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Emma Sue Prince



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Critical thinking: Six ways to sharpen your analytical skills

Emma Sue Prince outlines the six key areas we need to assess before we can start to work on improving our analytical abilities.

Critical thinking has a long academic tradition and history, and indeed the fundamentals haven’t changed: gathering good evidence, separating facts from opinions, asking great questions, and applying logical deduction are all key cornerstones of this. Today, there is also an increased need for critical thinking skills to support creativity, problem solving, innovation, active learning, fluidity and quantity of ideas.

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.
—Francis Bacon

There are six principles underpinning this, which I will outline in this article.

1. How we make sense of things

Being able to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is presented to us requires a considered, reflective approach that doesn’t come easily in our fast-moving world. Anyone can publish anything and so much of what is out there is flawed. Our brains need space to process and put aside assumptions and pre-judgement and tap into higher cognitive skills.

2. We need novel and adaptive thinking more than ever

Most jobs demand and will continue to demand ‘situational adaptability’ – the ability to respond to unique and unexpected circumstances of the moment. We need to get better at handling change. That means putting ourselves into the ‘stretch’ or learning zone as often as possible – this is where something may feel slightly uncomfortable (almost to the point where we could convince ourselves easily not to do it) but we find it in ourselves to embrace and do it anyway. So we sharpen our ability to respond to change well and trust that we have the skills we need to do that.

3. Computational thinking

This is the ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts. Many more roles will require this kind of thinking, so we need to learn to use more of our brains more effectively and get in the habit of learning new skills every single day. We can also get good at this by reading SLOW – training ourselves to read much longer articles – try the New Yorker, for example, where articles are sometimes ten pages long. Nowadays this is virtually unheard of, when most things you read online give you a time estimate of how long it will take e.g. four minutes etc.

4. New media literacy

There are so many different media forms now and we need to be able to critically assess and develop content that spans all of these and to leverage these media for persuasive communication. User-generated media is exploding and we are still learning how to use them, but we need to learn this skill faster. Learn it by doing it – make videos, blogs, vlogs, podcasts at work as these will be most fully felt there as ways to reach out.

5. Managing our cognitive load

We need to discriminate and filter information for importance, so knowing how to maximise our cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques is essential. The sheer amount of information we are expected to understand now, coupled with everyday constant distractions, means we need to manage our attention, our smartphones and how we take in all that stimuli.

6. Becoming ‘T-shaped’

This is about sharpening our ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines and not just one. The future ideal worker is T-shaped – bringing a deep understanding of at least one field – and often two or more – AND the capacity to converse in the language of a wider depth and breadth of fields. Lifelong learning is of paramount importance here rather than narrowing yourself into one niche. You need to be really good at a few things and decently competent at several.

For me, these six principles point to significant gaps in our current ways of learning and absorbing information, but they are also gaps we can teach ourselves to bridge.

Interested in this topic? Read Personal development: five ways to improve your critical thinking skills.

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Emma Sue Prince


Read more from Emma Sue Prince

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