Critical thinking is a metacognitive skill. What this means is that it is a higher-level cognitive skill that involves thinking about thinking. We have to be aware of the good principles of reasoning, and be reflective about our own reasoning. In addition, we often need to make a conscious effort to improve ourselves, avoid biases, and maintain objectivity. This is notoriously hard to do. We are all able to think but to think well often requires a long period of training. The mastery of critical thinking is similar to the mastery of many other skills. There are three important components: theory, practice, and attitude.
If we want to think correctly, we need to follow the correct rules of reasoning. Knowledge of theory includes knowledge of these rules. These are the basic principles of critical thinking, such as the laws of logic, and the methods of scientific reasoning, etc.
Also, it would be useful to know something about what not to do if we want to reason correctly. This means we should have some basic knowledge of the mistakes that people make. First, this requires some knowledge of typical fallacies. Second, psychologists have discovered persistent biases and limitations in human reasoning. An awareness of these empirical findings will alert us to potential problems.
However, merely knowing the principles that distinguish good and bad reasoning is not enough. We might study in the classroom about how to swim, and learn about the basic theory, such as the fact that one should not breathe under water. But unless we can apply such theoretical knowledge through constant practice, we might not actually be able to swim.
Similarly, to be good at critical thinking skills it is necessary to internalize the theoretical principles so that we can actually apply them in daily life. There are at least two ways. One is to do lots of good-quality exercises. Exercises include not just exercises in classrooms and tutorials. They also include exercises in the form of discussion and debates with other people in our daily life. The other method is to think more deeply about the principles that we have acquired. In the human mind, memory and understanding are acquired through making connections between ideas.
Good critical thinking skills require not just knowledge and practice. Persistent practice can bring about improvements only if one has the right kind of motivation and attitude. The following attitudes are not uncommon, but they are obstacles to critical thinking:
- I prefer being given the correct answers rather than figuring them out myself.
- I don't like to think a lot about my decisions as I rely only on gut feelings.
- I don't usually review the mistakes I have made.
- I don't like to be criticized.
To improve our thinking we have to recognize that the importance of reflecting on the reasons for belief and action. We should also be willing to engage in debate, break old habits, and deal with linguistic complexities and abstract concepts.
The California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory is a psychological test that is used to measure whether people are disposed to think critically. It measures seven different thinking habits listed below, and it is useful to ask ourselves to what extent they describe the way we think:
- Truth-seeking - Do you try to understand how things really are? Are you interested in finding out the truth?
- Open-mindedness - How receptive are you to new ideas, even though intuitively they do not agree with you? Do you give them a fair hearing?
- Analyticity - Do you try to understand the reasons behind things? Do you act impulsively or do you evaluate the pros and cons of your decisions?
- Systematicity - Are you systematic in your thinking? Do you break down a complex problem into parts?
- Confidence in Reasoning - Do you always defer to other people? How confident are you in your own judgment? Do you have reasons for your confidence? Do you have a way to evaluate your own thinking?
- Maturity of Judgment - Do you jump to conclusions? Do you try to see things from different perspectives? Do you take other people's experiences into account?
Finally, as mentioned earlier, psychologists have discovered over the years that human reasoning can be easily affected by all kinds of cognitive biases. For example, people tend to be over-confident of their abilities, and focus too much on evidence that supports their pre-existing opinions. We should be alert to these biases in our attitudes towards our own thinking.