Students and graduates frequently say “university study has taught me to think critically” but would this assertion bear scrutiny if we actually applied ‘critical thinking’ to it? University studies definitely refines ‘thinking’ skills but perhaps there is an assumption or perhaps some wishful thinking, that ‘thinking’ and ‘critical thinking’ mean the same thing? And does it matter? I think it does.
The value of critical thinking is becoming more evident and appreciated as our world become more complex; not only in relation to how individuals, communities and nations manage their lives but also in relation to being able to clearly frame issues, find answers and make and enact decisions that are considered and defensible.
Critical thinking is also valued by employers. A quick search of the CareerHub archives provided evidence that ‘critical thinking’ was required for very diverse roles including policy analysts, business analysts, market researcher, software developers, management consultants, , sales analysts, law clerks and administrators. While some employers include ‘critical thinking’ as a requirement within their job description, many more will assess the ‘robustness’ of candidates thinking skills i.e. critical thinking, during their selection processes.
Critical thinking matters because ‘you are what you think. Whatever you are doing right now, whatever you feel, whatever you want, all are determined by the quality of your thinking. For most people, thinking is subconscious, and when thinking is subconscious, you are in no position to see any problems in it. And, if you don’t see any problems in it, you won’t be motivated to change it.
Since few people realize the powerful role that thinking plays in their lives, few gain significant command of their thinking. Most people are their own worst enemy. Their thinking is a continual source of problems, preventing them from recognizing opportunities, keeping them from exerting energy where it will do the most good, poisoning relationships, and leading them down blind alleys. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.
So how is critical thinking defined? ‘Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by consciously (meta-cognition) and skill–fully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them’.
But understanding what critical thinking is and being able to apply it doesn’t make you a critical thinker. You only ‘become a critical thinker’ when you cultivate the habit of using critical thinking as an automatic response to looking at the world. So critical thinking has two components: ‘1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behaviour.’
A critical thinker:
- raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely
- gathers and assesses relevant information, and using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively, comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards
- thinks open–mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences
- communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems
My intention here is to think a little about what critical thinking is and encourage others to explore an area that is valued but overlooked. I myself am not a critical thinker despite taking first year Philosophy at university – a lifetime ago. But perhaps a tiny element of it stuck with me as I believe posing questions, even as part of an internal dialogue, helps define issues and becomes a pathway to discovering the more critical and fundamental questions to ask.
- The italicised material in this article is taken from:
- For a framework for critical thinking that’s useful for preparing for interviews go to:
- For an introduction to critical thinking with some exercises go to:
- For a critical reasoning test – testing some aspects of critical thinking