Developing Critical Thinking Skills

There are many elements to developing critical thinking skills.

Here are 3 of the key ones:

A Curious and Open Mind

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why.
~Bernard Baruch”

A childlike fascination with the world and an open mind about it and the people in it is a powerful combination. Each experience provides one more piece of the amazingly complex puzzle of life.

For every challenge undertaken, whether a win or a loss, a success or a failure; invaluable experience is gained.

For the critical thinker, education doesn’t stop at high school, or college, or grad school, or even after working. Learning is a lifelong commitment.

Florence Nightingale who is best known for her pioneering work in modern nursing was also a noted statistician. In late 1854 she and thirty eight volunteer women went to Scurari (today is Üsküdar in Istanbul) during the Crimean War to care for the wounded.

During the first winter there she learned that ten times as many soldiers were dying from illnesses such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery than from battle wounds. She discovered that the hygiene was horrific and the cause of many of these deaths.

After the war Florence Nightingale returned to Britain and used her statistical skills to help write a report to the Royal Commission that outlined the importance of sanitary conditions in health care.

She was instrumental in implementing the reports recommendations. Florence Nightingale’s curiosity and open mind guided her to improve health care conditions. She invested a great deal of time developing critical thinking skills. Her work saved countless lives.

Next, is another crucial element in developing critical thinking skills.

Thinking through Issues

Lower order learning is by rote memorization, associated and drill. Developing critical thinking skills encourages digging deeper into issues and challenges. This is done by thinking through an objective. Here is one example of how the thinking through process works.

First, facts and data are gathered. Then, assumptions and risks are considered. Finally, an informed decision is made and appropriate action is taken to achieve a goal. This systematically process is known as a stream of logic. The more critical the challenge, the more thinking is required.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to successfully climb Mount Everest and return alive. Hillary paid close attention to the smallest details.

For example, he invested a full day checking oxygen cylinders and determining flow rates (gathering facts and data).

He understood that carefully thinking through their objective could be the difference between life and death. Having enough oxygen to make the round trip would be essential (assumption) because it was critical for survival (risk).

Due to his understanding of the oxygen needs for the journey ahead and always observant, Hillary spotted half-empty oxygen bottles along the way. He decided to pick them up for later use.

After Hillary and Norgay reached the summit of Mt. Everest, they changed their almost empty oxygen bottles with the bottles they had picked up. This got them safely back to camp.

Critical thinking skills not only helped them reach the summit, it may have saved their lives.1

"It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves."
~Sir Edmund Hillary

This third element for developing critical thinking skills may be the hardest, but can also be a lot of fun.

Analyze Issues from Multiple View Points

Almost all issues can be looked at several ways. Different perspectives (also known as view points) help provide better solutions to issues. Common questions to ask yourself are:

• Are there other perspectives that I can view this from?
• What are these other view points?
• How can I use these perspectives to resolve this challenge?
• Do I understand the cause and effect of decisions made, or actions taken?

Here is a classic example of an economist who was able to understanding two different perspectives.

Milton Friedman, a famous economist, was a passionate advocate of the free market. He agreed to debate the hot topic of tuition increase at the state University of California in Los Angeles. The Governor (who was Ronald Reagan at the time) had proposed the increase.

The two viewpoints were clearly opposite. Friedman defended Reagan’s proposed tuition increase. The students were against it.

The students were furious at Friedman’s position and booed him as he entered. During the debate Friedman turned to the students and called them “objects of charity.”

In shock, the students listened. Friedman told them that there wasn’t another program that clearly transferred income from the poor to the rich as did government subsidized higher education. Tuition reimbursement had “The people of Watts paying for the college expenses of the people from Beverly Hills,” he argued.

Friedman understood both viewpoints clearly. This helped him construct a convincing argument for raising the tuition. He knew that no student wanted to pay more money for tuition without a good reason.

Friedman also knew that the tuition needed to be increased to be fair to all students, rich and poor. Once the students saw the unfairness of their lower tuitions they voted by a large margin to raise tuition rates.2

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
–Milton Friedman

Opening up to see multiple sides of an issue is a powerful skill. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the opinion of someone else. However, there are frequently two or more views to an issue that are worth considering.

There are significant benefits to looking at multiple view points. You are able to find the best solution to a problem. And, you add to your personal database of alternative solutions and experiences for future problems.

Can Critical Thinking Skills be improved?

The simple answer is yes. We are all different in many ways. Age, gender, IQ, genes, culture, beliefs, life experiences and education are just a few of the factors that make each of us unique.

One of our significant differences is that we all learn at different rates and in different ways. In other words developing critical thinking skills takes more time for some than others.

This isn't important. What is important is the desire and willingness to learn and stretch past your comfort zone.

It can be scary to climb out of one’s box “comfort zone” and view the world with new eyes and ears. However, it can sure be exciting!

This stretching will expand your knowledge base and help you with developing critical thinking skills.

The story about the tortoise and the hare is a true to life analogy for developing critical thinking skills.

In the long run, persistence and determination will usually win out over raw intelligence that is without direction or desire.

To help with developing critical thinking skills see:

1. Nancy Gondo, “One Man’s Ascent to Greatness—Focus helped Sir Edmund Hillary climb to the top of the world” Investors Business Daily, June 12, 2003, p.A4.

2. Christopher L. Tyner, “Milton Friedman’s Free Mind Favors Free Markets” Investors Business Daily, March 2, 2006.

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