In the past, developing critical thinking was why people learned subjects like Latin. A heavy emphasis on structured thought patterns, like memorizing poetry, learning a musical instrument, or creative writing of essays, forms your mind to enable critical thinking. The mind stretches around such structures, allowing you to imagine and consider things outside of the rules and forms that you are learning.
Analytical thinking, on the other hand, describes patterns of thought that draw conclusions from our study. Studying the scientific method is one way in which analytical thinking has traditionally been taught. Other examples include planting a garden, caring for or training animals, and (oddly enough) playing video games. These practical applications of lessons learned from critical thinking reflect our ability to translate abstract knowledge into everyday life.
While the path to learning both analytical and critical thinking skills should start in school and at home, some people may not have had those advantages. Perhaps they didn’t learn well in a traditional environment, weren’t that interested, or didn’t have the opportunity to develop as they would have liked to at some point.
No matter what the past holds, each of us can work on our thinking skills in the present. Here are some questions, practices, and tools that you can use today to develop your thinking skills.
At the Bottom: Questions
Let’s start at the beginning by examining existing patterns of thinking. These patterns develop in each one of us to the point that we don’t think about what we do anymore. We just do it.
What are some questions you can answer to develop your critical thinking? Below are some variations on classic questions that have been around since the human race first asked “Why?”
- Is truth absolute? Why or why not?
- Why do I do (insert favorite activity here)? Why do I like it? What makes it fun for me?
- Why should I do (insert good activity here)? Why shouldn’t I?
Write down your answers and add to them from time to time. Keep in mind that many of these questions will never be fully answered. This is a major part of why they are useful. You are learning about your preconceived ideas so that you can break out of them and keep learning. The object here is to examine the practices that you have created over time. This process of learning about yourself enables you to look beyond the practices and processes that “everyone knows” and challenge them. Do they make sense?
Moving Up: Practices
An answer follows a question. But that doesn’t mean that an answer stops growing. If you choose to journal the answers to hard questions as outlined above, this fact almost springs out at you. But what if you don’t have the time to journal?
Easier, day-to-day practices include creating more structure for yourself in your life. Examples of this include organizing all sorts of things, from your to-do or shopping list to bigger things such as that messy room in your house. For some people, organization in your home or workspace is extremely helpful. Others find inspiration and fresh thoughts in a more free-form environment. Try out both options and see what works better for you.
Practices to develop your critical or analytical abilities will vary depending on you and your skill set. Focus on learning new things and keeping an open mind. Center your practices around that and keep experimenting! Some examples of practices you could implement include:
- Joining a book club or poetry reading
- Writing a personal essay about something, then writing another one from the opposite point of view
- Trying out something that you think you won’t like, such as rock climbing or a dance class
Honing and Practicing: Tools
Tools come last on the list precisely because they are far easier to use than asking and answering hard questions that you may or may not want to explore fully. Practices take time to create and even more time to form into habits.
But apps, puzzles, and/or media to consume? That is much easier. And ultimately, these tools are much more simple means to check off the “I worked on myself” box. Before defaulting to these tools, think about why you are really using them. Once you are ready, the options are endless and increase every day for tools like:
- Scheduling and organizational apps
- Traditional mind puzzles and games
- Short stories and poetry writing
Look particularly for apps and games that are based around memory and skill training in some way or another. Chess, Sudoku, and story problems are the most traditional games, but there are many more out there.
Reading also improves the ability to think critically. When it comes to books, look for something that challenges you and your world views. Try reading it to understand the author’s mindset. You might be surprised!
Developing and maintaining analytical and critical thinking skills can be difficult. It can sometimes seem not worth the amount of effort. Sometimes, it may not even seem like anything is happening at all. But like any other skill, time and practice conquer all. Just like a baby learning how to walk or a kid on a bike, we all start somewhere.