How to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Philosophers have always believed that the most valuable citizens in any civilized society are those who approach questions and problems with calm, intellectual reserve and suspended judgment. Such people are critical thinkers; they are the rational problem solvers who lead the way in correct, logical thinking and goal-oriented action. The critical thinker is slow to believe new theory, preferring to wait for more convincing and viable evidence before exercising judgment, and using only the confirmed facts for intelligent decision making.

Certainty is not always necessary for the critical thinker, but possibility and probability are always considered. Evidence can be weighed and examined, but whether something is true or not is quite independent of the enthusiasm, the confidence, or the fears of others. Emotions and feelings have a role to play, but they cannot influence the truth. Only the facts and the way the facts relate to one another can be used to determine truth values.

The ability to think in a critical and decisive manner is one of the fundamental goals of education, and professional educators everywhere should encourage students to develop independent thought and considered opinion. No one should be a slave to dogmatic teaching or indoctrinated ideas.

The truly educated citizen is an independent thinker who can intelligently disagree with any propounded theory, whether political, religious, or societal. Critical thinkers, however, must be distinguished from gratuitous debaters who seek only to defeat their opponents by aggressive verbosity. The latter may be skilled in debate, but they could never be described as critical thinkers.

Critical thinkers are not only independent thinkers; they are also fair-minded in that they are willing to hear all points of view, and they are careful to take every aspect of an argument into consideration. Unlike the competitive debater, the true thinker is more interested in discovering the truth through rational dialectic. This takes a measure of intellectual humility and courage, because it recognizes that no one has a monopoly on truth, and it believes that the way to true knowledge is by shared intellectual activity among honest and sincere thinkers.

The intellectual liberation that derives from independent thinking should be a primary objective for all those who value education. Such liberation of thought is the antithesis of indoctrination which aims to avoid critical thinking. Indoctrination is miseducation, and it can form no part of a healthy intellectual development. While indoctrination seeks to encourage beliefs and convictions that cannot be supported by rational argument, true education encourages independent thinking so that the objects of belief can be based upon evidence, observation, and critical thought.

The fact that governments in the western world place high value on an educated population is clear recognition that critical thinking and observation are an integral part of our culture and tradition. Political systems based upon democratic principles expect informed voters to exercise their right to choose leaders who represent their views. But they cannot do this effectively without independent thought and a critical mind. Our formal education systems, then, are charged with the responsibility to encourage critical thinking among all students, not only for their own personal growth, but also for the benefit of a nation.