How to think about critical thinking

Critical Thinking

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about thinking. Specifically, what do we mean when we say, “critical thinking?” It’s different from what we believe, and it’s notoriously difficult to change what we believe. The brain is tasked with protecting us in a variety of ways, including the protection for our psychological constructs of who we are in the world.

A lot of folks have specific ways of measuring critical thinking, but it generally includes the following elements:


  • Analyzing. Separating or breaking a whole into parts to discover their nature, functional and relationships.
  • Applying Standards
  • Discriminating
  • Seeking Information
  • Logical Reasoning
  • Predicting
  • Transforming Knowledge

Or as my grandfather jokingly would have put it when he wanted to take more time to make a decision, “I’se cogitating.”

This post is not meant to be yet another rubric for teaching critical thinking. There are plenty of those available, including many from teachers and teaching centers. It’s more about how we learn and discern in everyday life and in theoretical endeavors. An example of critical thinking in everyday life could be preparing for an interview and thinking about how to explain “transferable” skills to a potential employer.

Why is critical thinking important?

Because what you “know” informs how you act. It impacts how you see the future, and what you want to do about it. Yes, we all know things happened that were not what was planned. But without looking at the pros and cons of any given situation, and being rigorous in deciding what is the best-informed decision we can make. And for many of us, the best decision also relates to what provides meaning in our lives.

Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (published March 1, 2017) writes, “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue,” and “To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy.” Thinking critically is explicitly eschewed by the majority of people consuming information, privileging the idea that “my opinion is the truth,” whether evidence backs it up or not.

We are not doing ourselves or our society any favors when we stop analyzing and dissecting ideas.

Critical thinking requires effort

Thinking critically requires a lot more effort. Just like becoming an athlete means hours and hours of practice to get better, thinking about thinking helps us get better at thinking. You wouldn’t expect to run a marathon without doing lots of smaller runs first to build your strength.

Given what we know about the level of distraction and the fast pace of communication these days between social media and the web, having a buffer zone that allows you to step back and say, “What do I really (really!) know about this?  How do I know it? Is this confirming what I already believe, or is it asking me to think differently about this information?”

Critical thinkers apply intellectual standards to reasoning. Some of the greatest scientific discoveries happened when a person exploring an idea asked, “What if my assumption is not true?” Another way I sometimes phrase this with clients is simply, “What is the truth here?” or “What evidence do you have for that?”


In a question and answer interview in The Guardian (March 19, 2017) with the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari looks at the question, “Is anti-intellectualism rising in the west?”

His answer: I’m not sure that it’s rising. It’s definitely there but it was always there, and I’m not sure if the situation now is worse than in the 1950s or 1930s or the 19th century or the middle ages. So yeah, it’s definitely a concern. And I would say it’s not so much anti-intellectualism as much as anti-science. Even the most fundamentalist religious fanatics, they are intellectuals. They give far too much importance to the human intellect. One of the problems with a lot of religious fanaticism is that it gives far too much importance to the creations of the human intellect and far too little to empirical evidence from the world outside us.”

The role of imagination, intuition, or emotions.

This is not to downplay the role of imagination, intuition, or emotions in relation to the passion that may drive the intellectual inquiry requiring critical thinking. We probably all know the apocryphal story of Isaac Newton being bopped on the head by an apple and “discovering” the law of gravity; or Dmitri Mendeleev’s 1869 dream resulting in the creation of the periodic table; or Neils Bohr’s inspirational dream inducing the current model of the atom positing that electrons revolving around the nucleus can leap from one energy level to another.

What is sometimes lost in these mythical stories has to do with the incredible length of time these originators spent doing critical thinking first. I recently wrote about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, advocating the need for less distraction and more concentration to get better “deeper” results. He argues for work that pushes cognitive abilities to their limit and finds that the ability to do deep work has become increasingly rare.  He then posits that there will an increasing need for those people who can master “hard things” through the skillful management of attention, reaping the rewards of that mastery in their personal life, work life and for society, including for the production of new goods and services. Deep work envisions the possibility of breakthrough discoveries.  It’s another way of saying, “Critical thinking skills matter,” and they require time.

Allow yourself the time to do the hard work of critical thinking.

It may not always be comfortable or easy. But it can be seriously liberating. Finally, be prepared to defend the need for it in a culture that values instant communication and immediate results.


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