Developing your critical thinking skills is one of the best ways to set yourself up for ongoing professional and life success. In fact, it’s more important than IQ in determining how many negative life events you’ll experience – and fortunately, unlike IQ, it’s learnable.
The problem is that understanding how to build your critical thinking skills can be a bit like a child trying to pick up a yoga ball: it’s too large and unwieldy to get your arms around. To start, it helps to have a clear, simple definition of critical thinking, which we’ve described as providing robust answers to questions. From there, the Critical Thinking Roadmap makes this definition actionable by laying out four phases of growth.
The four phases provide a great starting point, but they are, in reality, just the tip of the iceberg. Within each of those skills – execute, synthesize, recommend, and generate – there are a host of sub-skills. A quick Google search of “critical thinking skills” reveals that there are a lot of opinions on what counts as a critical thinking skill and how many there are.
As we like to do, we reviewed ~10 different lists of critical thinking skills and organized them into a simple framework that starts with the four level one skills in the Critical Thinking Roadmap and enables you to determine which skills to focus on developing when.
Here are the level two skills within each of the four level one skills:
- Analytical thinking
- Recognizing patterns
- Identifying relevance
- Decoding significance
- Logical reasoning
- Probabilistic thinking
- Creative thinking
- Strategic thinking
- Hypothesis testing
One Exclusion to Commonly Listed Critical Thinking Skills
In addition to this list of critical thinking skills, many academics often include another skill that we have intentionally chosen to exclude. This skill is called “verbal reasoning” by some and “explanation” by others. It includes your ability to state results, justify your opinion, and present arguments. This is an essential skill, without a doubt, but in our minds, it is a communication skill vs. a critical thinking skill. Critical thinking refers to the formulation of your thoughts, not the verbalization of thoughts.
How to Understand These Skills in Relation to the Critical Thinking Roadmap
If you’ve read our Harvard Business Review article on critical thinking or gone through the critical thinking roadmap toolkit, then you may be wondering how to apply an understanding of these skills in light of what we have already articulated in the toolkit. In the toolkit, we describe a four-phase roadmap with five milestones in each phase. The four phases represent level one critical thinking skills, while the bulleted skills above represent level two critical thinking skills. By level one and two, we don’t mean to imply that generation is more important than strategic thinking, for example. We’re simply communicating organizational structure, in the same way that though we all agree that dogs are a type of mammal, it makes little sense to say that mammals are more important than dogs.
The roadmap provides measurable milestones so you can determine where you or team members are in the journey of developing critical thinking skills. The development exercises and questions help you develop the relevant level two skills for each stage in the roadmap. By enumerating the level two skills here, we’re making explicit what was already implicitly woven into the development exercises and questions.
A Deeper Look at these Critical Thinking Skills
We defined this level one skill as translating instructions into action and doing what is asked. Some have suggested that execute is too basic of a skill to be considered critical thinking. However, the majority of employees are never given opportunities to go beyond this skill. This is partially due to counterproductive corporate cultures and partially because it is more difficult than some might assume. If you disagree, try getting a child – even a teenager – to execute. Here are the level two skills required to execute well:
- Remembering: While you could reasonably argue that our need to remember is declining with increased access to information, this is not the full story. Many of the higher-level critical thinking skills require that you combine or make sense of disparate pieces of information. The person who can remember more is better able to make such connections.
- Analytical thinking: To analyze is to examine closely in order to understand. Analysis leads to understanding and provides the foundation for all later critical thinking skills that attempt to make judgments.
- Interpreting: To interpret is to determine the meaning or to understand. While understanding has an important literal component to it, this critical thinking skill extends into the emotional intelligence skill of knowing the true meaning behind others’ words. For example, some may understand a supervisor’s comment: “I wonder what would happen if we increased our output goals by 5%” to mean that they should implement the goal increase immediately, while others may interpret this comment as a directive to create a forecasting model of the hypothetical scenario.
- Applying: Applying knowledge is about making the leap from understanding to action. Without application skills, people know what they’re supposed to do, but never get anything done. People with good application skills know how to take generalized knowledge and tailor it to their context.
This level one skill is the ability to identify what’s important and combine information to create new insights. Before determining what’s important, you need to understand how different pieces of information relate to each other. For example, Wired’s feature article in September 2019 tells the story of a man in his nineties who is accused of killing his adult daughter-in-law sometime after dropping a pizza at her house. The fact that the daughter-in-law was wearing a Fitbit may seem irrelevant if you don’t realize that Fitbits collect location and heartbeat information, enabling detectives to determine the time and location of death. When you see the connection between pieces of information, you’re able to determine what is important and what is not. As a result, the first few level two skills in this section help you understand the relationship between information.
- Recognizing patterns: Recognizing patterns requires that you can identify similarities in otherwise quite different pieces of information or scenarios. Dogs and cows seem very different, but a good pattern tracker recognizes that they are both warm-blooded, give birth to live babies, have vertebras, and four-chambered hearts.
- Categorizing: To continue the dog/cow example, the ability to recognize the similarities between dogs and cows enables you to understand that there is a category of animals we call mammals. While animal classifications may seem a bit too far removed, working professionals make similar categorizations all the time. We classify client leads into very likely, likely, and improbable. We classify team members into high potential, average, and under-performing. The challenge of categorizing is knowing which patterns or common traits make up a given category. For example, some crocodiles have four-chambered hearts, yet they are reptiles instead of mammals.
- Identifying relevance: Before you can determine if it’s important, you need to know if it’s relevant. In some cases, this is quite clear. But in others like the Fitbit example from Wired, it’s more complicated because relevance is established through a chain of implicit connections of information.
- Decoding significance: To determine if a piece of information is important, you first need to know what is important to your end goal. For example, the fact that a CEO wants to sell his company in the next few years is not super important if you’re interviewing him for a research paper on his company’s breakthrough discovery, but it’s very important if you’re conducting a due diligence on his company in hopes of determining whether to invest. A clear understanding of what is important to your end goal will make it easier to understand which pieces of information are important.
The third level one skill is the ability to determine a sensible path forward, taking into consideration alternatives. Many in the literature refer to this as inference: the ability to reach a conclusion based on reasoning and evidence. This skill is packed with several very in-demand level two skills. The first two may feel too academic to be relevant, but most people use them all the time without recognizing it.
- Logical reasoning: You could say that logic provides the ground rules or boundary lines for critical thinking. If you’re defying logic, you’re probably not thinking critically. For example, a colleague may say that because your company hasn’t gotten any negative feedback on the new product feature, people must like the new feature. This is illogical because the absence of proof for one premise does not prove the counter-premise.
- Probability: Understanding the rules that govern how likely different events are to take place is essential to making sound decisions. And unfortunately, the rules of probability often defy our intuition. For example, it may seem natural to assume that if the likelihood that consumers buy a 44mm Apple watch is 30% and the likelihood that they buy an Apple watch with a white band is 20% that the probability that they buy a 44mm Apple Watch with a white band is 50%, when in fact, it’s just 6%.
- Evaluation: Evaluation is the examination of an idea, data point, argument, or research finding with the purpose of making some kind of judgment. Evaluation draws on the previous two skills and analytical thinking. It requires detecting mistakes and inconsistencies in reasoning and assessing the credibility of sources of information. Aligning first on the right criteria makes evaluation easier, as does, surprisingly, using your intuition.
- Decision-making: Decision-making is the step beyond evaluation. Once you pass judgment on information, you then decide what to do next. Decision-making may involve choosing between options for action or picking from a set of conclusions to draw. The key challenge associated with decision-making is avoiding the long list of biases people routinely fall prey to.
While this fourth level one skill may seem similar to the previous one, the difference is that recommending is primarily about the selection of available options, while generation is the skill of creating new options that didn’t previously exist. Some may question the inclusion of creative thinking and strategic thinking as sub-skills of critical thinking, suggesting they should be considered equal peers. Yet, if we return to our definition of critical thinking – providing robust answers to questions – both creative and strategic thinking are approaches to providing robust answers to specific types of questions.
- Creative thinking: Creative thinking attempts to answer questions that require a new creation. What should the logo be for our new company? What product could we create to play music for people on the go?
- Strategic thinking: Strategic thinking involves answering a different type of question: how do we allocate our resources to achieve a specific goal? It may involve generating a completely new approach, but it may also just require matching an existing approach with a current problem. The purpose of strategic thinking is the matching of a strategy (i.e., a specific allocation of resources) to a particular goal.
- Problem-solving: While problem-solving is used colloquially to mean all of the above things, its literal definition is the resolution of a matter or situation regarded as harmful or unwelcome. Problem-solving is about fixing things. As a result, it starts with correctly identifying the problem and its root causes, steps that may be irrelevant to creative and strategic thinking.
- Hypothesis testing: You engage in hypothesis testing after you’ve arrived at an answer using one of the three previous skills in order to see if your answer answers the question adequately. To test a hypothesis – which is similar to an educated guess – you must determine what would have to be true for your answer to be right and then collect and evaluate the data and information necessary to determine if those assertions are true.
How to Build These Critical Thinking Skills
With 16 skills to choose from, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed. Before you do, download your copy of the Critical Thinking Roadmap Toolkit and determine where you fall on the roadmap. There are four level two skills for each level one skill (i.e., phase of the roadmap). If you find yourself in the beginning of the synthesize phase, start with one of the first two level two synthesize skills: recognizing patterns or categorizing.
We’ll be sharing more details on how to develop each of these level two skills. Until then, do what you can to engage in deliberate practice of these skills. Deliberate practice is the key to mastery, differentiating those who become experts from those who stay average. It involves four characteristics:
- Practice with a vision or end goal in mind
- The opportunity to get a high number of repetitions
- Immediate, specific feedback
- Time to reflect on your performance and identify patterns and opportunities to improve
If you’d like some help building these critical thinking skills, you can:
- Sign up for our productivity app (which includes a number of these and will help you turn them into habits),
- Sign up for our coaching sessions, or
- Join our free online training on critical thinking
What is critical thinking?
While there are many complex definitions, we believe it is most useful to go with a simple, practical definition: Critical thinking is the development of a robust answer to a question.
What does it mean to be a good critical thinker?
A good critical thinker is very good at answering questions, someone you would trust to answer your questions.
What are the 4 critical thinking skills?
The four primary critical thinking skills are: execute, synthesize, recommend, and generate. Within each, there are four sub-skills.
What are the next 16 critical thinking skills?
While there are four primary critical thinking skills, there are four important sub-skills under each:
1 – Execute: remembering, analytical thinking, interpreting, applying
2 – Synthesize: recognizing patterns, categorizing, identifying relevance, decoding significance
3 – Recommend: logistical reasoning, probabilistic thinking, evaluating, decision-making
4 – Generate: creative thinking, strategic thinking, problem-solving, hypothesis testing
Why are critical thinking skills important?
Higher critical thinking skills lead to better job and life outcomes. They influence:
1 – What type of job you get
2 – How long you can retain your job
3 – The number of negative life events you experience