Why is Critical Thinking Important?

Matthew Crome

Matthew Crome

Senior Consultant

This article explores 3 questions

Why is critical thinking important?

What is the mindset required for critical thinking?

How can a critical thinking culture be nurtured in the workplace?

Why is critical thinking important?

The modern-day definition of critical thinking is widely attributed to the American Philosopher John Dewey. In his book ‘How Do We Think’ (1910), he defined critical thinking as ‘(the) active, persistent, careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends’ – Heavy stuff!

More simply put it is the process of analysing information in order to make a logical decision about the extent to which you believe something to be true or false.

It involves collecting and analysing relevant data from many sources so that we can make informed decisions based on logic. And therein lies the challenge, despite our best efforts to exercise clean logic we are all governed by our emotions. (Your emotions have just influenced your reaction to that last sentence!).

We live in a complex world and are saturated with information and data from multiple sources, many claiming to offer the definitive truth justified by the expertise of the author. These sources are often contrary, and we rarely have the luxury of time to wade through all the data before making a decision.

The stakes can be high. Careers and businesses live or die by the quality of the decisions made. The need for critical thinking is more important than ever when navigating the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world we operate in. We are expected to juggle many tasks at the same time within tight deadlines and demanding stakeholders all of which conspire against us when we need the time and headspace to apply critical thinking to our decision making.

What is the mindset required for critical thinking?

We, at Arcadia, are great believers in the importance of Mindset. It lies at the heart of everything we do, and a critical thinking mindset is key to being effective with this discipline.

There are many applied problem solving and decision-making processes that can be used. We also need to have a healthy, conscious awareness of the influence that our mindset plays in our ability to reason and assess the available data and information.

A simple and useful approach to keep your mindset in check might include asking critical thinking questions, e.g.

  • What do I already know?
  • What do they already know?
  • How do I know that?
  • How do they know that?
  • What am I trying to prove/understand?
  • What are they trying to prove?
  • What is my motivation?
  • What is their motivation?

Deliberately ask ‘What if…?’ questions that challenge common sense, current beliefs, and assumptions.

Be aware of your biases – 3 of the most common cognitive biases are:

Confirmation Bias – We like to be right and subconsciously align to people and ideas that agree with our thinking. It’s a tribal thing and cognitive diversity is called for.

Action Bias – Business drives us to swift action rather than ‘wasting time’ thinking something through. Invest time in the process and defend that time.

Association Bias – People have a tendency to connect the unconnected based on experience and folklore, e.g., Expensive means quality – you get what you pay for. Is this always true?

How can a critical thinking culture be nurtured in the workplace?

For critical thinking to work, it is essential that the individuals involved experience a sense of psychological safety in their team. They need to feel free to share ideas, without fear of ridicule. They need to feel safe to challenge the ideas of others without fear of negative consequence.

Without this fundamental feeling of safety, even the most well-intentioned leaders will struggle to gain the full benefit of the collective brain power of their teams. The question is how to create and nurture that environment.

In my voluntary work as a primary school governor, I recently observed a class of 6-year-old children practicing their critical thinking skills to help and support each other with their ideas. They each had the opportunity for their idea to be reviewed and critiqued by their peers and to a child, each experienced a positive and constructive evaluation of their idea, ultimately leading to better outcomes.  In turn, each child presented their idea to their classmates and then they followed a simple 5 step approach.

Step one – Stop, look, think, and notice the idea being shared. Significantly without judgement or comment. Just a few quiet moments being fully present with the idea.

Step two – The owner of the idea would explain their idea and their reasoning behind it.

Step three – Wondering. Others are encouraged to ask questions to help them understand further. Interestingly the questions were prefixed with ‘I wonder…’  e.g., ‘I wonder why you took that approach?’ or ‘I wonder how you saw that working?’.

Step four – The group now actively come forward with their suggestion and ideas to add and build upon the original thought.

Step five – Recognition. Speaking with the teacher, they commented that the successful embedding of this approach hinges upon this last step of praise and recognition of the behaviours demonstrated by the pupils throughout the exercise. 

I share this approach in this paper for the simple reason, it is simple.

There will be enough complexity with the issues being dealt with without making the process overly complicated. And whilst my example comes from primary school children, I was able to observe first hand how powerfully it impacted the class dynamic supporting an environment where individuals felt safe to share and challenge.

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