You want me to practice what? WHY?

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The heading of this piece is a question that students often ask me in a rather incredulous tone. Why must we practice thinking? We think all the time, according to my students. What’s the relevance of having a course about thinking? There is no skill involved. Yes, lower order thinking is instinctive and does not require any conscious effort but critical thinking, on the other hand, needs work. Critical thinking needs brain work and lots of it.

I’ve still not answered the question though. Why study critical thinking and problem solving? Well, the World Health Organization consistently ranks critical thinking as one of the top ten life skills that everyone should possess. Given the ever-changing nature of society, the job market and job descriptions themselves, employers more and more want employees who can think on their feet and adapt to diverse situations. For this, we need to be able to think critically.  Therefore, studying the practice of critical thinking will stand everyone in good stead for our entire lives, not just during higher education and not just for the duration of one course. Critical thinking is a skill that can be applied to everything in life. Critical thinkers are better able to contribute to the society in which we live. We are able to share ideas with our colleagues, friends and bosses. Critical thinkers are people who other people turn to for advice and guidance, as to think critically means that you can look at all angles of an issue and most likely find solutions to problems. Critical thinking, at its most basic definition, is thinking outside of the box and this is what employers both want and need from their employees.

Let’s unpack the words that are vital to the concept of critical thinking. Why? Well because in order to understand the importance of the concept, we need to understand all the terms involved. The most important terms, in my opinion, are skill and reasoning. These words are central to understanding the concept of critical thinking.

What is a skill? If you search for that answer you will most likely find something along the lines of ‘the ability to do something well’ or ‘expertise’. How do you become an expert in something? How do footballers score goals from seemingly impossible angles? They practice! That is what we need to do with our thinking; practice. Right now you are most likely thinking that I am a little bit crazy but, hopefully by the end of this brief article, you will understand what I mean and hopefully even agree with me. Now what do you think of the statement where I tell you that thinking is a skill? Thinking, you might ask? I’m not talking about the thoughts that flit through your mind at night as you drift off to sleep or the very first thoughts that you wake up with. The skill part comes in to play when we have to put a conscious effort into our thoughts. Most of our thoughts are unconscious, in that they just happen. The thinking that is part of critical thinking is of a higher order. For example, if someone asks me what my favourite colour is, then I can instinctively, without thinking, tell them: Yellow! If someone, however, asks me on my opinion on an issue in education, such as how to improve an advisory system, I need to stop and consciously think. It takes work. Brain work! The difference between conscious and unconscious thought contributions is almost always the quality of the thought. Your thoughts in this course, and in life, need to be conscious, skillful and quality.

This lead to the notion of reasoning. Arguably, this can be said to be one of the most important aspects that sets humans apart from other species; our ability to figure things out, learn from the process and then remember and apply what we have learned. Reasoning talks about our ability to draw conclusions in a meaningful way and put those conclusions (and the process we used to reach them) to good use. The main part of reasoning is that we are rational. Rational implies being calm. Rational is based on logic. The best way to win arguments and solve problems is by being rational. This, once again, reiterates the importance of practicing this skill.

Therefore, it is clear to see how employers and in fact anyone in life would like to be surrounded by critical thinkers. Yes, knowledge about a certain area is always important but given the speed at which the world changes daily, critical thinkers will always be needed and valued.

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