There are many thoughts on what critical thinking is. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (OMG! There is actually a council for critical thinking?!?) wrote in 1987 that critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In layman’s words, it means values, in the purest form, that can transcend subject matter with good reasons, depth and clarity.
Of course, on the surface, it seems like a remarkable task to train critical thinking. There are simply too many implications, consequences, and alternative viewpoints to respond to. The whole idea is simply to be more responsive when you are discussing a subject matter, where key issues and purposes can be considered in a more philosophical way. And when I say philosophical way, I mean a complex idea of scientific thinking, historical creativity, moral objection, economic ideas and anthropological thought. And at this point, it would be either I had ‘wow’ you with the kind of clarity you can get from critical thinking, or dull you with the possibility of closing the browser so you can get some peace of mind.
Critical thinking can be learned
For experts in critical thinking, there are two parts to it. According to Stever Robbins, a serial entrepreneur who applies an engineering mindset to solving problems for companies and coaching people through career and life changes, he believes that critical thinking is a skill that can be learned. The first part of critical thinking is having a set of processing skills and belief generating expertise, while the second part involves the habit of using this expertise and skills to guide your behaviour. Stever Robbins, who graduated from the class of 1991 from Harvard, reckons that Critical thinking starts with logic. But logic is much more than acquisition and retention of information that makes sense; it is how this information can be treated.
It is also different from what the local universities (in my case, when I was doing my Bachelors in Singapore) seek to teach, which is a particular skill set; it involves the continuous usage of these skills. Ironically, it was my overseas education (both in an overseas exchange during my undergraduate years and eventually my Masters and Doctorate studies) that has thought me never to accept things at surface value and always challenge the contemporary assumptions. Then, I realize that critical thinking was not universal to any particular individual; everyone’s thought on each subject matter was so different. To me, these episodes of irrational and undisciplined thought were beautiful; the quality and depth of experience I have learned from many of my colleagues in a different discipline, field, and social status have taught me that the development of critical thinking skills is a life-long journey. I discover something new every day. Even old ideas can be thought differently now, with critical thinking.
Why is critical thinking skill important?
A more creative mindset. Helen Vendler, a former member of the Faculty Standing Committee on Admissions at Harvard College, shares that creative and critical thinkers are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or college. Experienced critical thinkers are those who make more connections across disciplines, subject matters and fields. Dr. Martin Karplus, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University and 2013 Nobel Laureate, summarized it well by saying that “if you want to continue to be creative, you need to go into something that you don’t understand.” Logical thinking would be the basis for engaging interdisciplinary and creative thinking, which in turn leads to personal, professional and academic success.
Forces intellectual self-improvement. I remember the last time I went into a political debate without facts, evidence, and information when I was doing my undergraduate studies in Singapore. It was supposed to be easy, isn’t it? As what you might have thought, I was bogged down and defeated by a fellow classmate, an exchange student half way around the globe in fact. Anthony Tjan, CEO and Managing Partner of Cue Ball and a Harvard Alumni, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that business-building success is often built upon self-reflection, and this self-reflection process will force one to critically review what went wrong and how to improve it the next time. At its core, critical thinking can be simply said as being inward-focused and maximizing your ability to reflect and think clearly and rationally. This sort of reflection, which is based on the evidence and information of what went wrong, would in turn improve your cognitive skills, allowing you to make the next quantum leap when you face adversity again.
Keep calm and stay cool. Critical thinkers are those who can stay rational, even in very stressful crisis or facing adverse circumstances. Rebecca Knight wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2014 quoting Professor Maria Gonzalez’s recommendation to identify your stress signals and shift your thinking about the task causing you distress. Maria, who is also a member of the Corporate Advisory Board for the Harvard Medical School, explains that people who can handle stress well generally view stress as “an opportunity to move forward that you want to take seriously.” And this requires you to make a bold and challenging assumption, which is a form of critical thinking. Your ability to handle stress would depend on what’s the logical decision-making process you are going to move forward with, and make sound decisions under tremendous pressure.
How to acquire critical thinking skills?
Explore and reshape attitude and character. While I would tend to recommend an overseas education where you will be thrown to the unknown, have to acquire new attitudes, characters, and assumptions to survive, an easier way to do it is to choose one intellectual or disciplinary trait to strive for and pursue it each month. The key is to put yourself in an unknown environment and focus on how you can develop that attitude and characteristic in yourself. For example, in Leadership and Management Institute, we consistently send pre-college students to the US to attend Harvard Summer School. This allows them to break free from their current environment and start to see what an intellectually, politically and culturally different environment can develop their intellectual humility. People start to notice and learn where they might have got it wrong or begin to wonder if the education they went through in Singapore suits them. You start to see that how defensive others can be to point out your lacking at thinking or work; observe the arrogance that prevents you from learning or continuing to learn; recognize the ignorance that kept you away because you wanted to stay in your comfort zone. By beginning to deal with it, you learn about critical thinking.
Reflection, reflection, and reflection. By keeping a journal and noting down entries on the situation, your response towards it, post-situation analysis and final assessment, you get to see the implication of what can be done differently, especially when you encounter similar situations again. Course Designer of Visible Thinking, Professor Shari Tishman, who is a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, emphasized three core practices: thinking routines, the documentation of student thinking, and reflective professional practice. Both professors from Harvard Business School, Dr. Francesca Gino, and Dr. Gary Pisano, shared the same thought in their new research and working paper, where they have successfully demonstrated the value of reflection in helping people do a better job. Visibility in critical thinking can be enhanced by a specific and exact response to a situation and digging beneath the surface to understand what you have learned about yourself and do the next time differently around.
Defining and redefining how we see what we see. We give meaning to life, both as a person and as part of any social setting. The actualization is not about what happened, but what meaning you give to what happened. And these meanings will define how we are going to feel about it, how are we going to react to it and its unknown implication that it has for us in the future. For example, one of our students, Bill Rao, did not do particularly well in his stint at Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore. You see, when you give a meaning of ”not particularly well”, you get the image of what his next path is going to be. In fact, he felt what everyone would have felt if put in the same position. We found this amazing, and it carried a tremendous opportunity for Bill. We spoke to him and inspired him to redefine what he felt. Our lecturers at Leadership and Management Institute told him, ”why not try Harvard?” With a bit of guts and newly defined mindset, he decided to enrol into Harvard and was eventually admitted under our coaching. Hence, the power to engage and attach a different mindset can be the way for critical thinkers to make their lives more meaningful, happy and fulfilling. That is how we can inspire critical thinking, in the definition we give to ourselves.
I know it can be hard, frustrated or even risky to adopt an alternative view. Then again, why can’t it be easy, exciting and fulfilling to adopt a view that can make us feel happy and complete about ourselves? This is critical thinking in action. We want to know what attitudes you have explored, what reflection you penned down and how you redefine what you might term as a failure the last time round. Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org as we seek to practice and redefine the way we see things, and hope that one day, our every encounter would be able to turn negatives into positives, dead-ends into new junctions and closed assumptions into opened-ended answers.
Discover what you might be bowing to and explicitly think about how you wish to either critically accept these assumptions, or reject that particular notion. Welcome, to our world of possibilities.