Critical thinking is an essential skill to become a person who thinks autonomously and does not allow himself to be infected in a thoughtless way by the ideas in vogue or by those that some manipulative groups or people want to impose. Despite this, it is also a rare ability in a society designed to tell us what to think, not to teach us to think.
More than 2,400 years ago, Socrates defended the importance of critical thinking through a series of logical and rational tools. At that time the world did not embrace his idea and did not even understand the need to apply it on a wide scale in society. The same happens today. Critical thinking has become something of an oxymoron. It is “valued” but not developed.
In 1997, a group of experts conducted a study for the California Commission on Teacher Accreditation to determine the extent to which colleges and universities were developing critical thinking through the curriculum. The research analyzed institutes and universities of the California educational system, as well as private colleges such as Stanford University.
The researchers found that the majority of teachers (89%) stated that “critical thinking” was of vital importance in their classes, but only 19% were able to offer even a moderately acceptable definition of critical thinking. In addition, most claimed that they were cultivating critical thinking in students, but when asked to give examples of critical thinking in their classes, very few were able to provide real evidence that they were actually fostering this ability in their students.
The good news is that, although the school does not enhance this cognitive ability as much as it should, we can all develop a more critical thinking to assume a more reflective, conscious and independent posture before the world.
Definition of critical thinking: It’s not what you think but how you think
Critical thinking is the ability to properly organize, verify and evaluate the information we generate or receive using explicit and consistent criteria. It is the tendency to show a reflective skepticism that allows us to decide autonomously what to believe or not.
Therefore, it implies being able to interpret the data, facts and expressions, as well as analyze the ideas, intentions, concepts and arguments to reach a personal conclusion. However, the concept of critical thinking does not only turn outward, it also has a metacognitive component. It implies being able to think one’s own thought; that is, being aware of cognitive biases or errors in our thought process to correct them.
The essential skills of critical thinking
Critical thinking demands the development of a series of basic skills that become the pillars of autonomous reasoning. These are skills that allow us to think more freely, outside of established canons.
•Open mentality. Open mindedness does not mean accepting anything just because it is a new and different idea, rejecting old ones, but just being willing to analyze new ideas. It means not closing in on what’s different and new, rejecting it just because it doesn’t fit our mental paradigm.
• Intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is the ability to recognize our mistakes, stereotypes and prejudices, realizing that we are not immune to cognitive biases and emotions. It implies being aware that we do not have the absolute truth, always keeping ourselves open to different ideas that can contribute something or make us grow.
• Healthy doubts. Critical thinking feeds on healthy doubts. It is not about becoming cynical people who do not believe in anyone or anything, even doubting our shadow and rejecting the good intentions and goodness of the others, but to nurture a reflective skepticism according to which, we do not have to believe certain statements straight up just because they come from so-called authority figures.
• Intellectual perseverance. To go beyond what is seen and taken for granted, we need to be persistent. Critical thinking often involves swimming against the current, so we need to be highly motivated to seek personal truth, even when much of the world is going against it. This intellectual perseverance is what will allow us to continue searching and analyzing information until we find an answer that satisfies us.
Examples of critical thinking in everyday life
Critical thinking doesn’t just apply to science or philosophy. Critical thinking plays an essential role even in everyday life in making many of the decisions that will determine our destiny. Is giving shape to our convictions and helps us choose the causes with which we commit ourselves and those that do not make any sense to us.
It allows us to elucidate what each statement really contains. Critical thinking allows us to question the statements we hear or make, from the simplest such as “The sun is shining today” to the more complex such as “All men/women are equal” or “Communists /capitalists are bad.” In this way, critical thinking prevents us from falling into the trap of slogans devoid of meaning or cultural, generational or other stereotypes.
Critical thinking is also essential to grow as people because it allows us to look inward. It’s what allows us to ask ourselves: Did I do my best? Did I behave in a logical way? If it happened again, would I act differently? Have I acted according to my values or have I been carried away by the group? Have I been a victim of my stereotypes and prejudices? Did I rush into making that decision?
This type of thinking, in short, allows us to develop a critical view from a more open and reflective attitude, to ensure that we make our own decisions, as little influenced as possible by the opinions, judgments and pressures of the others.
Duro, E. et. Al. (2013) In Search of Critical Thinking in Psychology: an exploration of student and lecturer understandings in higher education. Psychology Learning and Teaching; 12(3): 275-281.
Elder, L. et. Al. (1997) California Teacher Preparation for Instruction in Critical Thinking: Research Findings and Policy Recommendations. ERIC Clearinghouse: Washington, D.C.