Authors: Neil Orr & David Patient, January 16 2015 - It’s time to think about how we think. That’s what Critical Thinking is about. Somewhere in the back of our heads, we know that this important. Almost every SETA Unit Standard [standards for desired education and training outcomes in South Africa] - whatever the subject - refers to critical and creative thinking somewhere at the tail-end of the description of the Unit Standard. Yet, we proceed to produce education and training based upon memorizing information and do-this skills. Where is the Critical Thinking? What is Critical Thinking?


Critical Thinking is the willingness and ability to look, listen, think, ask and discuss consequences, without being heavily biased one way or the other. Critical Thinking is looking beyond the blind-spots and beliefs we have, and beyond the situation we are in. Critical Thinking is the willingness and ability to move from idea to idea, observation to observation, freely. Critical Thinking is about considering a variety of ideas without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing. From this process emerges – sometimes – innovation, understanding, solutions to complicated issues, new products, and application of old products to new markets.


Actions follow thought. For example: Corruption is an action based upon a way of thinking; Entrepreneurial activity is an activity based upon a way of thinking; Crime is the result of a way of thinking; Poor service delivery is a lack of action based upon a way of thinking. Having access to medical treatments such as Antiretrovirals does – or does not – lead to compliance with treatment, or even coming forward for treatment, depending upon a specific way of thinking; Even when skills and education are added to the mix, the benefits depend upon the kind of thinking that it produces.


Education and skills development are essential and critically important. Learning how to do something is not only empowering, it also builds a basic understanding of a particular part of life and the world, and allows us to contribute towards a better-functioning world: You cannot build and operate run a machine without skills; You cannot fix a human body without knowing about how the body works; You cannot get information from a pamphlet or poster without being able to read. The benefits of education and learning skills are vast. But is it enough?


Ask any organisation that has spent 20 years or more promoting HIV prevention, don’t drink and drive and speed kills campaigns, gender equality efforts, entrepreneurial skills development in youth, or any other social change process. Simply look at the speed of achieving positive results: It is just too slow, and it requires constant vigilance to maintain any progress. Also, the sheer cost of all these efforts, in terms of money, manpower, and time, to achieve even modest results, is truly staggering. We believe we can do better – much better.


Why? Is the information deficient? The evidence suggests otherwise. Clearly, simply providing information does not mean that education has occurred, and education does not necessarily lead to behaviour change. Instead, what we are focused upon is the question: Why does education in a subject often not lead to changes in thinking and changed behaviour? We believe that the answer – or a significant part of the answer - is Critical Thinking.

In the 1980’s there was an emphasis upon employee motivation in the corporate sector, as the answer to many issues of productivity and staff retention. This back-fired because once employees were hyped and motivated, they returned to the same unchanged workplace, leading to great frustration. So staff turn-over increased, instead of decreasing.


Critical Thinking can produce similar disruptive effects: Anyone with an ounce of Critical Thinking ability is likely to have a low tolerance for paternalistic authority: I’m in charge, so just do what you are told. Instead, managing people who can think critically requires great tolerance for questions such as this doesn’t make sense - Why are we doing this?  For example, imagine being a teacher of a class of 20 to 30 teenagers, and trying to teach the value or the work of Shakespeare, or algebraic equations, or the dangers of alcohol and drugs, in the absence of Critical Thinking. Without Critical Thinking, the only practical method is to say Just do it – obey!


In our opinion, the first obstacle to Critical Thinking is to deal with the anxiety of existing leaders, teachers, pastors, managers, programme directors, and other existing authority figures, that the Emperor (possibly) has no clothes. In other words, what do we do when previously-obedient followers start to ask questions such as why, are you sure, and what about if we did … ?  Unquestioning obedience is such a comfortable place to live, as you may discover when it is gone.  However, when Critical Thinking is managed – and it can be – comfort is the last thing on your mind because life becomes much more interesting: Solutions and innovations pop up, old problems fade away, and new challenges emerge.


Perhaps the most important leadership skill required for someone leading a team of people who are capable of Critical Thinking is vision: Keeping an eye on the goal – the desired end-result. This is quite different from paternalistic authority, where the main skill is being the keeper and enforcer of the Rules and Methods, regardless of whether it contributes to the desired goal or not. With Critical Thinking, a safe space is created - and managed - to think out of the box. Then agreements and decisions are made, and action is taken. In the paternalistic approach, there is no such safe space. 


When you investigate current material concerning Critical Thinking, it is pretty Western-Analytic in approach. Apparently, a degree in Philosophy is strongly recommended. This is not very helpful, given the diversity of cultures, religions, languages and non-analytic world-views we need to work in, and with. How do we distil the essence of Critical Thinking so that it can be taught, encouraged, and used in ordinary life and work? Can it be taught without years of study?


We believe it can. We believe that the ability to use Critical Thinking is an inherent ability, and that this ability simply needs some room to breathe and stretch its legs a little. For this purpose, we have created a simple model called the Dot-Space-Frame-Position model, which is designed as a simple tool to explore and encourage movement in ideas, and feeling okay to do that. Obviously, there is a great deal more to this than we can discuss in a two-page article, but that is the essence of Critical Thinking, in our opinion: Feeling okay to move from one Position (point of view) to another, to be curious about different ideas, to see what a situation looks like from different Positions. Then, evaluate the information you have, make a decision, and then act.


For more information, contact David Patient []

Cross-posted from David Patient's website (under articles).

Image credit: FHI 360.