Question The Answers ~ The Importance of Critical Thinking

It strikes me that this is an era of pressing choices – personal and collective.  Conditioned and habituated thinking cannot address the complexities we face. We’re  caught up in old, polarized, binary thinking that is not only an impediment to our growth – but regressive and potentially dangerous.  How do we make complex decisions in the face of such pressure? 

What tools do we need to create mindsets that can address the intricacies of problems we face that were unimaginable a generation ago?   Important questions that challenge existing models of leadership, corporate and government actions like  climate change, human rights, global health crises and deepening income equality are being raised with greater urgency. 

Without critical thinking  – the ability to challenge our own thought processes, beliefs, values and actions – we cannot move forward to course correct and create new paths forward.

“Heresy is another word for freedom of thought.” Graham Greene

We often hear people say, “We need more critical thinking in the world, we should be teaching it in schools.” I don’t disagree with those ideas. But I wonder if we understand how much change real critical thinking would bring – to our schools, to the workplace, to our cultures and to our personal lives. I’m not an expert in the progress of pedagogy, but I suspect that the teaching of critical thinking isn’t at the top of most school lists. We don’t really understand critical thinking enough to know how much we struggle and suffer from a lack of it.

Most corporations and institutions say they need innovation, creativity, sustainability and trust to compete in the 21st century.  They understand that the new worker is a knowledge worker and that continuous learning is the jewel in the crown of assets to get there. But I don’t think they really mean they want critical thinkers.

Critical thinkers ask questions. They must “live in the questions as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote. To the critical mind, questions lead to more questions. Critical thinkers not only challenge the status quo, they shake it up. They turn the status quo on its head and always ask, “Is there another way?”  That’s not comfortable to those who have an “immunity” to change.
That’s why it’s tough for most institutions and organizations to really embrace the full meaning and possibility of unleashing critical thinking within their cultures. While we’re in the grip of a powerful cultural meme that says that governments stifle progress and growth and businesses free it – neither are true.

Critical thinkers pose a threat to norms, to the safe and the orthodox. Critical thinkers toss the moneylenders out of the temple. Their very essence is to challenge atrophied practices and outdated assumptions. For critical thinking to thrive, it must operate in an atmosphere of trust. Power politics, organizational and personal,  shut down free thinking and the honest exchange of ideas – and are the enemy of critical thought.

The Essence of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is essentially the ability to think about thinking.

Most people don’t think about their thinking, and it’s not a skill many of us have acquired. In a results-driven culture, thinking about thinking feels passive. But developing the skills of a critical thinker is anything but passive. In its purest form, it requires the present and active involvement and engagement of the thinker in every experience.

In defining critical thinking many people get negatively hooked by the word – critical. The critical in the context of critical thinking doesn’t mean disapproval or judgment.  In fact, the skilled critical thinker needs to be able to think with great clarity and neutrality. The critical thinker is not without opinion, but is able to view experience from multiple perspectives.

Developing the Tools of Critical Thinking

The classic core elements of critical thinking include: observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition. How we understand and define these tools is important to the development of critical thinking.

  • Observation – I think of this as the constant development and refinement of our ability to not only be self-aware but to cultivate the neutral (non-judgmental) “witnessing” of our own experience of self and others. This is the core skill we use to build critical thought.
  • Challenging Beliefs and Norms – Norms form around comfort. While comfort may feel good, it can also be a refuge from change. Unexamined beliefs form major blind spots to critical thinking. We cannot discern the evidence we need to substantiate certain claims and assertions, if non-factual beliefs dominate our thinking.
  • Ask Deep and Engaging Questions – Questions are surely the crux of critical thinking, but learning to ask deeper and more engaging questions is the key. Most of us have been conditioned by rote learning and memorization and our questioning skills have been weakened in the process. We also want to cut to the chase to get things done – this being the enemy of the thoughtful exploration of questioning and thinking together
  • Body – Mind Integration – One major cultural assumption that limits critical thinking is the idea that emotions are the enemy of reason. Rationality (the thinking we associate with the neo-cortical functions of our brain) is nearly always considered the Supreme ruler of critical thinking. Truth is we need a greater ability to integrate and balance both our so-called thinking brain and our feeling brain to maximize understanding and heighten experience. Familiarity with information from our feeling brain invites intuitive and sensual experience into the equation.
  • Collaborative Thinking – Critical thinking is social thinking. Practices in all areas of culture, but especially in the workplace, continue to foster authoritarian, left-brain, hierarchical thinking processes. Collaborative thinking requires exceptional listening abilities and the willingness to let go of control in over-asserting our own positions.
  • Information and Learning – The critical thinker understands that learning is a continuous process and is actively seeking and open to new ideas and experiences. The critical thinker seeks out information not as a means to an end but to understand more about other people, their experiences and the larger world. Effective critical thinking requires us to understand the biases that keep our thinking narrow and limited.
  • Becoming Literate in the Emotions that Support Critical Thought – All emotions are of value to the critical thinker, but some are particularly important to engage, promote and sustain critical thought. Courage, confidence, enthusiasm, excitement, fascination, passion, optimism, satisfaction, wonder, appreciation, empathy, compassion, acceptance, calm and curiosity – the great driver of critical thought.
  • Meta Cognition – A very spiffy term to describe the critical thinker’s automatic awareness of their own knowledge and their ability to understand and control their own cognitive process. So – learning more about how we learn serves the critical thinker in their continuous path of growth.

Our need for critical thinking is greater today than ever before. We need to find a way to step outside of isolated and polarized thinking. We must learn to question the assumptions, information and behaviors that have led us to where we are now.  Most of us would agree that tepid reforms won’t change our workplaces or our culture. Critical thinkers challenge the safe, the comfortable and the inevitable. They are always going for ideas that have greater impact and depth. They make connections between things that appear on the surface as unrelated. They seek out possibilities even when problems seem insurmountable.
If we want to truly unleash the power of critical thinking, we’ll have to overcome the barriers of fear and passivity; entrenched and informal power arrangements; bias and conformity and the willingness to tolerate uncertainty.

Thanks for reading!

Louise Altman,  Intentional Communication Consultants
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