“Critical thinking” has become somewhat of a buzzword over the past few decades, but the concepts behind it have been around for thousands of years. CriticalThinking.org traces the roots of this way of thinking to ancient Greece, where teachers known as “sophists” pioneered techniques of inquiry that we still use today.
The root of “sophist” is “sophos,” which is Greek for “wisdom.” Some of the early sophists traveled around Greece instructing students using principles of philosophy and rhetoric. However, around 400 BCE, other teachers began to reject these methods, believing the sophists intended to deceive, rather than find truth. One of the most famous philosophers to offer an alternative was Socrates.
Socrates championed a method of instruction that came to be known as the Socratic Method, whereby a teacher would use a series of questions to urge the student to come to the right conclusion. As CriticalThinking.org explains, Socrates “established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done as well.” These methods are the foundation of what we know as critical thinking.
Critical Thinking at Work
The practice and study of critical thinking has always been associated with education. Relatively recently, though, a number of scholars are beginning to examine what critical thinking in the workplace looks like so they can encourage this practice in new workers. Many workers have never been trained in formal methods of thinking. As Jen Lawrence, coauthor of Engage the Fox: A Business Fable About Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, points out, “Schools are no longer routinely teaching basic thinking processes, such as rhetoric or the scientific method.” Thus, companies and postsecondary schools are having to step in to provide this necessary training. Many schools, including those that provide a bachelor’s degree online, are teaching these skills, as they see immediate benefits to critical thinking in the workplace.
George N. Root III, Houston Chronicle contributor, sees critical thinking as a safeguard against automatic thinking. He writes, “a common reaction is to assume that [a new problem] falls into a predetermined category.” Critical thinking, on the other hand, “does not make any assumptions, and using the process of critical thinking in the workplace removes the temptation to immediately classify every issue under something that has happened in the past.” This process allows innovation to thrive. Employees explore new solutions for common problems, and employees are forced “to look beyond conventional solutions and look for new ideas that can help to efficiently address problems.” Critical thinking in the workplace also fosters teamwork. Employees must work together to find not only the right solutions, but also the right resources. By working together, coworkers find more avenues to explore than they would on their own.
There are six steps to critical thinking. These are knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Knowledge comes from the research gathered while using critical thinking in the workplace. In order to understand a problem, workers must first find the sources. Next is comprehension, concertedly attempting to understand the information. The third step involves application of these concepts to the specific problem. Analysis means breaking something into its constituent parts and showing how those parts work together to create the whole. Synthesis is bringing diverse ideas together to create a new idea. During the evaluation phase, workers team members test their hypotheses.
The steps are not isolated, but rather a recursive process of learning, prototyping and testing. Using a formal structure to approach problems ensures no stone is left unturned, and workers are not just relying upon outdated solutions. Critical thinking in the workplace means better solutions, better collaboration and better productivity.
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