Critical thinking is the skill of forming an opinion based on the evidence we gather about an issue or a person. It is a process of using the intellectual capabilities of a person such as reasoning analyzing and recognizing the information, we generally assimilate through observation, reading, or learning something to form our knowledge and belief systems. In an ideal situation, critical thinking enhances our ability to form an opinion and make a decision in all the situations with better clarity consistency sound reasoning accuracy lateral thinking focused approach, and fairness.
Let’s look into some specific definitions of Critical thinking.
Critical thinking is termed as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” by the U.S. council for Excellence in Critical Thinking.
Richard W Paul elucidated that Critical thinking is a movement in two waves. According to him “the first wave of critical thinking is ‘critical analysis in order to be clear, rational, logical and systematic to reduce errors of irrational thinking. While the second wave of critical thinking deals with our active judgment of situations surrounding us versus the way we desire them to be happening.”
Barry K. Beyer defined critical thinking “as a process of making clear, reasoned judgments.”
Facione P A in his article “Critical Thinking: What it is and Why it counts.” states that “Critical thinking is purposeful, a reflective judgment which manifests itself in reasoned consideration of the evidence, context, methods, standards, and conceptualizations in deciding what to believe or what to do.”
In 2003, the Faculty Senate of the University of Houston-Clear Lake quoted that critical thinking is “the mastery of higher-order thinking skills including quantitative and qualifying analysis, synthesis, evaluation of information, argumentation, problem-solving and creativity.”
Critical thinking includes all elements of the thought-making process such as purpose, problem, question-at-issue, concepts involved, the evidence available, assumptions made, and so on. It also largely depends upon the ability such as empirical grounding, logical reasoning, leading to a conclusion, ability to infer implications, vision for consequences, acceptance of alternate viewpoints, and balance of thought. Critical thinking is entwined process of many ways of thinking and some of them are scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, ethical thinking, and philosophical thinking. Since all these kinds of thinking are involved, when we make assumptions or examine available evidence, our past beliefs and ideas stemming from these thoughts would make a major impact on how we perceive things, generate thoughts and create our ideas.
Critical thinking is not just an ability to acquire information and retain the knowledge it but it also needs other components such as continual usage of such information. the second component of critical thinking is the habit of guiding our thought processes in the direction of our intellectual and emotional commitment. In other words, critical thinking is not just I skill but is also an attitude. Therefore, it is much needed to understand why one should be aware of critical thinking and its impact on our cognition and collective performance.
The very nature of a few men’s thought start-making process is highly inconsistent. our thoughts are often driven by the results we are expecting and therefore the motivation is highly self-centered. Even thoughts originating from the critical thinking process are not immune to such selfish motives when are vested in the interest of an individual or a group of people. Conventionally, such motivation-driven critical thinking is tarnished of not being high on ethical grounds but its efficacy in practical application is least questioned. However, it is found the people who seek higher ethical grounds to be involved in critical thinking often advocate that’s fairmindedness and intellectual integrity should be put to use for the common good of society while people who use their abilities of critical thinking for self-betterment brand the others to be overly idealistic and not pragmatic. But what parties agree to the fact that critical thinking enhances the decision-making and understanding of any issues be it private or public.
Further, just like perfection, critical thinking is also an enigmatic concept. None of us are complete critical thinkers we all have little or more traits of the undisciplined and irrational way of thinking patterns that influence our decision-making. It is usually found that despite regular training human thoughts are considerably influenced by past experiences, domain expertise, personal belief system, and bias. Moreover, we are all subject to the impact of tendencies like self-delusion and pertinent impediments like blind spots in most of the issues. Therefore, it requires for us to consistently make effort to balance our fairmindedness and intellectual bent to play an important role in concluding a prospect, problem, or issue at hand.
Why critical thinking is necessary.
Critical thinking aids us in looking at everything in our life with reasoning and allows us to make decisions backed by the best levels of logic practicability and fair-mindedness. in a way, critical thinking helps a person discipline and guide his life in such a manner that it reflects better reasoning empathy and rational thinking. When practiced regularly it can make human thinking devoid of irrational and dogmatic approach which is found innate to the human thought process. This attitude will also diminish the polarizing effect of egocentric, ethnocentric, and socio-centric cognitive behavior humans usually showcase. Critical thinking provides us cognitive tools which are fertile with humility, civility, integrity, empathy, sense of justice, diligence, reasoning, and flexibility.
People who embrace the critical thinking approach will soon realize that no matter how good they are in their domain knowledge and skills but they are always within the umbra of inherent human behavior which is flawed with irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, and rudimentary social rules that are unacceptable and taboos so on. Further, after continuously trying to implement the principles of critical thinking these people will discover start decision making or judging something or someone is not as simple as it seems. Over a while, all critical thinkers can clearly understand the impact of these distortions approaches and become adept in balancing their thoughts stuck between the much prevalent conflict but between the obvious and blind spots in our thinking. More importantly, they will understand the primary objective of critical thinking which achieves the common good in our thought generation which stems out from the understanding that all relevant parties have their own needs, motives, and rights.
Ironically, it is quite natural for all of us to feel that we include all these required parameters when we are taking certain important decisions but it is equally common that we overlook most of these determinators as our thinking is still influenced by our bias, prejudice, fears, and egos. Human indifference towards the omnipresent distortions in their thinking and their lack of interest or inability to examine their own thoughts is the prime reason for our flawed decisions or judgments. Inferior thinking is the strong cause for our inability to generate ideas or to be unable to take a quick decision or both. On the contrary, critical thinkers understand that the qualities like excellence, commitment to excellence, sense of justice desire for expertise are concepts that germinate in one’s thinking. And qualities will consistently motivate everyone to examine one’s own thoughts and actions. This ongoing and long practice allows us to achieve self-improvement which enables us to recognize the complexities in all issues about human life.
Skills required for Critical Thinking.
Having understood the importance of critical thinking, even when we want to practice it consciously in our approach to understand the information we receive through observation and learning or to express our views or opinions on any issue we need to do understand the concepts of critical thinking thoroughly. It is an objective process of analyzing the circumstances, questions at hand, and prospects in the light of related facts, data, and evidence. We have to keep this process away from the influence of our personal feelings, experiences, opinions, and bias and should try to have a complete focus on the available facts and related data. It is also required for us to how we can enable ourselves to practice this way approach in our day-to-day life. We, therefore, need to understand the skills that we must nurture carefully to become critical thinkers. Some of the skills that are required are discussed hereunder. The main skills that contribute to better critical thinking can be remembered with the help of the acronym “ALERT” which is explained in detail below.
The primary skill that we need to inculcate and improve is to understand the situation and all relative factors that act upon either exacerbating or pacifying the situation. To understand the scenario completely one must be able to visualize a question-at-hand, objective, the desired conclusion including all and sundry that have an impact upon your decision making and further actions. To improve this process and make it more and more pragmatic we need to stop jumping to conclusions, but hold ourselves back and try to answer some vital questions that will be part of your cognitive data that directs your future actions with more balance and convictions and also yields better results. Some answers you need to seek are given below and the list is suggestive, not exhaustive.
- Whether I have faced this situation in the past?
- What was the result then?
- Was the result as desired?
- Could it be bettered?
- What went wrong? Why?
- This seems to be a new situation, what do I need to know?
- How things are placed as now
- What best resources do I have to tackle?
- What more is needed?
And so on…
Nonetheless, it may look time-consuming and trivial to start with, as one practices this approach to have a 360° understanding he will start gaining control over the course of action to be taken which is key to being effective in your future endeavors.
When we are looking to handle a task or resolve a situation, we are often caught between a multitude of arguments of which some are supported with pieces of evidence sometimes and also in absence of such evidence. These mutually conflicting or contradicting arguments only add to confusion than clarity. Therefore, one must have the ability to select the right argument at the right time and for the right task. This choice is a function of higher cognitive awareness.
Arguments are usually compelling as they present the facts and figures in such a way start you will be convinced of what they are trying to suggest. It is also seen that the arguments are presented by different sources which are centric around their own agenda and hence, can give us motivated evidence to influence our thinking. Further, we can understand that the arguments contested despite being persuasive because of the questionable sources and inherent anomaly of inference. Hence, it is suggested we should make our own research when we arrive at any conclusion or judgment of any given issue. While doing so we have to ensure the following.
- The source is appropriate reading in terms of both issue and conclusion.
- The source has properly established a link between all the relevant components.
- The source you are following needs to be valid. For example, the information from scholarly writing is more authentic than a popular reading which will present us references, calculations, and other supporting statistics.
- The sources which argue in favor and against the perceived conclusion should be referred with equal focus and importance.
The human brain is highly controlled by the predispositions we hold, unfortunately, the bias is stronger when it is about a negative consequence as such incidents have a profound and prolonged memory. These predispositions can be of the person who is evaluating the situation and as well as of the sources which are referred to as evidence for building an argument. Therefore, handling bias is an extremely difficult skill and one should constantly work towards achieving the ability to think without the influence of our learning or belief system.
The skill to identify our predispositions is difficult primarily because we fail to recognize our own bias and its impact on our objective thinking. Even when we attempt to assess each side of the argument on its own merits, we fail to recognize that arguments themselves are vulnerable to the bias of the source they originate from. We, therefore, have to carefully evaluate the credibility of the information and arguments also to arrive at a balanced judgment.
To improve our skill to understand and identify the bias in our decision making, we must, firstly, as proposed by Ruth Wilson, Director of Development – Brightmont Academy should master to understand our set of beliefs and assessments critical to our dispositions or bias, not concerning about the credibility of such premeditated notions. Secondly, we must try to perceive the issue from different viewpoints, and to do this successfully we need to debate our own belief system and be ready to reform our ideas and assumptions in case required so as suggested by Kris Potrafka, CEO of Music Firsthand.
To get better in this direction, the most important requirement is to completely believe that bias is an omnipresent component in all our thinking. We can only stay aware and reduce its impact. Further, before coming to any conclusion you should try to evaluate the following important aspects.
- What is the objective we are aiming to achieve?
- Who are the parties to the issue?
- Who are the beneficiaries?
- Has anyone been affected adversely? To what extent? Any remedy?
- What are the shreds of evidence in favor of the conclusion? Any otherwise?
- Does evidence appear to be backed by genuine claims and assumptions or does it is having any agenda?
- Does the evidence presented is concealing, leaving out, or overlooking any vital data either due to omission or by design?
- Does evidence is using unnecessary vocabulary derail or influence our thinking?
- Whether the facts presented as evidence are scientifically proven?
- And so on…
Yet another skill one should develop to improve the ability to think critically is to establish relevance between various components influencing our thinking pattern. We often treat some evidence with undue importance even when it has no bearing on the issue or conclusion we take and similarly, at times we underrate some evidence that has to be considered seriously. Therefore, it is very important to list all the evidence available to us and the arguments they present before evaluating the applicability of the information sourced. Once we have listed the information, we need to reorganize the evidence in the order of relativity to the issue and influence it has on the conclusion we make.
Further, we have to look for any possible gaps in our arguments and evidence along with absolute clarity between the arguments and the evidence provided. Almost whenever we look back for reconciliation, we find that we have overlooked some very pertinent evidence that would have been the determiner of the result or conclusion.
To develop putting the relevant information in the best place to achieve higher levels of critical thinking, one must start with gaining complete clarity on what is your final objective? For instance, when you are entrusted with a task, you must be clear about the expectation. In other words, you should be aware if you are asked to provide a solution or you are expected to describe a trend or you might be wanted to forecast possible results. Once you are clear with objectives, you should make a library of evidence to help you build the argument. And then you must list all the information available in the order of their relevance. Now you will ensure all the evidence you have chosen is free of unplugged gaps either in terms of information or implications. Finally, you should recheck if the process is done diligently without any lapses.
The ability to make the inference and thereby develop a thesis on the issue depends upon the efficiency one has in two processes involved at two different stages. This stage is mainly concerned with making inferences and collating such inferences to make your blueprint. Mastering this level would be fairly easy if you have gained good skills in the prior discussed skills. Firstly, the ability to make conclusions based on each argument made and evidence provided thereof. Here, we usually need to be able to process the information from raw data available but sometimes you can also get processed information to frame our conclusions. One should be more cautious about the information acquired by the latter method as this method is prone to suffice to agendas external to your objective. Secondly, the ability to combine are such inferences rate them as per their order of preference and relevance is required. Hitherto this stage, we will have to build the arguments based on the evidence collected look at the assumptions made both stated and unstated, and analyze if the links are made following applicability and appropriateness. Further, we have to verify that fairmindedness is not compromised and we have not undermined the needs and rights of any parties concerned. Also, besides, one needs to check if contingencies are made if you are looking for a solution or objective goal to be achieved. Finally, a draft copy of the entire process should be made to conduct a dry run and note the observations.
Finally, to become better at critical thinking one must possess some basic traits that are vital to think critically. These traits are Curiosity, Logical Reasoning, Assertiveness, Flexibility, and open-mindedness.
Curiosity is an evident trait seen in both humans and animals. It is an inquisitive nature that makes us dwell deep into the issues, events, and information we receive. It is the prime cause behind every question we ask ourselves or sources of our information. One undesired feature observed regarding curiosity is that humans grow rich in their cognition, their desire to explore, discover and learn new things starts to fade out. It is said to keep the child in you always alive so that you do not stop asking questions. The less curious you become the more you take the information to be granted and authentic. Not contesting this nature, yet it is advised one must still try and ask questions at everything that is implausible. One of the many theories suggests that curiosity is aroused when we want to get rid of “uncertainty” in something while another theory suggests that people become curious when there is a visible inconsistency in the logical conclusion of two or more simultaneously active cognitive structures. I feel it is a combination of both. It is also said that anticipation of reward both emotional and material is the prime cause for curiosity arousal. That’s why adult humans tend to be not curious about the information or events not very relevant to them. However, this is not a great sign of becoming a critical thinker. Therefore, one has to motivate himself to be curious at all times. At the least, we should always try to have peripheral cognition about prevalent information.
To be more curious in your daily life observe some following said things.
- First and foremost, develop a ‘show me’ or ‘convince me’ attitude.
- Secondly, verify if the information you receive is perception or fact.
- Enlist areas in your work and life that require focused thinking and inquisitiveness.
- Observe how often you take information communicated to you to be a fact without a review.
- Start thinking intentionally about the daily information you receive.
- Finally, be curious about everything at least most of the things that surround you.
Logical reasoning and critical thinking are often considered the same thing. But if we look closer Logic reasoning is a scientific approach to evaluate arguments and evidence while critical thinking is using this evaluation to segregate the received data into credible information or discard it as either incomprehensible or falsehood. Logical reason enables you to build a sound rationale for your beliefs and arguments and thereby creates your foundation and comparative scale to verify the messages you receive and their claim to be credible or otherwise. Besides strengthening your critical thinking logical reasoning gives you a better ability at objectivity, decision making, problem-solving, and idea generation. There are many ways to improve your logical reasoning such as
- Inculcate the habit of asking questions
- Anticipate and verify the results of every decision you make and analyze why the result was as desired or not
- Socialize with people with different backgrounds and mindsets
- Keep learning a new skill perennially, even when the aim is not to master such a skill.
- Engage yourself with a creative hobby such as painting, writing, or music which helps your cognitive outlook active.
- Ensure your fundamentals of knowledge are sound and scientific.
Assertiveness is a communication skill of being self-assured and confident in what one believes and communicates and at the same time not being aggressive in either promoting his viewpoint or defying the standpoint of another person. The basis of this firm belief is the sound backing of facts and arguments thereof. Assertiveness helps critical thinking since it gives a confident position to compare the message you receive and helps you not to weaver when you are presented with some argument inconsistent with your basic cognition. If there is a strong stimulus that is contradictory to your belief, this assertiveness will push you to probe and satisfy yourself about the validity of the information. Therefore, it is a mandatory position one needs to maintain to counter a multitude of mutually conflicting information we are receiving daily. To develop assertiveness in one must strive to be honest and direct. When you are assertive in the communication you keep your point as straight and simple as possible and you need padding in your words when you are not confident in what you are communicating. Similarly, when you are assertive your thinking is more objective in nature. Assertive people rarely get agitated and, on the converse, they are calmer and more composed in their communication and thinking. They listen to others more than others do. Developing all these traits will have a direct bearing on the active thinking you do.
Flexibility is an attitude displayed in the thinking process that keeps us open to various possibilities, ideas, and hypotheses; especially during the early phases of critical thinking where we are collecting information from various sources. Flexibility or Open-mindedness will also allow you to include the point of view of others into your thinking with appropriate weightage. Flexibility can also be defined as an ability to generate various ideas simultaneously or fluently that are different from each other. Therefore, it reinforces your rate of generating new ideas and therefore adds to your creativity. It also helps us able to differentiate categories of features such as benefits, drawbacks, and reasons pertaining to an issue when you are analyzing it with respect to such parameters.
We can become better at flexibility by trying a few things as listed below:
- Question your ethos and belief system and see if there is something that can be corrected or refined. Please note there is always scope for improvement which will make you more adept at resolving conflicts, expressing yourself, listening to others, and more importantly able to empathize with your fellows.
- Dare to be the odd man out. Do not follow the time-tested ways; these paths are usually crowded and have fewer returns to offer. Be creative, employ divergent things. Ask always ‘what if I…’, even when the thought looks silly and absurd at first look. Remember most stellar events or experiments that changed human history and its course were laughed upon. However, never be ego-centric about such thoughts.
- Socialize with as many kinds of people as you can meet. We generally tend to be spending our time with only people that are in tune with our thinking. While it is good to be among like-minded people it is always better to be aware of many mindsets because, at the end of the day, those people also play a significant role in our social orchestra either directly or indirectly.
- Change your routines. Try doing things the new way, it might be just rearranging your work desk or walking in the park in the opposite direction, or dining in a new eatery. Do not get stuck to monotony and let variety be the flavor of life.
- Don’t seek the easy way. Certain difficulties are always in our interest and some amount of stress always benefits our abilities. These can be as simple as trying to memorize the most wanted phone numbers or trying to calculate simple math manually rather than trying to grab a mobile or calculator. This always keeps your cognition in active mode and improves your receptibility to deeper learning.
Be a Critical Thinker to unveil a better version of yourself.
In the hindsight, I found the most relevant directive ever made concerning critical thinking was as early as the Hellenistic period (323 BC to 30 BC) which was named after the greatest western philosopher Socrates and is known as “the Socratic method”. The instruction says, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact; everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” This is much similar to Hindu diktat which promulgates the concept of ‘Mithya’, Mirage, which broadly conveys that what appears to be present in a particular place at a particular time is bound to be found non-existent there. By large it is inferred that what we experience with our senses is more likely to be perception and not reality. This thought is what makes you unattached even when you have an objective interest in an issue. In other words, this kind of mindset allows you to equidistant to all discernments you face about any issue and ability to treat them as your components of awareness, differently termed as, a complete lack of bias. Despite this being an idealistic situation, we must still thrive to reach this ability. Critical thinkers can reach this may be with constant practice.
Critical thinking does a lot of good to an individual and society. The benefits critical thinking can bring to us are too many to list but I attempt to pen down some I feel are of greater importance.
- Augment Curiosity: Curiosity is the omnipotent cause of the betterment of humankind from the ages of darkness to the era of exploration into Black holes. Every scientific advancement is the child of a question which made someone curious about something or other. Be its ability to ignite the fire from percussion tools by primitive man or understanding of earth’s gravitational force by Sir Isaac Newton, all were results of such curiosity. Compelling critical thinkers are curious about a multitude of issues both worldly and philosophical and try to assimilate the reasons behind every occurrence. They are usually found to be interested in a variety of things. Their agog about worldly topics and fellow humans help them understand and appreciate various doctrines, beliefs, views, and cultures that they may or may not subscribe to.
As a result, they do not faze away to ask questions pertinent to all situations and explore things from all possible perspectives. They do not take anything at its face value and can decipher hidden agendas, risks, and possibilities most of the time. This enables them to keep the spark to learn throughout their lives and aid in becoming better people with a heightened craving for knowledge.
- Builds Up Out-of-Box Thinking: Critically Thinking is key to using your prior knowledge and exploring various possible yet boundless thinking. While the ability to reason things logically keeps them grounded in their assumptions, they can look beyond the obvious which enhances creativity in them. This aptitude to tread the unknown paths allow them to take rational risks and step out of their comfort zone. The recent phenomenon we witnessed in the industry of mobile phones exemplifies how creativity can change a product that was primarily supposed to be just an unwired calling device to what now it is, a true pandora’s box. This coming of age can even be witnessed in people who strive to become critical thinkers as they will be looking into making an issue, product, or themselves into a better version as on the day.
- Reinforces Problem Solving Ability: Critical thinkers get to understand the hidden risks and agenda behind arguments made and evidence presented by virtue of all-around awareness and ability to link their knowledge to various aspects and thereby evaluate and analyze the question at hand more pragmatically. To provide a solution to an issue we are required not to jump to conclusions but rather supposed to stay with the problem long enough to allow our cognition to wander through all possible perspectives available as well as imaginative outcomes which were not present hitherto. This is a common trait we notice in all the critical thinkers who do not take decisions unless they measured all the viable results. It is needless to mention that growing as a person who can offer solutions to all kinds of issues makes you not only a dependable individual but also a leader to many who look towards you for all and sundry.
- Imbibes Lateral Thinking: Critical thinking is all about engulfing prior knowledge from a wide variety of subject areas to create a well-reasoned linkage that helps us get to a conclusion with optimum utility. Critical thinkers develop an attitude to practice cross-curricular activities and thus educate themselves on multiple streams of cognition. Critical thinking makes a person more adept at a range of skills such as questioning ability, logical reasoning, analytical thinking, language skills, planning and organization, open-mindedness, and the ability to self-reconciliation. This enables them to think laterally and spot new opportunities. It is not out of place to mention this is a key criterion for a person to be successful in his education, career, and life at large.
- Allows Independent Thinking: We all acknowledge that the people who think independently are more likely to be successful. The discussed benefits that critical thinking brings to an individual give him the confidence to think independently and conviction about his decisions even if he is away from the conventional run-of-mill thoughts. It gives us a huge advantage over others who have limited options.
Besides this, critical thinking not only help individuals but does so to human societies. A community with an open mind for new ideas, logical reasoning and self-reflective will be on a progressive path. It would not be exaggerating if we say that there is hardly any profession that does not require critical thinking. And thus, as a superset of all professions, it is implied that mankind needs this skill to create a bright and better tomorrow.