It’s 2016, and every educator seems to be talking about critical thinking skills.
Students need critical thinking to succeed in and out of the classroom. Educators need critical thinking in order to help students get around common learning barriers. And CEOs want critical thinking from employees, so that they'll also have problem solvers on hand.
Just what is critical thinking, anyway--and why is it so near the top of the hiring list?
Before any person can think critically, that person needs to acquire three mental skills: reason, judgment, and problem solving. All are a part of critical thinking, a skill that allows the thinker to look objectively and analytically at an issue before forming a fixed opinion.
Science and the Power of Reason
A long time ago, the earth's inhabitants thought the world was flat. Most made this assumption based on the view of the horizon in front of them. It was assumed that once a traveler reached the horizon, he or she would have reached the end of the earth.
Unfortunately, this popular view didn't rely on objectivity or scientific fact. As world explorers like Magellan traveled the globe, they noted that the stars changed locations in the sky depending on the ship's location. Based on these facts, systematic observation, careful study, and scientific reason, those desiring knowledge eventually arrived at the truth: the earth is round.
By contrast, those who didn't rely on reason probably fell into these common traps instead:
- Personal bias and prejudice
- Peer pressure
- Logical fallacies
- Overwhelming emotions (for example, fear)
- Superstitions and “knee-jerk” reactions
- Short-term thinking
- Lack of relevant information
A reasoning person may have doubts and questions, but he or she can experiment on those questions through systematic testing and observation over time. By using reason, anyone can begin to exercise critical thinking.
The Use of Good Judgment
Of course, sometimes good questions don't have answers, at least not at first. In many cases, critical thinkers still must make initial judgments before they know all the facts. If a person asks good questions, allows plenty of time to ponder, and uses wisdom, his or her judgment may lead to the next observation, which in turn may lead to solving a particular problem.
This kind of questioner doesn't assume that he or she already has the right answer. Instead, the careful thinker asks a wide variety of questions and doesn't jump to conclusions immediately. Once a person has come up with several questions, he or she may think ahead to possible answers. Logic and good judgment go hand in hand during the questioning process.
Unfortunately, many students don't have the confidence or experience to rely solely on their judgment. Instead, they look to teachers and other mentors for suggestions. A wise instructor can help
students risk errors by pointing out that there may be more than one "right way." Teach students:
- That it’s safe to ‘fail'
- That good judgment also includes good listening and experimentation skills
- That most assumptions are neither bad nor good—they’re only places to start
The Path to Solving Problems
How do most learners solve problems? Sometimes, students solve problems on their own, developing independence and confidence along the way. That said, sometimes the best method for problem solving problems comes in a group setting. Bouncing ideas off of other thinkers can help every person think more critically.
Of course, when students leave the classroom and enter the job force, both the independent and team model are in full force. The best problem solvers can work equally well in both situations.
Unfortunately, not every classroom prepares students to become good problem solvers.
Consider: many students take knowledge at face value, favoring one viewpoint and dismissing another as incorrect. However, if students regularly entertain multiple views, they learn to reason, debate, judge, and interact in highly critical ways. They value new perspectives and learn how to engage with topics they may otherwise dismiss out of hand.
Most importantly, these thinkers later become problem solvers, both in school and on the job later. You never know if the next Steve Jobs might be in your classroom!
Do your classrooms a favor: teach your students how to think about differing points of view. Their—and your—educational experience may never be the same again.
Watch for future blog posts on trending educational topics and Imagine Learning activities. In the meantime, how do you foster the skill of critical thinking? Tell us in the comments below.