One of the much touted 21st century skills is critical thinking. It finds mention wherever education reform is talked about, or when we are assessing what our schools and colleges do or don’t do. And by and large, we seem to agree that most educational institutions and systems in the country do not foster critical thinking. In this age of information overload, the ability to think critically is even more important, to enable us to understand the world and to function efficiently within it.
But, one thing that seems to come to us quite easily is the ability to be critical — to identify what is wrong with something and point it out. It doesn’t take much to find fault, and there are tons of things to do this with — the state of the world, the behaviour of our neighbours, the problems with our institutions, the design of the syllabus, the unfairness of the job market. Just about everything. We tend to understand the act of “criticism” as looking for flaws, and, honestly, we often take pleasure in taking something apart and talking about how bad it is.
Being critical of something is quite different from taking a critical approach to something. The first only requires us to be able to compare what is to what should be, or to see whether and to what extent something meets a certain standard. It is what quality control professionals do, and what we all do, in some measure, when we evaluate a piece of work. A critical approach, on the other hand, is about applying a deeper level of analysis and discernment to the task, to go beneath the surface and to try and understand why something is the way it is.
So, thinking critically is quite different from being critical. It involves a deliberate, reflective, and independent process of looking at an issue or a phenomenon and trying to understand it without bias. It requires one to examine the issue at hand, but also examine how one is looking at it — what are the mental “habits” that lead you to understand it in certain ways, and how can you go beyond those habits? It requires the systematic application of logic to figure out the what, why and how of something. It also requires us to step back and try to look at an issue from multiple angles, analysing the reliability and relevance of the information and then arriving at an independent decision based on one’s own judgment.
We sometimes tend to confuse critical thinking with questioning, with taking an oppositional or dissenting position. To be sure, critical thinking involves — and in fact begins with — questioning, refusing to accept an explanation without examination. But it doesn’t stop there. To engage with something critically, we need to be open minded and to ask generative questions — questions that lead us toward a solution. Too often, we disagree with or dislike something, but when asked why, we cannot explain. Critical thinking helps us explore and explain our disagreement, and possibly also takes us in a direction that can change what we disagree with. Or perhaps, we might even find that our disagreement does not have a foundation, and thus change our minds. In either case, we end up with a better understanding of the issue — and that, after all, is the purpose of thinking, isn’t it?
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. email@example.com