Can Critical Thinking Be Taught? 

Look at almost any list of soft skills employers want in a new hire and you’re likely to see it near the top: critical thinking.

Critical thinkers are prized for their ability to see problems clearly, set aside preconceived notions, and come up with solutions. They question team members and (sometimes disconcertingly) their managers. When you have a strong critical thinker on your team, you don’t have someone who will say yes to your every whim. Instead, you have a strong independent thinker, whose critiques improve your team’s strategies, performance, and solutions.

As with all soft skills, it can be tempting to believe that critical thinking is something people are born with — if you want a critical thinker, you have to hire one, right?

That’s not the case, however. Critical thinking is a skill, and like all skills, it can be taught.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to make clearly reasoned judgements based on the logical interpretation, understanding, and impartial analysis of information.

While this may sound like one skill, strong critical thinkers actually need a suite of competencies:

  • They must be able to identify and set aside their own pre-existing opinions and biases.
  • They must be able to analyze information.
  • They must be able to draw inferences from that information.
  • They should know how to solve problems.
  • They should be able to communicate their process and inferences with other team members.

Critical thinking is particularly important for any role that deals with strategy or planning; executive positions, as well as those in law, education, or medicine, need to be able to think critically in order to do their jobs. However, critical thinking benefits any modern professional, as it allows for clearer decision-making, and may even lead to a happier workforce.

How can you train critical thinking?

Critical thinking can be difficult to train, perhaps because it is a combination of skills, rather than just one. It is possible… though, only if the learner is willing. That is one of three ways you can train critical thinking.

1. Recognize the importance of a critical thinking disposition

You have to want to think critically in order to be a critical thinker. This may seem like an obvious statement, but having a critical thinking disposition — being willing and able to question beliefs and abandon cherished ways of doing things — is a necessary part of being a critical thinker.

Diane Halpern, former head of the American Psychological Association, describes five attitudes that make up a strong critical thinking disposition:

  • Willingness to engage in and persist at a complex task.
  • Habitual use of plans and the suppression of impulsive activity.
  • Flexibility or open-mindedness.
  • Willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct.
  • An awareness of the social realities that need to be overcome (such as the need to seek consensus or compromise) so that thoughts can become actions.

2. Teach information literacy

A critical thinker should consider the source of the information they’re evaluating. Any new information they’re presented with should be looked at with a critical eye, no matter how that information comes to them — even if it comes from their boss or a colleague.

Research is a big part of critical thinking, and here too, information literacy is important. Your team should know the difference between a trustworthy source and a dubious one, knowing how to verify information, and understanding the context of that information. Not every learner will come to their role knowing how to properly vet sources, so this is an important skill to teach and reinforce in the workplace.

3. Encourage inquiry

Being able to ask plenty of questions is part of evaluating information and making independent decisions. As a manager, you can do this in a few ways. First, you can simply encourage your team to ask questions in the first place. Some employees might not be used to doing this, so take the lead and let them know that questions are welcome. Secondly, you can teach them how to ask the sort of questions that really get at the meat of a problem, like open-ended questions or follow-ups.

The benefits of critical thinking at work

We can’t sugarcoat it: critical thinking isn’t an easy skill to master. Questioning internal bias, conducting research, and being willing to argue for your point of view requires discipline, patience, and humility — that’s a tall order for many.

However, it’s worth attempting to train this skill. Having a team of critical thinkers comes with huge benefits for your organization and for your team members. They’re likely to be better decision-makers, better at solving problems, and better all-around communicators. Your team may also become more self-aware, and more attuned to others, because they’re habitually overcoming their own biases and actively trying to understand other points of view.

So, now that you’ve read this article, do you think that critical thinking can be taught? With the right understanding of your learners and the three considerations above, as well as engaging and easily accessible critical thinking courses, we think so! And even if some team members master just a few of the skills associated with critical thought, it will only benefit you and your team.