How to Practice Critical Thinking in 4 Steps

Our lives are the result of the myriad choices we make all day long every day, from little things like what we eat for breakfast to life-changing decisions like whether or not we should go back to school. Big or small, every choice we make results in an outcome, and the accumulation of these outcomes shapes our lives. Eating too much of certain foods is eventually going to make a person fat and unhealthy. Going back to school can be the worst decision you've ever made if you don't manage your time, or it could increase your salary and be the best thing you've ever done. Practicing critical thinking makes the difference between good decisions and bad ones, but if you haven't been taught how to think critically, where do you begin?

I was lucky to have been assigned a fabulous college counselor as a freshman at St. Olaf College: Dr. Howard Hong. He was a philosopher and Kierkegaard scholar, and as a student in every course he offered, I learned to reason. It didn't happen overnight. I was 40 before I recognized the gift he had given me. I wrote to him to thank him. He replied on a postcard, "How wonderful that a spark struck so long ago finally caught flame."

I share that because I want you to know that it can take time to practice critical thinking, and that it's never too late to start. It is also a skill that nobody practices 24/7. Sometimes we are good at it, and sometimes we're not, but the more awareness we have of trying to think critically as often as possible, the better life becomes.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking, found at criticalthinking.org, suggests that practicing the following four steps will help you become a critical thinker.

01
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Ask Questions

Critical thinking steps and success plan
Creative-idea/Digital Vision Vectors/Getty Images

Critical thinkers start by asking questions about whatever is in front of them. They consider cause and effect. If this, then what? If that, then how is the outcome different? They understand that every action has a consequence, and they think about all possible outcomes of decisions before they make them. Asking questions helps this process.

Be curious, about everything.

02
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Interview - Jack Hollingsworth - Photodisc - GettyImages-200325177-001
Jack Hollingsworth - Photodisc - GettyImages-200325177-001

Once you have asked every question you can come up with about a matter (it helps to write them down), seek information that will help you answer those questions. Investigate! Do some research. You can learn almost anything on the Internet, but it's not the only place to do your research. Interview people. I'm a big fan of polling. Ask the experts around you. Gather information and various opinions you can use to make your own determination. The wider the variety, the better.

03
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Thinking - Hero Images - GettyImages-468773931
Hero Images - GettyImages-468773931

You've got a pile of information, and now it's time to analyze it all with an open mind. This is the most challenging part, in my opinion. It can be pretty difficult to recognize the filters that were instilled in us from our first families. We are products of our environments, of the ways in which we were treated as a child, of the role models we've had throughout our lives, of the opportunities we have said yes or no to, of the sum of all of our experiences.

Try to be as aware as possible of those filters and biases, and turn them off. Question everything during this step. Are you being objective? Are you speculating? Assuming anything? This is the time to look at every thought as purely as possible. Do you know it to be absolutely true? What are the facts? Have you considered the situation from every different point of view?

Be ready to be surprised by how many times we all jump to conclusions that aren't reached through critical thinking.

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Communicate Solutions

Study Group by Dougal Waters - Getty Images
Dougal Waters - Getty Images

Critical thinkers are more interested in solutions than in placing blame, complaining, or gossiping. Once you've reached a conclusion through critical thinking, it's time to communicate and implement a solution if one is called for. This is the time for compassion, empathy, diplomacy. Not everyone involved will have thought the situation through as critically as you have. It's your job to understand that, and to present solutions in a way that everyone can understand.

Learn more about critical thinking at The Critical Thinking Community. They have lots of resources online and for purchase.