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Critical Thinking: How to Develop and Enhance Your Skills

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It might not be possible to know for certain what many people are thinking when they sign up for a “critical thinking” class, but students often have misunderstandings about what constitutes critical thinking. Even after they read professional definitions of the term, students sometimes seem reluctant to give up on their unsubstantiated beliefs. However, that unwillingness to give up entrenched beliefs is good evidence they need a class in critical thinking.

Start a B.A. in philosophy at American Public University.

What Is Critical Thinking?

What is critical thinking? First, it is not what happens when a paramedic, police officer, soldier or emergency responder shows up at a scene.

Surprised? Many students who fill these roles are astonished to learn that critical thinking does not necessarily involve a scene that demands immediate action. Such learners have all undergone many hours of training and have experience. They have been taught to react to a situation as opposed to contemplating, doing research, experimenting and working out the methods that went into their training.

Now is critical thinking involved in the training of first responders and the military? Yes, because that is where scenarios are played out and steps were devised on how to best address a specific situation. If you are dying at the scene of an accident, you want a person who reacts quickly to the situation, not one who will pause to ponder or research the internet for how best to render aid.

Critical thinking is also not “thinking on the fly” or something that usually occurs quickly. It can be like that, but only if the person is well trained to quickly address novel situations based on past experience and training.

The key is being able to address novel situations with past research and a fundamental understanding of what has and has not worked. But it is the novelty aspect that makes it critical thinking.

Professional Definitions

Critical thinking expert Peter Facione says that this term has over 30 different descriptors. The Foundation for Critical Thinking notes that there are even longer definitions for critical thinking. Clearly, it is no simple function and takes hard work.

While one can get caught up in lengthy definitions that make becoming a critical thinker sound like an impossible task, there is a shorter, more attainable description in the summary Facione provided in the above link for his 1990 Delphi study. Briefly, critical thinking is “the process of purposeful, self-regulatory judgment. This process reasoned consideration to evidence, context, conceptualizations, methods, and criteria.” The key is laying the right foundation and having the right beliefs about what constitutes critical thinking before building one’s skills in this area.

So what does critical thinking have to do with philosophy? Over time, I have met several bullheaded philosophers.

Ideally, these philosophers should want to consider multiple views and weigh each one in terms of logic and viability. That does not mean all philosophers will ultimately reach the same conclusion — far from it.

But each philosopher should take the time to develop reasonable arguments for positions she or he holds. To improve your critical thinking skills, there are three principles you should accept.

The first is that it is far more important that you understand why you believe something than whatever it is that you believe. If you are unable to explain why you believe something, you might need to rethink your beliefs.

Take the time to ponder what you believe and why you believe it. If you cannot explain why, you may want to rethink that particular belief. Critical thinkers are introspective, but they are careful to not have this inner reflection be a case of the blind leading the blind.

The second principle is to identify and understand your bias. Ideally, your beliefs will align with a preponderance of evidence. If they do not, you should be able to proffer reasonable arguments to justify your beliefs.

Critical thinking requires research, looking for counterarguments and playing the proverbial devil’s advocate, even with your own beliefs. Even so, a normal human can’t be bias-free. We all have a bias, but the problems arise when we do not recognize and accommodate our own bias.

However, some bias is good. Feel free to be biased against flat-earth theories as well as any theory that violates or contradicts well-supported science. Not all positions or arguments are worthy of consideration, even in developing your critical thinking skills.

The last principle you need is to be honest with yourself. Refuse to engage in hyperbole and never make a claim that is stronger than the evidence supports.

One often-occurring fallacy is a hasty overgeneralization. For many reasons, humans like to exaggerate.

For instance, there is a difference between saying that “humans contributed to global warming” and “humans caused all global warming.” One can be substantiated; the other is open to objections.

Sometimes, when you’re confronted with a good counterargument, the best reply is to admit “you might just be right.” That “might” could have the statistical probability of the proverbial “snowball’s chance in hell,” but it might also be a good chance to explore your own beliefs.

With these three principles, most people will have a philosopher’s foundation for building critical thinking skills. Becoming a critical thinker sounds like a formidable task, but if you understand your beliefs, know why you have them, understand your personal bias and are honest with yourself, you’ll not only be a great philosopher but a great critical thinker as well.

Dr. Steve Wyre received his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma and his Ed.D. from the University of Phoenix. He has been teaching various ground-based philosophy courses since 2000 and online since 2003. Steve has also served as a subject matter expert (SME) for courses in ancient philosophy, ethics, logic and several other areas.

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