Improving Critical Thinking

How can we continue improving critical thinking skills long after we’ve begun their practice? In this section you’ll find some practical and beneficial ways of doing just that. As you incorporate these ideas, critical thinking will gradually get more comfortable until it finally becomes second nature.

1. Do a Daily Review

In the article, Critical Thinking in Everyday Life: 9 Strategies, Richard Paul and Linda Elder provide questions that help us review how we practiced our thinking throughout the day.

You can go through them all, or just a few. Spend as much time as you want pondering your responses internally or recording them in a journal. The more you practice this, the more patterns you’ll see emerging in your thinking habits.

  • 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?

2. Learn Something New Every Day

This is about achieving two things: first, fulfilling an intellectual need, and second, developing habits of curiosity. What have you always been curious about? Is there a question about something you’ve always wanted to get answered? 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.

Improving critical thinking skills isn’t an age-specific pursuit either. Besides, you don’t have to change the world, conquer nature, or write the next great masterpiece. All you need do is believe in the possibility of your own potential.

3. Develop a Questioning Mind

In modern learning, we teach our children to question and to explore possibilities. Questions are good; essential questions are even better. Asking meaningful questions that lead to constructive and useful answers is at the core of critical thinking and lifelong learning.

Providing learning with driving questions as the focus ensures we don’t just passively accept information. Instead, we train ourselves to search for different viewpoints and to take nothing for granted. The following activity for improving critical thinking 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?

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?” If that’s really the case, then who is truly listening? What does it mean to actively listen when someone is talking? How do we adopt it as personal practice for improving critical thinking skills?

Research  cited by the University of Missouri suggests that most people may be 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 .”

Most people think that listening is easy, but actively listening takes effort. Active listening means making a conscious effort to hear the words being said and understand their message. It’s also about understanding what the person speaking needs or is trying to accomplish. This translates to having empathy, not offering sympathy or placating the speaker, or trying to solve their problem for them.

The following 10 listening strategies are guaranteed to make you a more active listener.

  1. Talk less:  It’s 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.
  2. Adopt a listening mode: Quiet the environment and mentally open your mind to hearing by getting comfortable and engaging in eye contact.
  3. 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.
  4. Remove distractions: This means things like clearing the room, quieting screens, and silencing phones and other technology. If the speaker requests privacy, ask others to give you a few minutes in private and close the door.
  5. Empathize: Most people want more than anything to simply be heard and understood, and to see evidence of that happening in the listener. Imagine yourself experiencing the same things they’re talking to you about.
  6. 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.
  7. Put aside personal prejudice: This can be quite difficult as our experiences form who we are. Putting all those experiences aside is a skill which requires help and practice.
  8. Heed their tone: Sometimes the tone can hide the meaning of the words, and sometimes the tone enhances the meaning of the words. In listening actively it’s imperative to know which is which.
  9. Listen for underlying meanings, not words: Listen first for comprehension, and then a second time for ideas.
  10. 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

Whether problems happen independent of our influence or are created by our actions and choices, 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.

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? Choose one problem that you want to work on solving and give it your undivided attention until it’s resolved. Face it head on, get it done, and get on with the more important things in life.

5 Easy Steps to Improve Critical Thinking

The practice of improving critical thinking is best if we make it ongoing and consistent. The more we challenge ourselves to think critically, the more habitual such powerful thinking habits become. We took some wisdom from the TED Ed lesson 5 Tips to Improve Your Critical Thinking created by Samantha Agoos. It provides a formula to improve critical thinking that you can internalize easily and use every day.

In her lesson, Samantha outlines and explains a 5-step process for boosting critical thinking as follows:

  • Formulate the question
  • Gather information
  • Apply the information
  • Consider the implications
  • Explore other points of view

If you look closely, you’ll see the similarities to our own 6D process of Solution Fluency. This is another simple but effective method for practicing and improving critical thinking while problem solving:

  • Formulate the question (DEFINE)
  • Gather information (DISCOVER, DREAM)
  • Apply the information (DESIGN, DELIVER)
  • Consider the implications (DISCOVER, DESIGN, DEBRIEF)
  • Explore other points of view (DISCOVER, DESIGN, DEBRIEF)

Let’s take the next steps together.

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