The Skill of Thinking

As this is a blog on being a Critical Thinker, let me start elaborating what I mean by this term. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, I am posting one of my own articles on the topic, which was first published by The Assam Tribune, May 24 2013, titled, The Skill of Thinking.

For the last fifteen years, I have been teaching the skill of Thinking.  I can just hear you, my reader, say, “Thinking? Why do you need to teach thinking”?  Why indeed?  Thinking is an activity innate in human beings, like eating.  What is there to be taught about thinking? 

A child who instinctively knows how to eat, needs to be taught the systematics of eating --- what to eat and what not to, how to eat what, protocols of eating and so on.  Similarly, our capacity to think needs systematic honing to make us effective and productive thinkers.   

Thinking is so much a part of us, that we do it automatically.  Just as we are not aware of when we first started eating, we are also not aware of when we first started to think.  Again, just like our food habits, without our knowledge, our thinking too gets influenced by our surroundings, our culture, our authority figures, our peers, our media and our experiences. We start developing our own world view by looking at the world through the lenses provided by our societies' views, without our ever realizing it.  This is a part of what is called socialization in anthropology and sociology --- the unconscious process by which we learn our own culture.  As we get socialized into a society, we also imbibe its way of thinking, which then becomes second nature to us.  It is because of this process that anything that is alien to our way of thinking seems unimaginable.  For example, in its Edible Insect Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has been endorsing eating insects as the new environmentally friendly and nutritious weapon to fight hunger.  But how easy will it be to implement it is another question. In many world views, including ours, eating insects is disgusting. For most of us,  chomping into a grasshopper or a cricket, no matter how tasty or it is supposed to be, is unthinkable.

Everything  we think and believe comes to us through the prism of our world view. Hence anything that is outside our world view seems to be wrong, and things that come within that view seems to be the right thing to do.  Our world view also determines our perspective on things. Our thoughts, opinions, on an issue come out of our perspective on the situation. Most of the time, our perspective is so taken-for-granted and ingrained in us that we are not even aware of it.  It becomes the only real way to understand a situation. We are not even aware of how we think and the basis of the decisions that we make.

Most of the time, our thinking is uncritical; we take whatever we see and hear around us at face value, interpreted through the perspective provided by our world view.  We often act on the unconscious assumption that only one view is right.  This is not generally the case --- each view comes from a particular perspective of looking at an issue.  Each of these perspectives come out of beliefs, values, agendas and interests. We just need to look at any controversial point being debated in the media to see that each issue will have multiple perspectives on it.  However, we cannot also assume each of these views are correct.  Thinking skills provides us with the tools to critically evaluate these myriad perspectives and glean our our own balanced opinion from them.

The word critical often has a negative connotation.  In the context of thinking skills, this is not necessarily so.   A critical thinker is someone who is able to use his or her own thinking process to clarify ideas, solve problems, make informed decisions and communicate ideas.  Though we are born with the power to think, our innate thinking capability needs to be channelized into thinking reasonably, logically and systematically.  Critical Thinking, which constitute a key dimension of thinking skills, provide the techniques by which we can heighten our innate capacity to think, and sharpen the skills that we already have.  The first step in doing this is to question our own thinking, identify our world view and dig into the roots of how we know what we know.  This is a skill that is very easily taught. It enable us to identify the biases, prejudices, assumptions that any world view, including our own, can have. 

These skills are needed in whatever we do, no matter what stage of life we are at.  These skills help students study better and more efficiently, connect textbook material to the professional world, and communicate effectively.  These are skills tested in many college entrance tests. For professionals and others, these skills enable deeper analysis and understanding of facts and information as well as convey one's ideas convincingly.  This in turn brings in better  problem solving, decision making and inter-personal well being, among other things. 

Systematically organizing one's thinking is the first and most crucial step in thinking better.  This is something that can be easily taught and learned. 

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