How to think effectively: Six stages of critical thinking

A critical thinking framework developed by psychologists can help teach mental skills necessary for our times.

How to think effectively: Six stages of critical thinking

Graphic: Paul Ratner

Credit: Elder / Paul
  • Researchers propose six levels of critical thinkers: Unreflective thinkers, Challenged thinkers, Beginning thinkers, Practicing thinkers, Advanced thinkers, and Master thinkers.
  • The framework comes from educational psychologists Linda Elder and Richard Paul.
  • Teaching critical thinking skills is a crucial challenge in our times.

The coronavirus has not only decimated our populations, its spread has also attacked the very nature of truth and stoked inherent tensions between many different groups of people, both at local and international levels. Spawning widespread conspiracy theories and obfuscation by governments, the virus has also been a vivid demonstration of the need for teaching critical thinking skills necessary to survive in the 21st century. The stage theory of critical thinking development, devised by psychologists Linda Elder and Richard Paul, can help us gauge the sophistication of our current mental approaches and provides a roadmap to the thinking of others.

The researchers identified six predictable levels of critical thinkers, from ones lower in depth and effort to the advanced mind-masters, who are always steps ahead.

As the scientists write, moving up on this pyramid of thinking "is dependent upon a necessary level of commitment on the part of an individual to develop as a critical thinker." Using your mind more effectively is not automatic and "is unlikely to take place "subconsciously." In other words – you have to put in the work and keep doing it, or you'll lose the faculty.

Here's how the stages of intellectual development break down:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker

These are people who don't reflect about thinking and the effect it has on their lives. As such, they form opinions and make decisions based on prejudices and misconceptions while their thinking doesn't improve.

Unreflective thinkers lack crucial skills that would allow them to parse their thought processes. They also do not apply standards like accuracy, relevance, precision, and logic in a consistent fashion.

How many such people are out there? You probably can guess based on social media comments. As Elder and Paul write, "it is perfectly possible for students to graduate from high school, or even college, and still be largely unreflective thinkers."

Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker

This next level up thinker has awareness of the importance of thinking on their existence and knows that deficiencies in thinking can bring about major issues. As the psychologists explain, to solve a problem, you must first admit you have one.

People at this intellectual stage begin to understand that "high quality thinking requires deliberate reflective thinking about thinking", and can acknowledge that their own mental processes might have many flaws. They might not be able to identify all the flaws, however.

A challenged thinker may have a sense that solid thinking involves navigating assumptions, inferences, and points of view, but only on an initial level. They may also be able to spot some instances of their own self-deception. The true difficulty for thinkers of this category is in not "believing that their thinking is better than it actually is, making it more difficult to recognize the problems inherent in poor thinking," explain the researchers.

Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker

Thinkers at this level can go beyond the nascent intellectual humility and actively look to take control of their thinking across areas of their lives. They know that their own thinking can have blind spots and other problems and take steps to address those, but in a limited capacity.

Beginning thinkers place more value in reason, becoming self-aware in their thoughts. They may also be able to start looking at the concepts and biases underlying their ideas. Additionally, such thinkers develop higher internal standards of clarity, accuracy and logic, realizing that their ego plays a key role in their decisions.

Another big aspect that differentiates this stronger thinker – some ability to take criticism of their mental approach, even though they still have work to do and might lack clear enough solutions to the issues they spot.

Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker

This more experienced kind of thinker not only appreciates their own deficiencies, but has skills to deal with them. A thinker of this level will practice better thinking habits and will analyze their mental processes with regularity.

While they might be able to express their mind's strengths and weaknesses, as a negative, practicing thinkers might still not have a systematic way of gaining insight into their thoughts and can fall prey to egocentric and self-deceptive reasoning.

How do you get to this stage? An important trait to gain, say the psychologists, is "intellectual perseverance." This quality can provide "the impetus for developing a realistic plan for systematic practice (with a view to taking greater command of one's thinking)."

"We must teach in such a way that students come to understand the power in knowing that whenever humans reason, they have no choice but to use certain predictable structures of thought: that thinking is inevitably driven by the questions, that we seek answers to questions for some purpose, that to answer questions, we need information, that to use information we must interpret it (i.e., by making inferences), and that our inferences, in turn, are based on assumptions, and have implications, all of which involves ideas or concepts within some point of view," explain Elder and Paul.

Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker

One doesn't typically get to this stage until college and beyond, estimate the scientists. This higher-level thinker would have strong habits that would allow them to analyze their thinking with insight about different areas of life. They would be fair-minded and able to spot the prejudicial aspects in the points of view of others and their own understanding.

While they'd have a good handle on the role of their ego in the idea flow, such thinkers might still not be able to grasp all the influences that affect their mentality.

The advanced thinker is at ease with self-critique and does so systematically, looking to improve. Among key traits required for this level are "intellectual insight" to develop new thought habits, "intellectual integrity" to "recognize areas of inconsistency and contradiction in one's life," intellectual empathy" to put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, and the "intellectual courage" to confront ideas and beliefs they don't necessarily believe in and have negative emotions towards.

Stage Six: The Master Thinker

This is the super-thinker, the one who is totally in control of how they process information and make decisions. Such people constantly seek to improve their thought skills, and through experience "regularly raise their thinking to the level of conscious realization."

A master thinker achieves great insights into deep mental levels, strongly committed to being fair and gaining control over their own egocentrism.

Such a high-level thinker also exhibits superior practical knowledge and insight, always re-examining their assumptions for weaknesses, logic, and biases.

And, of course, a master thinker wouldn't get upset with being intellectually confronted and spends a considerable amount of time analyzing their own responses.

"Why is this so important? Precisely because the human mind, left to its own, pursues that which is immediately easy, that which is comfortable, and that which serves its selfish interests. At the same time, it naturally resists that which is difficult to understand, that which involves complexity, that which requires entering the thinking and predicaments of others," write the researchers.

So how do you become a master thinker? The psychologists think most students will never get there. But a lifetime of practicing the best intellectual traits can get you to that point when "people of good sense seek out master thinkers, for they recognize and value the ability of master thinkers to think through complex issues with judgment and insight."

The significance of critical thinking in our daily lives, especially in these confusing times, so rife with quick and often-misleading information, cannot be overstated. The decisions we make today can truly be life and death.

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Tips from neuroscience and psychology can make you an expert thinker.

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Mind & Brain

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Problem-solving skills are in demand. Every job posting lists them under must-have qualifications, and every job candidate claims to possess them, par excellence. Young entrepreneurs make solutions to social and global problems the heart of their mission statements, while parents and teachers push for curricula that encourage critical-thinking methods beyond solving for x.

It's ironic then that we continue to cultivate habits that stunt our ability to solve problems. Take, for example, the modern expectation to be "always on." We push ourselves to always be working, always be producing, always be parenting, always be promoting, always be socializing, always be in the know, always be available, always be doing. It's too much, and when things are always on all the time, we deplete the mental resources we need to truly engage with challenges.

If we're serious about solving problems, at work and in our personal lives, then we need to become more adept at tuning out so we can hone in.

Solve problems with others (occasionally)

A side effect of being always on is that we are rarely alone. We're connected through the ceaseless chirps of friends texting, social media buzzing, and colleagues pinging us for advice everywhere we go. In some ways, this is a boon. Modern technologies mediate near endless opportunities for collective learning and social problem-solving. Yet, such cooperation has its limits according to a 2018 study out of Harvard Business School.

In the study, participants were divided into three group types and asked to solve traveling salesman problems. The first group type had to work on the problems individually. The second group type exchanged notes after every round of problem-solving while the third collaborated after every three rounds.

The researchers found that lone problem-solvers invented a diverse range of potential solutions. However, their solutions varied wildly in quality, with some being true light bulb moments and others burnt-out duds. Conversely, the always-on group took advantage of their collective learning to tackle more complex problems more effectively. But social influence often led these groups to prematurely converge around a single idea and abandon potentially brilliant outliers.

It was the intermittent collaborators who landed on the Goldilocks strategy. By interacting less frequently, individual group members had more time to nurture their ideas so the best could shine. But when they gathered together, the group managed to improve the overall quality of their solutions thanks to collective learning.

In presenting their work, the study's authors question the value of always-on culture—especially our submissiveness to intrusions. "As we replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems well," Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and one of the study's authors, said in a press release.

These findings suggest we should schedule time to ruminate with our inner geniuses and consult the wisdom of the crowd. Rather than dividing our day between productivity output and group problem-solving sessions, we must also create space to focus on problems in isolation. This strategy provides the best of both worlds. It allows us to formulate our ideas before social pressure can push us to abandon them. But it doesn't preclude the group knowledge required to refine those ideas.

And the more distractions you can block out or turn off, the more working memory you'll have to direct at the problem.

A problem-solving booster

The next step is to dedicate time to not dealing with problems. Counterintuitive as it may seem, setting a troublesome task aside and letting your subconscious take a crack at it improves your conscious efforts later.

How should we fill these down hours? That's up to you, but research has shown time and again that healthier habits produce hardier minds. This is especially true regarding executive functions—a catchall term that includes a person's ability to self-control, meet goals, think flexibly, and, yes, solve problems.

"Exercisers outperform couch potatoes in tests that measure long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving, even so-called fluid-intelligence tasks. These tasks test the ability to reason quickly and think abstractly, improvising off previously learned material to solve a new problem. Essentially, exercise improves a whole host of abilities prized in the classroom and at work," writes John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington.

One such study, published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience, analyzed data collected from more than 4,000 British adults. After controlling for variables, it found a bidirectional relationship between exercise and higher levels of executive function over time. Another study, this one published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, compared fitness data from 128 adults with brain scans taken as they were dual-tasking. Its findings showed regular exercisers sported more active executive regions.

Research also demonstrates a link between problem-solving, healthy diets, and proper sleep habits. Taken altogether, these lifestyle choices also help people manage their stress—which is known to impair problem-solving and creativity.

Of course, it can be difficult to untangle the complex relationship between cause and effect. Do people with healthy life habits naturally enjoy strong executive functions? Or do those habits bolster their mental fitness throughout their lives?

That's not an easy question to answer, but the Frontiers in Neuroscience study researchers hypothesize that it's a positive feedback loop. They posit that good sleep, nutritious food, and regular exercise fortify our executive functions. In turn, more potent executive decisions invigorate healthier life choices. And those healthy life choices—you see where this is going.

And while life choices are ultimately up to individuals, organizations have a supportive role to play. They can foster cultures that protect off-hours for relaxing, incentivize healthier habits with PTO, and prompt workers to take time for exercise beyond the usual keyboard calisthenics.

Nor would such initiatives be entirely selfless. They come with the added benefit of boosting a workforce's collective problem-solving capabilities.

Live and learn and learn some more

Another advantage of tuning out is the advantage to pursue life-long learning opportunities. People who engage in creative or problem-solving activities in their downtime—think playing music, puzzles, and even board games—show improved executive functions and mental acuity as they age. In other words, by learning to enjoy the act of problem-solving, you may enhance your ability to do so.

Similarly, lifelong learners are often interdisciplinary thinkers. By diving into various subjects, they can come to understand the nuances of different skills and bodies of knowledge to see when ideas from one field may provide a solution to a problem in another. That doesn't mean lifelong learners must become experts in every discipline. On the contrary, they are far more likely to understand where the limits of their knowledge lie. But those self-perceived horizons can also provide insight into where collaboration is necessary and when to follow someone else's lead.

In this way, lifelong learning can be key to problem-solving in both business and our personal lives. It pushes us toward self-improvement, gives us an understanding of how things work, hints at what's possible, and, above all, gives us permission to tune out and focus on what matters.

Cultivate lifelong learning at your organization with lessons 'For Business' from Big Think Edge. At Edge, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in career development and lifelong learning. Heighten your problem-solving aptitude with lessons such as:

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  • The Power of Onlyness: Give Your People Permission to Co-Create the Future, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert and Author, The Power of Onlyness
  • How to Build a Talent-First Organization: Put People Before Numbers, with Ram Charan, Business Consultant
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