Guide

What Is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself. This article explains why it is essential to learn and improve your critical thinking skills to become a better thinker.

Critical thinking is a rich concept developing throughout the past thousands of years. However, John Dewey, also known as the father of modern critical thinking, coined the term in the 20th century. So what is critical thinking? It is the mode of thinking in which the thinker improves the quality of their thinking by skillfully addressing structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.

It entails the examination of such structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, questions; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions, implications, and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frames of reference. In light of varying subject matters, issues, and purposes, critical thinking incorporates interwoven modes of thinking, including scientific, mathematical, historical, anthropological, economic, moral, and philosophical thoughts.

Critical thinking means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well-thought-out. It is a way of thinking in which you don’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to but rather have an attitude involving questioning such statements and conclusions. It requires seeing what evidence supports a particular idea or decision. People who use critical thinking might say things like, ‘How do you know what you know? Is this conclusion based on evidence or feelings?’ and ‘Are there alternative possibilities when given new pieces of information?’

Importance of critical thinking

Everyone thinks. It is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, if left to itself, can be biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and what we produce depends significantly on the quality of our thoughts. Shoddy thinking can be costly, both in money and quality of life. Excellence in thinking, however, must be systematically cultivated. It is not easy, or else everybody would be doing it, and the majority of the human population would be incredible achievers or, at the very least, not infuriatingly nonsensical. But where there’s a will, there is a way. If you understand that thinning is what essentially makes you you, you’d be more than willing to improve it so you can be the best version of yourself.

Critical thinking skills are generally essential in our lives, in every industry, and at every career level. Good critical thinkers can work independently and with others to solve problems. You can improve work-related issues by using critical thinking. Because of this, employers seek out and value candidates who demonstrate strong critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking is interlinked to various aspects of our lives; it allows us to be more creative in our ideas and make better decisions that impact the courses of our lives. They help us deal with the problems we’re faced with by analyzing them more efficiently and therefore understanding the causes of these problems so that we may avoid them in the future.

Critical thinking skills

3 core skills

Critical thinking is impossible without these three core skills:

Curiosity

Curiosity is the desire to learn more information, seek evidence, and be open to new ideas. It is indeed a skill that needs to be maintained and improved. As we age, the curiosity we had as a child tends to lessen over time as we learn to accept easy answers and refrain from thinking for ourselves. Religious and political doctrines proclaim to have answers to important questions. However, critical thinker analyzes these answers, daring to ask more questions guided by their curiosity. It is essential not to let external factors limit our curiosity because, in the long run, we eventually learn to settle for things as presented to us rather than understanding them.

Carl Sagan elaborates how indoctrination may limit our curiosity in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage: “If the general picture of an expanding universe and a Big Bang is correct, we must then confront still more difficult questions. What were conditions like at the time of the Big Bang? What happened before that? Was there a tiny universe devoid of all matter, and then the matter suddenly created from nothing? How does that happen? In many cultures, it is customary to answer that God created the universe out of nothing. But this is mere temporizing. If we wish courageously to pursue the question, we must, of course, ask next where God comes from. And if we decide this to be unanswerable, why not save a step and decide that the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Or, if we say that God has always existed, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always existed?”

Skepticism

Skepticism involves having a healthy questioning attitude about the information you are exposed to and not blindly believing everything everyone tells you. It stems from curiosity, where individuals refuse to accept information presented to them without carefully analyzing it. Unfortunately, this is a skill most people overlook because it’s easier to take answers than research to come up with our own. But undermining an essential skill has raised concerns for humanity in an era where misinformation spreads faster than information, mainly because people are not willing to take time to verify the information that reaches them on social media platforms that favor user engagement over what’s authentic or meaningful. Bertrand Russell summed up this human inclination humorously: “Most people would rather die than think, and many of them do!”

Humility

It is the ability to admit that your opinions and ideas are wrong when faced with new convincing evidence that states otherwise. Critical thinking is impossible unless you are willing to accept that human perception is limiting, can be flawed, and therefore there’s always a possibility that even the most confident people can be dead wrong. For centuries, humans were sure that the Earth was flat, and the revelation that it was indeed not flat was met with more than just shock. To this day, some people continue to believe the Earth is flat, and there’s not much you can do to convince them because they’re clearly not open-minded nor critical thinkers; otherwise, they would have reached better conclusions considering the ease of access to information in the modern-day. It must be hard living in the 21st century with the mindset of a mere mortal from the stone age.

Don’t let yourself be ridiculed for not sloppy thinking by mastering these 6 essential critical thinking skills.

6 essential skills

Observation

Observational skills are the starting point for critical thinking. Observant people can quickly sense and identify a new problem. Those skilled in observation can also understand why something might be a problem. They may be capable of predicting issues before they occur based on their past experiences. Improve your observation skills by slowing down your pace of processing information and training yourself to pay closer attention to your surroundings. For example, you might practice mindfulness techniques, journaling, or actively listening during and outside of work to attentively examine what you hear or see. Then, consider if you notice patterns in behavior, transactions, or data that might be helpful for your team to address.

Analysis

Once you identify a problem, analytical skills become essential. Analyzing and effectively evaluating a situation involves knowing what facts, data, or information about the issue are crucial. It often includes gathering unbiased research, asking relevant questions about the data to ensure accuracy, and objectively analyzing the findings. Improve your analytical skills with new experiences. For example, you might read something about a concept you’re unfamiliar with or take an online class to push yourself to think in new ways and consider new ideas. Doing so can help you interpret further information and make rational decisions based on sound analysis.

Inference

This skill involves conclusively using the information you collect and may require you to possess technical or industry-specific knowledge or experience. When you make an inference, you develop answers based on limited information. For example, a car mechanic may need inference in understanding what’s causing a car’s engine to stall, based on the available information. Improve your inference skills by making educated guesses rather than quickly jumping to conclusions. It requires being patient to carefully find and consider as many clues as possible—such as data that might help you evaluate a situation.

Communication

Communication skills are essential for explaining and discussing issues and possible solutions with colleagues and stakeholders. You can improve your communication skills in the context of critical thinking by engaging in challenging discussions, for example, in situations where you disagree about the topic with somebody. Maintain good communication habits, such as attentive listening, understanding other points of view, and explaining your opinions in a calm, composed, and rational manner as it can help you evaluate solutions more effectively with your colleagues.

Problem-solving

After you identify and analyze a problem and devise a solution, the final step is to execute the solution. Problem-solving requires critical thinking to implement the best solution and understand whether or not it will work relative to the objective.

You can improve problem-solving skills by acquiring more knowledge relevant to a field. For example, problem-solving at work becomes easier if you have a strong understanding of industry-specific information. Also, it can be helpful to observe how others around you solve problems at work. You may take note of their techniques and ask questions about their process.

Decision making

Critical thinkers make better decisions because they question their understanding of the subject before finalizing their decisions. They are aware of the tendency among decision-makers toward lazy, superficial thinking and instead ask questions to illustrate their depth of understanding.

Types of critical thinking

A critical thinker does not make assumptions. Instead, critical thinking involves ‘critiquing’ what you view using the available intellectual knowledge. People who think critically can use these three processes to develop critical insights on a topic.

Deduction

It includes critical thinking skills that involve drawing conclusions based on the facts at hand. You have all the information available to reach an unambiguous conclusion about a topic. For example, a doctor tests blood to determine if a patient has a virus. The blood tests come back positive, so they can deduce that the virus is present. The process of deduction can help you greatly if you want to solve problems.

Induction

It includes the critical thinking skills that involve drawing conclusions based on a generalization. Of course, you don’t have all the exact information at hand. However, you think critically and realize you are aware of patterns, clues, and a methodology that can help you induce the answer. For example, you come to the doctor exhibiting a fever, sneezing, and coughing. The doctor doesn’t do tests, but they induce that you probably have influenza because your symptoms are characteristic of someone with the flu.

Abduction

It includes the critical thinking skills that involve concluding the most likely or logical based on the limited amount of available knowledge. You can’t be sure of the answer, but you can think critically and make an educated guess. For example, you may see that a cat is on the roof. The most logical answer is that the cat got up there by climbing a nearby tree and jumping from it to the top, but you can’t be sure.

Critical thinking in education

Educators often use “critical thinking” to describe various learning, thought, and analysis forms beyond memorizing and recalling information and facts. Critical thinking is an umbrella term covering many different forms of learning acquisition or a wide variety of thought processes in common usage. Critical thinking occurs when students analyze, evaluate, interpret, or synthesize information to form an argument, solve problems, or reach conclusions.

Critical thinking is a central concept in educational reforms that call for schools to emphasize skills used in all subject areas. As a result, students can apply in all educational, career, and civic settings throughout their lives. Moreover, it’s pivotal in reforms questioning traditional teaching methods and what students should be learning. It is high time to broadly call on schools to create academic programs and learning experiences that equip students with the most essential and in-demand knowledge, skills, and dispositions they will need to be successful in higher-education programs and modern workplaces. As higher education and job requirements become competitive, complex, and technical, proponents argue, students will need skills such as critical thinking to navigate the modern world, excel in challenging careers successfully, and process increasingly complex information.

Critical thinking also intersects with debates about assessment and how schools measure learning acquisition. For example, for decades, multiple-choice testing formats have been common in standardized testing. Yet, the heavy use of such testing formats emphasizes—and may reinforce the importance of—factual retention and recall over other skills. If schools primarily test and award grades for recollection of facts, teachers will stress memorization and recall in their teaching, possibly at the expense of skills such as critical thinking that are vitally important for students to possess but far more challenging to measure accurately.

Being a student in 2022 is quite different from being one in 2000. In a few decades, the world of education has witnessed a sea of change. As the world keeps facing new challenges, mainly due to COVID-19, younger generations and the education system they are a part of have also become dynamic. However, there are certain foundations to any education system that has stood the test of time. One key element that educators have always stressed upon and practiced in the liberal education spectrum is imparting Critical Thinking skills. Enhancing a student’s critical thinking skills is particularly essential in a liberal education model, which teaches students how to think and not what to think.

Critical thinking examples

It’s easier to understand how something is done when you can refer to examples that help you understand the process better. Here are a few examples that will help make critical thinking easier for you. Think of something that you want to critically think about. Then ask yourself the following questions:

Who said it?

Are they someone you know? Someone in a position of authority or power? Does it matter who told you this?

What did they say?

Did they give facts or opinions? Did they provide all the facts? Did they leave anything out?

Where did they say it?

Was it in public or in private? Did other people have a chance to respond and provide an alternative account?

When did they say it?

Was it before, during, or after a significant event? Is timing important?

Why did they say it?

Did they explain the reasoning behind their opinion? Were they trying to make someone look good or bad?

How did they say it?

Were they happy or sad, angry or indifferent? Did they write it or say it? Could you understand what was said?

Conclusion

Critical thinking may depend on the motivation underlying it. When it is grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of an individual’s or group’s vested interest. It is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be.

Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Therefore, its quality is typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through and through, but only to a certain degree, with specific insights and blind spots, subject to tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor. You should be aware that none of us always think critically. Sometimes we think in almost any way but critically, for example, when our self-control is affected by anger, grief, or joy or when we are feeling just plain bloody-minded. On the other hand, the good news is that, since our critical thinking ability varies according to our current mindset, we can learn to improve our critical thinking ability by developing certain routine activities and applying them to all problems that present themselves. Once you understand the critical thinking theory, improving your critical thinking skills becomes a matter of persistence and practice.

Be aware that critical thinking is not everyone’s cup of tea. Like so many people never learn to play chess because the amount of time they have to spend thinking about the reasons for and consequences of a single move seems exhausting to them, let alone a whole game where they not only have to think about their own movements but anticipate the probable actions of their opponent as well. Therefore, it is no surprise that Bertrand Rusell was far from wrong when he took a jab at people’s unwillingness to think. The majority of people refrain from critical thinking, and therefore it is quite probable that you will find little company when you’re not subscribing to the same cliches and often find yourself criticizing beliefs and opinions that people deem sacred hence immune to criticism.

“Most people do not have a problem with you thinking for yourself, as long as your conclusions are the same as or at least compatible with their beliefs.”

Mokokoma Mokhonoana