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, dualistic 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 in this “Age of Austerity” (at least for most). 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.
Sharpening the Skills 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.
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.