Critical thinking

In a world where information overload is becoming a serious issue in terms of what we believe and how we choose to educate ourselves, one of the most important skills to ensure you are taking a balanced view is that of thinking critically.

In this article by Dr. Linda Elder and Dr. Richard Paul, Learning the Art of Critical Thinking, the challenge set is to take an active role in analysing how you are thinking, and then suggests strategies as to how to improve the quality of how you think.

“Critical thinking is the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any set of circumstances. The general goal of thinking is to “figure out the lay of the land” in any situation we are in. We all have multiple choices to make. We need the best information to make the best choices.”

I’m planning to expand on that thought a little in another post in which I will discuss the iBrain study as it relates to how we process our way through the information overload we are all exposed to. For now – it’s enough to understand that given so many inputs of information and differing viewpoints, we must be cognisant of how robust our acceptance of ideas is to ensure that we continually challenge our norms and allow ourselves to grow in the understanding we have in the world around us.

The article makes the point that “To make significant gains in the quality of your thinking, you will have to engage in a kind of work that most humans find unpleasant, if not painful – intellectual work”. To this end, we are encouraged to practice special acts of thinking, moves with your mind analogous to what athletes learn to do with their bodies – through practice and feedback.

Clarify your Thinking

  • State one point at a time (“I think.. [state your main point])
  • Elaborate on what you mean (“in other words… [elaborate on the main point])
  • Give examples that connect your thoughts to life experiences (“for example… [give an example])
  • Use analogies and metaphors to help people connect your ideas to things they already understand. (“to give you an analogy… [illustrate your main point])

Of course thinking is a two way street and you will sometimes need to clarify what you are being asked to think about

  • “Can you restate your point in other words… I didn’t understand you…”
  • “Can you give an example?…”
  • “Let me tell you what I understand you are saying, did I understand you correctly?”

Now of course, you probably don’t speak like this, I know I don’t, so change it around without losing the meaning. – The key is not to appear patronising as you step yourself (and your audience) through your thought process, otherwise they will shut down and you will lose the opportunity to make your point or understand theirs.

Stick to the Point

Frequently ask “What is the central question? Is this relevant to it? How”

Now – personally, I don’t believe this is a good process if one is attempting to innovate or brainstorm an issue – but I have used this technique in a couple of problem solving meetings recently when conversation strayed from the point and onto more interesting matters.

Question Questions
The article goes on to ask us to be on the look out for both the questions we ask, and the questions we don’t ask. This allows us to improve our questioning skills, it may challenge accepted reasoning and it may also unearth some simple answers which had never been considered because the question had never been asked.

Be Reasonable

“Notice when you are unwilling to listen to the views of others, when you simply see yourself as right and others as wrong”

I think we’ve all been guilty of this at one stage or another, I also know that some of the best conversations I’ve had were started when I asked someone to convince me to accept their point of view – it opens the door to a huge array of new ways to resolve issues.

  • Are you unwilling to listen to someone’s reasons?
  • Are you irritated by the reasons people give you?
  • Do you become defensive during a discussion?

These are all fairly common, normal responses, but in training ourselves to think more critically, we can analyse why we had these responses. To help with this, the authors propose that we complete the following statements when we find ourselves being closed minded:

“I realise I was being close-minded in this situation because…”
“The thinking I was trying to hold onto is…”
“Thinking that is potentially better is…”
“This thinking is better because…”

Again, the language may not be right for you, but in understanding the intention you can discover what it is which is stopping you from allowing your thinking to open itself up to new ideas. It takes practice to change the way we are wired, but it can be done and all it needs is a little upfront discipline to stick to your ‘thinking training’ until it becomes automatic. When that happens you will find your conversations become more interesting and, if you’re anything like me, your thirst for more knowledge will become almost unquenchable.

I’ll leave this post with one last quote from the article…

“The extent to which any of us develops as a thinker is directly determined by the amount of time we dedicate to our development, the quality of the intellectual practice we engage in, and the depth, or lack thereof, of our commitment to becoming more reasonable, rational, successful persons.”