The best personal qualities we can have beyond school don't simply define what we've learned...
For a long time now we've talked about how important critical thinking skills are for today's learners (and for everyone) to build on. Every educator knows how crucial it is to cultivate them in our classrooms and indeed throughout our whole lives. But what does the ideal critical thinker look like? What are the most crucial defining characteristics of effective critical thinkers?
Let's begin our exploration by recalling that effective critical thinkers function by way of different thought processes in different circumstances. After all, figuring out how to make it to work on time when your car breaks down in rush hour traffic requires critical thinking application as much as negotiating world peace does. Both scenarios facilitate such skills in far different settings, and with different stakes and outcomes, but they call upon these skills nonetheless.
The question is about what universal traits the effective critical thinkers in each circumstance, and all those in between, would share. That's the mystery we intend to solve here by offering suggestions of what the most important defining characteristics of a critical thinker would be.
Effective critical thinkers are inherently curious about a wide range of topics and generally have broad interests. They tend to have a healthy inquisitiveness about the world and about people. An understanding of and appreciation for the diversity of cultures, beliefs, and views that encompass humanity are one of the hallmarks of a great critical thinker. This is also part of what makes them lifelong learners.
As we seek to gift our learners with these indispensable skills, we must not forget that they embrace the emotional and instinctual as much as the intellectual. Effective critical thinkers act as much with their hearts as they do with their minds. The world is full of enough judgment and segregation, much of it from lack of a clear understanding of one another's secret history of perseverance through often unimaginable suffering.
Effective critical thinkers are inherently curious about a wide range of topics and generally have broad interests.
Each one of us has a story of our own that makes us who we are, as well as personal trials and challenges that have shaped us. Critical thinkers recognize this and compassionately celebrate the uniqueness in everyone, and are willing to help us see the best in ourselves and others.
Opportunities to apply critical thinking skills are all around us every moment. Effective critical thinkers remain tuned into this and are always alert for chances to apply their best thinking habits to any situation. A desire to think critically about even the simplest of issues and tasks indicates a desire for constructive outcomes.
Effective critical thinkers don't take anything at face value, either. They never stop asking questions and enjoy exploring all sides of an issue and the deeper facts hiding within all modes of data. As such, those who think critically also tend to be instinctual problem solvers. This ranks as probably the most important skill we can help our learners build upon.
Many situations that call for critical thinking also call for quick and decisive action. When we think critically, we weigh our options and imagine the outcomes in the moment with speed and clarity and are able to put aside fear when it comes to making decisions. In essence, critical thinkers like to move things forward rather than moving backward or procrastinating, because they thrive on progression.
In addition to this, often choices have to be made even when we don't have all the information we need to make them with confidence. When facing any kind of a challenge, often someone has to take the lead and make the hard decisions others shy away from. Effective critical thinkers realize that, more often than not, it's necessary to take the initiative and make a decision even if it ends up being the wrong one. To them, that's preferable to not making any decision at all.
Honesty is important in any sense, but it is especially important to critical thinking. Moral integrity, ethical consideration and action, and global citizenship practices are all hallmarks of effective critical thinkers. It's not a surprise that honesty resides at the core of all these things. We see in such people a strong desire for harmony and fulfillment in the world, and part of attaining this involves pursuing honesty in all endeavors and relationships.
Many situations that call for critical thinking also call for quick and decisive action.
The practice of honesty in critical thinking also extends to how one looks within oneself to embrace what resides there. It takes into account the processes behind managing our emotions, controlling our impulses, and recognizing any attempts at self-deception. Critical thinkers are as equally aware and accepting of themselves as they are of others.
Willingness and flexibility encompass a number of key considerations for the critical thinker. They include but aren't limited to things like the ability to:
- learn from their own personal mistakes and shortcomings
- challenge the status-quo when the need arises
- openmindedly embrace other opinions and views that challenge their own
- reconsider and revise their opinions in the wake of new evidence
- listen actively rather than simply wait for their turn to talk
- constantly improve, learn, and excel
There's no question that effective critical thinkers are also largely creative thinkers. Creativity has unquestionably defined itself as a requisite skill for having in the collaborative modern workforce. Critical thinking in business, marketing, and professional alliances relies heavily on one's ability to be creative. When businesses get creative with products and how they are advertised, they thrive in the global marketplace.
The Path to Critical Thinking
Teaching our learners to be effective critical thinkers doesn’t require countless hours of lesson planning. You don’t need special courses of study or guest speakers to do it for you. All you need are what both you and your learners already have in abundance—curious and open minds, committed hearts, diverse interests and abilities, and a desire to be better than you were yesterday.
To guide you in building your learners' critical thinking skills, we offer our Critical Thinking Companion, the ultimate guide to teaching and assessing critical thinking skills. As you use the tools and activities inside, think about which of the above qualities your students demonstrate in abundance, and the myriad of different ways you can help them develop others. Working together, you can all achieve more than you imagine.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Sep 13, 2018, updated September 19, 2021