Essays, quizzes, presentations; Literature, History, Science—no matter what the subject or requirement is, critical thinking is one of the most life-enriching skills that everyone must have. College students, especially, are expected to develop critical thinking skills throughout their formative years in college. Not only do they help them complete their requirements, but they also tremendously aid them in their future careers and in forming well-informed perspectives.
Critical thinking skills involve vigorous mental exertion in order to analyze or make judgments on a particular topic. In cases of marketing, for example, a professional marketer would make a detailed analysis of how to endorse the products of his company, perhaps by determining the target demographic and the best means of advertising such a product.
Critical thinking is a vital skill in the professional world. Hence, for the college student who aspires to thrive in college and in his future career, it is imperative that he learns how to improve critical thinking skills.
Before a skill is learned and mastered, the learner must assume its underlying principles. Critical thinking is, first and foremost, a value. Though it was not one during the primitive era of humanity, it soon developed as a vital life skill. In fact, it is one of the factors of how human beings not only survived, but thrived and evolved, and reached the top of the food chain.
Were it not for critical thinking skills, humanity would not have the ability of analyzation: knowing how to use tools, which animals and objects are threats, and so on. Hence, critical thinking must deemed as a value. As man evolved, so did his critical thinking skills.
But critical thinking would not come into fruition if human beings were not open-minded to begin with. Open-mindedness is the ability to accept new information that is different from what is already known. Critical thinking involves the interconnection of newly discovered information with already established knowledge. The fusion of the two produces new information. Critical thinking, therefore, depends upon open-mindedness to function properly.
At the same time, open-mindedness also depends on critical thinking. There are two extremes when it comes to open-mindedness. On one hand, there is gullibility: the willingness to accept any new information without question. While it sounds counterintuitive, open-mindedness has a certain limit. One should not be so open-minded to the point that he thinks he could fly off the third floor of a building if he believes hard enough.
On the other hand, there is closed-mindedness: being unable to accept new information because current information is already enough. This is caused by having a hard limit to open-mindedness, leading one to be comfortable with living with the current information such that any new information is discomforting. Someone, for example, may have been living for 20 years drinking raw eggs in a glass every morning.
What? "Eating raw eggs is dangerous because they might have salmonella"? Damn scientists! I have been doing this for 20 years and I am still breathing! I know better than they do.
In both extremes, critical thinking is absent. Its presence is what puts the proper limit to open-mindedness. Critical thinking tells open-mindedness which new information is right, by subjecting it to criticism and judgment. This is what spells the difference between accomplishment and disaster—this is why critical thinking is also a value. However, it all starts with open-mindedness to learn how to improve critical thinking skills.
Read textbooks about critical thinking
When open-mindedness and critical thinking are both pursued together, what is next is to read materials on how to improve critical thinking skills.
As a subject of studies, it has spawned a plethora of literature. There are numerous authors who have talked about critical thinking in various methodologies. To determine which one is the definitive guide on the topic would be a grueling task. Instead, they should all be appreciated and, in fact, read together so that a collective, comprehensive mental database may be formed.
If you want to take a rigorous, academic route, you may find an inexhaustible library on critical thinking, though the topic itself is not so much discussed on its own. Instead, there are discursive textbooks that, throughout its discussions, teaches critical thinking—because the methodologies with which they made the discussions are themselves products of critical thinking.
Books on the humanities are particularly rich with lessons that expand and improve critical thinking in its readers, not only from experience but also simply from within the mind. One may refer to textbooks on philosophy, logic, and hermeneutics. One good example may be found below:
Philosopher Francis Bacon’s “Novum Organum”
Prior to Francis Bacon’s writing, the most popular method of obtaining new knowledge is deduction, where general theories are formulated then observed in phenomena. Bacon, however, argued that deduction can be faulty because it may lead to theories that may be out of touch from reality. Hence, in response to deduction, he proposed induction as a new method—which is what the title “Novum Organum” means, literally.
Instead of starting with general theories, Bacon’s induction starts with the observation of phenomena in our environment. Inferences are gathered about the phenomena, which then are collected together to create a very strong theory. Bacon intended for induction to be the new norm in attaining knowledge in general. Nowadays, it is most popular in science, in the widely known scientific method.
The “Novum Organum” teaches induction as a very systematic method of obtaining knowledge, something which, despite the book itself being published in 1620, is very much applicable and practical today as it was then. Critical thinking is fostered here in the process of collecting the data necessary for a theory. Using critical thinking, you can ask:
- Which phenomena are significant to my studies?
- Which parts of the phenomena are of particular interest?
- What do they say about reality in general?
The last part requires a very strong skill in critical thinking. Philosophers and scientists today have to be careful when formulating their theories, especially when they disseminate them through books and journal entries. If left unchecked, they might mislead people into doing something dangerous. That is why peer reviews exist—where critical thinking alone fails, there is critical thinking with others.
For those who want books that are not as stern and rigorously academic, there is also an inventory of books on critical thinking with a generally more understandable language. One of such books is the following.
Rolf Dobelli’s “The Art of Thinking Clearly”
Dobelli wrote his book from an economist’s standpoint. Nevertheless, it still provides significant practical advice to people.
He does this through a collection of 100 common logical fallacies that people commit in everyday life. The discussion for each fallacy starts with an anecdote of how it occurs in order for people to relate better, followed by an easily understandable explanation of what the fallacy is and how it is bad.
Though simple in tone, it is very helpful in improving one’s critical thinking skills—by clearing a person’s mind of faulty predispositions. Often, we are led by impulse and emotion, which might make us commit some grave mistakes. By first of all focusing on reason and logic, we are allowed to tap into our critical thinking and to proceed from there to squeeze the best solutions out of a situation.
Read books in general
From textbooks that focus on critical thinking in its discussion, you have to expand beyond—to books in general. Whether it is instructional or recreational, read it. Before you know it, you are already forming your critical thinking skills.
This may seem extremely broad—it is, and for a good reason. It is not enough to read textbooks that teach how to improve critical thinking skills. What good are they if they are not applied?
At the same time, books themselves also teach how to improve critical thinking skills. When you read a book, you are exposed to new information. But it is up to you to actually accept them. This is where you put your critical thinking to good use. New information does not mean right information. Information is neutral in nature, and it should always be scrutinized in relation to the truth. Is it the truth? Regardless of the answer, which truths or lies can it connect to?
Make and share your own insights
Another extreme of open-mindedness is extreme skepticism. It is similar to traditionalism in that it puts a very hard limit to open-mindedness, but in such a way that no beliefs seem to hold any water. In a practical sense, this cannot be. Extreme skepticism cannot say that there is no true belief—if that is true, would extreme skepticism not be a true belief?
What eager learners of critical thinking skills have to know is that critical thinking is beyond having a systematized manner of thinking. Critical thinking is a value, an important aspect of living life. If we try to develop critical thinking skills based solely on what textbooks say, we ironically end up making it a belief of traditionalism. At best, critical thinking is a dynamic, ever-flowing ideal. Its fluidity makes it so that it cannot be completely pinned down by structure and definition determined by a few sources.
Everyone is a contributor to the endeavor of improving critical thinking. In every waking moment that we think, or when we make connections among even the most unrelated things, we are adding more to the library of critical thinking. And creation, perhaps, is the most productive contribution to any activity, as well as sharing such creation. So, go strut your stuff! When you have an idea from strenuous or even “eureka” thinking, do not be afraid to share it.
This should always be remembered every time you want to learn how to improve critical thinking skills: it is not a single effort, but a collaborative one.
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