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Building Critical Thinking Skills

“The world is complicated. But does every problem require a complicated solution?”

Stephen J. Dubner

Lack of Critical Thinking

According to a 2016 survey of 63,924 managers and 14,167 recent graduates, critical thinking is the number one soft skill managers feel new graduates are lacking, with 60% feeling this way.

This confirms what a Wall Street Journal analysis of standardized test scores given to freshmen and seniors at 200 colleges found: the average graduate from some of the most prestigious universities shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years of schooling.

Employers fare no better. Half rate their employees’ critical thinking skills as average or worse.

Critical Thinking

The non-technical definition of critical thinking is to deliberately and systematically process information so that you can make better decisions and generally understand things better.

Few skills are more important to business leaders and entrepreneurs than being able to think critically.

Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments, and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not.

The statistic of our general lack of critical thinking skills answers the question about the prevalence of “fake news.”  Clearly, not all news is fake, but the lack of critical thinking makes it easy for untrue or misrepresented “news” articles to be passed off as authentic.

Improving Critical Thinking Skills

Fortunately, critical thinking skills can be improved with a little effort.   Here are several steps to take to increase your ability to evaluate arguments.

  1. Ask Basic Questions. Sometimes an explanation becomes so complex that the original question gets lost. To avoid this, continually go back to the basic questions asked when you set out to solve the problem.

Here are a few key basic questions you can ask when approaching any problem:

  • What do you already know?
  • How do you know that?
  • What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrated, critique, etc.?
  • What are you overlooking?
  1. Question Basic Assumptions. Some of the greatest innovators in human history were those who simply looked up for a moment and wondered if one of everyone’s general assumptions was wrong. From Newton to Einstein to Yitang Zhang, questioning assumptions is where innovation happens.
  2. Be Aware of Your Mental Processes. Human thought is amazing, but the speed and automation with which it happens can be a disadvantage when we’re trying to think critically. A critical thinker is aware of their cognitive biases and personal prejudices and how they influence seemingly “objective” decisions and solutions. All of us have biases in our thinking. Becoming aware of them is what makes critical thinking possible.
  3. Try Reversing Things. A great way to get “unstuck” on a hard problem is to try reversing things. It may seem obvious that X causes Y, but what if Y caused X?

Even if it turns out that the reverse isn’t true, considering it can set you on the path to finding a solution.

  1. Evaluate the Existing Evidence. When you’re trying to evaluate a problem, it’s always helpful to look at other work in the same area. There’s no reason to start solving a problem from scratch when someone has already laid some of the groundwork.

Ask the following questions of any evidence you encounter:

  • Who gathered this evidence?
  • How did they gather it?
  • Why?
  1. Remember to Think for Yourself. Don’t get so bogged down in research and reading that you forget to think for yourself–sometimes this can be your most powerful tool.

The Bible

Job 12:11 says.

Does not the ear test words
as the palate tastes food?

The lack of critical thinking is not new.  Clearly, Job, who lived several thousand years before Christ, knew to remind people to think critically.

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, we need to promote critical thinking in our organizations.  We need to teach people to think for themselves, to see arguments critically, and then to make decisions based on their own critical thinking processes.