How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills?
The internet is a wonderful, terrible place! Filled with information, content, opinions, many of us turn to the web to find answers, solve problems and get information, but I think it’s resulted in a gradual and general lessening of our own critical thinking skills. In this day and age, with so much information, content and advertising being thrown at us from every angle, I think it’s more important than ever that we be able to discern what information is real and what information actually matters to us and our lives. That last part is interesting, isn’t it? You’d think that we know what information pertains to us that we need to pay attention to, but actually, I find that many people spend and waste time on information that is of no essential use to them and ultimately allows it to detract from key information they may critically need. From a productivity standpoint, I find that talking and working with my students on overcoming issues of prioritization and task management ultimately leads to the solution of needing better critical thinking skills to better filter out relevant work from busy-work. The distinction between which makes the difference between a successful worker and an overwhelmed one! So let’s discuss critical thinking skills now and uncover some ways to improve them.
What are Critical Thinking Skills?
In order to improve on your critical thinking skills, I think it’s first important that you understand what critical thinking skills actually are! Critical thinking is defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” (Via CriticalThinking.org) Essentially, critical thinking skills are the ability to process information accurately so that you can then act on that information correctly.
Why are Critical Thinking Skills Important?
I’ve already given you some food for thought in the introduction of this post as to why critical thinking skills might be important to you, however, there are many more key applications and reasons why you would want to pay attention to how developed your critical thinking skills are and even make an effort towards improving them. On a very basic level, everyone has some critical thinking skills, as all of us think and use the information that we receive to do everything from basic mundane tasks to complicated projects and problem solving. All of us are wired within our brains to use the information around us in order to keep ourselves alive- this is basic human instinct, and because of this our default state is to use information selfishly to our own gain. Ever talk to someone who could take anything you said and find a reasoning why they are right and you are wrong? That’s the self preservation bias of our brains at work manipulating reasoning to make an argument that supports our own personal world view. The problem is, with something like 7 billion people on the planet, most people have completely unique world views and experiences. Yes, there may be areas of overlap, but no two people have the same life so no two people have the same world view. Which means that when we have to interact with others, which is quite often, in order to manage our lives to the best of our ability and move ourselves forward, we need to have more advanced critical thinking skills so we can solve problems.
How can We Improve Our Critical Thinking Skills?
As I mentioned earlier in the definition of critical thinking, these skills are a discipline, which means that you can develop them or you can loose them if you don’t actively use them. Think of your critical thinking skills like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets, but the more you ignore it, the weaker it gets. So, if you want to grow your skills, you will need to take a disciplined approach to exercising them. So here are three strategies I recommend making a regular part of your day if you want to see an improvement in your critical thinking skills.
#1. Question Everything
Most of us receive information and we just accept it. No questions asked, someone online states a fact and we believe them! Doesn’t matter if it is right or wrong, we blindly accept what we are being told. Now, I blame part of this on our educational upbringings that have conditioned us to accept the ideas and information of those in a position of power (even if that position is purely imagined) and society generally rewards people for not asking questions and just accepting things at face value. Accepting what we are told is easy- that’s for sure, but putting your brain on autopilot will not improve your critical thinking skills. So, when you are given information, any information, get into the habit of questioning it. Ask yourself “why” something is happening or whether or not something is true or false. Evaluate the information and think about it before just passively accepting it. Now, this does NOT mean you need to voice your questioning to others publicly. If your boss gives you an assignment, you don’t need to ask them “why” they are assigning it or what the purpose is if you don’t already know, but on your own time, think about why and question what you are being asked to do. It is only once you have formed a clear opinion or come to a reasonable conclusion that some task might be unnecessary or that certain information you received may be erroneous that you can bring it to the attention of others. Critical thinking is not about speaking before you know, its about thinking before you act.
#2. Face Problems Head On
It seems quite clear that the default mode for human behavior is to avoid problems and conflicts. This isn’t true of everyone, those who enjoy drama and manipulation due to an overactive need for self preservation love to exploit conflict, but most people avoid it if they can. People even go as far out of their way as possible NOT to solve a problem, mostly because they are afraid they won’t be able to solve it, which would conflict with our sense of self preservation that often tells us not to do something we can’t do in case it makes us look bad. No wonder the world has a disproportionate problem to problem solver ratio! Well, if you want to develop your own critical thinking skills, you need to break the cycle and face problems head on. Don’t avoid them, address them as soon as you are made aware of them, and begin using your reasoning to question and understand the situation and ways you can solve it. You will not be able to solve 100% of the problems that you face, but you will fail to solve 100% of those you choose to ignore.
#3. Understand and Overcome Your Perspective
As mentioned earlier, each of us has a world view or perspective that is unique to our personal experience in life, the preservation of which is a primary function of our egos. We’ve all heard anecdotes about how letting our egos get in the way can stop us from solving problems and making progress, and it really is true, when we rely too heavily on our own perspective and fail to understand the perspectives of others, conflict ultimately arrises. Now, I’m not suggesting that you make it your mission to understand the perspectives of everyone else in the world- that’s an impossible task and one that really won’t help you improve your critical thinking skills in the near future. Instead, what you can do is to seek to understand your own world view, personal biases and perspective so that you can consciously overcome your ego during moments of potential conflict. So, how do we seek to understand our world view? Again, ask yourself some questions, especially around your values and beliefs. If you struggle to identify what your values and beliefs are, you need only to turn on some 24 hour news coverage to hear the stories of the day and pay attention to your opinions on issues. Many people find that when it comes to their personal values or beliefs they “tow a line” for some prescribed ideology or another, without truly understanding or even caring about the issues at hand. Again, the default for human beings is not to question, to avoid problems and to protect ourselves in a conflict, but when you force your attention on your values and seek to understand why you are partial to one thing over another, you may find that long held beliefs seem irrational to you or things you thought were important to you really don’t matter much. Understanding your world view isn’t something you will be able to achieve overnight, and like the previous two strategies, it requires a discipline to execute in order to improve your critical thinking skills overall.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and the concept of improving your critical thinking skills. I’d love to know what you thought of this topic and any specific areas you may be interested in having me explore in a future post to round out this conversation and provide additional detail or insight. Leave me a comment or question below!