Richard Paul Critical Thinking Strategies For Success

Most of us are not what we could be. We are less. We have great capacity. But most of it is dormant; most is undeveloped. Improvement in thinking is like improvement in basketball, in ballet, or in playing the saxophone. It is unlikely to take place in the absence of a conscious commitment to learn. As long as we take our thinking for granted, we don’t do the work required for improvement.

Development in thinking requires a gradual process requiring plateaus of learning and just plain hard work. It is not possible to become an excellent thinker simply because one wills it. Changing one’s habits of thought is a long-range project, happening over years, not weeks or months. The essential traits of a critical thinker require an extended period of development.

How, then, can we develop as critical thinkers? How can we help ourselves and our students to practice better thinking in everyday life?

First, we must understand that there are stages required for development as a critical thinker:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker (we are unaware of significant problems in our thinking)
Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker (we become aware of problems in our thinking)
Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker (we try to improve but without regular practice)
Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker (we recognize the necessity of regular practice)
Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker (we advance in accordance with our practice)
Stage Six: The Master Thinker (skilled & insightful thinking become second nature to us)

We develop through these stages if we:

  1) accept the fact that there are serious problems in our thinking (accepting the challenge to our thinking) and
2) begin regular practice.


In this article, we will explain 9 strategies that any motivated person can use to develop as a thinker. As we explain the strategy, we will describe it as if we were talking directly to such a person. Further details to our descriptions may need to be added for those who know little about critical thinking. Here are the 9:

  1. Use “Wasted” Time.
2. A Problem A Day.
3. Internalize Intellectual Standards.
4. Keep An Intellectual Journal.
5. Reshape Your Character.
6. Deal with Your Ego.
7. Redefine the Way You See Things.
8. Get in touch with your emotions.
9. Analyze group influences on your life.


There is nothing magical about our ideas. No one of them is essential. Nevertheless, each represents a plausible way to begin to do something concrete to improve thinking in a regular way. Though you probably can’t do all of these at the same time, we recommend an approach in which you experiment with all of these over an extended period of time.

First Strategy:Use “Wasted” Time. All humans waste some time; that is, fail to use all of their time productively or even pleasurably. Sometimes we jump from one diversion to another, without enjoying any of them. Sometimes we become irritated about matters beyond our control. Sometimes we fail to plan well causing us negative consequences we could easily have avoided (for example, we spend time unnecessarily trapped in traffic — though we could have left a half hour earlier and avoided the rush). Sometimes we worry unproductively. Sometimes we spend time regretting what is past. Sometimes we just stare off blankly into space.

The key is that the time is “gone” even though, if we had thought about it and considered our options, we would never have deliberately spent our time in the way we did. So why not take advantage of the time you normally waste by practicing your critical thinking during that otherwise wasted time? For example, instead of sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day flicking from channel to channel in a vain search for a program worth watching, spend that time, or at least part of it, thinking back over your day and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. For example, you might ask yourself questions like these:

When did I do my worst thinking today? When did I do my best? What in fact did I think about today? Did I figure anything out? Did I allow any negative thinking to frustrate me unnecessarily? If I had to repeat today what would I do differently? Why? Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals? Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values? If I spent every day this way for 10 years, would I at the end have accomplished something worthy of that time?

It would be important of course to take a little time with each question. It would also be useful to record your observations so that you are forced to spell out details and be explicit in what you recognize and see. As time passes, you will notice patterns in your thinking.

Second Strategy: A Problem A Day. At the beginning of each day (perhaps driving to work or going to school) choose a problem to work on when you have free moments. Figure out the logic of the problem by identifying its elements. In other words, systematically think through the questions: What exactly is the problem? How can I put it into the form of a question. How does it relate to my goals, purposes, and needs?

  1) Wherever possible take problems one by one. State the problem as clearly and precisely as you can.

2) Study the problem to make clear the “kind” of problem you are dealing with. Figure out, for example, what sorts of things you are going to have to do to solve it. Distinguish Problems over which you have some control from problems over which you have no control. Set aside the problems over which you have no control, concentrating your efforts on those problems you can potentially solve.

3) Figure out the information you need and actively seek that information.

4) Carefully analyze and interpret the information you collect, drawing what reasonable inferences you can.

5) Figure out your options for action. What can you do in the short term? In the long term? Distinguish problems under your control from problems beyond your control. Recognize explicitly your limitations as far as money, time, and power.

6) Evaluate your options, taking into account their advantages and disadvantages in the situation you are in.

7) Adopt a strategic approach to the problem and follow through on that strategy. This may involve direct action or a carefully thought-through wait-and-see strategy.

8) When you act, monitor the implications of your action as they begin to emerge. Be ready at a moment’s notice to revise your strategy if the situation requires it. Be prepared to shift your strategy or your analysis or statement of the problem, or all three, as more information about the problem becomes available to you.


Third Strategy:Internalize Intellectual Standards.
Each week, develop a heightened awareness of one of the universal intellectual standards (clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logicalness, significance). Focus one week on clarity, the next on accuracy, etc. For example, if you are focusing on clarity for the week, try to notice when you are being unclear in communicating with others. Notice when others are unclear in what they are saying.

When you are reading, notice whether you are clear about what you are reading. When you orally express or write out your views (for whatever reason), ask yourself whether you are clear about what you are trying to say. In doing this, of course, focus on four techniques of clarification : 1) Stating what you are saying explicitly and precisely (with careful consideration given to your choice of words), 2)Elaborating on your meaning in other words, 3)Giving examples of what you mean from experiences you have had, and 4)Using analogies, metaphors, pictures, or diagrams to illustrate what you mean. In other words, you will frequently STATE, ELABORATE, ILLUSTRATE, AND EXEMPLIFY your points. You will regularly ask others to do the same.

Fourth Strategy: Keep An Intellectual Journal. Each week, write out a certain number of journal entries. Use the following format (keeping each numbered stage separate):

  
1. Situation. Describe a situation that is, or was, emotionally significant to you (that is, that you deeply care about). Focus on one situation at a time.

2. Your Response. Describe what you did in response to that situation. Be specific and exact.

3. Analysis. Then analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation. Dig beneath the surface.

4. Assessment. Assess the implications of your analysis. What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could re-live the situation?


Strategy Five: Reshape Your Character.
Choose one intellectual trait---intellectual perseverance, autonomy, empathy, courage, humility, etc.--- to strive for each month, focusing on how you can develop that trait in yourself. For example, concentrating on intellectual humility, begin to notice when you admit you are wrong. Notice when you refuse to admit you are wrong, even in the face of glaring evidence that you are in fact wrong. Notice when you become defensive when another person tries to point out a deficiency in your work, or your thinking. Notice when your intellectual arrogance keeps you from learning, for example, when you say to yourself “I already know everything I need to know about this subject.” Or, “I know as much as he does. Who does he think he is forcing his opinions on me?” By owning your “ignorance,” you can begin to deal with it.

Strategy Six: Deal with Your Egocentrism. Egocentric thinking is found in the disposition in human nature to think with an automatic subconscious bias in favor of oneself. On a daily basis, you can begin to observe your egocentric thinking in action by contemplating questions like these: Under what circumstances do I think with a bias in favor of myself? Did I ever become irritable over small things? Did I do or say anything “irrational” to get my way? Did I try to impose my will upon others? Did I ever fail to speak my mind when I felt strongly about something, and then later feel resentment? Once you identify egocentric thinking in operation, you can then work to replace it with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection, thinking along the lines of: What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what I want to do? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved you are probably engaging in self-deception.)

Strategy Seven:Redefine the Way You See Things. We live in a world, both personal and social, in which every situation is “defined,” that is, given a meaning. How a situation is defined determines not only how we feel about it, but also how we act in it, and what implications it has for us. However, virtually every situation can be defined in more than one way. This fact carries with it tremendous opportunities. In principle, it lies within your power and mine to make our lives more happy and fulfilling than they are. Many of the negative definitions that we give to situations in our lives could in principle be transformed into positive ones. We can be happy when otherwise we would have been sad.

We can be fulfilled when otherwise we would have been frustrated. In this strategy, we practice redefining the way we see things, turning negatives into positives, dead-ends into new beginnings, mistakes into opportunities to learn. To make this strategy practical, we should create some specific guidelines for ourselves. For example, we might make ourselves a list of five to ten recurrent negative contexts in which we feel frustrated, angry, unhappy, or worried. We could then identify the definition in each case that is at the root of the negative emotion. We would then choose a plausible alternative definition for each and then plan for our new responses as well as new emotions. For example, if you tend to worry about all problems, both the ones you can do something about and those that you can’t; you can review the thinking in this nursery rhyme:
“For every problem under the sun, there is a solution or there is none. If there be one, think til you find it. If there be none, then never mind it.”

Let’s look at another example. You do not have to define your initial approach to a member of the opposite sex in terms of the definition “his/her response will determine whether or not I am an attractive person.” Alternatively, you could define it in terms of the definition “let me test to see if this person is initially drawn to me—given the way they perceive me.” With the first definition in mind, you feel personally put down if the person is not “interested” in you; with the second definition you explicitly recognize that people respond not to the way a stranger is, but the way they look to them subjectively. You therefore do not take a failure to show interest in you (on the part of another) as a “defect” in you.

Strategy Eight: Get in touch with your emotions: Whenever you feel some negative emotion, systematically ask yourself: What, exactly, is the thinking leading to this emotion? For example, if you are angry, ask yourself, what is the thinking that is making me angry? What other ways could I think about this situation? For example, can you think about the situation so as to see the humor in it and what is pitiable in it? If you can, concentrate on that thinking and your emotions will (eventually) shift to match it.

Strategy Nine:Analyze group influences on your life: Closely analyze the behavior that is encouraged, and discouraged, in the groups to which you belong. For any given group, what are you "required" to believe? What are you "forbidden" to do? Every group enforces some level of conformity. Most people live much too much within the view of themselves projected by others. Discover what pressure you are bowing to and think explicitly about whether or not to reject that pressure.

Conclusion: The key point to keep in mind when devising strategies is that you are engaged in a personal experiment. You are testing ideas in your everyday life. You are integrating them, and building on them, in the light of your actual experience. For example, suppose you find the strategy “Redefine the Way You See Things” to be intuitive to you. So you use it to begin. Pretty soon you find yourself noticing the social definitions that rule many situations in your life. You recognize how your behavior is shaped and controlled by the definitions in use:

  1. “I’m giving a party,” (Everyone therefore knows to act in a “partying” way)
  2. “The funeral is Tuesday,” (There are specific social behaviors expected at a funeral)
  3. “Jack is an acquaintance, not really a friend.” (We behave very differently in the two cases)

You begin to see how important and pervasive social definitions are. You begin to redefine situations in ways that run contrary to some commonly accepted definitions. You notice then how redefining situations (and relationships) enables you to “Get in Touch With Your Emotions.” You recognize that the way you think (that is, define things) generates the emotions you experience. When you think you are threatened (i.e., define a situation as “threatening”), you feel fear. If you define a situation as a “failure,” you may feel depressed. On the other hand, if you define that same situation as a “lesson or opportunity to learn” you feel empowered to learn. When you recognize this control that you are capable of exercising, the two strategies begin to work together and reinforce each other.

Next consider how you could integrate strategy #9 (“Analyze group influences on your life”) into your practice. One of the main things that groups do is control us by controlling the definitions we are allowed to operate with. When a group defines some things as “cool” and some as “dumb, ” the members of the group try to appear “cool” and not appear “dumb.” When the boss of a business says, “That makes a lot of sense,” his subordinates know they are not to say, “No, it is ridiculous.” And they know this because defining someone as the “boss” gives him/her special privileges to define situations and relationships.

You now have three interwoven strategies: you “Redefine the Way You See Things,” “Get in touch with your emotions,” and “Analyze group influences on your life.” The three strategies are integrated into one. You can now experiment with any of the other strategies, looking for opportunities to integrate them into your thinking and your life. If you follow through on some plan analogous to what we have described, you are developing as a thinker. More precisely, you are becoming a “Practicing” Thinker. Your practice will bring advancement. And with advancement, skilled and insightful thinking may becomes more and more natural to you.

 

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Modified from the book by Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life.

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by Dr. Linda Elder and Dr. Richard Paul

Learning the Art of Critical Thinking

There is nothing more practical than sound thinking. No matter what your circumstance or goals, no matter where you are, or what problems you face, you are better off if your thinking is skilled. As a manager, leader, employee, citizen, lover, friend, parent — in every realm and situation of your life — good thinking pays off. Poor thinking, in turn, inevitably causes problems, wastes time and energy, engenders frustration and pain.

Critical thinking is the disciplined art of ensuring that you use the best thinking you are capable of in any set of circumstances. The general goal of thinking is to “figure out the lay of the land” in any situation we are in. We all have multiple choices to make. We need the best information to make the best choices.

What is really going on in this or that situation? Are they trying to take advantage of me? Does so-and-so really care about me? Am I deceiving myself when I believe that . . .? What are the likely consequences of failing to . . .? If I want to do . . . , what is the best way to prepare for it? How can I be more successful in doing . . .? Is this my biggest problem, or do I need to focus my attention on something else?

Successfully responding to such questions is the daily work of thinking. However, to maximize the quality of your thinking, you must learn how to become an effective "critic" of your thinking. And to become an effective critic of your thinking, you have to make learning about thinking a priority.

Ask yourself these — rather unusual — questions: What have you learned about how you think? Did you ever study your thinking? What do you know about how the mind processes information? What do you really know about how to analyze, evaluate, or reconstruct your thinking? Where does your thinking come from? How much of it is of “good” quality? How much of it is of “poor” quality? How much of your thinking is vague, muddled, inconsistent, inaccurate, illogical, or superficial? Are you, in any real sense, in control of your thinking? Do you know how to test it? Do you have any conscious standards for determining when you are thinking well and when you are thinking poorly? Have you ever discovered a significant problem in your thinking and then changed it by a conscious act of will? If anyone asked you to teach them what you have learned, thus far in your life, about thinking, would you really have any idea what that was or how you learned it?

If you are like most, the only honest answers to these questions run along the lines of, “Well, I suppose I really don’t know much about my thinking or about thinking in general. I suppose in my life I have more or less taken my thinking for granted. I don’t really know how it works. I have never really studied it. I don’t know how I test it, or even if I do test it. It just happens in my mind automatically.“

It is important to realize that serious study of thinking, serious thinking about thinking, is rare. It is not a subject in most colleges. It is seldom found in the thinking of our culture. But if you focus your attention for a moment on the role that thinking is playing in your life, you may come to recognize that, in fact, everything you do, or want, or feel is influenced by your thinking. And if you become persuaded of that, you will be surprised that humans show so little interest in thinking.

To make significant gains in the quality of your thinking you will have to engage in a kind of work that most humans find unpleasant, if not painful — intellectual work. Yet once this thinking is done and we move our thinking to a higher level of quality, it is not hard to keep it at that level. Still, there is the price you have to pay to step up to the next level. One doesn’t become a skillful critic of thinking over night, any more than one becomes a skillful basketball player or musician over night. To become better at thinking, you must be willing to put the work into thinking that skilled improvement always requires.

This means you must be willing to practice special “acts” of thinking that are initially at least uncomfortable, and sometimes challenging and difficult. You have to learn to do with your mind “moves” analogous to what accomplished athletes learn to do (through practice and feedback) with their bodies. Improvement in thinking, in other words, is similar to improvement in other domains of performance where progress is a product of sound theory, commitment, hard work, and practice.

Consider the following key ideas, which, when applied, result in a mind practicing skilled thinking. These ideas represent just a few of the many ways in which disciplined thinkers actively apply theory of mind to the mind by the mind in order to think better. In these examples, we focus on the significance of thinking clearly, sticking to the point (thinking with relevance), questioning deeply, and striving to be more reasonable. For each example, we provide a brief overview of the idea and its importance in thinking, along with strategies for applying it in life. Realize that the following ideas are immersed in a cluster of ideas within critical thinking. Though we chose these particular ideas, many others could have instead been chosen. There is no magic in these specific ideas. In short, it is important that you understand these as a sampling of all the possible ways in which the mind can work to discipline itself, to think at a higher level of quality, to function better in the world.
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1. Clarify Your Thinking
Be on the look-out for vague, fuzzy, formless, blurred thinking. Try to figure out the real meaning of what people are saying. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Try to figure out the real meaning of important news stories. Explain your understanding of an issue to someone else to help clarify it in your own mind. Practice summarizing in your own words what others say. Then ask them if you understood them correctly. You should neither agree nor disagree with what anyone says until you (clearly) understand them.

Our own thinking usually seems clear to us, even when it is not. But vague, ambiguous, muddled, deceptive, or misleading thinking are significant problems in human life. If we are to develop as thinkers, we must learn the art of clarifying thinking, of pinning it down, spelling it out, and giving it a specific meaning. Here’s what you can do to begin. When people explain things to you, summarize in your own words what you think they said. When you cannot do this to their satisfaction, you don’t really understand what they said. When they cannot summarize what you have said to your satisfaction, they don’t really understand what you said. Try it. See what happens.

Strategies for Clarifying Your Thinking

  • State one point at a time.
  • Elaborate on what you mean 
  • Give examples that connect your thoughts to life experiences 
  • Use analogies and metaphors to help people connect your ideas to a variety of things they already understand (for example, critical thinking is like an onion. There are many layers to it. Just when you think you have it basically figured out, you realize there is another layer, and then another, and another and another and on and on)

Here is One Format You Can Use

  • I think . . . (state your main point) 
  • In other words . . . (elaborate your main point) 
  • For example . . . (give an example of your main point) 
  • To give you an analogy . . . (give an illustration of your main point)

To Clarify Other People’s Thinking, Consider Asking the Following

  • Can you restate your point in other words? I didn’t understand you.
  • Can you give an example?
  • Let me tell you what I understand you to be saying. Did I understand you correctly?

2. Stick to the Point
Be on the lookout for fragmented thinking, thinking that leaps about with no logical connections. Start noticing when you or others fail to stay focused on what is relevant. Focus on finding what will aid you in truly solving a problem. When someone brings up a point (however true) that doesn’t seem pertinent to the issue at hand, ask, “How is what you are saying relevant to the issue?” When you are working through a problem, make sure you stay focused on what sheds light on and, thus, helps address the problem. Don’t allow your mind to wander to unrelated matters. Don’t allow others to stray from the main issue. Frequently ask: “What is the central question? Is this or that relevant to it? How?”

When thinking is relevant, it is focused on the main task at hand. It selects what is germane, pertinent, and related. It is on the alert for everything that connects to the issue. It sets aside what is immaterial, inappropriate, extraneous, and beside the point. What is relevant directly bears upon (helps solve) the problem you are trying to solve. When thinking drifts away from what is relevant, it needs to be brought back to what truly makes a difference. Undisciplined thinking is often guided by associations (this reminds me of that, that reminds me of this other thing) rather than what is logically connected (“If a and b are true, then c must also be true”). Disciplined thinking intervenes when thoughts wander from what is pertinent and germane concentrating the mind on only those things that help it figure out what it needs to figure out.

Ask These Questions to Make Sure Thinking is Focused on What is Relevant

  • Am I focused on the main problem or task?
  • How is this connected? How is that?
  • Does my information directly relate to the problem or task?
  • Where do I need to focus my attention? 
  • Are we being diverted to unrelated matters?
  • Am I failing to consider relevant viewpoints?
  • How is your point relevant to the issue we are addressing?
  • What facts are actually going to help us answer the question? What considerations should be set aside?
  • Does this truly bear on the question? How does it connect?

3. Question Questions
Be on the lookout for questions. The ones we ask. The ones we fail to ask. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Listen to how people question, when they question, when they fail to question. Look closely at the questions asked. What questions do you ask, should you ask? Examine the extent to which you are a questioner, or simply one who accepts the definitions of situations given by others.

Most people are not skilled questioners. Most accept the world as it is presented to them. And when they do question, their questions are often superficial or “loaded.” Their questions do not help them solve their problems or make better decisions. Good thinkers routinely ask questions in order to understand and effectively deal with the world around them. They question the status quo. They know that things are often different from the way they are presented. Their questions penetrate images, masks, fronts, and propaganda. Their questions make real problems explicit and discipline their thinking through those problems. If you become a student of questions, you can learn to ask powerful questions that lead to a deeper and more fulfilling life. Your questions become more basic, essential, and deep.

Strategies for Formulating More Powerful Questions

  • Whenever you don’t understand something, ask a question of clarification.
  • Whenever you are dealing with a complex problem, formulate the question you are trying to answer in several different ways (being as precise as you can) until you hit upon the way that best addresses the problem at hand.
  • Whenever you plan to discuss an important issue or problem, write out in advance the most significant questions you think need to be addressed in the discussion. Be ready to change the main question, but once made clear, help those in the discussion stick to the question, making sure the dialogue builds toward an answer that makes sense.

Questions You Can Ask to Discipline Your Thinking

  • What precise question are we trying to answer?                  

  • Is that the best question to ask in this situation? 

  • Is there a more important question we should be addressing? 

  • Does this question capture the real issue we are facing? 

  • Is there a question we should answer before we attempt to answer this question? 

  • What information do we need to answer the question? 

  • What conclusions seem justified in light of the facts? 

  • What is our point of view? Do we need to consider another? 

  • Is there another way to look at the question? 

  • What are some related questions we need to consider? 

  • What type of question is this: an economic question, a political question, a legal question, etc.?

4. Be Reasonable
Be on the lookout for reasonable and unreasonable behaviors — yours and others. Look on the surface. Look beneath the surface. Listen to what people say. Look closely at what they do. Notice when you are unwilling to listen to the views of others, when you simply see yourself as right and others as wrong. Ask yourself at those moments whether their views might have any merit. See if you can break through your defensiveness to hear what they are saying. Notice unreasonableness in others. Identify times when people use language that makes them appear reasonable, though their behavior proves them to be otherwise. Try to figure out why you, or others, are being unreasonable. Might you have a vested interested in not being open-minded? Might they?

One of the hallmarks of a critical thinker is the disposition to change one’s mind when given good reason to change. Good thinkers want to change their thinking when they discover better thinking. They can be moved by reason. Yet, comparatively few people are reasonable. Few are willing to change their minds once set. Few are willing to suspend their beliefs to fully hear the views of those with which they disagree. How would you rate yourself?

Strategies for Becoming More Reasonable

Say aloud, “I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. I’m often wrong.” See if you have the courage to admit this during a disagreement: “Of course, I may be wrong. You may be right.”

Practice saying in your own mind, “I may be wrong. I often am. I’m willing to change my mind when given good reasons.” Then look for opportunities to make changes in your thinking.

Ask yourself, “When was the last time I changed my mind because someone gave me better reasons for his (her) views than I had for mine?” (To what extent are you open to new ways of looking at things? To what extent can you objectively judge information that refutes what you already think?)

Realize That You are Being Close-Minded If You

     a. are unwilling to listen to someone’s reasons
     b. are irritated by the reasons people give you
     c. become defensive during a discussion

After you catch yourself being close-minded, analyze what was going on in your mind by completing these statements:

     a. I realize I was being close-minded in this situation because . . .
     b. The thinking I was trying to hold onto is . . .
     c. Thinking that is potentially better is . . .
     d. This thinking is better because . . .

In closing, let me remind you that the ideas in this article are a very few of the many ways in which critical thinkers bring intellectual discipline to bear upon their thinking. The best thinkers are those who understand the development of thinking as a process occurring throughout many years of practice in thinking. They recognize the importance of learning about the mind, about thoughts, feelings and desires and how these functions of the mind interrelate. They are adept at taking thinking apart, and then assessing the parts when analyzed. In short, they study the mind, and they apply what they learn about the mind to their own thinking in their own lives.

The extent to which any of us develops as a thinker is directly determined by the amount of time we dedicate to our development, the quality of the intellectual practice we engage in, and the depth, or lack thereof, of our commitment to becoming more reasonable, rational, successful persons.

Elder, L. and Paul, R. (2004). Adapted from The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Strategic Thinking: 25 Weeks to Better Thinking and Better Living.

Thinking Gets Us Into Trouble Because We Often:
  
  • jump to conclusions
  • fail to think-through implications
  • lose track of their goal
  • are unrealistic
  • focus on the trivial
  • fail to notice contradictions
  • accept inaccurate information
  • ask vague questions
  • give vague answers
  • ask loaded questions
  • ask irrelevant questions
  • confuse questions of different types
  • answer questions we are not competent to answer
  • come to conclusions based on inaccurate or irrelevant information
  • ignore information that does not support our view
  • make inferences not justified by our experience
  • distort data and state it inaccurately
  • fail to notice the inferences we make
  • come to unreasonable conclusions
  • fail to notice our assumptions
  • often make unjustified assumptions
  • miss key ideas
  • use irrelevant ideas
  • form confused ideas
  • form superficial concepts
  • misuse words
  • ignore relevant viewpoints
  • cannot see issues from points of view other than our own
  • confuse issues of different types
  • are unaware of our prejudices
  • think narrowly
  • think imprecisely
  • think illogically
  • think one-sidedly
  • think simplistically
  • think hypocritically
  • think superficially
  • think ethnocentrically
  • think egocentrically
  • think irrationally
  • do poor problem solving
  • make poor decisions
  • are poor communicators
  • have little insight into our own ignorance

A How-To List for Dysfunctional Living

Most people have no notion of what it means to take charge of their lives. They don’t realize that the quality of their lives depends on the quality of their thinking. We all engage in numerous dysfunctional practices to avoid facing problems in our thinking. Consider the following and ask yourself how many of these dysfunctional ways of thinking you engage in:

  1. Surround yourself with people who think like you. Then no one will criticize you.
     
  2. Don’t question your relationships. You then can avoid dealing with problems within them.

  3. If critiqued by a friend or lover, look sad and dejected and say, “I thought you were my friend!” or “I thought you loved me!”
     
  4. When you do something unreasonable, always be ready with an excuse. Then you won’t have to take responsibility. If you can’t think of an excuse, look sorry and say, “I can’t help how I am!”
     
  5. Focus on the negative side of life. Then you can make yourself miserable and blame it on others.

  6. Blame others for your mistakes. Then you won’t have to feel responsible for your mistakes. Nor will you have to do anything about them.
     
  7. Verbally attack those who criticize you. Then you don’t have to bother listening to what they say.
     
  8. Go along with the groups you are in. Then you won’t have to figure out anything for yourself.
     
  9. Act out when you don’t get what you want. If questioned, look indignant and say, “I’m just an emotional person. At least I don’t keep my feelings bottled up!”
     
  10. Focus on getting what you want. If questioned, say, “If I don’t look out for number one, who will?”

As you see, the list is almost laughable. And so it would be if these irrational ways of thinking didn’t lead to problems in life. But they do. And often. Only when we are faced with the absurdity of dysfunctional thinking, and can see it at work in our lives, do we have a chance to alter it. The strategies outlined in this guide presuppose your willingness to do so.

This article was adapted from the book, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.

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