Thinking is...

         Evans (2013) accurately summarises that “no subject in psychology has a longer tradition of study than that of thinking, which goes back well before the separation of the disciplines of philosophy and psychology.” As a subject and object of much study across millennia, the diversity and difference of perspectives result in a multitude of definitions ranging from British Empiricists such as Locke and Mills who saw Thinking as little more than “a series of associated mental images derived from perceptual experiences (Evans, 2013, p.1),” to the Cognitive Scientist paradigm that Thinking is “solving problems, reasoning, reading something complex, or doing any mental work that requires some effort (Willingham, 2009, p.3).” [For an extensive overview and discussion into the technical definitions of Thinking from a cognitive psychology perspective, see John Paul Minda’s The Psychology of Thinking: Reasoning, Decision-making and Problem-solving.] As per the prevailing view of psychology today, Thinking is a mental activity, but not all mental activities are Thinking. The human mind engages in many mental activities such as visual perception, memory consolidation and coordination of sensory motor activity, and these kinds of behaviour are not considered to be thinking (Minda, 2015). As a humanist and a cognitive psychologist, Thinking is defined in this paper as a conscious mental activity which manages cognitive resources for a directed purpose. As an educator and developer of Thinking Programmes, Thinking is operationalised into three fields: Creative, Critical and Applied (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Teaching Thinking model (Lim, 2009)

         This model (Lim, 2009) draws on Sternberg’s Triarchic model of intelligence (1985), which comprises of three aspects: Creative, Analytical, Practical, all of which combines to form what he terms as “Successful Intelligence” (Sternberg, 1996). Sternberg’s model and the subsequent application (Sternberg, 1998) and measurement (Sternberg, 1993) of these fields of intelligence have challenged the traditional notion of what intelligence is, known in the field as g. Rethinking what intelligence is and moving beyond the narrow scope of g has great implications on what needs to be taught in the classroom, which traditionally situates the curriculum, measures outcomes and sorts the students in terms of g. While Sternberg’s new notion of intelligence has been validated to some extent (Sternberg, et al., 2000; Sternberg, et al., 2001), the notion of “Successful Intelligence” and unsubstantiated claims around the superiority of the Triarchic theory over traditional g have been criticized by reviewers such as Brody (2003) and Gottfredson (2003). [See Gottfredson’s critique of Sternberg’s theory (2003) and Sternberg’s reply (2003a) for an insightful debate on the nature of intelligence and its relevance to daily life]. Drawing from the evidence presented in Gottfredson (2003) and Sternberg (2003), the three fields presented in the current model (Lim, 2009) only includes the broad validated theories sifted from the debate. Sternberg’s Analytical intelligence is thus loosely mapped as “Critical Thinking”, Creative Intelligence as “Creative Thinking”, and Practical Intelligence as “Applied Thinking”. Each field, e.g. Creative Thinking, exists in its own accord with its own key processes, e.g. Divergent Thinking. These fields also intersect with another to form another key Thinking Skill: For example, Problem-Generation requires the application of both Creative and Critical Thinking. The culmination of all three fields of Thinking result in the relatively new field of Design Thinking, and engaging in Design Thinking requires the learner to utilise tools from Creative, Critical and Applied Thinking. The Borromean Rings in Figure 1 above illustrate the intersection between these three fields and the major Thinking Skills which emerge.

         Ending the section on defining what Thinking is, the words of Cuban (1984) still ring true: "Defining thinking skills, reasoning, critical thought and problem solving is troublesome to both social scientists and practitioners. Troublesome is a polite word; the area is a conceptual swamp” (p. 676). Conceptual swamp or otherwise, there needs to be four additional definitions used in this paper which corresponds to the four major fields of Thinking which I will cover in the development of a Thinking Programme. Again, my humanist and cognitive psychology leanings do come to the fore, and each of my definition is based on those principles.


  • Creative Thinking is thinking that seeks to create novel and valuable products or ideas that seeks to improve the human condition.

  • Critical Thinking is the making of informed decisions through the analysis and evaluation of ideas and situations in order to discover their truths, falsities and worth.

  • Applied Thinking is the transposition of concepts, knowledge and ideas to authentic and practical situations.

  • Design Thinking is iterative solution-centred thinking building on empathising with the user, redefining problems, ideating, and prototyping solutions.