The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a vague term that can mean anything. Is it a mystical elixir brewed by medieval monks that gives you the ability to use your brain fully? Is it the disciplined process of making calculations like a mad mathematician on the verge of making a grand discovery? Ask 10 different people, and they will tell you 10 different things. And that’s the trouble.

If you can’t clearly define a concept. If you can’t explain what is critical thinking. You can’t teach your child critical thinking. You can’t help your colleagues improve their thinking. You’ll just randomly throw fancy concepts like biases, mental models, and Bloom’s taxonomy.

From the outset, critical thinking seems like an understandable concept – i.e., thinking better. While surely true, this definition is only touching the surface of what critical thinking truly is.

I’ve explained this concept in a more detailed manner in my post on why is critical thinking important in daily life.

But to refresh your memory, or if you’re new around here. The ability to think critically is commonly described as the active process of using your cognitive skills to manipulate incoming information, so you can solve problems and reach the best possible outcome.

In plain English, you don’t automatically believe everything that you’re presented with. You reach out. Grab the idea with your hand, and you start examining.

This means that you don’t mechanically agree with the neighborhood kids when they try to convince you to smoke a cigarette. No. You stop. Remember what your parents told you about smoking, and you cheerfully decline – and find another group of kids to hang out with.

And if this isn’t enough to understand why teaching critical thinking is essential for the normal breathing person. I’ve prepared a whole section that’s just below…

Why Teaching Critical Thinking Is Essential?

There is a growing shortfall in relation to critical thinking.

Executives from various fields label their employees’ abilities to reason average or worse.1 Moreover, over 60% of managers say that critical thinking skills are the number 1 skill recent graduates lack.2

If we trace the daily life of one individual. We can easily spot why there is insufficiency in the current thinking skills.

From an early age, we are progressively steered towards a cage. Not necessarily a prison. Something worse.

We are curious and adventurous as kids. But the comments of our parents and teachers eventually lead us to a mind prison.

the-importance-of-teaching-critical-thinking
When you don’t think critically. The opinions of others become your opinions. And this by definition means that you also adopt their limitations.

Throughout your life, you’re continuously not taught how to think. But schooled what to think about. What you should believe. Who to vote. How to dress. How to comb your hair. Where to work. What to work. And even, in some countries, who to date and marry.

The overprotectiveness of our parents and their desire to prevent us from making mistakes is their biggest mistake ever.

Since parents solve all of our problems. We don’t learn how to solve problems by ourselves.

We regard thinking as a given. As a software package installed as we emerge into the world. Something we inherit from our ancestors by default. But this is not the case.

Thinking, good thinking, develops with the right attitude and a supporting figure who can guide us along the way.

The Common Challenges of Learning How To Think

Why is it so difficult to teach people how to think critically?

There are a couple of problems, the main one being that people don’t think that they should work towards improving their ability to reason.

Teaching thinking skills and learning thinking skills are considered obsolete, unnecessary. As something you eventually learn all by yourselves – like talking or walking.

But as you can conclude on your own, there is a difference between just spitting words to say something and carefully aligning the vocabulary exiting out of your mouth to create an interesting narrative that will make others feel something.

Yes, pretty much everyone is efficient at talking. But hardly anyone is efficient at communicating.

The same is true with thinking.

I can have a thought about investing my money in assets. But this doesn’t mean that my thought will be good. That what I form in my head will lead to positive net returns.

Like with everything else. Thinking needs practicing. Needs learning. And that’s why teaching critical thinking, promoting critical thinking in the classroom, on the street, and on the job. Should be part of the daily life of any parent, manager, or teacher.

Evidence-Based Ways to Teach Critical Thinking

We’ve covered why we need to teach critical thinking.

Now let’s see what are the ways to teach critical thinking.

The most effective way to foster the ability to reason in others is by teaching them the following:

  1. Analyzing information.
  2. Sharing ideas and concepts.
  3. Making connections between ideas.
  4. Sifting through important and unimportant tasks.
  5. Producing new and original ideas.

Do these sound good?

Probably even familiar?

Yes, these 5 components exist in different variants in all major critical thinking publications. Sure, they are necessary to teach critical thinking but they are incredibly vague.

To start making improvements. We need to translate and form these soft skills into tasks that can be practiced and mastered.

So, to boost critical thinking in others – yourself included. Use the following:

Critical Thinking Teaching Practices:

1. Critical Thinking Through Teaching Something

presentation board with critical thinking questions
The best way to learn something is to teach it. And these two processes – learning and teaching – both involve critical thinking.

I remember the first time I was asked to make a presentation in front of a group. I was nervous as hell. I had all the common anxieties related to public speaking – sweaty hands, self-doubt, thoughts about fleeting the country, etc., etc.

But after I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll stand in front of a crowd and say stuff. I settled down and I started working on my presentation.

The idea was to explain something I already knew. And since I knew the thing I had to present. I thought that it will be a couple of hours of work. However, it turned out that forming what you have in your head in an educational document is quite challenging work.

You have to take what you know and shape it into something understandable -digestible. Taking into account that others will probably have no idea what you’re talking about.

This not only improves your analytical skills. But allows you to practice empathy. You think about it like this: “Hmm… probably people won’t know what I know. That’s why I need to make this argument clearer, with more vivid examples.”

To be honest, the above is one of the main reasons I love writing and building a library of book summaries.

When I summarize a book. I take the concept that forms in my head while I read the book and I transform it into something easily digestible. It’s hard work. But this type of work enhances my critical thinking in various ways. I think about the idea from many different angles and this allows me to further improve my knowledge on the topic.

So, if you want to help someone you know to get better at a certain skill. You can simply ask this person to present something he/she already knows.3

2. Critical Thinking Through Art

picture of a Mona Lisa with critical thinking questions
A simple way to engage in critical thinking is just to stare at art long enough so you can start asking questions about how it was created.

Another popular way to dramatically improve problem-solving skills is by teaching critical thinking through art.4

Don’t panic. This doesn’t necessarily mean making art. It’s about looking at art.

It sounds simple, right?

It’s most certainly not.

Let me expand on this…

Go to the nearest museum. Choose a painting or a sculpture and look at it. Have a good look at the picture.

Then, start asking yourself questions:5

  • What do you see? What are the main components in the piece of art?
  • What this piece of art makes you think of?
  • What kind of connections form in your head in relation to the painting?
  • What more do you want to know about the piece of art? About the author?

In the book Four Thousand Weeks. The author Oliver Burkeman shares a story related to this. It’s about a history teacher – Jennifer Roberts. The first task she assigns to her students is to look at art for three hours straight. Not phones. No chit-chat with visitors. You just sit and look.

While surely exceptionally torturing mental experience. This process helps you calm down and not only look, but also see.

Art looks simple and unworthy for more than a glimpse because we don’t pay enough attention.

If you slow down and take the needed time to fully grasp the piece. Start asking critical questions about what’s in front of you. Your brain will not only make connections with other ideas. But it will start to notice other components that were previously neglected.

3. Critical Thinking Through Sharing and Reflection

a piece of paper with critical thinking questions to answer
Journaling and/or sharing your thoughts with others is a proven way to refine your thinking.

One of my favorite ways to exercise my brain is to simply contemplate about the past and make plans for the future.

How do I do it?

Notoriously simple. I grab my notebook and I write. This exercise doesn’t require anything else besides pen, paper, time, and the courage to be both honest about what I did and hopeful about what I’m going to do.

Patiently document everything your mind creates – also called journaling. This is by far – at least for me – the best way to revise my thoughts and steer myself both mentally and physically towards a better location.6

In social situations. We can re-use the above and adapt it for multiplayer use. For assistance, I’m grabbing the book Teaching to Transgress where the author, bell hooks is a huge advocate of teaching critical thinking.

In the just mentioned title, one of the things she did in her classroom is to create a safe space. A place where her students feel OK with sharing and reflecting on their thoughts. The more you share with others, the more you understand your reasoning. Plus, the rest of the students draw on your knowledge and experience.

The above basically translates to a couple of things.

If you want others to improve the way they think. You need to create a safe environment. A place where people can openly discuss what they think about.

Think about the opposite – a place where you are constantly accused. Who will want to talk if every word you say is constantly used against you?

I think the general point here is that businesses, classrooms, parents, and adults of all sizes should encourage a free flow of ideas. This also means not being harsh with people if an idea is apparently silly.

As the saying goes, you need many bad ideas to create a single good idea.

Examples of Teaching Critical Thinking

As mystical as it might sound. Critical thinking doesn’t need a miracle technique to be obtained.

It takes practice. Gentle reminders that there is no secret ingenious alternative to just thinking deeply about a topic.

With this in mind, we can look at a couple of examples of teaching critical thinking that can be incorporated into your life.

The practices below can be practiced by nearly everyone. If you are a manager and you want to encourage your employees. If you are a teacher and you want to help your students. And even if you are a parent and you want to have fun and thoughtful Saturday evening.

Here are a couple of exercises to inspire critical thinking:

  1. Teach something you don’t know: Based on the Feynman learning technique – part of the mental models for learning. The best way to learn something is to teach it. Consider something you want to understand and arm yourself with the task to teach it to a group of people. What do you need to know? How would you make the presentation? This simple teaching technique not only flexes your analytical abilities. But makes you good at researching and summarizing concepts.
  2. Improve something already working: How would you make a car better? Or an airplane? Fantasizing about futuristic cars might seem like an activity dedicated for kids, but it shouldn’t be. Probably you’re imagining flying cars. Good! Now think about how this can become reality. What needs to happen in order for a car to fly?
  3. Worsen something you currently use: What if, instead of trying to make something better. You think about ways to make it the worst possible thing. This is often referred to as reverse brainstorming or reverse thinking. You turn the problem upside-down. Instead of asking how a restaurant can get more customers. You ask, how can we get people to hate our restaurant? The “solutions” might sound horrifying. And that’s the whole idea. By pointing out what will make you hate something. You can focus on improving these exact things.
  4. Engage in a debate: Debating about a topic is one of the best ways to reinforce your skills on a topic. You think in advance of how others might confront your views and you prepare yourself. Pick a topic and structure your argument. An argument has three basic parts: a claim, a warrant, and an impact. The claim is what you are trying to prove. The warrant is the evidence for why this is true. The impact is why it matters in the first place.
  5. Engage in analytical reading: Reading passively is easy. You just sit and vacuum the words inside books. A better way presented in the book How to Read a Book by Charles Van Doren & Mortimer J. Adler is to engage in analytical reading. Besides reading the sentences. You ask questions. What the book is about? What is true? What is not true? What else can be said? This exercise can be practiced for all sorts of reading materials, not just books. Articles, tweets, videos even. Take one piece and start asking questions. You’d be surprised to see what else can be said on the subject.

Some Closing Thoughts

Teaching critical thinking is probably the best way to improve your critical thinking skills.

Hopefully, the importance of why it’s needed is clear. The process of considering the consequences. Weighing the pros and cons. Evaluating the facts. Are all necessary to solve everyday problems.

Simply put, thinking about how to think better should be part of your daily to-do list.

As the world moves towards information superabundance. We need better ways to evaluate what holds our attention.

The irony today is that we have supercomputers in our pockets. But this doesn’t mean that we are super smart. What you have in your pocket is designed to reduce thinking, not enhance it.

Notifications lead us to apps. And these apps are designed to engage us for hours while not only taking money out of us. But they also totally and permanently absorb our attention.

I often think about the future. How our lives will look. And I get worried.

We will just plug into an endless virtual online world where everything is designed for fun and carelessness. Where everything is designed to prevent us from thinking about our decaying body and mind.

Or, we’ll have the ability to recognize that reducing friction isn’t necessarily bad. It’s oftentimes needed.

Yes, you can probably finish a book by listening to the audio version at 3X speed. But this doesn’t mean you will get what the author was trying to say.

Yes, you probably visited the Louver and saw the Mona Lisa painting. But this doesn’t mean you saw the efforts behind the painting. That Leonardo da Vinci worked on the piece for more than 14 years – up until his death.

That’s what critical thinking is all about. Not only looking. Not only reading. But seeing and understanding.

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Footnotes:

  1. How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most; Survey done by aacu.org.
  2. The most commonly lacking soft skills among recent grads according to a PayScale report are critical thinking and problem solving, attention to detail, and communication.
  3. There are numerous studies that show that the best way to learn is to teach. Here is just one: Logan Fiorella, Richard E. Mayer, The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Volume 38, Issue 4. On the internet at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0361476X13000209
  4. D. Bowen, et. al., Learning to Think Critically: A Visual Art Experiment, Educational Researcher, on the internet at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0013189X13512675.
  5. Part of these questions were inspired by the EDX course on teaching critical thinking through art. And more precisely this video: LINK.
  6. Janesick, Valerie J. Using a Journal to Develop Reflective and Critical Thinking Skills in Classroom Settings. Counterpoints 110 (2000): 173–86. On the internet at http://www.jstor.org/stable/42975941.
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