Thinking taught, to think on a low

Thinking critically doesn’t mean you’re thinking harder or longer. It doesn’t even mean you’re necessarily critical. What are critical thinking skills, then, and how can we help improve them? This lesson takes a hard look at critical thinking.

What Are Critical Thinking Skills?

Have you ever solved a complex problem or engaged in a friendly debate with a friend? Even if your topic was ‘Who is the best super hero?’, you were using your critical thinking skills. Critical thinking uses all of our high-level thinking skills– analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and reasoning–to guide thought, belief or action. We use these skills in our everyday lives (like when we defend Superman) and our academic lives to show how we solved a problem.

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With the push for students to think more critically these days, the development of critical thinking skills has received a lot of attention. But why does it matter? Let’s take a look.

Why Does Critical Thinking Matter?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re always thinking. Our brains are machines that don’t turn off. Many of our thoughts are a stream of reactions–‘that tastes good,’ ‘I like that shirt,’ etc.

But sometimes we’re called on to be active thinkers, especially in academic situations. In school we’re taught not only what to remember and understand, but also how to think. You may not have noticed your teachers doing this, but this style of instruction molds the type of thought necessary for critical thinking. If the teacher requires you to take notes from lectures and gives simple multiple choice tests, you are only being required, and therefore taught, to think on a low recall level.

Teachers who ask many questions, interact with students during instruction and require them to defend their thinking are pushing for high-level thinking.

Improving Critical Thinking

Critical thinking requires us to be metacognitive, or to think about our thinking. We do this by analyzing and assessing our thoughts. While some people come about this skill naturally, not everyone is a natural born metacognitive machine. Although there are many ways to hone critical thinking skills, the approach we will discuss in this lesson highlights three steps to take to improve critical thinking:

  • Question

Instead of just saying Superman ‘is the bomb,’ critical thinkers question why they think so. Instead of just accepting your thoughts and opinions as truth, critical thinkers ask themselves questions to see if what they think is supportable with reason and logic.

What kinds of thoughts or behaviors do you have that haven’t been questioned? Do you always eat lunch at 11:00, whether you’re hungry or not? Or maybe you buy string cheese for health benefits that your sister told you about. Questioning your thoughts, behaviors and actions is step one in improving critical thinking.

  • Investigate

The thing about assumptions and opinions is they aren’t proven. You may think Superman is the best, but what do you have to back that up? What evidence does your sister have that string cheese is good for you? Critical thinkers move from questioning to investigating–looking for answers to their questions. Lucky for you, the internet is a vast resource for finding answers–but be careful. Critical thinkers look for solid answers, not just something written online. Check the validity of your research and make sure it comes from a reputable source.

  • Question Again

This may seem a little repetitive, but you’re only able to think that because you’ve already applied the first two strategies. After putting your thoughts through the analysis ringer and researching them, it’s time to go ahead and use this new information to question your thinking again. How valid are your thoughts in light of what you found? Do you need to back off of the string cheese? After you have facts, you can think about your thinking in a new way, using new information.

Putting Critical Thinking Skills to Use

Now that you know the basic formula of question, investigate and question again, it’s time to use your new skills. Being metacognitive isn’t something to do here and there.

To truly improve critical thinking skills, you’ll need to form a habit of using them. First, try to be more aware of the things your mind is saying. If you suddenly feel the need to change lanes on the highway, wonder why you’ve had this thought. Question where the thought came from and do your own mini-research to determine if it truly is the best move. Once you’re more aware of your thoughts and are able to question them on a regular basis, you’ll become adept at analyzing not just basic thoughts about cheese, driving and super heroes, but you’ll find yourself using critical thinking in classrooms, work and social settings.


Lesson Summary

Critical thinking skills are necessary for academia, work and everyday living.

Thinking critically means being metacognitive, or thinking about your thoughts. An easy three-step model is to question assumptions, thoughts and impulses, examine and investigate them, then question them again. Once you make a habit of this process, you’ll find you’re able to use high-level thinking in your day-to-day life and that you can defend the greatness of Superman like a pro.


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