What’s a weighted indicator of great talent? It is something savvy employers seek and education systems are challenged to teach: critical thinking.
Observation, Reflection, Reason
When a parent suggests a child consider the kindness of strangers may not be what it first appears – they teach critical thinking. Prompts that help to question assumptions about a nice man who needs “help” to find a lost puppy launches a new way of interpreting cues and context. The disciplined process of actively evaluating information gathered by observation, reflection and reason is critical thinking.
It happens when:
- There’s an urgent need to discover why cheese melts on a processing belt,
- A complex social issue like teen pregnancy resists intervention, and
- An educator puzzles over why a student isn’t grasping a new concept.
People use critical thinking skills to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize and apply alternative remedies to solve problems. An important part of critical thinking is considering the significance of claims. This raises questions like: What explanations are there for this? What else do we need to know? Recognizing unstated values, examining relationships between propositions and pattern detection are also features of critical thinking.
In a knowledge economy, rote responses are often inadequate. BP Group Chief Executive John Browne, who resigned in the wake of serious criticism about ruthless cost-cutting that may have compromised safety after the Texas City Refinery explosion, said “We need to ask more disagreeable questions.”
“Intellectual disobedience” or critical thinking offers better access to and vital participation in the highly dynamic world we live in now. It is essential to innovation and development. When a person judges, decides, reflects, discerns or assesses conclusions they employ a fluid intelligence.
Don’t confuse critical thinking with criticism. The qualifier of critical as it precedes thinking means importance, central or crucial. Its origin is the ancient Greek, kriterion, which means standards. When understood in the context of a skill or approach, “critical” doesn’t mean disapproval or negative. Critical thinking, in fact, has many very positive and important uses.
Green Light, Red Light
Some cultures promote and foster it far better than others. In a safe work place, critical thinking can happen without penalty. In fact, it is aggressively sought and highly prized in many settings. Critical thinking advances the chance of securing an intended result by taking the initiative to review options. It’s key to adaptation.
But, if “pleasing” is de rigeur and “challenge” is not safe, independent thought is often squelched to secure approval. People, organizations, and cultures that focus on a single “right” answer limit knowledge. They also teach a form of obedience that better serves social cohesion (think Stepford Wives). In contrast, the process of searching can deeply engage the human mind and spirit.
The Catholic Church employs critical thinking. During canonization, the Vatican appoints someone to ensure thorough review of proposed candidates. It was the job of the Devil’s Advocate to ask hard questions in the process of selecting a new saint. The current reference for the Devil’s Advocate is now Promoter of Justice. Importantly, the questions raised are a quality assurance method!
The capacity to intellectually imagine and explore different ways of thinking and acting is vital to growth. It is essential to manage and lead change. How can civil society, enterprise, our environment or our world improve without thoughtful reflection or questioning “authority”?
-Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com