June 15, 2008

Critical Thinking 101

Posted in Equilibrium, Inspiration, life tagged , , at 1:23 am by otherdeb

If there is one skill that most of us in this process need to develop, it is critical thinking. If there is one skill that only a few people get to learn, and often far too late, it is critical thinking.

Without critical thinking we are sunk. We cannot choose a car, decide to save rather than spend, evaluate the merits of job offers, manage projects, achieve goals, choose a direction for further educational or career development, pursue our dreams, or manage our money. We can’t even function successfully in relationships without some degree of this ability.

Yet this ability is not taught until college, and then often not until your junior or senior year.

Why does this happen, and how can we, then prepare ourselves and our kids to think critically?

Let’s face it. The elementary and secondary American education systems were not created to raise folks to live up to their potential. Their real goal was to take a very diverse set of human beings, many of whom barely spoke English, and turn out a work force that was relatively homogeneous in outlook and relatively unquestioning of authority. Thinking critically was not something that this system would support or highly prize, since critical thinking leads to questioning, and may further lead to unwillingness to follow instructions or orders.

That said, there are places you can learn about it, but often in a very narrow context, with a very specific focus. One of those places is in business management programs. Nice enough, and — in fact — where I learned it, but far too little, and far too late. And I want to acknowledge my wonderful professors at University of Phoenix, Steven Young and Richard Eacott; also the authors of Critical Thinking, Gary R. Kirby, Jeffery R. Goodpaster, and Marvin Levine, as well as Steve Allen (yes, the comedian) for his wonderful book Dumbth, and 81 Ways to Make Americans Smarter. Thanks to their patience and communication skills, I have learned the skill that has, ultimately allowed me to change my life.

It is my considered opinion, however, that these skills are not taught until way too late in the growing up process. Yes, I know that little kids are not going to grasp these concepts. But I honestly think that by the time kids enter high school they should have been taught a few basic principles, For instance, there is no reason that a twelve-year-old cannot be taught that input (listening, observing, and reading) plus thinking about what is listened to, observed, or read, leads to outputs such as speaking, acting, or writing. There is no reason that he or she should not be aware of the concept of choosing their battles wisely. They should, by that time, be aware that their actions have consequences, and that those consequences can usually be predicted.

So, again, how can we remedy this? Well, for one thing, we can teach it to ourselves. Had critical thinking been one of our stronger skills, we might have made better financial decisions. How do we learn it, no matter where we are on the spectrum? Well, reading is a good start. Get hold of the two books I noted above. The Steve Allen book especially is accessible to the average reader. If you don’t like either of those, head to your library (or Amazon.com). They have plenty of books on the subject. If the book you choose has exercises, try them.
As you start to get insights on things, write them down, if only to reflection on when you have the time.

If you don’t watch news programs, make a habit of watching at least one a week. Start observing how others think about things. (Oh, and occasionally choose something with a different point of view from yours, just for the ability to stretch your thinking.)

Like any other part of any process, you can acquire the skill in small steps. Don’t try to do it all at once. One of my favourite writers, Natalie Goldberg says (in Writing Down the Bones), “Be kind to yourself.” In learning critical thinking, as in learning any new skill, this is one of the cardinal rules.

Did you learn about critical thinking in school? At what level? If not, is it something you can see the value in learning? Has it had an effect on your life? What changes has it helped you to make? What traps has it helped you avoid?



  1. Ariel Cinii said,

    In the 60s they didn’t teach critical thinking, they taught OBEDIENCE-OR ELSE. Then all of a sudden when you got to high school, you were supposed to wax poetic on stuff you’ve never cared about in your life. I never resolved those inconsistencies and discovered later that rules were for idiots and going my own way was the only path to survival. It didn’t work at first, but as my peers out in the world became ever more driven I finally decided I had to learn how to sail.

  2. otherdeb said,

    @Ariel Cinii: I think I noted that they didn’t teach it to lower grades ever.Yep… “et this ability is not taught until college, and then often not until your junior or senior year.”

    And I never was supposed to wax poetic in high school on stuff I never cared about in your life. I actually mostly enjoyed high school, in fact. But that doesn’t speak either way to the point that, in high school, you are still not taught to think critically; a skill that is of major importance.

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