Skip to main content

Thinking Critically

| November 12, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Recently on TV, I was attracted to a Cascade dishwasher detergent commercial featuring child actress Sierra Richards, who seeing her “mother” rinse off the dishes before putting them in the open dishwasher asks, “just what does the dishwasher do?” This question is an example of thinking critically about what the “mother” in the commercial was doing.
Wikipedia tells us ”Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgement1 and asserts that the concept of “critical thinking” can be traced to the teachings of Socrates. He was concerned that too often “authority” was exercised without accurate knowledge or critical thinking about the issue at hand. We continue to see many examples of this, the exercise of authority without understanding, in essentially all phases of our lives today. 
Edward Glaser,in his 1941 study of critical thinking, tells us that  “The ability to think critically … involves three things: (1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences, (2) knowledge of the method of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods.” 
A simplified definition of critical thinking is that of Robert Ennis who says that “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication as a guide to belief and action.”3
Clearly, being able to think critically would be a valuable skill to have. Yet, the SHRM 2019 State of the Workplace Survey4 reports that critical thinking is one of the top missing soft skills of job applicants. Other studies indicate that about half of employers rate their employee’s critical thinking skills as average or below.5 And, a parallel study indicated that 66% of new graduates applying for jobs said that they had critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, only 21% of employers agreed.
So most likely we all have some deficiency in our ability to think critically.

Will Erstad6 suggests six skills that will help you begin thinking more critically:

  1. Identify the issue or problem AND the factors that may influence it. (You must know as much as is possible about your destination before you begin any journey.) Take a mental inventory – who is doing what? Why? To what end? How could that change?
  2. Determine the underlying facts and data; validate the information you gather. 
  3. Identify biases, insist on objectivity. To the fullest extent possible, root out bias.
  4. Infer and draw conclusions based on the information you receive. Most likely the information you receive will not clearly display what it means. You will have to draw your own conclusions from the data. A note to the wise: Gather as much data as possible before reaching conclusions. Ask yourself questions and in particular, ask yourself what’s missing.
  5. Relevance. Not all of the data you gather will be relevant to your goal. It’s helpful to evaluate the relevance of each data element to the problem you are addressing. Ask yourself what you’d really find helpful in reaching your decision and try to get the missing data or a proxy for it.
  6. Curiosity. Learn to be inquisitive. Ask questions. Can you say more? How did you reach that conclusion? What’s the raw data? A successful critical thinker always needs to have a follow-up question at hand. 

Pearson | TalentLens, a training and assessment company, has a critical thinking model they call the RED Modelwhich you may also find helpful in expanding your thinking skills:

  • Recognize your assumptions: what is the issue, what are the facts, what supports your strategy/plan, what’s the supporting evidence, what are the stakeholder viewpoints, what are other ideas that should be explored, as well as other things you need to know.
  • Evaluate arguments: pros and cons of any proposed action, name your biases, share your ideas with interested parties, identify impacts on others, what’s the financial impact, who will agree/disagree, what are the key perspectives you need to keep in mind.
  • Draw conclusions: what is the best option, what is the evidence driving your conclusion, is there new evidence that will impact your decision, does your conclusion make sense, when do you need to have a decision, what are the risks involved.

So, now you have two different approaches to becoming better at thinking critically. Each approach has lots of options and touchpoints that will help you become a more critical thinker. Why don’t you begin today to work on your critical thinking skills? What about simply being more inquisitive than you typically are? Ask questions to increase your understanding of the issue. And, if asking more questions doesn’t work for you, there are lots of other approaches to choose from in these lists. The thing I urge you to do is to begin.
Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Wikipedia, Critical Thinking.
  2. Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941.
  3. Ennis, Robert H., Critical Thinking: A Streamlined Conception, The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education, Palgrave Macmillan; cf. footnote 22 in Ref. [1] above.
  4. SHRM 2019 State of the Workplace, Society for Human Resource Management, 2019
  5. Breanne Harris, The Status of Critical Thinking in the Workplace, Pearson Blog, September 2015.
  6. Will Erstad, Critical Thinking Skills You Need to Master Now, Rasmussen College, College Life BLOG, January 2018.
  7. Better decisions. Everyday. Everywhere., Pearson | TalentLens