How to improve your critical thinking

Too often we … enjoy the comfort of opinions without the discomfort of thought.”– J.F.Kennedy

Each one of us perceive and understand the problems, events and circumstances of our lives in different ways based on our thoughts, beliefs and habitual behaviours that we cultivate on a daily basis. How we think affects everything from our ability to solve problems to overcoming obstacles, make decisions both big and small and how we understand meaning, value and purpose. Thinking has been described as the capacity to reflect, reason, and draw conclusions based on our experiences, The ability to think clearly and rationally is important in whatever we choose to do and so is the ability to analyse information and integrate different sources of knowledge in solving problems. But most of the times, our thinking gets stuck in a habit loop like a trigger that leads to a routine and a reward in the end reinforcing said routine. This is because our brains are pattern making survival machines and habits are how it ensures that we don’t have to work too hard about what to do when familiar situations arise. In the same way, we form habits of thought when it comes to how we think about different information, circumstances or situations and tend to internalise patterns of thought like we do habits.

This is one of the main reasons why we are so resistant to change and tend to look at information from a single point of view. Also, What we learn in one context, we tend to apply it to others, mixing up triggers that lead to routine thoughts and perceive information, events or circumstances in single perspective leading to both problems of comprehension and understanding. Because our thinking patterns emerge from mental habit loops, we form a response to experience or information and struggle to solve problems or lack decision-making process or sense of meaning or purpose. This is due to the fact that our current thinking patterns are not adequately suited for arriving at solutions, decisions or right conclusions.

The only way to diversify and make our thoughts better fit the form and shape of a problem or to overcome an obstacle is to seek out new critical thinking patterns. Critical thinking allows you to analyse information from an unbiased and reflective perspective to help trigger new insights and understanding that enables you to find suitable answers to most difficult challenges.

So, what exactly is critical thinking?

According to dictionary meaning, it is the process of thinking carefully about a subject or idea without allowing feelings or opinions to affect you. In other words, it is a way of thinking in which we don’t blindly accept all arguments, opinions and conclusions we are exposed to, but rather, evaluate everything in light of what’s true. If we break that down, the definition of critical thinking is essentially the ability to carefully and deliberately analyse information in order to understand things better. It is the process of thoughtfully considering, analysing and questioning the information we receive from all sources, including other people, news, television and the internet. The main goal of critical thinking is to separate truth from what is false, considering the contexts of issues and getting at the underlying assumptions beneath information we receive.

Understanding critical thinking

Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It’s thinking in this way that prevents us from unconsciously succumbing to the propaganda and manipulations of others. It’s important to note here that thinking critically certainly doesn’t mean that we belittle, disagree with, or undermine anyone else’s perspective – it just means that we’re more committed to the process of evaluating the accuracy on our own. Moreover, ‘critical thinking’ is generally thought of as a mode of thinking in which one improves the quality of thinking by skillfully analysing, assessing, and reconstructing his or her thought by asking questions. In order to be considered as a critical thinker, the person must be reflective, self-aware, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective.

Critical thinkers take an issue and break it down into it’s component parts, analysing an issue from as many angles as possible to come to best possible solution. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he or she knows and can use that information to solve problems, seek evidence, question assumptions and examine the reasoning. Thinking critically means us making well-reasoned judgments that are logical, rational, non-emotional and well-thought out. Here are few characteristics of strong critical thinkers:

Curiosity or inherent inquisitiveness – instead of taking everything at face value, a curious person will wonder why something is the way it is.

Active listening – To participate in active listening and hear other point of views.

Truth-seeking – A genuine concern to become and remain well-informed in truth.

• Authentic confidence in reasoning, in one’s own abilities to think reasonably, maturely and sensibly.

Open-mindedness – Being receptive to new ideas, divergent world views, all possibilities, interpretations and perspectives.

Flexibility of thought in considering alternatives views and perspectives.

Humility – the willingness to acknowledge one’s shortcomings or being aware of flaws and also your strengths in your thinking.

Self-evaluation– the ability to evaluate their own thinking using standards of reasoning such as clarity, coherence, depth and relevance.

Analytic and are meta-cognitive-they are aware of their thought process and understanding how and why they arrive at particular conclusions.

The value of thinking critically

To improve the quality of our lives, we must establish consistency in our habits, thoughts and new patterns of taking action. The true value of any new skill you learn is in direct proportion to the frequency of its use. In order to take yourself to the next level of productivity or self-improvement in your problem-solving, you must realise that the same pattern of thinking that has gotten you to where you are will not get you to where you want to reach. One of the biggest challenge in self-growth is resistance to change. “Critical thinking is a way to intervene in your thought process,” says Linda Elder, an educational psychologist “It’s a way to routinely and consistently seek problems in your thinking.” With the power of critical thinking, you can free your mind of any thought patterns that no longer serve you. and condition yourself to new empowering alternatives.

The latest research has shown the effectiveness of critical thinking in the workplace that helps in doing so and in coming up with a creative solution to a problem through the process of self-evaluation and self-analysis. Strong critical thinking skills can put you on the path to achieving more of your goals and can help you rid your mind of limiting thinking patterns that you’ve accumulated throughout your life. Research also has shown that employees who possess good critical thinking skills are more creative, outshine their co-workers in job performance, and are more effective leaders as it helps acquire new perspectives and strengthen arguments.

Critical thinking skills allows you to really evaluate facts and data rather than just accepting them at face value. It gives you the ability to identify and understand the logical connections between concepts, detect faulty reasoning, systematically solve issues, and test arguments. Thus enabling you to expand perspectives and possibilities to find new solutions that will help you to overcome problems and challenges by separating facts from opinions, causes from effects, and ideas from assumptions.

How to improve your critical thinking

Critical thinking is a valuable skill that all of us can improve with the right process. A host of logical fallacies and habitual thinking patterns like jumping to conclusions, failing to notice assumptions, thinking hypocritically, being superstitious, blaming others or dismissing other perspectives can cause barriers to critical thinking. Here are some strategies and questions to improve your critical thinking skills in personal or professional areas.

Ask questions to seek clarity

A series of questions help you reveal what you think of an argument or idea. It is important to always ask yourself why something is important and how it connects to things you already know. Formulate questions that will equip you to swift through the information you receive critically to find what you are looking for. Gather thorough objective insights about events and circumstances that are manifesting within your reality. This is achieved through a process of organising, comparing, translating and interpreting a variety of perspectives to distinguish between facts, opinions, and between causes and effects.

Critical thinking Questions to self-reflect: What information do you already have? Why is it important? Where did it come from? Why this is or isn’t significant? What is the point or ‘big idea’ of …? Can you provide reasons for your perspectives and the stance you have taken? What else could this mean? Can you restate this another way? What could have triggered this problem? Do you agree that …? Why or why not? What information would you need to make a decision about …? How could you prioritize …?

Confront your biases and assumptions

Critical thinking is about recognising biases in our own thinking. Thinking critically is all about confronting those biases as often as possible. Analyse each and every circumstance from alternative perspectives. Do not jump to any rushed conclusions or make unnecessary assumptions about the events and circumstances you are experiencing. Break down all the possible assumptions that may be colouring your perception of reality by questioning possible misunderstandings or misleading conclusions. Ask questions to help distinguish facts from assumptions. Gather information and seek to gain insight by asking open-ended questions that probe deeper into the issues.

Critical thinking Questions to self-reflect : Could this be an assumption? Why do I think my assumptions hold here? What things are misinterpreted here? What is another explanation for this? Can this perspective be justified? Is this relevant to the solutions I am hoping to realise? What is most relevant in this? What do others believe about this scenario? Have I already formed any opinions? What are the differences between … and …? How is … related to …?What ideas could you add to … and how would these ideas change it?

Look for alternative perspectives

Whenever you are confronted with a problem, gain clarity from different angles and perspectives. Question yourself and others about the potential causes, reasons, and possible solutions. It is important to self-check to ensure that you take an objective view and recognise your biases. Begin questioning the validity of your perspectives. What are your reasons for saying or holding that perspective?

Critical thinking Questions to self-reflect: What would someone who disagrees with me say? Describe … from the perspective of ….?What do you think about …? Explain your reasoning. Does anyone see this another way? What are the reasons for approaching from this perspective? Have I considered the opposite point of view? How are alternative perspectives justified? How does this perspective apply here in this situation? What else should you consider? If we consider it, how will it change?

Look for evidence

Don’t take everything at face value. Evaluate and assess things that you hear, read and see before you draw any conclusions. When you are presented with news, information or questions, consider the possible solutions and implications of each. As you gather information, consider the motivations of each source and thoroughly examine and investigate the information you are working with.

Critical thinking Questions to self-reflect: What evidence can you present for/against…? How does … contrast with …? what’s the original source of the information? How is this related to? Is this conclusion based on evidence? What is the relationship between? What are the possible causes that triggered this problem in the first place? What possible conclusions can be drawn from this? What evidence can I find backing up these conclusions? What other ideas can justify this? Do you agree that …? Why or why not? What information would you need to make a decision about …?

Be aware of common thinking errors:

To develop critical thinking, you will have to make value judgments rather than being judgmental. It is important to be aware of your own short comings and limitations and prejudices. Evaluate information objectively and be open to new ideas. Be aware of logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning that make you embroiled into taking sides. Don’t jump to conclusions and practice open-mindedness.

Critical thinking Questions to self-reflect: What assumptions exist? Is your interpretation of the information logically sound? What solutions could you suggest the problem of …? Which might be most effective solution and why? When might this be most useful and why? What possible changes could you make to solve this effectively? What would happen if? What could be done to minimise this problem? What is the best potential solution for this problem? What criteria could you use to assess …?

Pay attention to relevant details

One of the most important part of developing critical thinking skills is learning what details matter. We are exposed to loads of information and opinions everyday that it’s easy to get lost in the details. You need to train yourself which details matter and which don’t. Think about who benefits from a statement and what are the motivations behind their opinions.

Critical thinking Questions to self – reflect: Which details are most important and why? What concepts are at work? What patterns do you notice in …? What is shaping your approach to this situation? What are your concerns? What would need to change for you to have a different opinion? What are the most important parts or features of …? Where is … most/least …? How could you judge the accuracy of? What ideas could you add to … and how would these ideas change it?

So, Are you a critical thinker? and in what areas might you benefit from thinking more critically in certain aspects of your life? Do you always defer to other people’s opinions? How confident are you in your own judgment and reasoning ? Do you evaluate your own thinking? Do you jump to conclusions? Do you try to see things from different perspectives? How receptive are you to new ideas? Do you try to understand reasons behind things? Do you evaluate pros and cons of your decisions?

To-do

• challenge assumptions

• question creatively

• construct, analyse and evaluate arguments

• Be open to alternative perspectives

• discerningly apply values of inquiry

• engage in a wide variety of cognitive skills, including analysing, explaining, justifying and evaluating.

To conclude,

Critical thinking is an essential habitual thought process that is important to cultivate and grow on a daily basis. The better your critical thinking is, the more effective will be your decision-making and more likely you are to achieve your goals. Take some time out to self-reflect on your thoughts by asking yourself critical questions to gain clarity on issues, conclusions, or beliefs. Question deeply to examine or evaluate assumptions and to overcome your habitual limiting thought patterns. With time, practice, and diligence using the above strategies, meaningful thinking can become a part of your daily routines and you will be able to better develop your critical thinking abilities and adequate reasoning,