WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING?
Very often, when I tell people that I teach Critical Thinking, they come up with scores of ideas and assumptions. For example, they assume that critical thinking deals solely with being judgmental or winning an argument. Well, none of these is completely correct. To put it broadly, critical thinking is a theory that aims to make thinking process more efficient. It developed at the intersection of philosophy (logic), linguistics and psychology.
There are two major dimensions/parts of this theory:
1) analyzing the process of thinking into separate yet interrelated elements; and
2) evaluating those elements and deciding which ones are worth keeping and which ones need to be improved. The word ‘critical’, as Gerald Nosich points out, refers to the word ‘criteria’, and not to the word ‘criticism’.
Critical thinking study provides information about biases and mistakes in reasoning and offers knowledge about the process of thinking and its challenges. It also outlines guidelines on how to think, speak and write in a positive and respectful manner and influence a particular audience not by force and manipulation, but by presenting strong arguments.
WHERE CRITICAL THINKING CAN BE USEFUL?
Although at first glance, it may seem a bit theoretical, critical thinking may help in many ways. Thinking process is behind all our actions and decisions. In business people are exposed to huge amounts of verbal information. Their messages should be short, informative and persuasive. However, sometimes even though people come up with brilliant ideas, these get lost behind verbal clutter and others simply fail to notice them. Studying critical thinking helps to address that. When we highlight the skeleton structure of an argument, it is easier to see how ideas connect together and whether they form a coherent big picture. That way we can get rid of redundant information that clutters communication and wastes valuable time.
Furthermore, critical thinking helps to recognize biases, faulty assumptions and weak spots in thinking. Let me give an example. Current economic recession has shown that the beliefs people had about the market don’t seem to work. So in order to improve the situation, first we have to make sense of what went wrong, challenge the hidden assumptions that drew economy off the rails. Knowing how to look for them and how to challenge them is also a part of the critical thinking course. Imagine, you are driving mindlessly in an unknown environment and suddenly you hit a hole in the road. Next time you drive through the same street, you will be more careful and drive around the hole. Similarly when you are aware of the challenges and biases of reasoning, you know what to expect and can be more prepared to handle the situation better.
Finally, critical thinking helps individuals to develop more resilience. That means to be knowledgeable, to recognize biases and not get easily influenced by bad arguments. Going back to the example of current economic situation, with less money on the market, less stability and unpredictability of the future is challenging individuals to become more entrepreneurial and look for new opportunities to generate income. The required change comes in (at least) two dimensions: it is needed not only to revise the policies in organizations, but also to strengthen the entrepreneurial mindset of people. That means that people gain more autonomy, are more able to think for themselves, identify and learn from mistakes, and come up with innovative solutions in situations of ambiguity.