When you’re applying for higher education programmes, vocational studies, or job roles, you’ll often come across ‘critical thinking’ under the desired skills section. To help you understand what critical thinking actually is, why it’s important, and how to develop it, we’ve created this guide.
What is critical thinking?
The concept of critical thinking isn’t an easy one to pin down - a quick Google search for a definition throws up around 465,000,000 results. It’s a subject that’s often complex and expansive, but here’s a simple explanation to begin with:
Critical thinking is about objectively analysing information to form a judgement. It means thinking rationally about a subject from various angles.
When thinking critically, you don’t rush to a conclusion. Instead, you evaluate knowledge and ideas and make your own decisions about their merit. It’s the weighing up of different viewpoints of an argument to think about the strengths and weaknesses each holds, and then using them to form your own judgement.
Why is critical thinking important?
The ability to think critically is useful in almost every situation. It’s a valuable tool for problem-solving, it helps you to make informed decisions based on reasoned arguments, and it allows you to interpret data and evidence. It’s also a skill that you can practise and improve upon, and one that has real value throughout your life. This video from the University of Leeds offers a good summary of why it’s such a respected and useful skill. It can help you:
In the opening line of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Mr Gradgrind states, ‘Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.’ Mr Gradgrind is not a good example of a critical thinker. Although facts and evidence are important, it’s equally useful to be able to understand the origin of the evidence and the relationship between facts. Thinking critically allows you to evaluate the information, see through bias and manipulation, and come up with your own informed opinions.
Example: Stanislav Petrov was a member of the Soviet Air Defence Forces during the Cold War. In 1983, his computer showed a US nuclear missile heading towards the USSR. However, Petrov knew the system wasn’t always reliable, and that this didn’t look like the start of a full-scale attack. He correctly declared it a false alarm and saved the world from nuclear war.
Show academic curiosity
By objectively analysing the information that you come across, you don’t just accept what you’re seeing or being told at face value. Instead, you question the opinion presented to you and seek out the reasons and sources behind it.
Example: The 16th-century Italian astronomer, Galileo, rejected the teachings of the Church that the Earth was the centre of the universe. He studied the skies in detail with a telescope and determined that the Earth and all the planets of the solar system revolved around the sun.
Create compelling arguments
Arguments based on opinion without evidence are often easily taken apart. Critical thinking allows you to craft an informed argument that’s backed up with proof. This skill can be useful when writing essays, debating others or discussing whether tea or coffee is better. It allows you to present a balanced view that considers all the angles and means you can give your own opinion based on the evidence.
Example: Simone de Beauvoir, a 20th-century French philosopher, created one of the most influential feminist works of all time. Her book, The Second Sex, argued for equality and respect for women, challenging the established patriarchy. She used examples throughout history as well as contemporary political and ethical reasoning to construct her ground-breaking argument.
How to improve your critical thinking skills
- Look inside. Be aware of your own thoughts and actions. Challenge your biases by asking questions such as, ‘why do I believe this?’, ‘am I emotionally attached to this idea?’ and, ‘has it proven to be true or false before?’
- Evaluate evidence. This is another vital part of critical thinking. When you’re presented with information, question who gathered it, how they did so, and why. Do they have their own agenda and bias? Is there a reliable source that conflicts with this viewpoint? This TED-Ed video gives a good overview of how to examine information and make an informed decision about its worth.
- Question assumptions. As the saying goes, ‘when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.’ Assumptions can keep us in the same pattern of thought and action. By questioning them, you can evaluate your beliefs about what’s possible. You can also examine why others might assume and how doing so affects their actions.
- Listen actively. It’s often hard to listen in detail and think clearly at the same time. By actively listening to others without thinking about your own reaction, you’ll be able to fully appreciate their argument and see the pros and cons of it. You can then better frame your own response.
- Use empathy. Another critical skill is being able to put yourself in the shoes of someone else. It allows you to understand their motivation, aspirations, and point of view. Doing so means you can understand why they hold a specific belief and think a particular way.
Critical thinking exercise
Now that you know all about how critical thinking works, it’s time to put your skills to the test. Below is a thought experiment that might get your critical juices flowing:
Imagine that Theseus, the mythical founder and hero of Athens, kept his famous ship that he used to sail on his adventures. After his death, it was kept as a memorial. Over the years, the wooden planks the ship was made of began to rot and were replaced. After several decades, all of the original parts had been replaced. Was the ‘restored’ ship still the same ship as the original?
There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to this - it’s a famous philosophical question that encourages you to think critically.
Try and objectively analyse the information available to form your own judgement. Think rationally about the ship, its individual parts, and the assumptions we usually make about the existence of objects. Once you’ve come up with your own ideas, check out this video for a detailed breakdown of some of the solutions that have been proposed over the years.