Critical thinking is a skill that requires one to process information, understand it, evaluate it and exploit it in the most relevant way. But this ability to think critically isn’t innate; it is acquired as the result of a sophisticated thinking process that must have been learned early on. However, if your education doesn’t teach you how to naturally inquire and evaluate the information you are given, who will?
I come from a culture where expressing an opinion and evaluating perspectives is the norm. Argumentative essays and debates have always been part of my education and have implanted in me an ability to reason and judge quickly; a skill that I consider to be extremely valuable as I am taking my first steps into my professional career. But picture an education that doesn’t nurture the same critical skills as mine does. The norm it creates is not the same. Where I was trained to write argumentative essays and open- answers, students from that other culture are taught to be great multiple choice exam takers. Where I was taught to learn the data, to understand it, to evaluate it and have an opinion on it… they are simply taught to learn and remember it.
If we were to take a very concrete example: mathematics. The way I was taught to approach a mathematical problem is to first read over it, understand the variables and the problem that is trying to be solved, and then come up with a strategy to manipulate the variables and get to the solution. I quickly discriminate the useless “distracting” variables and focus on what is relevant, start developing my calculations and compute a result. But in a education lacking critical-thinking , mathematical problems are reduced to a number. There is no thinking process that takes you from the variables to the result. The student learns how to spot the right variables and calculate the solution from several exercises– he knows when to reproduce which calculation. But what happens when a new problem-solving arises? Does the student student know how to understand and derive a reasoning approach?
To understand what you are being exposed to. When you are given access to any kind of information in a conversation, at a conference, from articles… critical thinking is crucial for you to extract the important and key points of the information you are processing. Is it from a reliable source? Can you learn something from it? Is it relevant for you to use it? If you cannot discriminate the useful from the useless, you will likely misuse the overwhelming data.
To develop educated opinions on current matters. In a world that embraces freedom of speech and singularity, mass information (and misinformation) are prevalent. There is an overwhelming amount of contrasting views on the same data and subjective analyses have taken over facts. Being able to express an opinion on current news and on matters of societal, economic and political impact based on an educated reasoning-process is critical. Unless you want to remain that one person who is always too scared to make a judgment…
To never run out of options. When you may think you have reached a dead-end, there is always an Option B. If you are able to step back and evaluate the bigger picture, other options will become apparent. Yet in order to do so you need to criticize your work and rethink judgments that have been made. On the other hand, if you had initially approached the problem with a critical-mindset, you probably wouldn’t have reached a dead end.
To be credible and earn in responsibilities. Who would trust a leader who is not able to make critical decisions and evaluate different perspectives? I wouldn’t. If you want to earn credibility, you need to be able to think fast and ahead, and make educated decisions based on reason and judgment. What makes leaders stand out is their ability to defend their ideas and influence others; their ability to create a movement based on their convictions and lead a group towards them. If you cannot express opinions nor defend them, how can you ever become a leader?
To innovate. Without critics, there is no improvement. And without improvements, there is no innovation. If you are a leader who is not able to orient his speech towards what to improve and prefers to settle for what is already done, you will reach your potential earlier in the learning curve than a leader with an eye for what could be done better.