Fostering Critical Thinking in Adult Learning

We have all probably heard the term ‘critical thinking’ several times. We are continually asked to think critically or asking others to do the same. This could be in an academic context, workplace context or even in our day to day life as part of a multitude of situations. In this article, I will admittedly not be entering into much detail. The aim is to provide some food for thought for current and prospective adult educators. Further and more detailed independent research and reading is recommended. I hope that this post sparks the needed curiosity.

Critical thinking has a central role in teaching and learning. The latter are not just about ‘giving’ or ‘consuming’ knowledge. I am of the opinion that the ‘filling the empty vessel’ approach does not hold in any learning circumstance. On the contrary, learners need to ask questions, challenge assumptions, use knowledge learned to solve problems, think about their actions and inform themselves from different relevant sources. This is well described by Meyer (1986 cited in Jones & Safrait 1994) who exclaims  that “Learners cannot be mere sponges absorbing the “wisdom” of a teacher’s lecture. Rather they must realistically engage subject matter and actively practice the art of critical thinking”.

According to Jones & Safrait (1994), Adult education in an information society should promote self-directed learning by fostering independence in thinking, judging and acting. In my opinion this is fundamental since we are constantly bombarded with information from different sources, mainly through social media. It is common to see people sharing articles and statements without verifying their veracity or thinking critically about the subject at hand. The result in many cases is a snowball effect of others who make the same mistake and so the wrong information continues its path towards organic growth, with a further exacerbation of the problem. Nevertheless, nothing can be done unless individuals themselves firstly realise the need to learn, develop such skills and think critically.

Reference can be made to Paul & Elder (2006 ) who mention that critical thinking is thinking that is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective. Developing the ability to think critically will surely prove to be an asset in different situations. In considering the above points, I would like to refer to Brookfield (2012), cited in Merriam & Bierrema 2013, p213) who defines critical thinking in education as follows:

“Critical thinking describes the process by which students become aware of two sets of assumptions. First, students investigate the assumptions held by scholars in a field of study regarding the way legitimate knowledge is created and advanced in that field. Second, students investigate their own assumptions and the way these frame their own thinking and actions. Thinking critically requires us to check the assumptions that we hold, by assessing the accuracy and validity of the evidence for these assumptions and by looking at ideas and actions from multiple perspectives. A person who thinks critically is much better placed to take informed actions; actions that are well-grounded in evidence and that are more likely to achieve the results intended.”

The detailed definition presented by Brookfield (2012) highlights some key points. I am intrigued in particular by the final sentence that clearly refers to the importance of using critical thinking to inform our actions and thus, how nothing should immediately be taken at face value. In my opinion this is something which in many occasions seems to be lacking in learners, including adults.

Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge that critical thinking and the development of this skill is not solely dependent on the adult learner. Adult educators need to do their part since critical thinking depends on an interactive process that demands the contribution of both parties; educator and learner (Hooks 2009).

Our role as educators is to create a fertile ground for critical thinking to be developed. The following is a profile of a critical thinker as stated by Jones (1994)

  • Appreciates creativity;
  • Is innovative;
  • Believes life is full of possibilities;
  • Sees the future as flexible, not fixed;
  • Asks questions and challenges answers;
  • Relies less on the authority of the educator and more on joint inquiry with a facilitator;
  • Associates facts with real life situations;
  • Uses problem solving skills to cope with a changing world;
  • Takes risks and is not threatened by failure;
  • Accepts others viewpoints;
  • Is open minded;
  • Generates and evaluates alternative choices;
  • Encourages and challenges others to be critical thinkers;
  • Is objective.


Examples of nurturing such attributes include the use of reflection in action, thus reflecting whilst carrying out an activity and also reflection on action, hence before or following the learning experience itself. The adult educator can adapt accordingly depending on the subject or level being thought. Even a simple brainstorming exercise can be turned into an opportunity. Instead of merely doing a brainstorming exercise involving a list, the educator can ask for the list developed to be prioritised, whilst also asking for apt justifications on how certain items were ranked. Critical thinking also flourishes when the educator successfully creates a learning community where everyone can share ideas, listen to ideas and also give feedback on what others propose. The latter can also lead to the evaluation of a range of different alternatives. Adult learners can have the opportunity to put critical thinking into practice if the educator fosters reflection and discussion on the implications of certain actions. An effective tool in any teaching setting that can help in such a task is the use of questioning. The ‘question’ is powerful in its ‘power’ to get learners to think and reflect. Snyder & Snyder (2008) argue that Instruction that supports critical thinking uses questioning techniques that require students to analyse, synthesise, and evaluate information to solve problems and make decisions (think) rather than merely to repeat information (memorise).

In conclusion, the aim of this article is to spark the reader’s curiosity to look further into the potential of critical thinking and the role of adult educators in the development of such skills. Whilst hoping that this aim was reached. I encourage everyone to think about your current teaching, and what you can do to help your adult learners develop critical thinking skills in your lessons.



  1. Hooks, B 2009, Teaching Critical Thinking : Practical Wisdom, Taylor & Francis Group, Florence. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [15 September 2020].
  2. Jones, P, & Haydon, D (eds) 2014, Putting it into Practice : Developing Student Critical Thinking Skills in Teacher Education – the Models, Methods, Experiences and Results, Information Age Publishing, Incorporated, Charlotte, NC. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [15 September 2020].
  3. Jones, J. & Safrait, D. R., 1994. Developing Critical Thinking Skills in Adult Learners through Innovative Distance LEarning. [Online]  Available at:  [Accessed 16 September 2020].
  4. Merriam, SB, & Bierema, LL 2013, Adult Learning : Linking Theory and Practice, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, Somerset. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [15 September 2020].
  5. Paul, R & Elder,L 2006 ‘The Minature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools, 4th Edition, Foundation for Critical Thinking
  6. Snyder, L., & Snyder, M.J. 2008. Teaching Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills. The Delta Pi Epsilon Journal,vol 50, pp.90-99.


Ramon Mangion is currently the Deputy Director for Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology. Ramon holds an honours degree in Tourism Studies an M.A in  Adult Education with specialisation in Training & Development and has just completed an Executive Master in Business Administration programme. He is also an ECVET expert , Adult Educator and EPALE ambassador.

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