Critical Thinking

Thinking is defined as “the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts.” The mind, in turn, is defined as “the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons. Thought is “everything that goes through our minds,” and everything that “is in our heads” said Dewey. Such thought or consciousness may be triggered by an observation we make, by something we heard or read, or even by memories. During each moment of our waking lives, we engage in this mental and biological process of thinking.

Thinking is about using creative, critical, and metacognitive processes to make sense of information, experiences, and ideas. These processes can be applied to purposes such as developing understanding, making decisions, shaping actions, or constructing knowledge. Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of this competency.

Leaders who are competent thinkers and problem-solvers actively seek, use, and create knowledge. They reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions.

Critical thinking means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well-thought out. It is a way of thinking in which you don’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to but rather have an attitude involving questioning such arguments and conclusions. It requires wanting to see what evidence is involved to support a particular argument or conclusion. People who use critical thinking are the ones who say things such as, ‘How do you know that? Is this conclusion based on evidence or gut feelings?’ and ‘Are there alternative possibilities when given new pieces of information?’

Additionally, critical thinking can be divided into the following three core skills:

  • Curiosity is the desire to learn more information and seek evidence as well as being open to new ideas.
  • Skepticism involves having a healthy questioning attitude about new information that you are exposed to and not blindly believing everything everyone tells you.
  • Finally, humility is the ability to admit that your opinions and ideas are wrong when faced with new convincing evidence that states otherwise.

Using Critical Thinking Skills

Many people decide to make changes in their daily lives based on anecdotes, or stories from one person’s experience. For example, let’s say that your aunt told you that she takes a vitamin C supplement every day. Additionally, she told you that one morning she was running late for work and forgot to take her vitamin C supplement. That afternoon, she developed a cold. She now insists that you take vitamin C every day or you will get sick, just like she did in her story. Many people hearing this story would just accept this and think, ‘To avoid getting sick I should take vitamin C.’

Although this type of logic is very common, it lacks critical-thinking skills. If we examine this anecdote a little more carefully, you should be able to understand why. For starters, we don’t know where the idea for vitamin C stopping illness even came from. Why did your aunt decide to take vitamin C rather than vitamin D, or any other vitamin?

Also, there was never any indication given that there exists a direct link between not taking vitamin C and developing a cold. At first glance, it may seem that way. However, there could be many other variables involved that have nothing to do with vitamin C. Maybe she was already developing a cold and that particular day it just happened to manifest itself. Maybe a sick person sneezed on her in the elevator that morning. Any number of possibilities could have happened.

In essence, critical thinking requires you to use your ability to reason. It is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information. Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not. Critical thinkers will identify, analyse and solve problems systematically rather than by intuition or instinct. Someone with critical thinking skills can,

  • Understand the links between ideas.
  • Determine the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas.
  • Recognise, build and appraise arguments.
  • Identify inconsistencies and errors in reasoning.
  • Approach problems in a consistent and systematic way.
  • Reflect on the justification of their own assumptions, beliefs and values.

Critical thinking is thinking about things in certain ways so as to arrive at the best possible solution in the circumstances that the thinker is aware of. In everyday language, it is a way of thinking about whatever is presently occupying your mind so that you come to the best possible conclusion.

Ways to critically think about information include:

  • Conceptualizing
  • Analyzing
  • Synthesizing
  • Evaluating

That information can come from sources such as,

  • Observation
  • Experience
  • Reflection
  • Reasoning
  • Communication

And all this is meant to guide:

  • Beliefs
  • Action


Wade identifies eight characteristics of critical thinking. Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity. Dealing with ambiguity is also seen by Strohm & Baukus (1995) as an essential part of critical thinking, “Ambiguity and doubt serve a critical-thinking function and are a necessary and even a productive part of the process”.

Another characteristic of critical thinking identified by many sources is metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about one’s own thinking. More specifically, “metacognition is being aware of one’s thinking as one performs specific tasks and then using this awareness to control what one is doing”.

Essential aspects of critical thinking

  • Dispositions: Critical thinkers are skeptical, open-minded, value fair-mindedness, respect evidence and reasoning, respect clarity and precision, look at different points of view, and will change positions when reason leads them to do so.
  • Criteria: To think critically, must apply criteria. Need to have conditions that must be met for something to be judged as believable. Although the argument can be made that each subject area has different criteria, some standards apply to all subjects. “… an assertion must… be based on relevant, accurate facts; based on credible sources; precise; unbiased; free from logical fallacies; logically consistent; and strongly reasoned” .
  • Argument: Is a statement or proposition with supporting evidence. Critical thinking involves identifying, evaluating, and constructing arguments.
  • Reasoning: The ability to infer a conclusion from one or multiple premises. To do so requires examining logical relationships among statements or data.
  • Point of View: The way one views the world, which shapes one’s construction of meaning. In a search for understanding, critical thinkers view phenomena from many different points of view.
  • Procedures for Applying Criteria: Other types of thinking use a general procedure. Critical thinking makes use of many procedures. These procedures include asking questions, making judgments, and identifying assumptions.

Developing Critical Thinking

Ask Basic Questions – Sometimes an explanation becomes so complex that the original question gets lost. To avoid this, continually go back to the basic questions you asked when you set out to solve the problem. Few key basic questions you can ask when approaching any problem:

  • What do you already know?
  • How do you know that?
  • What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrated, critique, etc.?
  • What are you overlooking?

Question Basic Assumptions – The above saying holds true when you’re thinking through a problem. It is quite easy to make a fool of yourself simply by failing to question your basic assumptions. Some of the greatest innovators in human history were those who simply looked up for a moment and wondered if one of everyone’s general assumptions was wrong. From Newton to Einstein to Yitang Zhang, questioning assumptions is where innovation happens. All these things can be a reality if you just question your assumptions and critically evaluate your beliefs about what’s prudent, appropriate, or possible.

Be Aware of Your Mental Processes – Our brains naturally use heuristics (mental shortcuts) to explain what’s happening around us. This was beneficial to humans when we were hunting large game and fighting off wild animals, but it can be disastrous when we’re trying to decide who to vote for. A critical thinker is aware of their cognitive biases  and personal prejudices and how they influence seemingly “objective” decisions and solutions. All of us have biases in our thinking. Becoming aware of them is what makes critical thinking possible.

Try Reversing Things – A great way to get “unstuck” on a hard problem is to try reversing things. It may seem obvious that X causes Y, but what if Y caused X? The “chicken and egg problem” a classic example of this. At first, it seems obvious that the chicken had to come first. The chicken lays the egg, after all. But then you quickly realize that the chicken had to come from somewhere, and since chickens come from eggs, the egg must have come first. Or did it? Even if it turns out that the reverse isn’t true, considering it can set you on the path to finding a solution.

Evaluate the Existing Evidence – When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s always helpful to look at other work that has been done in the same area. There’s no reason to start solving a problem from scratch when someone has already laid the groundwork. It’s important, however, to evaluate this information critically, or else you can easily reach the wrong conclusion. Ask the following questions of any evidence you encounter

  • Who gathered this evidence?
  • How did they gather it?

Remember to Think for Yourself – Don’t get so bogged down in research and reading that you forget to think for yourself–sometimes this can be your most powerful tool.

Don’t be overconfident, but recognize that thinking for yourself is essential to answering tough questions. I find this to be true when writing essays–it’s so easy to get lost in other people’s work that I forget to have my own thoughts. Don’t make this mistake.

Understand That No One Thinks Critically 100% of the Time – You can’t think critically all the time, and that’s okay. Critical thinking is a tool that you should deploy when you need to make important decisions or solve difficult problems, but you don’t need to think critically about everything. And even in important matters, you will experience lapses in your reasoning. What matters is that you recognize these lapses and try to avoid them in the future.

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