“Critical thinking” is one of the most prevalent educational buzzwords of our time. While we all understand that it’s supposed to be a good thing – what does it really mean to think critically? What is the discipline really even about?
These are good questions. The Critical Thinking Community defines it as “that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.” They add that it constitutes “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.”
Perhaps most importantly, critical thinking “entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.” In other words, to think critically, you must let go of the innate tendency to see everything from your own point of view, or from that of the society in which you were raised. Only then can you see issues clearly, analyze and evaluate them, and come up with creative viewpoints and solutions.
Once we understand the nature of critical thinking, it’s easy to see where it comes in handy. Whether you’re sitting in a business school class, studying another subject or trying to make meaningful contributions in your job, deep and rational cognition is always useful, and will make you stand out from the crowd.
So just how do you go about developing those skills? Well, here are 10 ideas that will help you hit the mark.
Critical thinking is not a Scantron test. Typically you will not be given a canned set of multiple choice answers to a problem; instead, you must arrive at a conclusion on your own by analyzing available evidence and coming to the best possible conclusion. That takes time, so be gentle with yourself and allow it.
Be Willing to Experiment
Critical thinking is not a linear path. It involves many rabbit trails and false starts, and that’s okay. You must explore ideas in their turn, and for the most part, you will likely reject them. There are, after all, far more falsities than truth in the world, and the job of a critical thinker is to separate the two. If one line of thinking doesn’t work, turn to another. If one source of evidence runs dry, seek a second or third or fourth. Critical thinking is not a race; the medal goes to the person who finds the clearest truth, not the person who finishes fastest.
Critical thinking comes with some risk of being wrong. No matter how carefully you seek an answer to a problem or question, you may not get there – or even if you think you do, your answer may not be correct. Those who are afraid of being wrong, unfortunately, tend to avoid this potential outcome by thinking shallowly and glossing over the real facts. This isn’t a good approach to school, however, nor is it effective in work, relationships or any other aspect of life.
If you want to possess the valuable skill of thinking critically, you must accept difficulty. This ability is not prized because it is effortless, but rather because it takes time, diligence and mental elbow grease. If you can’t come to a conclusion right away, there’s nothing wrong. If you give up, however, there is something wrong, so embrace frustration and keep going.
Critical thinking is all about asking the right questions at the right time … or even the wrong questions at the wrong time, as these can still illuminate a path forward. Be willing to ask lots of questions, not only of others, but also of yourself. What do you really need to focus on? What information needs uncovering? Where might you go for this information? What would you say to someone who was forming the same conclusions you’re forming? Keep asking these questions and your thinking skills will quickly sharpen.
Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. It means analyzing your thoughts to see where they might be mired in assumptions, failing to consider pertinent evidence or refusing to acknowledge ideas you don’t like. Metacognition is also useful for creating mental processes we can return to again and again.
For instance, you might approach a subject by first gathering evidence, then organizing it, combing through it for information, assembling the most salient facts and THEN forming a conclusion. If you can think about this process all the way through, you’re less likely to miss a step or leave something out.
You should always question assumptions. Any time you believe something to be true without considering it, you run the risk of incorporating your own self-evident truths and biases into your considerations.
This is closely related to questioning assumptions. It’s different, though, in the sense that rather than rejecting unhelpful biases, prejudices and irrational beliefs, you actively seek out evidence. Note that “evidence” does not mean a similar point of view; it means qualitative or quantitative facts gathered in as unbiased a way as possible. Sometimes this is harder than other times, as when you’re applying literary criticism and the author’s meaning is up for debate. However, the best idea is still to gather what evidence you can before pushing forward.
Explore Another POV
A fundamental aspect of critical thinking is the ability to view a subject impartially. Of course, you can’t always take that “view from above” without effort, because most of us are innately biased and bring our own thoughts, opinions and experiences to the table. You must move consciously away from that. When assessing an idea or situation, ask yourself questions such as: Am I harboring false beliefs? What would I think if I had or hadn’t [insert experience here] ? Would someone else in my shoes think the same thing? These will help you separate out truth from reality.
Form Your Own Opinion
And of course, you should always make the effort to form your own opinion. While research and debate are always appropriate when thinking through an issue, at the end of the day, the response has to resonate with you. Take the time you need to come to a conclusion that feels right.
Critical thinking isn’t a skill you can develop overnight, of course. Flexing those mental muscles is a process that becomes easier over time, though, especially if you practice consistently. So take every opportunity, whether in school or out in the real world, to do so and we guarantee you’ll be happy with the results – and others will be impressed.