“Critical thinking” is a phrase that leaves many students nervously quaking in their desks. By the time we’ve become adults, though, we’ve largely forgotten it. We imagine that we think critically, but we let our ability to engage with new ideas atrophy when we leave college. We get set in our ways, and become closed off to new ways of seeing the world.
The Information Age has made critical thinking both more important and more difficult than ever before. But these skills are at the foundation of an informed civil society, and they need to be fostered.
It’s time to go back to basics.
Why Is Critical Thinking Important?
The World Economic Forum listed critical thinking as the fourth most important skill in 2015. In 2020 it surges into the #2 spot, just behind complex problem solving, a closely related proficiency. To create the list, the Forum asked “chief human resources and strategy officers from leading global employers” which skills they value. These aren’t random people off the street. They’re important influencers in the world economy.
If the Forum says critical thinking is important, you can believe that it’s true. For getting a job, if nothing else.
What, then, is critical thinking? The Philosophy department at the University of Hong Kong has a great definition, stating that someone with critical thinking skills can do the following:
- Understand the logical connections between ideas.
- Identify, construct and evaluate arguments.
- Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning.
- Solve problems systematically.
- Identify the relevance and importance of ideas.
- Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values.
We’re constantly bombarded with new data in the Information Age. Constant internet access, crowd-sourced ideas, and the instant availability of new ideas means you have a huge amount of information to process if you want to make sense of it all. And critical thinking helps you do that.
It might be more helpful to think of critical thinking as a way of life instead of a set of skills. Here’s a quote from Gautama Buddha that might help you see what I mean:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
1. Ask “Why?”
The question at the core of critical thinking is “Why?” Everyone makes claims, and listeners without critical thinking skills may be inclined to just accept those claims as fact. Critical thinkers, however, will ask why — why is your presidential candidate better? What makes this philosophy a good one? Where did you get your information? What makes you think this interpretation of an event is true? How did you come to that conclusion?
(As you can see, “why” questions can come in many forms.)
There’s no need to sound like a child and literally ask “Why?” after every claim someone makes. But by engaging them in conversation, doing your own research, and considering the stories behind the claims, you can gain a deeper understanding of the issues at stake.
I’ve been asking a lot of this kind of question as I’ve been working on a book on the history of board games — why did humans start playing? Why have board games persisted for so many centuries? Why have they made a resurgence in popularity? And, finally, why should readers care? These are all valuable questions, and their answers have spawned many more questions and answers that I didn’t expect. And that’s where insight comes from.
One of the best ways to increase your critical thinking abilities is to learn more about other peoples, places, cultures, and time periods. You can do this by traveling the world, of course, but we can’t all be global nomads. But we can read. A lot.
The more you read, the more you learn. And being learned is a great pillar upon which to build critical thinking skills. Reading non-fiction will help, but don’t discount fiction, either; novels, short stories, and plays can also offer insight into the way other people think and live.
Don’t forget to apply your critical thinking skills while you’re reading, too. Just because someone printed their claim on paper (or posted it on an internet forum) doesn’t mean it’s true.
3. Forget Multitasking
This is the exact opposite of what you need for critical thinking. To be critical, you need to be fully present in whatever task you’re taking on. Reading, writing, debating, discussing, cooperating, arguing… to successfully do any of them, you need to be singularly focused.
(Before you take to the comments to disprove my claims by saying that multitasking works for you, I know this isn’t the case for everyone — but it is for most people. If you can juggle tasks and still give each one the time and deep thought it deserves, great. Go for it.)
4. Spend Time Observing
Whether you’re faced with a problem, you need to come up with a new idea, or you just see something that interests you, your starting place should be observation. It’s easy to let your assumptions and past experiences take over when you’re faced with a problem or you get into a disagreement (this is especially relevant at the time of this writing, during election season).
Instead of falling back on what you think you know, spend time observing the situation. You might assume that surface issues and motivations are driving situations and people, but many multi-faceted layers are often at play. Being quick to judge or act on these initial observations might be tempting, but spending more time observing will give you a clearer picture of what’s going on.
This is especially difficult in the modern world, where firing off a comment on a news story, downvoting a Reddit post, or unfollowing someone on Twitter only takes a few seconds. Instead of acting quickly, though, engage your critical thinking skills, starting with observation.
It might be counter intuitive, but spending time doing nothing but thinking is one of the best things you can do to engage and strengthen your critical thinking skills. Since I’ve started working on my book, I’ve spent quite a bit of time with pen and paper, just thinking. Making connections between ideas. Developing lines of thought. Coming up with more questions to ask. Identifying issues that are relevant to readers.
This is an especially difficult thing to do in the face of a world that prizes speed over almost everything. Sitting down to reflect and ponder doesn’t seem like a productive use of time. But that’s how great ideas are born. Some people are lucky enough to come up with a brilliant thought while they’re in the middle of a project, but many need quiet, solitude, and time to think.
Think Critically, Live Effectively
Critical thinking might not be the solution to all your problems, but it’s a good habit to get into. The more time we spend thinking critically, the more effectively we’ll be able to innovate, govern, communicate, and learn. And that’s good for everyone.
Do you make a point to flex your critical-thinking muscles? What do you find challenges your critical thinking skills? Share your thoughts in the comments below!