Three Categories of Questions: Crucial Distinctions

It is essential when thinking critically to clearly distinguish three different kinds of questions:

  1. Those with one right answer (factual questions fall into this category). What is the boiling point of lead?
  2. Those with better or worse answers (well-reasoned or poorly reasoned answers). How can we best address the most basic and significant economic problems of the nation today?
  3. Those with as many answers as there are different human preferences (a category in which mere opinion does rule).Which would you prefer, a vacation in the mountains or one at the seashore?

Only the third kind of question is a matter of sheer opinion. The second kind is a matter of reasoned judgment — we can rationally evaluate answers to the question (using universal intellectual standards such as clarity, depth, consistency and so forth).

When questions that require better or worse answers are treated as matters of opinion, pseudo critical thinking occurs. Students come, then, to uncritically assume that everyone’s “opinion” is of equal value. Their capacity to appreciate the importance of intellectual standards diminishes, and we can expect to hear questions such as these: What if I don’t like these standards? Why shouldn’t I use my own standards? Don’t I have a right to my own opinion? What if I’m just an emotional person? What if I like to follow my intuition? What if I don’t believe in being “rational?” They then fail to see the difference between offering legitimate reasons and evidence in support of a view and simply asserting the view as true.

The failure to teach students to recognize, value, and respect good reasoning is one of the most significant failings of education today.

(Paul, R. and Elder, L. (October 1996). Foundation For Critical Thinking, Online at website:

From: Step 2- Create Discussion Questions

Posted in 2015
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