Improving critical thinking skills is a life study and one that's definitely worth pursuing. Thinking critically is the pinnacle of the accumulation of knowledge and experience. The question is, how can we continue improving critical thinking skills long after we've begun the practice? What wisdom can we give to our learners to help them keep these abilities honed to a razor sharpness all throughout their lives beyond school?
Teaching critical thinking skills doesn’t require hours of lesson planning, and you don’t need special equipment or guest speakers. All you need are curious and open minds, along with a few strategies like the five we have listed below. These are everyday approaches designed to help the journey of improving critical thinking skills to become an unconscious daily process for a lifetime of learning.
1. Waste No Time
Have you ever had a moment of time you know you wasted and realized there's no getting it back? We all have, even the critical thinkers among us. Like water waste, time waste is unfortunately inevitable. However, we can minimize the amount of time we waste thinking and acting on trivial matters.
In the article, Critical Thinking in Everyday Life: 9 Strategies, Richard Paul and Linda Elder suggest using our quiet time for improving critical thinking skills:
". . . instead of sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day flicking from channel to channel in a vain search for a program worth watching, spend that time, or at least part of it, thinking back over your day and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses."
They go on to provide questions for these moments that are geared toward a review of how we practiced our thinking throughout the day.
- When did I do my worst thinking today? When did I do my best?
- What did I think about today?
- Did I figure anything out?
- Did I allow any negative thinking to frustrate me unnecessarily?
- If I had to repeat today, what would I do differently? Why?
- Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals?
- Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values?
- If I spent every day this way for 10 years, at the end would I have accomplished something worthy of that time?
You can go through them all, or just a few, or even only one. Spend as much time on them as you need to by either pondering your response internally or actually recording it in a journal. The more you practice this, the better you'll get at it and the more patterns you'll see emerging in your thinking habits.
2. Learn Something New Every Day
Lifelong learning is all about making the act of learning an ongoing journey. We're not talking about mastering a musical instrument or internalizing Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, though. We just mean learning something you didn't know before.
What have you always been curious about? Is there a question about something, in particular, you've always wanted to get answered? Go after it. Don't stop until you find the answer you seek, no matter how simple or trivial the question might seem to others. This is about achieving two things: first, fulfilling an intellectual need, and second, developing habits of curiosity.
Of course, if you have higher learning ambitions and want to take your broader knowledge or ability to a whole new level, do that also. Learn that instrument and study ancient Greek philosophy. Ultimately, you will have not only learned a new skill or hobby but also formed valuable new neural connections that contribute to overall brain health and heightened cognitive function.
Learning Has No Boundaries
If you think you're too old to learn something new or accomplish something great, consider this:
- Louise Hay founded the world-famous publishing company Hay House at the age of 50.
- John Glenn was the oldest person to travel into space at the age of 72.
- Umberto Eco wrote The Name of the Rose at 48.
- Distance runner Paul Spangler ran his 14th marathon at 92.
- J.R.R. Tolkien published the first volume of The Lord of the Rings at 62.
- Kenyan midwife Priscilla Sitienei learned to read and write at the age of 90.
- Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fuji at 99.
- John Wayne won the Oscar for True Grit at 62.
- Fitness guru and entrepreneur Jack LaLanne swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf at age 60, wearing handcuffs and towing a 1,000 pound sailboat.
- H. G. Wells completed his doctoral dissertation in 1942 at the age of 76 (he was a middle-school dropout).
Improving critical thinking skills isn't an age-specific pursuit. Besides, you don't have to change the world, conquer nature, or write the next great masterpiece—just believe in the possibility of your own potential.
3. Develop a Questioning Mind
Since time began, the human mind has formulated profound questions about practically everything under the sun (not to mention things beyond the sun). In modern learning, we continue to teach our children to question and to explore possibilities. Questions are good; essential questions are even better.
Being able to ask meaningful questions that lead to constructive and useful answers are at the core of critical thinking and lifelong learning. Providing learning with driving questions as the focus ensures that both we and our learners don't just passively accept information. As a result, we train ourselves and our students to search for different views and opinions and take nothing for granted.
He Said, She Said
The following activity for improving critical thinking skills is an excerpt from an article featured on Skills You Need.
Think of something that someone has recently told you. Then ask yourself the following questions:
Who said it?
- Someone you know?
- Someone in a position of authority or power?
- Does it matter who told you this?
What did they say?
- Did they give facts or opinions?
- Have they provided all the facts?
- What have they left out, if anything?
Where did they say it?
- Was it in public or in private?
- Did other people have a chance to respond and provide an alternative account?
When did they say it?
- Was it before, during or after an important event?
- Is timing important?
Why did they say it?
- Did they explain the reasoning behind their opinion?
- Were they trying to make someone look good or bad?
How did they say it?
- Were they happy or sad, angry or indifferent?
- Did they write it or say it?
- Could you understand what was said?
4. Practice Active Listening
Have you ever heard the expression "most people are just waiting for their turn to talk?" Think about that for a moment. If that's really the case, then who is truly listening? What does it mean to actively listen when someone is talking? Above all, how do we adopt it as personal practice for improving critical thinking skills?
To begin with, let's take a look at the scope of the task at hand. Research cited by the University of Missouri suggests that, by and large, people are mostly inefficient listeners:
"Studies have shown that immediately after listening to a 10-minute oral presentation, the average listener has heard, understood and retained 50 percent of what was said. Within 48 hours, that drops off another 50 percent to a final level of 25 percent efficiency."
Unfortunately, most people think that listening is easy, but it's actually very hard work. This is especially true of active listening—that is, making a conscious and concerted effort to hear the words being said, and more importantly understanding their message. It's also about completely comprehending what the person speaking needs or is trying to accomplish. This translates to having empathy, not offering sympathy or placating the speaker.
Improving Your Active Listening
Active listening can be taught, learned, and practiced like any other communication skill. Start with these 10 suggestions from the article 10 Things You Can Do for Teaching Effective Listening Skills:
- Talk less: It's practically impossible to talk and listen at the same time. Reserve responses and interjections, and be open to giving the other person what they need from having you understand what they're saying.
- Adopt a listening mode: Quiet the environment and mentally open your mind to hearing by getting comfortable and engaging in eye contact.
- Make the speaker feel comfortable: Examples of this might be nodding or using gestures. Seating is also important; is the speaker more comfortable if you stay behind your desk, or if you take a chair beside them? For smaller children, get at their eye level instead of towering over them.
- Remove distractions: This means things like clearing the room, quieting screens, and silencing your phone. If the speaker requests privacy, ask others to give you a few minutes in private and close the door.
- Empathize: At the very least, try “learning instead to embrace and wonder at their “otherness.”
- Don't fear silence: Some people really need time to formulate a thoughtful response. Rushing them through or suggesting what they want to say for them hinders the opportunity to communicate honestly.
- Put aside personal prejudice: This is also quite difficult as our experiences form who we are. Putting all those experiences aside is a skill which requires help and practice.
- Heed their tone: Sometimes the tone can hide the meaning of the words, and sometimes the tone enhances the meaning of the words. Know which is which.
- Listen for underlying meanings, not words: Listen first for comprehension, and then a second time for ideas.
- Pay attention to non-verbal communication: People communicate through body language and facial expressions, which is why eye contact is necessary.
5. Solve Just One Problem
So many problems and so little time; this is the curse of the workaday citizen. Whether they are problems that happen independent of our influence or ones we construct for ourselves through action and choice, they don't go away on their own. The secret is to take them on one by one, one day at a time, and learn how to avoid them in the future. In the end, that's all we can hope for.
Choose one problem every day or so that you want to work on solving and give finding a resolution for it your undivided focus. Do you want to clear up a long-held misunderstanding between you and another person? Are you getting distracted too much at work? Have you been struggling with a project or an activity you want to improve? Is there something around the house that desperately needs fixing?
Consider the words of author and speaker Les Brown: "If you've got a problem that either man or faith can solve, then you ain't got no problem." Face it head on, get it done, and get on with the more important things in life.
Everybody Needs a Process
Once more, let's consider this approach mapped out by authors Richard Paul and Linda Elder. This will give you a roadmap for tackling that one problem you choose to face daily. In addition, you'll see that it's an approach that contains the elements of the more portable 6Ds process of Solution Fluency:
- State the problem as clearly and precisely as you can (this is the Define phase of Solution Fluency).
- Study the problem to understand what you are dealing with. The problems over which you have no control can be set aside in favour of focusing on those you can actually solve.
- Figure out the information you need and actively seek it out (this is the Discover phase of Solution Fluency).
- Carefully analyze and interpret the information you collect, drawing what reasonable inferences you can.
- Figure out what you can do in the short term and in the long term? Clarify all your options for action and visualize the ideal solution you would like to happen. (This is the Dream phase of Solution Fluency.)
- Evaluate your options, taking into account their advantages and disadvantages.
- Adopt a strategic approach to the problem and follow through with it (these are the Design and Deliver phases of Solution Fluency).
- Monitor the implications of your action as they emerge and be ready to revise your strategy if need be. Be prepared to shift your strategy or your analysis or statement of the problem, or all three, as more information becomes available to you (this is the Debrief phase of Solution Fluency).
True enough, the process of improving critical thinking skills takes lots of practice. That being said, with simple activities and systems to refer back to you can’t go wrong.
As you begin to incorporate these ideas, things will get more and more comfortable until they're finally second nature. To really get moving with critical thinking, check out our Critical Thinking Companion.