our critical judgment, this is the culmination of the mind who initiates the critical thinking. When the mind triggers critical thinking and this is translated into a reflective, objective, even perfect action (Aristotle speaks of entelechy), we pass from the act which is essentially virtual to action (which Aristotle calls "power"). The first act is the acquired competence. It is the potential and the ability to act, but without the action. It is the human potential of power. As for him, the second act is the competence in the action, the competence in exercise. It is the human in power. It is the one who is accomplished through his thoughtful actions.

From the mind to the thought, to the judgment that determines the action, the critical approach aims to make the human an improved version of himself, which, in a way, reminds me of the concept of mentality of growth of Carol Dweck (2006) stating, essentially, that the human is a lifelong learner and that, thanks to this, combined with reflective thinking, he is in continuous improvement throughout his life.

"Exercising critical judgment": a key skill of the PFEQ to ensure the sustainability of democracy 

The critical “mind-thought-judgment” trio has made its way through our schools thanks to the “exercise critical judgment” skill, the third transversal skill resulting from the Quebec School Training Program (PFEQ).

If one relies on the ministerial document (2006), the development of a critical mind is essential since it is important "to go beyond stereotypes, prejudices, preconceived ideas and intuitive evidence in order to avoid that the simple expression of 'an opinion takes the place of judgment'. Indeed, we cannot say that our students are not critical. Criticizing is easy: young and old have all understood this. However, to base this criticism on an approach which tends towards the objective and from which one tries, by all means, to extract the emotional and the irrational, that is another story. Clearly, it is easy to claim to be "critical" or pretend to exercise your critical mind!

Secondary school students are at a period of their development when they particularly aspire to assert themselves, to debate their convictions and to have their legitimacy recognized. They are more and more able to grasp the complexity of certain issues, to rely on facts, to shift their focus from their own point of view and to separate the emotional and the rational.


It would be illusory to claim that one of the goals of the school is to develop critical thinking (as defined above at least) and it is for this reason that the school environment emphasizes the development of judgment. criticism, a manifestation of the beginning of the elaboration of such a thought. As Bronner (2013, p. 209) puts it, “studies must sharpen critical thinking (…)”.

Cross-disciplinary skills, at least in Quebec, are the dislikes of the PFEQ. However, at the time of alternative facts and fake news, “Exercising critical judgment” emerges as a key skill to ensure the sustainability of democracy:

“The true critical spirit, the one which helps us to thwart the alienation which the suggestions of our intuition sometimes represent, can only be acquired by means of persevering exercises. This work, so necessary for the advent of a knowledge-based democracy, can therefore only be done by insisting on it throughout educational time and in all subjects, as soon as possible. "

BRONNER, 2013, P. 226

The role of teachers

Developing a critical mind in young adolescents, the very ones who are learning to challenge the established order, this is a perilous adventure! It is difficult to teach young people to develop this spirit when, very often, the school strategy is based on constraint and dogma. Our young people are expected to be docile and to respect the rules of life without complaining. They are also expected to assimilate all content transmitted to them without questioning it. In short, we teach them dogmas, recipes and procedures without their having the right to question them. “Unfortunately, at the present time, and for ages, education serves above all a goal of social conformity so that everyone stays in their place (…)” (Favre, 2016, p. 23).

On the opposite side of the spectrum, some, like Albert Jacquard, say bluntly: "the goal of teachers should be to make pain in the ass." We must cultivate doubt and teach why and how to question things in a healthy way in order to tend towards mental autonomy: "doubt has heuristic virtues, it's true, but it can also lead, rather than autonomy. mental, to cognitive nihilism ”(Bronner, 2013, p. 209).

Essentially, what is desired is that young people understand three things which are the foundations of critical thinking and also of epistemological reasoning:

  1. How do we know what we know?
  2. How is this knowledge validated?
  3. What is this knowledge for?

Yes, “the critical path is narrow” (Barrau, 2016, p. 53.), but it is under the benevolent guidance of the teacher that the pupil will know how to venture there. The narrowness of the path is not necessarily related to the critical aspect of the journey, but more to the scope of the responsibility that is inherent in it. “The aim of the school is first of all to promote the emancipation of a subject, a future citizen whose freedom and responsibility go together” (Favre, 2016, p. 75). In a society where there is much more emphasis on rights and freedom, the responsibility that flows from those same rights and responsibilities is obscured. Hence the importance in my opinion of developing not only the mind critical, but also the spirit ethics.

We all aspire in education for our young people to become responsible citizens, hardworking and productive workers, and open and empathetic parents. These aims are noble:

The training of the person as an autonomous subject who has developed the basic skills to be autonomous in today's world and whose critical mind has been trained by aiming at the acquisition of basic knowledge to be able to learn throughout life and participate in debates on the scientific and socially pressing issues that cross it.

FAVRE, 2016, P. 75

There are two important places where this critical mind can be developed: at home and at school. In my humble opinion, the school is the environment par excellence to achieve this since it is a social microcosm and an experimental social environment. The student has all the necessary supervision to learn and develop all these deeply human skills to which we refer when addressing the issue of soft-skills, or know-how.

How to develop critical thinking in the classroom?

Critical thinking is a prized skill and it does not develop on its own, of course. The teacher is therefore invested with an important mission: to develop the child's natural intellectual puerility:

But they [students] will only be able to learn to exercise critical judgment if the teachers themselves are role models and given multiple opportunities to express their opinions, discuss them with others, confront them with divergent points of view and analyze their merits.


In class, students are often mobilized to learn how to solve problems. To do this, the teacher teaches them an approach that they reinvest in the learning activities imposed by the teachers. These redundant activities, often called “drill” in jargon, are actually recipes that are taught and then applied. However, to work on the development of critical thinking, another approach is necessary:

(...) it is better, for the training of their scientific and critical mind, to seek less often to put students in a problem-solving situation, but in return let them, at least sometimes, lead Actually an investigation to resolve them.

CARIOU, 2004

Our young people, like us, are exposed to the worst deceptions. Moreover, naturally, they are naive, gullible and vulnerable. They must therefore be immersed in authentic situations where they can exercise their critical thinking: “training students' scientific and critical thinking is good; providing them with the opportunity to exercise it in society is better ”(Cariou, 2004). One of the goals targeted by any teacher should contribute to the pupil's mind so that he naturally knows how to distinguish between dreams, fantasy and reality. For example, teachers might ask them to analyze advertisements, infomercials, political speeches, public statements, debates, etc. They could play as characters in a role-playing game. They could design a marketing campaign for a multinational corporation, or write an almanac or an astrology report. The possibilities are endless!

For Jean Rostand, French academician, it is necessary "to teach young people the critical spirit, to protect them against the lies of the spoken word and of the printed matter, to create in them a spiritual ground where the credulity cannot take root ... and especially the to warn against human testimony ”(Rostand, 1958). 

In short, the critical spirit serves the pupil to know how to guard against others, of course, but also against himself, who might be tempted to fail in his own "critical ethics". It reminds me strangely of Socrates' three sieves test (assuming he was indeed the one who developed this test!). You know? Find his explanation here, on the website of the Beauce-Etchemin School Board.

In short, what matters to us is to develop the intellectual rigor of our students, but also, that they know how to take care of their words. We want to arm them with what is most powerful: a mind that knows how to doubt at the right time, without sinking into mistrust. It is this same doubt which has been able to resist the worst dictatorships and which ensures that democracy is preserved in our societies.


Aristotle. (2011). Metaphysics. Paris: Flammarion.

Barrau, A. (2016). Truth in science (electronic version). Paris: Dunod.

Bronner, G. (2013). Democracy of the Gullible. Paris: The University Press of France.

Cariou, J.-Y. (2004). The formation of the scientific mind

Dweck, CS (2006). Mindse: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Favre, D. (2016). Educate about uncertainty. Paris: Dunod.

Kerhom, M. (2016). What is critical thinking? definition and criteria. Spotted at

Quebec Ministry of Education. (2006). Training program of the École québécoise: secondary education, first cycle. Spotted at

Rostand J. (1958). False science and false science, Paris: Gallimard.

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About the Author

Marc-André Girard
Marc-André Girard holds a bachelor's degree in humanities education (1999), a master's degree in history teaching (2003) and a master's degree in educational management (2013). He is currently a doctoral student in school administration. He specializes in change management in schools as well as in educational leadership. He is also interested in 21st century skills to be developed in education. He holds a managerial position in a public primary school and gives lectures on educational leadership, pedagogical approaches, change in the school environment as well as on the professionalization of teaching. He took part in educational expeditions to France, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Morocco. In September 2014, he published the book “Le change en milieu scolaire québécois” with Éditions Reynald Goulet and, in 2019, he published a trilogy on the school of the 21st century with the same publisher. He frequently collaborates with L'École branchée on educational issues. He is very involved in everything that surrounds the professional development of teachers and school administrators as well as the integration of ICT in education. In March 2016, he received a CHAPO award from AQUOPS for his overall involvement.

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