A Beginner’s Guide To Critical Thinking

by Jit Gosai

Critical thinking can be highly beneficial in helping people better understand situations and solve difficult problems.  But developing the ability isn’t a matter of mastering one or two techniques. It involves a number of skills and abilities that work interdependently and can always be improved. Therefore it is more a lifelong learning journey than an end state to be obtained. 

This journey may seem quite daunting but it needn’t be that way. There are a few key areas that can help everyone get started on this journey. Having an easy to recall definition is a good place to start. 

 

What Critical Thinking Is

There are many definitions of critical thinking but for me the one by Dr Richard Paul from Think magazine, 1992 sums it up best:

Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better. 

This doesn’t just happen with regular everyday thoughts but when you purposely think with a goal in mind. Therefore for me critical thinking is all about building quality into your thinking. You’ll read more about how to do that later in this article. 

If critical thinking is about improving your thought process, then what kind of thinking is NOT critical thinking?

 

What Critical Thinking Is Not

You are not thinking critically when you are simply asserting things from your personal opinion. If you are unable to explain to yourself or others why you think what you think then you are most likely not thinking critically.  We also sometimes mistake rhetoric for critical thinking. You can spot this when the argument is beautifully written but made up entirely of personal opinions, lacking in clear evidence or proof. 

We now have a simple definition of critical thinking, which is to build quality into your thinking, and what it is not, which is simply to assert subjective opinions. So how do you go about building quality into your thought process so that opinions are more objective and based on evidence? This is where the core skills of critical thinking come in: reasoning, communication, and self-leadership. 

 

The Core Skills Of Critical Thinking

Reasoning

Your reasoning behind your thinking should be based on evidence and  objective reasons. This will allow you to explain your thinking to others, enabling external scrutiny of your approach and providing an opportunity to improve your reasoning further.  

Communication 

Communication isn’t just verbal but written too and therefore brings me onto another important component of critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t just one type of technique you need to know but is interdependent on all the other skills you have. These include:

  • Your ability to read, write, speak and listen
  • Reasoning within subject areas
  • Decision making and problem solving
  • Analysis and evaluation of your emotions and values 

Communication skills are essential to be able to work with others. Without communication you wouldn’t be able to transfer ideas from one person to another.  But to be able to transfer those ideas and hear other people's you need to listen first and ask questions afterward. 

Everyone can listen to another person but to do it critically you need to listen actively. Active listening is about listening to understand which helps you to really hear what people are saying and not just what you think they said. In addition, you also need to ask questions, but not just to simply extract more information. You want to ask the good types of questions that enable both participants in the conversation to learn. The best type of questions are open questions that encourage people to think through things.  Asking open questions enables you to understand the information you are hearing more deeply and also shows others that you are listening to what they are saying. 

In addition to your reasoning and communication skills you need self-leadership.

Self-Leadership 

Self-leadership is our ability to develop and make use of our self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control. Self-leadership skills are essential for developing our emotional intelligence which amongst many other things helps us to work with others far more effectively than just communication alone.  In addition it enables us to analyse our thinking more effectively for biases, overgeneralisation, and fallacies.

Self-leadership skills also help us to improve our strengths and abilities by allowing us to develop a more of a growth mindset and identify our blindspots in our abilities. These three skills help us to get, give and process feedback effectively, which is crucial for improving our strengths and abilities.

We are all affected by biases and fallacies but we are not always aware of what they are and how they can affect our thinking. Self-leadership is the skill that we need to develop in order to start changing our default thinking and move towards more critical thinking. 

This excellent five minute video from The Open University has some great tips on identifying some of the main biases, overgeneralisations, and fallacies that can cloud our judgement. Examples include confirmation bias, embracing nuance and complexity, practicing intellectual humility, and checking your sources.  

This leads me to my final question, which is: how do all these skills build quality into our thinking? 

 

Building Quality Into Your Thinking

The first thing to do is define the term quality. In a simple definition: quality is value to someone. If that is the case then what is valuable in critical thinking? For me it is your ability to 

  • Reason
    • Based on evidence and observations 
  • Communicate  
    • Using multiple modes of communication 
    • While employing active listening and asking open questions to further develop your and others’ understanding 
  • Self leadership 
    • To develop your self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-control skills 
    • To better analyse and evaluate your emotions and values 
    • To get, give, and process feedback effectively
    • To minimise the impact of biases, overgeneralisations, and fallacies
      • By identifying your default thinking
      • Or at a minimum understanding what confirmation bias is, embracing nuance and complexity within situations and practicing intellectual humility

All the abilities mentioned above are interrelated and interdependent on each other. To reason with facts and observations is almost useless if you can’t communicate them. But to be able to identify facts and observations you need to first listen and ask questions to understand them. To be able to reason effectively you need to be self-aware of your thought processes and ideas and also deploy self-control to be able to actively listen to others. Self-reflection enables you to analyse your reasoning, but you need self-awareness to stop it evolving into overanalysis or rumination. These self-leadership skills are also needed to understand, identify and minimise biases, overgeneralisation, and fallacies that could lead you astray in your critical thinking. But to be able to do so you need to be able to reason about them. 

It’s not a matter of developing just one but all of them. As you improve in one area you will notice how you lack in others and the only way to progress is to develop those too. This is why developing your critical thinking is a journey, one that never ends since you can always improve.  

 

Further Reading

Become A Better Tester By Becoming A Better Critical Thinker, Naveen Bhati

Testing Ask Me Anything: Critical Thinking, Fiona Charles

Cognitive Biases In Software Testing, Maaike Brinkhof

Panel Discussion: Critical Thinking,  Elizabeth Zagroba, Jitesh Gosai and Maaike Brinkhof

 

Author Bio

Jitesh has over 18 years’ testing experience working with a wide variety of companies supporting them to build, test and automate at scale.  

He is currently a Principal Tester at the BBC in the iPlayer & Sounds department working with Mobile, TV and Web teams.  His core aim is to help teams build quality into their products. 

In his free time he likes to speak about his experiences at conferences all over Europe and blogs regularly at https://www.jitgo.uk/blog