What is a critical thinker? Why do you need a guide to think critically? These are good questions, but ones that are seldom asked. Sometimes people are afraid to ask questions because they think that doing so will make them seem ignorant to others. But admitting you do not know something is actually the only way to learn new things and better understand what others are trying to tell you.
There are differing views about what critical thinking is. For the most part, people take bits and pieces of these views and carry on with their often imprecise—and sometimes conflicting—assumptions of what critical thinking may be. However, one of the ideas we will discuss in this book is the fundamental importance of seeking truth. To this end, let us unpack the term critical thinking to better understand its meaning.
First, the word thinking can describe any number of cognitive activities, and there is certainly more than one way to think. We can think analytically, creatively, strategically, and so on (Sousa, 2011). When we think analytically, we take the whole that we are examining—this could be a term, a situation, a scientific phenomenon—and attempt to identify its components. The next step is to examine each component individually and understand how it fits with the other components. For example, we are currently examining the meaning of each of the words in the term critical thinking so we can have a better understanding of what they mean together as a whole.
Analytical thinking is the kind of thinking mostly used in academia, science, and law (including crime scene investigation). In ordinary life, however, you engage in analytical thinking more often than you imagine. For example, think of a time when you felt puzzled by someone else’s comment. You might have tried to recall the original situation and then parsed out the language employed, the context, the mood of the speaker, and the subject of the comment. Identifying the different parts and looking at how each is related to the other, and how together they contribute to the whole, is an act of analytical thinking.
When we think creatively, we are not focused on relationships between parts and their wholes, as we are when we think analytically. Rather, we try to free our minds from any boundaries such as rules or conventions. Instead, our tools are imagination and innovation. Suppose you are cooking, and you do not have all the ingredients called for in your recipe. If you start thinking creatively, you will begin to look for things in your refrigerator and pantry that can substitute for the missing ingredients. But in order to do this, you must let go of the recipe’s expected outcome and conceive of a new direction.
When we think strategically, our focus is to first lay out a master plan of action and then break it down into smaller goals that are organized in such a way as to support our outcomes. For example, undertaking a job search involves strategic planning. You must identify due dates for applications, request letters of recommendations, prepare your résumé and cover letters, and so on. Thinking strategically likely extends to many activities in your life, whether you are going grocery shopping or planning a wedding.
What, then, does it mean to think critically? In this case the word critical has nothing to do with criticizing others in a negative way or being surly or cynical. Rather, it refers to the habit of carefully evaluating ideas and beliefs, both those we hear from others and those we formulate on our own, and only accepting those that meet certain standards. While critical thinking can be viewed from a number of different perspectives, we will define critical thinking as the activity of careful assessment and self‐assessment in the process
of forming judgments. This means that when we think critically, we become the vigilant guardians of the quality of our thinking.
Simply put, the “critical” in critical thinking refers to a healthy dose of suspicion. This means that critical thinkers do not simply accept what they read or hear from others—even if the information comes from loved ones or is accompanied by plausible‐sounding statistics. Instead, critical thinkers check the sources of information. If none are given or the sources are weak or unreliable, they research the information for themselves.