Critical thinking is ‘the ability to thoughtfully analyze and evaluate situations and recommend courses of action that consider stakeholders, implications and consequences.
Thinking critically involves considering a subject, content, or problem diagnostically, identifying opportunities, and developing, testing, and implementing appropriate solutions. Taken for granted assumptions must be challenged and should lead you to ask searching questions that may have no simple answer, such as:
What is the problem?
Where is the opportunity?
Why has nothing been done?
What should be done?
Identifying what you want to think critically about may require creativity. Critical thinking may also involve daring to be different in your approach to a problem or an opportunity, and — importantly — thinking for yourself.
This can involve questioning strongly held beliefs and ideas even when they might be considered to be virtually sacred or untouchable by others. It can also mean considering the arguments from various perspectives and sources, even if you might not intuitively agree with them.
Challenging the status quo could help critical thinkers create new and more advantageous ways of doing things. The World Economic Future of Jobs Report (WEF, 2016) highlights critical thinking as tomorrow’s key job skill, a point further underlined by Hess when he argues that in a world where technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are increasingly important:
Many experts believe that human beings will still be needed to do the jobs that require higher-order critical, creative, and innovative thinking and the jobs that require high emotional engagement to meet the needs of other human beings.
Human head with gears and cogs. Thinking process, idea generation, brain functioning.
The challenge for many of us is that we do not excel at those skills because of our natural cognitive and emotional proclivities:
We are confirmation-seeking thinkers and ego-affirmation-seeking defensive reasoners. We will need to overcome those proclivities to take our thinking, listening, relating, and collaborating skills to a much higher level.
Is critical thinking the same as intelligence?
While critical thinking involves the intelligent application of thoughts, it is not the same as intelligence. Butler et al. make the point that ‘We all probably know someone who is very intelligent but does blatantly stupid things.
Despite evidence that intelligence predicts a variety of life outcomes, the relationship between intelligence and good thinking is less clear.
They further argue that ‘critical thinking involves thinking rationally in a goal-oriented fashion… It is a collection of skills and strategies that a thinker can use when the situation calls for them. It is also a disposition towards thinking carefully and thoughtfully’.
So what is the link between creative thinking and critical thinking? Are they related or perhaps completely different phenomena?
Creative thinking and critical thinking
While some might argue that the process of critical thinking helps to stimulate creative thinking, others are quite clear that creative thinking and critical thinking are distinctly separate phenomenon that nonetheless shares a common focus on decision making.
Paul and Elder make the case for a close link between the two as follows:
To the untutored, creative and critical thinking often seem to be opposite forms of thought: the first based on irrational or unconscious forces, the second on rational and conscious processes; the first undetectable and unteachable, the second directable and teachable….
Critical and creative thought are both achievements of thought. Creativity masters a process of making or producing, criticality a process of assessing or judging. The very definition of the word creative implies a critical component (e.g. having or showing imagination and artistic or intellectual inventiveness).
When engaged in high-quality thought, the mind must simultaneously produce and assess, generate and judge the products it fabricates. In short, sound thinking requires both imagination and intellectual standards.
decoding and understanding problems, face to face explanation concepts on blackboard, creative and rational thinking
They conclude by asserting that both forms of thought are inherently linked, arguing quite strongly that ‘Critical thinking without creativity reduces to mere skepticism and negativity, and creativity without critical thought reduces to mere novelty.
Critical or creative thinking?
Creativity is consequently necessary for critical thinking, but in itself not sufficient to guarantee that it will occur. Creative people may bubble with ideas but to successfully get things done they must engage in problem finding — ‘a thinking activity that utilizes existing contexts and experience to produce and express new questions’.
Needless to say, critical thinking is not easy, and the pressure of time, something that many experiences, can enhance this challenge. Sostrin argues that: ‘An unbridled urgency can be counterproductive and costly. If you’re too quick to react, you can end up with short-sighted decisions or superficial solutions, neglecting underlying causes and create collateral damage in the process.’
While problem-solving is in many ways a natural human activity, if you reflect further you might recognize that effective problem solving is much harder. An important first step can be understanding the nature of the problem you are trying to solve and the full complexities it entails. Taking a more critical approach to problem-solving can help you address them in new and productive ways.
In the next article, you will take a step beyond the individual and look at the challenge of creativity and innovation in organizations.