Why critical thinking is a 21st-century essential

Published: June 11, 2019 / 0 Comments

Critical Thinking

In this age of information overload, the ability to think critically is vital. Train yourself to think critically by adopting the following habits.

The ability to think critically has always been of value, but in this age of information overload, it has become an increasingly vital, yet increasingly rare commodity. Technology is a double-edged sword, granting untold benefits to humanity by providing easy access to a wealth of information, but at the same time, putting those tools in the hands of dangerous charlatans and propagandists.

Yet in time, this may be seen as a blessing in disguise, as it has provided strong incentive to train ourselves to think critically, and to make such training an essential part of any educational syllabus. We cannot reverse the tide of information proliferation, but we can develop the skills necessary to separate fact from fiction.

How to improve critical thinking

As Helen Lee Bouygues, founder of Reboot Foundation, writes in her article ‘3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking’, “the good news is that critical thinking is a learned skill”. It can be developed over time, with the right methods. To improve your critical thinking skills, make it a habit to do the following things:

Question

Evaluating the beliefs that people around you take for granted is one of the hardest things to do. Of course, the initial challenge is determining what is worth questioning. As Helen Lee Bouygues writes: “it’s hard to question everything. Imagine going through your day asking yourself: Is the sky really blue?”

She points out that questioning is particularly helpful when the stakes are high. In a business environment, an example would be rethinking your assumptions about what the target audience wants. Furthermore, someone who is trying to convince you to follow their lead may include ‘unstated beliefs’ as part of their reasoning; in other words, things they’ve accepted as true without feeling the need to explain why.

You need to keep a wary eye out for such mistakes when analysing an argument. They may include conclusions that are based on the individual’s own personal value system, which is entirely subjective. For example, when someone assumes that something is right or wrong simply because their religious or ethical background has taught them so.

Investigate

An essential part of critical thinking is learning to ask “how” and “why” as well as “what”. As Mary Halton from TED Ideas writes, the ability to answer questions with a quick web search “gives people a false sense of security; it makes them feel like they know a topic, but their knowledge is superficial”. To develop your critical thinking skills, you need to make a habit of delving more deeply into a topic, going beyond surface-level facts to truly understand the cause and effect.

Study

Knowledge is the foundation on which critical thought is built. Of course, knowledge by itself is not enough, without the intellectual tools to use it correctly, but it’s certainly an essential element. Furthermore, in order to hone your analytical skills, you need information to analyse.

Reason

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle spoke of the importance of reason, and their teachings remain relevant even today. But logic does not come naturally to the human mind, which is hard-wired to react based on emotion rather than reason.

Entrepreneur and productivity expert Stever Robbins describes logic as “the unnatural act of knowing which facts you’re putting together to reach your conclusions”. It takes mental discipline to do this, as many people choose to make the facts fit the conclusion, rather than ensure their conclusion is the result of a chain of logical observations.

Diversify

It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to experience different perspectives, including those that force you to question your beliefs. Especially in this day and age, where social media has made it possible for people to live inside bubbles where they only receive information that supports their chosen world view.

As Helen Lee Bouygues says, you can start small. For example, at your workplace, try to visit one of the other departments and see what the office life is like from their perspective. Helen Lee Bouygues writes: “Training yourself this way will help you escape your usual thinking and gain richer insights.”

Problem-solving

Finally, explore the ultimate purpose of critical thought, which is to solve problems. A strategy recommended by criticalthinking.org is to pick a problem a day, and work on it in your free moments. Break it down into elements by asking yourself questions such as “how would I summarise this problem in a clear and concise way so someone else would understand”, “what information would I need to solve this problem” and “how would solving the problem help me achieve my goals”.

The power of mind

Most people don’t realise the power they have to change the way they think, and by extension, the way they respond to challenges. If this topic is of interest to you, you can learn more about it by studying psychology at SACAP, where a range of psychology courses on offer, including part-time and full-time as well as online options, grant you the flexibility to learn how you so choose. For more information, enquire now.

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