Critical Thinking Skills 101

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having 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 behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.

Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of "idealism" by those habituated to its selfish use.

Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.


Another Brief Conceptualization of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.   People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.    They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.   They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.   They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking.   They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason.   They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.   They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society.    At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so.   They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others.   They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement.   They embody the Socratic principle:   The unexamined life is not worth living , because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.               ~ Linda Elder, September, 2007

Why Critical Thinking?

The Problem
Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

A Definition
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 skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and
imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Result
A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.  

(Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008)

Critical Thinking Defined by Edward Glaser

In a seminal study on critical thinking and education in 1941, Edward Glaser defines critical thinking as follows “The ability to think critically, as conceived in this volume, involves three things: ( 1 ) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires ability to recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems, to gather and marshal pertinent information, to recognize unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments, to recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life. 

(Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941)

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The phrase “critical thinking skills” is often heard in business circles or seen listed in job requirements and MBA program descriptions. However, it’s not always clear what it actually means. True critical thinking involves an intervention in one’s own thought process in order to efficiently solve a problem. Unfortunately the administrative demands on today’s educators don’t leave much time to teach this process; as a result, there are an enormous amount of people in our workforce who lack this understanding.

What Exactly Is Critical Thinking?

Whenever any of us approach a problem, we bring biases to the table, often unintentionally. Prior experiences, cultural influences, assumptions about knowledge on the subject, or public opinion all play into our thought process, whether we’re aware of it or not. The challenge in critical thinking lies in first becoming aware of those biases, and then in stepping outside of them to clearly reason your way through a problem. Successful critical thinkers make better business decisions because the process allows them to gather more information, collaborate with others and evaluate a business decision with objectivity.

For example, a new solution to an old problem may be expressed during a workplace meeting. People who are naturally resistant to change may not exercise critical thinking skills, and instead respond that “We’ve always done it that way, why change it now?” Instead of shooting down a new idea without giving it any thought, the application of critical thinking could result in a more effective way of doing business. Perhaps the marketplace has changed, or new data has been made available that suggests a different direction. Successful companies are ones that take a process apart, examine its components carefully, and gather relevant information. This collaborative process encourages creative thinking and oftentimes results in very effective problem-solving.

There are several schools of thought that detail core steps in the critical thinking process. Each of them leads to intellectual analysis of the information at hand, identifies areas that require more research, and finally indicates a course of action that best solves the problem. Successful critical thinkers generally share the following characteristics:

  • Open-minded. Acceptance of new ideas, even with their inherent biases, is crucial to this process. Not everyone approaches a problem with the same experience or knowledge, but that doesn’t mean their ideas are not valuable. The ability to accept that our idea may have been wrong or incompletely thought out is an extension of this open-mindedness.
  • Think logically. Applying critical thinking requires that criteria must be defined for a problem’s components. Using precisely defined criteria to measure information allows for a more objective evaluation of data, removing biases and setting a standard to which all stakeholders must adhere. Replacing emotional barriers with logic can help you spot flaws in your processes that you may not have otherwise.
  • Reasonable. The best decision-making involves arguments from multiple angles, including negative ones. Using carefully researched data to entertain all possible outcomes requires an unbiased approach to the information. Informed decisions are based on sound reasoning of all aspects of the problem.
  • Collaborative. Loyalty to “our” idea is a human trait, but stepping outside of our own frame of reference requires conscious thought. By working with a group of individuals, each of whom has their own biases and knowledge levels, new ideas can be exposed. Good critical thinkers welcome the opportunity to make the right decision, versus inflexibly insisting on a particular solution.

How Is Critical Thinking Relevant to Business?

Effective management skills include the ability to think critically, and making the right decision under pressure is what defines successful businesspeople. Managers and staff must weigh all possible solutions; this can be time-consuming and require involving many people in the decision, but ultimately it leads to better choices. Some examples of critical thinking applied in the workplace follow.

Innovation creates successful business products, and being closed off to new ideas automatically stifles innovation. Opening up to a variety of solutions can help you create new options for your customers.

Let’s say a publisher of textbooks is informed by its sales team that educators want better options for creating exams. A manager resistant to new ideas, technology or expense may insist the company continue to provide the printed exams it always has. A critical-thinking manager instead may take the time to explore providing new, digital exam-building tools. In the first scenario, the company risks losing market share to competitors who provide its customers with better tools; in the latter, responding to direct customer requests with new offerings keeps the company competitive in a dynamic market.

Critical thinking makes it far more likely that you can create a range of products to suit your customer’s needs. Using the same example, a critical-thinking manager at the textbook publisher not only takes the time to investigate options, but is comfortable taking the problem to colleagues across other departments. The collaborative nature of this process generates ideas from individuals who might not have otherwise been involved in the decision-making process. Ultimately, the company may discover that there are cost-effective ways to offer customers choices among several digital and print exam-building tools. The critical thinking process can easily generate multiple solutions borne out of one question.

In another example, applying the critical thinking process to product development may allow for a more polished product. A company that markets to legal professionals, recognizing that their customers are required to maintain continuing education credits, decides to create an online continuing education delivery tool.

The team member who first suggested the idea is heavily invested in the product, having dreamed it up and spent long hours developing it. Launching such a product without exposing it to a critical thinking process would be unwise; namely because the original developer may be too emotionally involved to spot potential flaws in their proposal.

A lengthier process that allows colleagues to test the product can reveal glitches or inconsistencies that deserve to be addressed ahead of time. The tool may get to market later and require more funding to develop, but will ultimately stand as a better product, which in turn could solidify the company’s relationship with their customer base.

Marketing professionals especially benefit from critical thinking. A product’s packaging, message and advertising is most successful when targeted at a specific demographic. Because marketing also relies on an emotional reaction from customers, it is absolutely crucial that multiple voices and viewpoints are brought to the table. Applied critical thinking skills also drive research and preparation. Take focus groups; when properly incorporated into product development, these groups can provide invaluable feedback – feedback that could alter the course of development altogether. And while the collaborative process takes longer and costs more – focus groups, for instance, can eat up a lot of time – the findings will bring about a highly targeted, highly effective marketing campaign.

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