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Tune Up Your Critical Thinking Skills

The term, critical thinking, conjures negative reactions for many. If you’re feeling that critical thinking is too hard, too unemotional, or only for certain types of people, please keep reading!

Here’s the dictionary definition. Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that’s clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

We can demystify it by breaking critical thinking into five facets. The highly esteemed Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal measures cognitive abilities associated with critical thinking. As you read through these, think of examples when you’ve done each.

  • Recognizing assumptions: Being able to differentiate between something presupposed and something proven.

  • Evaluating arguments: Distinguishing between strong and weak, relevant and irrelevant, and important or unimportant contentions.

  • Drawing inferences: Drawing accurate or reasonable conclusions based on observations and facts.

  • Deducing: Putting information together accurately without over-extending. If you know, for example, that almost all calico cats are female and deduce that male calicos are rare, that’s good deduction. You’d be over-extending, though, if you also surmised that all female cats are calicos.

  • Interpreting: Using established facts to judge whether or not additional information is also accurate.

You can probably think of times when you’ve used critical thinking in all five facets. You can deduce, then, that you’re capable of thinking critically.Figure transitions from fuzzy to clear

There are some common barriers to critical thinking:

  • We’re all prone to self-deception. The unconscious biases described in Chapter Four explain why we get swept up by emotions, peer pressures, and fast thinking that leads us astray.

  • Emotions override logic. Emotions fuel mental and physical reactions. Pausing to think rationally or seek evidence requires discipline that tempers those reactions.

  • It’s easier to let others do the thinking for us. Rather than reflecting, assessing, and testing the conclusions offered by pundits, we more often accept what they say at face value.

  • It’s not a valued, practiced skill. Education systems rely on teaching us what to think, not how to think. Rote memorization in school is valued and tested, not the ability to analyze and extract meaning. Easy access to information keeps us reliant on others, so we seldom practice critical thinking.

  • No one holds us accountable for clear, rational thinking. This is a common job competency and educational goal, named to the Department of Education’s list of Top 21st Century Skills. Nonetheless, you’ll seldom see performance standards or metrics related to critical thinking.  

Despite these barriers, working to build critical thinking skills will help you make better decisions, be more discerning, solve problems faster, avoid hasty judgments, handle information overload, be a better sense maker, see the bigger picture, negotiate for favorable outcomes, manage time and set priorities, reduce stress, and understand various situations more accurately.    

Critical thinkers also develop tendencies that cause them to be seen as more fair-minded and empathetic.

This is a snippet from the new book, DISCOVER Questions® for Connections, Clarity & Control, available on Amazon.