Kati Mitchell, a senior at Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy in Prescott, Ariz., has a guiding principle: You’re never going to grow unless you step outside your comfort zone.
This summer, she and a group of her classmates traveled to El Salvador and Costa Rica to explore new cultures and participate in service projects. Mitchell felt a connection with El Salvador — a small country in Central America — where they visited Prescott’s sister city, Suchitoto. Towns in different parts of the world develop sister city relationships in order to promote cultural ties. “They were so welcoming into their homes and lives,” says Mitchell, 18. “They have just come through a really gruesome civil war that was funded by the United States, but it was easy for them to separate the American people from the American government. They are so happy and so forgiving. I learned that the Salvadorians cry hard, but they love harder. That was really beautiful to me.”
Termites and Controversial Topics
While working with her hands and even eating termites (a highlight in Costa Rica) are important to Mitchell’s goal of getting outside her comfort zone, physical interaction is only part of the experience. Mitchell also explores with her mind. “When we were in Germany [a few years ago], I kept asking the students and teachers their impressions of America,” recalls Mitchell. “’What do you think of when you think of America?’ They see America as this big superpower that they want to experience. It gave me more pride as an American and helped me appreciate all we have.”
Mitchell has spent her high school years developing a questioning mind and spirit. Taught by so-called expeditions that involve intensive studies around specific themes, students at Northpoint have extensively studied such topics as terrorism, immigration and food security. “We are constantly thinking, asking questions and trying to soak up as many questions as we can to form our own opinions,” notes Mitchell, who wants to be a journalist. “We study very controversial topics, so there is no right or wrong answer. You’re forced to figure it out for yourself and form an opinion, which results in thinking critically.”
Critical thinking — when you apply reasoning and logic to unfamiliar ideas and situations — is top-of-mind for today’s employers who often report that students need to enter the workforce better prepared to analyze situations and solve problems. Author Tony Wagner identifies critical thinking as the No. 1 workplace survival skill in his book, The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need. Business leader Ellen Kumata, a consultant to large corporations, told Wagner that, “The idea that a company’s senior leaders have all the answers and can solve problems by themselves has gone completely by the wayside…. The person who’s close to the work has to have strong analytic skills. You have to be rigorous: Test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value; don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.”
How best to develop critical thinking skills? Enoch Hale, a fellow at the Foundation for Critical Thinking in Tomales, Calif., says it is important to be conscious of our thinking and hold it to high standards, knowing there are barriers, including stereotypes, that are constantly challenging that goal. Hale, who now travels the country teaching critical thinking to educators, previously taught U.S. government, economics and other subjects at El Capitan High School in Lakeside, Calif.
‘Quit Being Stubborn’
Hale suggests four steps that will help students think critically about an idea, whether it is something concrete, like the scientific process of mitosis, or more philosophical — like knowledge. They are:
• Define the concept accurately.
• Elaborate on that definition, expanding upon the related concepts embedded in the definition without distorting the meaning.
• Provide a concrete example of what it looks like in the real world.
• Provide an illustration like an analogy, simile or metaphor, something to show that you can take that idea and transfer it to another way of looking at life.
“Each one of those steps also represents potential discussion topics, notes Hale. “In the classroom, students should be asking questions for definitions and elaborations like, ‘Can you give me an example?’ The critical mind is a questioning mind if our questions are relevant, pertinent and probing. Questions drive thinking forward. I do not think it’s possible to develop substantive critical thinking skills without developing a questioning mind.” As a rule, he says, look at every class session as a problem to be solved, and the content of each day’s session as the evidence and information to help solve that problem.
If you’re not listening critically to other opinions, Hale adds, then you’re probably looking for information that validates your point of view and ignoring evidence that contradicts it.
Mitchell appreciates that point in the growth of her own critical thinking skills. “One of the hardest things when talking about controversial issues [like terrorism or immigration] is to put your own ego and opinions aside at first and explore the other sides of the story. There have been so many times in class when I have felt headstrong about my opinion. Weeks later, I don’t feel that way at all. [It’s because I had] never looked at the problem from someone else’s perspective. You have to quit being stubborn, which is something that a lot of high school teenagers are good at. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. That’s what I mean about taking yourself out of your own emotions and seeing both sides.”
What does it mean to think critically?
How do questions drive thinking forward?
Why is it important to put your own ego and opinions aside when thinking critically?
No matter what walk of life you come from, what industry you’re interested in pursuing or how much experience you’ve already garnered, we’ve all seen firsthand the importance of critical thinking skills. In fact, lacking such skills can truly make or break a person’s career, as the consequences of one’s inability to process and analyze information effectively can be massive.
“The ability to think critically is more important now than it has ever been,” urges Kris Potrafka, founder and CEO of Music Firsthand. “Everything is at risk if we don’t all learn to think more critically.” If people cannot think critically, he explains, they not only lessen their prospects of climbing the ladder in their respective industries, but they also become easily susceptible to things like fraud and manipulation.
With that in mind, you’re likely wondering what you can do to make sure you’re not one of those people. Developing your critical thinking skills is something that takes concentrated work. It can be best to begin by exploring the definition of critical thinking and the skills it includes—once you do, you can then venture toward the crucial question at hand: How can I improve?
This is no easy task, which is why we aimed to help break down the basic elements of critical thinking and offer suggestions on how you can refine the skills that drive your own critical thinking abilities.
What is critical thinking?
Even if you want to be a better critical thinker, it’s hard to improve upon something you can’t define. Critical thinking is the analysis of an issue or situation and the facts, data or evidence related to it. Ideally, critical thinking is to be done objectively—meaning without influence from personal feelings, opinions or biases—and it focuses solely on factual information.
Critical thinking is a skill that allows you to make logical and informed decisions to the best of your ability. For example, a child who has not yet developed such skills might believe the Tooth Fairy left money under their pillow based on stories their parents told them. A critical thinker, however, can quickly conclude that the existence of such a thing is probably unlikely—even if there are a few bucks under their pillow.
6 Crucial critical thinking skills (and how you can improve them)
While there’s no universal standard for what skills are included in the critical thinking process, we’ve boiled it down to the following six.
The first step in the critical thinking process is to identify the situation or problem as well as the factors that may influence it. Once you have a clear picture of the situation and the people, groups or factors that may be influenced, you can then begin to dive deeper into an issue and its potential solutions.
How to improve: When facing any new situation, question or scenario, stop to take a mental inventory of the state of affairs and ask the following questions:
- Who is doing what?
- What seems to be the reason for this happening?
- What are the end results, and how could they change?
When comparing arguments about an issue, independent research ability is key. Arguments are meant to be persuasive—that means the facts and figures presented in their favor might be lacking in context or come from questionable sources. The best way to combat this is independent verification; find the source of the information and evaluate.
How to improve: It can be helpful to develop an eye for unsourced claims. Does the person posing the argument offer where they got this information from? If you ask or try to find it yourself and there’s no clear answer, that should be considered a red flag. It’s also important to know that not all sources are equally valid—take the time to learn the difference between popular and scholarly articles.
3. Identifying biases
This skill can be exceedingly difficult, as even the smartest among us can fail to recognize biases. Strong critical thinkers do their best to evaluate information objectively. Think of yourself as a judge in that you want to evaluate the claims of both sides of an argument, but you’ll also need to keep in mind the biases each side may possess.
It is equally important—and arguably more difficult—to learn how to set aside your own personal biases that may cloud your judgement. “Have the courage to debate and argue with your own thoughts and assumptions,” Potrafka encourages. “This is essential for learning to see things from different viewpoints.”
How to improve: “Challenge yourself to identify the evidence that forms your beliefs, and assess whether or not your sources are credible,” offers Ruth Wilson, director of development at Brightmont Academy.
First and foremost, you must be aware that bias exists. When evaluating information or an argument, ask yourself the following:
- Who does this benefit?
- Does the source of this information appear to have an agenda?
- Is the source overlooking, ignoring or leaving out information that doesn’t support its beliefs or claims?
- Is this source using unnecessary language to sway an audience’s perception of a fact?
The ability to infer and draw conclusions based on the information presented to you is another important skill for mastering critical thinking. Information doesn’t always come with a summary that spells out what it means. You’ll often need to assess the information given and draw conclusions based upon raw data.
The ability to infer allows you to extrapolate and discover potential outcomes when assessing a scenario. It is also important to note that not all inferences will be correct. For example, if you read that someone weighs 260 pounds, you might infer they are overweight or unhealthy. Other data points like height and body composition, however, may alter that conclusion.
How to improve: An inference is an educated guess, and your ability to infer correctly can be polished by making a conscious effort to gather as much information as possible before jumping to conclusions. When faced with a new scenario or situation to evaluate, first try skimming for clues—things like headlines, images and prominently featured statistics—and then make a point to ask yourself what you think is going on.
5. Determining relevance
One of the most challenging parts of any critical thinking scenario is figuring out what information is the most important for your consideration. In many scenarios, you’ll be presented with information that may seem important, but it may pan out to be only a minor data point to consider.
How to improve: The best way to get better at determining relevance is by establishing a clear direction in what you’re trying to figure out. Are you tasked with finding a solution? Should you be identifying a trend? If you figure out your end goal, you can use this to inform your judgement of what is relevant.
Even with a clear objective, however, it can still be difficult to determine what information is truly relevant. One strategy for combating this is to make a physical list of data points ranked in order of relevance. When you parse it out this way, you’ll likely end up with a list that includes a couple of obviously relevant pieces of information at the top of your list, in addition to some points at the bottom that you can likely disregard. From there, you can narrow your focus on the less clear-cut topics that reside in the middle of your list for further evaluation.
It’s incredibly easy to sit back and take everything presented to you at face value, but that can also be also a recipe for disaster when faced with a scenario that requires critical thinking. It’s true that we’re all naturally curious—just ask any parent who has faced an onslaught of “Why?” questions from their child. As we get older, it can be easier to get in the habit of keeping that impulse to ask questions at bay. But that’s not a winning approach for critical thinking.
How to improve: While it might seem like a curious mind is just something you’re born with, you can still train yourself to foster that curiosity productively. All it takes is a conscious effort to ask open-ended questions about the things you see in your everyday life, and you can then invest the time to follow up on these questions.
“Being able to ask open-ended questions is an important skill to develop—and bonus points for being able to probe,” Potrafka says.
Put your critical thinking skills to work
Critical thinking skills are vital for anyone looking to have a successful college career and a fruitful professional life upon graduation. Your ability to objectively analyze and evaluate complex subjects and situations will always be useful. Unlock your potential by practicing and refining the six critical thinking skills above.
Most professionals credit their time in college as having been crucial in the development of their critical thinking abilities. If you’re looking to improve your skills in a way that can impact your life and career moving forward, higher education is a fantastic venue through which to achieve that. For some of the surefire signs you’re ready to take the next step in your education, visit our article, “6 Signs You’re Ready to Be a College Student.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in December 2012. It has since been updated.