This post looks at the technique of critical thinking – what it is, when to use it, how to use it, what are the benefits and other related issues.
- What is critical thinking
- A critical question checklist
- Raising self-awareness
- Deciding when not to decide
Questions to first consider
- Are you the kind of person who likes to question the way things are? What value is there do you think in this kind of approach?
Introduction to critical thinking
If we look back in this series, we can see that so far we’ve covered some important topics around learning. These include:
Examining behaviours that will help learning take place (Part 1),
Looking at the importance of taking responsibility for our own learning (Part 2),
Understanding how learning happens – the process itself (Part 3) and also
Strategies we can use to help us learn (Part 4).
Now let’s look at the next topic – critical thinking. This is a topic that often comes up when discussing learning but it is often not well understood.
What it means to be a critical thinker
In the normal course of our lives we are often faced with making decisions. Sometimes the decisions are important, sometimes not.
The choice between chocolate and vanilla flavoured ice-cream for example doesn’t require the need to ask deep and meaningful questions. It’s a pleasurable decision and there are really no long-term consequences to the decision we make.
Choosing a career or a place to live or a subject to study on the other hand are important decisions that are worthy of examining. Taking a critical approach to making these choices makes a lot of sense.
A critical approach involves asking questions and / or performing research on the topic and then listening carefully to the answers and carefully examining the results of research before making a decision.
We look at this information in a way that is as unbiased as possible. That is, we try to ignore our own pre-conceived ideas on the topic and the preferences of those around us. We use the facts as much as possible to guide us to make the best decision. It’s a simple approach but often not so easy to follow.
That’s why it’s good to have a checklist of the types of questions that are commonly asked. The one below comes from criticalthinking.org. This organisation is dedicated to the cause of critical thinking and is a good site to bookmark and visit from time to time.
A Critical Question Checklist
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Critical thinking in action
You don’t have to ask all the questions on the list before coming to a decision. Let’s look at a real-life situation below
Let’s say for example that I’m walking around the shopping mall and see a really nice looking pair of jeans in the shop window. I’m tempted to buy them but I need to ask myself some questions first because I don’t really have a lot of money and this could be (another) foolish waste of money.
What’s my motivation? Well I’m tired of wearing the old ones and these look really cool. Maybe not a good reason, but let’s test a little further.
The question really is – Do I need a new pair? The answer again is no. At this point I’m starting to feel uncomfortable.
My current assumptions about buying the jeans are around the idea that they will make me feel good and also make me look more attractive. This has some merit so I’ll keep going.
I don’t really have a strong point of view on whether to buy them or not, but the question on whether I have enough information to make an informed decision reminds me that there are plenty of other jeans shops around and these particular jeans may not be the best or cheapest.
At this point I’m feeling pretty uncomfortable about buying the jeans and start to move away from the store window. I’ll now never know whether the jeans would have made me magically more attractive, but I feel good because I’m walking away with money still in my pocket.
In a lot of ways, having a checklist is a way to make what are commonly unconscious decisions, more conscious. It will improve our self-awareness of what we are probably already doing to some extent. It will also allow us to expand on our current list of questions that we commonly ask and extend our questioning into new areas.
- Think back to the last time you purchased an expensive item or made an important decision and had to make a choice. Write down the situation.
- Now analyse your choice by asking the above questions one by one. Write a short answer to each question.
- Finally, revisit the decision you made by answering the following questions:
- What decision did I make?
- In hindsight, did I make the right decision?
- How do I know?
- Can I now see any other alternatives I could have made?
Do we always need to make a decision?
One thing that I’ve noticed is that once you start asking questions, it can become difficult to know when to stop. One solution is to give yourself a time-frame. Set a date and time to make the decision. If you really can’t decide at that time, then consider whether you really need to decide at all. Sometimes deciding not making a decision is the best decision to make.
Where to from here?
Becoming a critical thinker is a life journey. Start by questioning some of the beliefs and decisions of those close to you. Do this gently. Don’t get carried away and don’t take it too seriously. Remember that the purpose is not to criticise, but to assist yourself and those around you in making the best decisions and choices possible in a world in which we are often faced with far too many choices.
To extend your knowledge in this area, I suggest the Critical Thinker Podcast series. It is available on YouTube.