There is much that has been said throughout the centuries in praise of critical thinking. The methodology named after Greek philosopher Socrates—the Socratic method—is one of the earliest critical thinking instruction tools known to man. Centuries later, Roman Emperor Marcus “The Philosopher” Aurelius would warn in his meditations that, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact; everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Fast forward past Galileo, W. E. B. Du Bois, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others, and we discover that the practice of extolling the benefits of critical thinking is literally thousands of years old. So what is it that makes it such an honoured skill set? In what ways does critical thinking truly benefit us?
Though this list can be expanded considerably, we believe these 10 merits are among the most significant.
1. It Encourages Curiosity
Curiosity exists to help us gain a deeper understanding of not only the world surrounding us but the things that matter within our experience of that world. This extends to the topics we teach in school, and also the ones that we find relevant in our daily lives.
Effective critical thinkers remain curious about a wide range of topics and generally have broad interests. They retain inquisitiveness about the world and about people and have an understanding of and appreciation for the cultures, beliefs, and views that are a shared quality of our humanity. This is also part of what makes them lifelong learners.
Because critical thinkers are curious by nature, opportunities to apply critical thinking skills are all around them every moment. They are always alert for chances to apply their best thinking habits to any situation. A desire to think critically about even the simplest of issues and tasks indicates a desire for constructive outcomes.
To this end, critical thinkers ask pertinent questions such as:
- What’s happening? What am I seeing?
- Why is it important? Who is affected by this?
- What am I missing? What’s hidden and why is it important?
- Where did this come from? How do I know for sure?
- Who is saying this? Why should I listen to this person? What can they teach me?
- What else should I consider?
- What if …?
- Why not?
Effective critical thinkers don’t take anything at face value, either. They never stop asking questions and enjoy exploring all sides of an issue and the deeper facts hiding within all modes of data.
2. It Enhances Creativity
In our travels, we’ve asked educators all over the world about the most important skills kids need to thrive beyond school. It’s pleasing to see that nurturing student creativity is very high on that list. In fact, it’s number 2, directly below problem-solving. There’s no question that effective critical thinkers are also largely creative thinkers. Creativity has unquestionably defined itself as a requisite skill for having in the collaborative modern workforce.
Critical thinking in business, marketing, and professional alliances relies heavily on one’s ability to be creative. When businesses get creative with products and how they are advertised, they thrive in the global marketplace. The shift in valuing creativity and its ability to increase revenue by enhancing product value echoes in every market segment. Here are just a few examples:
Paul Thompson, former director of New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum:
“Manufacturers have begun to recognize that we can’t compete with the pricing structure and labor costs of the Far East. So how can we compete? It has to be with design.”
Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management:
“Businesspeople don’t need to understand designers better. They need to be designers.”
Robert Lutz of the GM Corporation:
“I see us in the art business. Art entertainment and mobile sculpture, that coincidently happens to provide transportation.”
Norio Ohga, former Sony Chairman and inventor of the CD:
“At Sony, we assume that all products of our competitors have basically the same technology, price, performance, and features. Design is the only thing that differentiates one product from another in the marketplace.”
Creative people question assumptions about many things. Instead of arguing for limitations, creative minds ask “how” or”why not?” Creativity is eternal and it has limitless potential, which means we are unlimited as creative people. If creativity is within all of us, then we are also limitless.
This applies to learners of all ages, and although the intellectual risks any critical thinker takes creatively are also sensible, such a person never fears to step outside their creative comfort zone.
3. It Reinforces Problem-Solving Ability
Those who think critically tend to be instinctual problem-solvers. This ranks as probably the most important skill we can help our learners build upon. The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow and will face complex challenges using critical thinking capacity to engineer imaginative solutions.
One of history’s most prolific critical thinkers, Albert Einstein, once said this: “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. It’s the main reason why solid critical thinking ability is essential to being an effective problem-solver.
Developing solid critical thinking skill prepares our students to face the complex problems that matter to the world head-on. After all, our students are inheriting such issues as:
- global warming
- the need for health care
- water shortages
- electronic waste management
- energy crises
As these challenges continue to change and grow as the world changes around them, the best minds needed to solve them will be those prepared to think creatively and divergently to produce innovative and lasting solutions. Critical thinking capacity does all that and more.
4. It’s a Multi-Faceted Practice
Critical thinking is known for encompassing a wide array of disciplines, and cultivating a broad range of cognitive talents. One could indeed say that it’s a cross-curricular activity for the mind, and the mind must be exercised just like a muscle to stay healthy.
Among many other things, critical thinking promotes the development of things like:
- Reasoning skills
- Analytical thinking
- Evaluative skills
- Logical thinking
- Organizational and planning skills
- Language skills
- Self-reflective capacity
- Observational skills
- Creative visualization techniques
- Questioning ability
- Decision making
This list could easily be expanded to include other skills, but this gives one an idea of just what is being developed and enhanced when we choose to think critically in our daily lives.
5. It Fosters Independence
Getting our learners to begin thinking independently is one of the many goals of education. Wen students think for themselves, they learn to become independent of us as well. Our job as educators, in this sense, is to empower our students to the point at which we essentially become obsolete. This process is repeated year after year, student after student, and moment after moment as we cultivate independent thinking and responsibility for learning in those we teach.
Independent thinking skills are at the forefront of learning how to be not only a great thinker but a great leader. Such skills teach our learners how to make sense of the world based on personal experience and observation, and to make critical well-informed decisions in the same way. As such, they gain confidence and the ability to learn from mistakes as they build successful and productive lives.
When we think critically, we think in a self-directed manner. Our thinking is disciplined and thus becomes a self-correcting mindset. It also means that such strong proactive thinking abilities become second nature as we continue to develop them through learning and experience.
As we stated earlier, independent critical thinking skills are among the top skills educators strive to give to their students. That’s because when we succeed at getting learners thinking independently, we’ve given them a gift for life. Once school is over they can then go into future enterprises and pursuits with confidence and pride. That, of course, leads us to our final point.
6. It’s a Skill for Life, Not Just Learning
As all teachers know, what they do with passion every day prepares our learners not just for the time in the classroom, but for success and well-being when the formative years are done. When we here at Wabisabi Learning introduced the Essential Fluencies and the 10 Shifts of Practice to educators all over the world, we too had these goals firmly in mind. That’s why we made sure these processes all involved actively building independent and critical thinking mindsets, and fostered lifelong learning skills students.
Many great educators have said many great things about the importance of lifelong learning skills. John Dewey, however, probably said it best: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Educators want their learners to succeed both in and out of the classroom. The idea is to make sure that once they leave school they no longer need us. In essence, our learners must become teachers and leaders. The point is that they never stop being learners. This is what it means to be a lifelong learner and a critical thinker.