Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Thinking is innate to human beings. Ever since the ability to think critically has set us apart from the rest of the species. It is a mental faculty that gives us the ability to look ahead of situations and plan our reactions and responses.

Humans think in different ways according to their individual's skills and the situations that demand. There are many facets of thinking. Thinking can be rational or irrational; it could be subjective or objective thinking; it could be mindful or mindless thinking. One of the very significant categories of thinking is Critical Thinking.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical Thinking is analysing the facts clearly, rationally and arriving at a conclusion or a judgment. Critical Thinking is to make reasoned judgments that are logical and well thought out. The definition throws up three keywords, namely:

  • Reasoned Judgment: Critical Thinking is based on clear evidence and facts. The thought process is backed with as much information as one can obtain.
  • Logical: Critical Thinking is rational and can be deduced from the facts obtained. A very neutral approach is required when analysing the facts. This approach also requires us to be free from any bias.
  • Well-thought-out: "Well-thought-out" in this context means that every possible perspective is explored as a part of the analysis.

In short, Critical Thinking requires you not to simply accept all the arguments and conclusions you are exposed to, but subject the arguments to thorough scrutiny before forming conclusions. Critical Thinking is the opposite of mindless thinking.

Critical Thinking is not a stand-alone method to solve problems. For example, when dealing with innovations, creativity is as important as critical thinking. For out-of-the-box thinking, one requires to step out into the world of heuristic thinking by expanding their creative juices until it is required to weigh the pros-and-cons of the situation and make a decision.

Critical Thinking process

Critical Thinking can be viewed as a highly process-focused way of thinking and arriving at a decision. Broadly speaking, we can define critical thinking as a 4-step process. 

The four steps are as follows:

  1. Formulate the problem clearly, with no ambiguity. Be clear about what and why the problem is being solved.
  2. Identify the different perspectives and gather all possible information regarding those perspectives.
  3. Evaluate the gathered perspectives and consequences of the obtained information.
  4. Derive the conclusions or decisions based on your observations, information gathered, and analysis or based on the relative merits they offer.

Critical Thinking means that viewing all the available information and perspectives based on their relative merits.  Critical Thinking makes them to analyse and think it inan objective manner, by removing subjectivity through evidence and facts.

Each one of us is susceptible to prejudices and biases. Critical Thinking would make us to go beyond these prejudices and biases. To be able to do that, we must be conscious of our biases. And, when exploring different perspectives, one must consciously review the problem clearlywith their Critical Thinking ability.

"If that bias were not to exist, would our thought process still be the same, and would we arrive at the same conclusion?"  This is the question we need to ask ourselves.

This skill is very important to individuals and to teams and organizations that they are a part of. Critical thinking is a mandatory skill for any leader.

How to build the skill?

There is no single step-by-step approach to build this skill.  There are certain practices that we can consciously use every time we are faced to evaluate a situation for making a decision. Critical Thinking comes naturally to us. Building this skill is like building muscles, through repeated practice over a long time.

Critical Thinking requires a strong cognitive skill and a very positive mindset. In addition, when they acquired this as a skill, it would add more values to the individual, teams, and to the organization that they are part of.

  1. Express yourself in multiple mediums: Expressing in multiple mediums helps us to gain clarity of thinking. When an idea is conjured, the first step to gain clarity is to express it verbally or write it down. When we express the idea in this way, we may see gaps in the idea, which allows us to make amendments. A written idea could be bettered by using visual media or by creating a presentation and explaining it to someone; and, so on.
  2. Identify your assumptions and question them: Are you making any assumptions, implicit or explicit? If so, question the validity of the assumptions.
  3. Think for yourself: Are you influenced by the opinions of anyone around you? Instead of accepting their views, question the views and make your own opinions based on the information that you can collect.
  4. Can you explain it to a 6-year-old: If you understand the situation thoroughly you would have a strong grasp of it, you can explain it in very simple terms, removing all the jargons associated with it and working through the technicalities that you may be conversant. As Albert Einstein said - "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
  5. Understand and challenge your biases: If you are aware of your biases, challenge yourself to clear the biases and view them through a neutral glass.
  6. Work backward (Reverse thinking): At times, working back the process of how you arrived at each step will help in uncovering any implicit biases that may have crept in.

Ask other people to explain their thought processes: When seeking opinions, go beyond merely asking for the opinions. Have them explain how they arrived at them.

Critical thinking is essential for every leader, technologist, researcher, doctor, writer, actor, lawyer, and so on. In short, any role that involves analysis and decision-making requires critical thinking. And very often, critical thinking is deployed in combination with some other types of thinking too – heuristic or intuitive thinking, for example. Thus, critical thinking is a crucial skill for everyone, and it is very much worthwhile to build this skill through continuous practice.

About the Author

Dr. Anand Lakshmanan is a Senior-Member of IEEE, a Technologist and an Organization builder. He is currently pursing advisory and consulting roles for EdTech companies, and member of curriculum committee and Senate in Institutes of National repute.