Critical Thinking Is Vitally Important. But What Is It, Anyway?

A recent Wall Street Journal article reported a seemingly paradoxical situation: Employers generally agree that critical thinking is an essential skill for success in organizations, but there is no generally-accepted definition of the term. In related news, studies show that support for teaching critical-thinking skills is quite high, but again, it’s not 100% clear what this means if we don’t know what critical thinking is in the first place.

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A tour through proposed definitions tends to lead to more questions than answers. Some definitions are rather vague, like this one:

"Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe and do."

Others definitions, like this one, are recursive without really explaining anything:

"Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you're thinking in order to make your thinking better."

To arrive at a better definition, let’s consider the kind of mental activity that the "critical thinking" is supposed to capture. When we say that we want our students or employees to be critical thinkers, we are not simply saying that we want them to be "good thinkers" or make "good decisions". Those are important goals, to be sure, but when we talk about critical thinking, we mean something more specific. For thinking to be "critical", it needs to actively question the relationship between the evidence at hand and any proposed conclusions. If we want people to be critical thinkers, we generally mean that we want them to actively consider the grounds for their beliefs. We don’t want them to jump to conclusions. Instead, we want them to decide what to believe and do on the basis of logic and evidence. Implicit in this discussion is the ability to think for one’s self instead of passively adopting the prevailing view or the "obvious" conclusion.

This description may give the impression that critical thinking is all about finding logical errors or other mistakes. While spotting logically-flawed arguments is part of the critical thinker’s repertoire, a skilled critical thinker can do much more. Critical thinkers are good at seeing possibilities that others do not. Sometimes, these possibilities are potential problems or flaws, but they can just as easily be solutions that no one else has seen. Critical thinkers are skeptical, but the role that this skepticism plays will vary depending on the context. So the critical thinker can warn you before you make a terrible mistake, but he or she can also suggest a viable alternative when everyone else sees only one course of action.

The focus on critical thinking comes at least in part from concerns about the skills that will be required in the future. In ages past, having a reliable memory and following procedures to the letter were essential skills. Nowadays, knowing things is still important, and following instructions has its place, but real innovation depends on judgment and the ability to see possibilities that other people don’t. In the information age, people tend to have the same information, and the ones who succeed are the ones who use this common information to make better decisions. If all you do is move information from one place to another and execute instructions, you are at risk of being replaced by a machine. However, the critical thinker can add value in any modern organization and cannot be swapped out for a CPU.

The discussion so far paints something of a picture of critical thinking, but it’s a bit long to be useful as a definition. So let’s try to capture the essence of the concept in just a few words. Try this:

Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate the connection between evidence and potential conclusions. It is the ability to make logically-sound judgments, identify assumptions and alternatives, ask relevant questions, and to be fair and open-minded when evaluating the strength of arguments.

That covers the essentials elements of the concept without requiring a doctoral dissertation. Others are of course free to disagree, to add, to subtract, or to alter, but any meaningful definition of critical thinking is likely to include those core elements.

For those who find that this discussion overstates the importance of critical thinking, let’s make an important concession: critical thinking is an essential skill for success in the modern world, but it is not the only essential skill for success in the modern world. No matter how strong one’s critical thinking skills are, one also needs (for example) communication skills, collaboration skills, and the ability to organize and comprehend the vast arrays of facts at one’s fingertips.

It’s also worth mentioning that critical thinkers can be quite a challenge (literally) in employment and educational settings. They are skeptical, hard to persuade, and often rather vocal about their concerns and objections. They tend to respect logic more than authority, which can be a real drawback in many companies and classrooms. For these reasons, employers and teachers who are more focused on compliance and uniformity may find themselves wishing that the critical thinkers in their group would go away or just stay quiet. Still, even those individuals should allow for some voice for the contrarians among us. Neatly marching in ordered rows can be amazing to watch, but critical thinkers can often figure out when those marchers are heading off a cliff.

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