Wherever we go in life, we must think critically when it matters the most. From our first days of school, through formal education, into the workplace, and in the civic choices we make in our communities -- critical thinking is a vital skill to have.
It’s important to consider critical thinking as just that: a skill. Just as we don’t naturally improve at playing the banjo or running marathons as we grow older, critical thinking doesn’t simply blossom with maturation. Like most other skills, it must be nurtured, practiced, and developed if we wish to make the most of it.
To fully illustrate this concept, educational psychologists Linda Elder and Richard Paul (2010) have developed a theory of stages of development in critical thinking. It makes clear that people aren’t born critical thinkers, but rather progress through several more-or-less universal stages of critical thinking development:
- The “Unreflective Thinker” is largely unaware of the importance of critical thinking in all facets of life, and doesn’t consistently practice any critical thinking methods.
- The “Challenged Thinker” is enlightened, having been made aware of the importance of critical thinking, and of their own lack of critical thinking skills.
- The “Beginning Thinker” has committed to making critical thinking a part of their life, and has begun to self-monitor and observe their own thinking practices and habits.
- The “Practicing Thinker” understands what types of changes they must make to their “old” patterns of thinking, and are committed to actively practicing critical thinking.
- The “Advanced Thinker” has established excellent critical thinking habits, and are beginning to reap the benefits of applying these habits throughout their lives.
We could all benefit from sharpening our critical thinking skills. Furthermore, as educators, leaders, parents, or team members, we want to see critical thinking skills utilized fully by our students, employees, children, and teammates. So how can we encourage the development of this skill, moving from “unreflective thinkers” to “advanced thinkers”?
There are, of course, many answers. Even moving from the first to the second stage of development is quite the daunting task. Wolcott Lynch (2001), an educational consulting company, has proposed a sequence of steps that can help thinkers to better engage with professional, personal, and civic problems:
- Identify the problem, relevant information, and uncertainties.
- Explore interpretations and connections.
- Prioritize alternatives and communicate conclusions.
- Integrate, monitor, and refine strategies for re-addressing the problem.
These steps provide a great starting place for helping ourselves and the other thinkers in our lives to develop methodical practices of critical thinking. Do you have any suggestions for other ways to nourish and encourage critical thinking? Share your methods and observations in the comments below.