What is critical thinking?
“Critical thinking” is an umbrella term for six core skills, all of which combine to allow you to work, think, and act more effectively and more strategically:
Problem-solving: developing a strategy and creating workable solutions.
Analysis: breaking arguments down into bite-sized chunks.
Creative thinking: finding new and often unexpected solutions to all sorts of problems.
Interpretation: decoding the meaning and significance of evidence or experiences.
Evaluation: weighing the strengths and weaknesses of an argument (including those of others) and dealing fairly with disagreements.
Reasoning: the production of compelling and persuasive arguments.
The important thing to note is that critical thinking isn’t about “being critical”; it’s about much more than just finding flaws in other people’s claims.
To be a true critical thinker means being creative, reflective, and adaptable, evaluating the evidence to decide for yourself: what is accurate? What is relevant? Do I have sufficient information to take a decision?
In short, critical thinking is smarter thinking. It allows you to:
Spot the most relevant and useful details among a mass of information.
Find creative, workable solutions where others see only problems.
Spot flaws in arguments that others accept without question.
Articulate opinions, problems, and solutions clearly and effectively.
Make quicker, more informed decisions, relying on evidence rather than “gut feel”.
Formulate authoritative arguments, becoming a powerful and confident persuader.
Put yourself in other people’s shoes, and learn from different perspectives.
Take a stand for yourself and avoid being swayed by the uninformed views of other people.
Critical thinking is also about discovery and excitement: not only about learning, but evaluating arguments to see how they stand up – and filtering for yourself what resonates as right or wrong. By using these techniques, you’ll find yourself becoming a clearer, better thinker.
How to think critically: a beginner’s guide
Consider the questions within the checklist below when you come across facts, sources, or news stories, at work or in everyday life. How can you better assess the information and ideas you’re given, in order to make better decisions and become a more rounded individual?
Why think critically?
The simple answer: critical thinking makes you a more professionally-attractive, well-rounded, perceptive and resilient citizen…
Critical thinkers are more employable
“The No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not IQ. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.”
(Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations for Google, in an interview with The New York Times)
Computers and robots are more cost-effective, more accurate and more robust than humans. And they’re doing more and more of the tasks that only a few years ago depended on human input. This means that, within 10 years, the jobs market will change in ways we can only imagine.
2.1 million new jobs will be created
Sectors such as nanotechnology and robotics will expand
28% of the skills required in the UK will change
7.1 million existing jobs—two-thirds of which are concentrated in occupations like office and administration—will be lost.
Skills like data analysis and sales—which demand transferable critical thinking skills such as reasoning, creative thinking, and interpretation—will become more in-demand as companies try to sell new technology that users don’t understand.
(Source: Future of Jobs report, the World Economic Forum, 2016)
This means that, within 10 years, the skills that employers value will change dramatically:
These shifts have profound implications for us all. In 2020, the most successful people will be those best equipped to move not only from job to job, but from sector to sector, and industry to industry—taking with them a skill-set that allows them to get to grips with new problems quickly and surely. Thinking skills will be a vital part of that toolkit.
Critical thinkers are innovators
The ability to step back and see around, beneath and beyond a problem leads to more workable, viable and creative solutions. That’s how great business leaders develop the products that change the world – by turning negative problems into incredibly simple, profound ideas.
By thinking creatively and critically, questioning everything and looking at the situation from all angles, you don’t just solve the problem – you come up with better ideas because of the problem.
“The first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don’t put in the time or energy to get there.” Steve Jobs
Critical thinkers are better at predicting the future than experts
Flexible thinking outperforms single-minded thinking, according to a new survey. People with good analytical skills, and who can think flexibly, are better at predicting what enemy states will do next than top intelligence analysts:
“So-called “superforecasters” from Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project — non-experts who are good at turning information into predictions and assessments of confidence — outperformed intelligence analysts with access to classified information.”
(Who Does No.2 Work For? by Jeffrey Lewis, ForeignPolicy.com, 2016)
It’s simple: if you can think outside your own knowledge graph, and follow good arguments, even if they don’t fit with a given plan you’ve been given, then you’re more likely to be able to entertain possibilities that are strange — but true.
Critical thinking makes you a better person
“I saw the most dangerous young men in the country walking down a corridor saying, “you can’t say that, that’s circular reasoning,” instead of punching each other or hitting the wall,” says Dr Roy van den Brink-Budgen, a former Education Manager at a UK prison and critical thinking expert.
Dr Van den Brink-Budgen introduced critical thinking into the education of juvenile offenders — who had committed very serious violent offenses including murder and rape — and found it to be a great success: “In one lesson we were discussing a passage on the difference between art and craft. They were absolutely fascinated. One of them said, “If I were to steal a Rembrandt and use it as a tablecloth, what would that make it?” It was glorious.
“Critical thinking makes you a better person.”
Critical thinkers make better decisions
With a repertoire of critical thinking skills at your disposal, you can make quicker, safer, more informed and more creative decisions. You’ll be able to select the most important information and filter out the bias from masses of detail. Using only the most relevant, factual information at hand, and the skills to interpret it correctly, you have fewer chances to make costly and time-wasting mistakes.
For example, better reasoning and interpretation skills might have been useful to US electronics retailer Circuit City in 2007, when it fired 3,400 of its highest-paid employees – resulting in widespread public outrage – and then attempted to argue that the cuts had no impact on plummeting sales of its products. The possibility that customer confidence might be damaged by negative media coverage seemed not to occur to Circuit City management.