Critical thinking: an essential skill for every student
Table of Contents
- What is critical thinking?
- Critical thinking skills you need to master
- How to improve your critical thinking skills
- Is critical thinking crucial to problem-solving and decision making?
- Can critical thinking ability be tested?
- Critical thinking vs intelligence: which do you value the most?
- Does critical thinking positively impact leadership?
What parent doesn’t want their child to learn skills for wise decision-making and problem solving? The importance of critical thinking is more obvious than ever in a world where fake news, scams and hoaxes are part of everyday life.
Here at ACC, we are committed to teaching our young people skills for thinking deeply about issues they will encounter in their relationships, work and culture. Most importantly, we want those skills to be rooted in the truths of the Bible – God’s foundation for critical thinking.
What is critical thinking?
Before we look more deeply, it seems helpful to define critical thinking. However, as an abstract concept that’s been discussed since the times of early Greek philosophy, it is notoriously hard to pin down an agreed definition.
There are elements that experts agree are essential for critical thinking, such as being able to think independently, clearly and rationally. It involves the ability to reflect on an idea or problem, apply reason, and make logical connections between ideas.
Life skills website Skills You Need point out that critical thinking “is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.”
“Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value,” they write. “They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not.”
For example, a high schooler may see a news item about climate change. They can apply critical thinking skills to reflect on the different arguments, learn more about the topic and come to a reasoned conclusion.
Skills You Need add that critical thinking has a goal – to arrive at the best possible solution in given circumstances. It is a “way of thinking about particular things at a particular time; it is not the accumulation of facts and knowledge or something that you can learn once and then use in that form forever, such as the nine times table.”
As an example, your student might see a social media post spreading rumours about someone they know. They can use critical thinking skills to evaluate the accuracy (or otherwise) of this specific information, at this time.
Skills You Need note that someone with critical thinking skills can:
- understand links between ideas
- determine the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas
- recognise, build and appraise arguments
- identify inconsistencies and errors in reasoning
- approach problems consistently and systematically
- reflect on the justification of their own assumptions, beliefs and values.
Perhaps more important is the question of why critical thinking skills are so vital. There are various reasons:
- Studies indicate that critical thinking skills are among the most highly valued attributes that employers seek in job candidates. They want staff who can solve problems, make decisions and take appropriate action. In an Australian context, a 2015 report indicated that demand for critical thinking skills in new graduates rose 158 percent over three years.
- Research also indicates that critical thinkers experience fewer negative life events, such as racking up credit card debt or getting arrested for drink driving.
- In our increasingly secular society, young people are exposed to a plethora of ideas that counter the truths of the Bible. They need critical thinking skills to discern falsehood and make reasoned arguments for their faith (2 Cor 10:5).
- God instructs us to be intentional about our thoughts, by renewing our minds for example (Rom 12:2), and to cultivate wisdom (Prov 4:6-7).
Critical thinking skills you need to master
Now we have some understanding of what critical thinking is, it’s helpful to break it down into skills.
Skills You Need divide the critical thinking process into several steps:
- Analysis – thinking about a topic or issue objectively and critically. This could start with clarifying the issue. For example, the issue of climate change is about sustainability and future generations.
- Interpretation/reflection – by identifying and reflecting on the different arguments relating to an issue. In our example, this includes identifying and reflecting on the arguments presented by the man-made climate change advocates and those supporting ‘natural’ climate change.
- Evaluation – critically evaluating how strong and valid are different points of view, including any weaknesses or negative aspects in the evidence or argument.
- Inference – considering the implications there might be behind a statement or argument. For example, considering the ramifications a decision will have for yourself and others.
- Problem solving and decision making – giving structured reasoning and support for your choice.
How to improve your critical thinking skills
This sounds simple enough, but how do you develop these critical thinking skills? The good news is that substantial evidence shows that critical thinking can be learned (although there is still debate about the best way to teach it).
A recent review of research about teaching critical thinking, published by the New South Wales Department of Education, concluded that teaching so-called generic critical thinking skills, such as logical reasoning, is largely ineffective.
As the study’s author, Daniel Willingham – education expert and Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia – writes: “It is not useful to think of critical thinking skills, once acquired, as broadly applicable. Wanting students to be able to “analyse, synthesise and evaluate” information sounds like a reasonable goal. But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.”
For example, he notes that the critical thinking skills required for literary criticism are very different from those for mathematics. Different domains, such as science and history, have different definitions of what it means to “know” something.
He thus argues that “our goals for student critical thinking must be domain-specific. An overarching principle like ‘think logically’ is not a useful goal.” In other words, teaching critical thinking is best done within a specific context. For example, in history, students need to learn the skills for evaluating documents by considering their historical context, intended purpose and audience, and how they compare to other documents. This approach would be pointless in science, where critical thinking is applied by conducting experiments and following the scientific method.
That is to say, critical thinking is best taught in a content-rich environment – mathematics skills in a math-rich learning environment, and so on. Students need to be immersed in the subject matter and given opportunities to develop content-specific critical thinking skills. Good teachers will design various strategies to help their students acquire the specific critical thinking skills associated with each subject.
When it comes to what you can do at home, Skills You Need recommend these strategies:
Start by deciding what you’re aiming to achieve – once you know why you need to think through something critically, “you must then discipline yourself to keep on track until changing circumstances mean you have to revisit the start of the decision making process,” they write.
Be aware of how your personal preferences and biases might influence your thinking.
Use foresight – they point out that “our decision making will be infinitely better and more likely to lead to success if, when we reach a tentative conclusion, we pause and consider the impact on the people and activities around us.” Thinking through the implications of our choices can reveal potential pitfalls and save us from the consequences of unwise decisions.
Practice and persevere - like any skill, developing critical thinking takes time and effort.
The Global Digital Citizen Foundation have developed what they call the Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Critical Thinking. It consists of 48 questions that can be modified for almost any age or subject area, based around the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of given situations.
This article by Scholastic has other helpful tips for encouraging your child’s critical thinking skills.
Is critical thinking crucial to problem-solving and decision making?
As I’ve discussed, critical thinking is about more than acquiring knowledge. Furthermore, it is not like daydreaming or intuitive thought, where ideas or solutions seem to pop into our minds, sometimes when we’re thinking about other things.
Critical thinking is inextricably connected to both problem solving and decision making. It always has a goal – usually, to solve a problem or come to a decision! For example, students might apply critical thinking in their science lesson to work out the best way to approach their group project. They make decisions such as who will complete each task, in what time frame. They solve problems like how and where they will meet outside of school hours to work together. These might sound like small steps, but they pave the way for making bigger decisions and solving the larger problems they’ll encounter in the future.
We use critical thinking skills for problem solving every day almost from infancy – to solve puzzles, for example, and work out how to stack blocks into a tower. Early decision-making tasks requiring critical thinking include choosing to wear warm clothes when it’s cold (rather than fighting to stay in swimmers year-round) or not to hit out when we’re provoked. Critical thinking enables us to make wise, rational decisions rather than reactive ones.
As Wabisabi Learning point out, critical thinkers tend to be instinctual problem-solvers. “The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow, and will face complex challenges using critical thinking capacity to engineer imaginative solutions,” they write. “One of history’s most prolific critical thinkers, Albert Einstein, once said: ‘It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s just that I stay with problems longer.’ It’s also worth noting this is the same guy who said that, when given an hour to solve a problem, he’d likely spend 5 minutes on the solution and the other 55 minutes defining and researching the problem. This kind of patience and commitment to truly understanding a problem is a mark of the true critical thinker.”
They add that critical thinking skills will prepare young people to solve the world’s complex problems, such as the need for wise management of resources.
Furthermore, critical thinking is related to creativity. As Wabisabi Learning explain, critical thinking in most professions relies heavily on the ability to be creative. They note that creative people question assumptions and ask "how?" or "why not?" rather than focusing on limitations.
No doubt you can think of many things we take for granted today (like electricity and the internet) that resulted from someone’s ability to persevere through problems and think creatively.
Can critical thinking ability be tested?
The short answer is “yes”. There are various well-validated tests that quantify critical thinking. Here’s some examples:
1. The California Critical Thinking Assessment Test
This is the most widely used, and is actually a family of tests, with different versions for different ages, educational levels and professional fields. It is based on research and is considered a reliable and objective measure of core reasoning skills. It allows test-takers to show the critical thinking skills required for successfully solving problems and making decisions.
This test is used worldwide in educational settings for evaluating applicants, assessing learning outcomes, advising individual students, and research.
It involves the test-taker answering multiple choice questions – ranging in difficulty and complexity – about everyday scenarios appropriate to that group. Test results are provided on scales that describe strengths and weaknesses in various critical thinking skill areas, such as overall reasoning skills, analysis, evaluation and inference.
2. The Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal
This test is designed to help organisations make decisions about staffing and development. It is completed online, with test questions drawn from a large pool.
It is used widely for selecting candidates for graduate, professional and managerial jobs. This test has five subcategories that measure critical thinking ability, the ability to use evidence to draw conclusions and how test-takers use logic to differentiate between inferences, abstractions, and generalisations.
3. The Cornell Critical Thinking Tests
These are tests for students in grades 5 to 12+. As well as testing students’ critical thinking skills, they are sometimes used to teach critical thinking, for university admissions, careers, and employment, and for research.
They come in two levels, X and Z. Level X is a 71-item, multiple choice test for students in grades 5-12+. It assesses induction, deduction, credibility and identification of assumptions. Level Z is a 52-item, multiple choice test for advanced and gifted high school students, university students, postgraduate students, and other adults. It assesses the same attributes as Level X, plus semantics, definition and prediction in planning experiments.
Critical thinking vs intelligence: which do you value the most?
You might have noticed that these tests are different to those used to assess intelligence. That’s because they are different things. In fact, you might know some highly intelligent people who make foolhardy choices thanks to a lack of critical thinking.
There are clear advantages to being intelligent, such as the ability to get good grades and be successful at school and work. However, intelligence doesn’t predict other important life outcomes, such as wellbeing or life satisfaction.
Critical thinking, however, has been linked with wellness and longevity. As mentioned earlier, this study indicated that critical thinking more strongly predicted life events than intelligence. This is good news, because while intelligence is significantly determined by genetics, critical thinking can be taught. So even if your child is far from being a straight-A student, they can learn the skills to think through problems and make wise decisions.
Moreover, God graces each of us with different gifts for different acts of service, of which intelligence is just one (1 Cor 12: 4-5). However, he instructs each of us to be “careful how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15-16). He also promises to give us the wisdom we need if we ask for it (James 1:5).
Does critical thinking positively impact leadership?
When it comes to making wise decisions, there are few places where this ability is more important than leadership. Whether it’s in business, government, the church or at home, critical thinking helps leaders to solve problems and understand the impact of their decisions.
In the business realm, at least, Australia seems to be in the midst of a leadership crisis. A survey earlier this year showed that more than 72 percent of Australian workers leave their jobs due to poor leadership. Employees gave their leaders an average rating of 5.6/10.
It’s important to remember, however, that God’s vision for leadership is very different to the world’s. Rather than enforcing authority, he instructs leaders to be humble servants of those in their care (Mark 10:42-45). For those called to leadership in church, qualities such as faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are required (I Tim 3:1-13).
At ACC, one of the key attributes we aim to foster in our students is humility. We view servant leadership as a reflection of a heart captured by the Gospel, seeking the good of others even at great cost. To this end, critical thinking is another key attribute. We encourage our students to construct evidence for an argument following logical steps and based on sound reasoning, and to objectively evaluate issues to form a well-considered judgement.
Our schools are committed to raising a generation of godly leaders who think deeply about issues affecting their world, and make wise decisions based on biblical principles.
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