Critical Thinking Requires Knowing What Questions to Ask

In a Wall Street Journal piece, “Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That? An Important Skill for Young Workers Has a Variety of Definitions”, Melissa Korn continues a line of inquiry which includes Edward Glaser’s An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking (1941) and Daniel Kahnemans’s Thinking, Fast and Slow(2011). ‘“It’s one of those words – like diversity was, like big data is – where everyone talks about it but there are 50 different ways to define it,” says Dan Black, …’

Oxford Dictionaries defines Thinking as “The process of considering or reasoning about something” and Critical Thinking as “The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment”. If ‘Thinking’ is analogous to what Kahneman refers to as Fast Thinking; “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort …”, then ‘Critical Thinking’ is analogous to Slow Thinking; “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it …”. Or as Glaser puts it “The ability to think critically, as conceived in this volume, involves three things:

  1. An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences,
  2. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and
  3. Some skill in applying those methods.”

Critical Thinking is most often required when we have a ‘problem’ to solve and a knowledge gap preventing us from reaching a sound conclusion or making good judgments about the solution. Because there are as many, or more, interpretations of the word ‘problem’ as there are for diversity, big data, or critical thinking, it is not always clear what the knowledge gap is. Fortunately, because the word ‘problem’ is often used when we need to manage change, we can use the three fundamental types of change to define three distinct types of ‘problems’ and the key questions we need to answer to close the knowledge gaps:

  1. Past change that has occurred – What did change to cause performance to change?
  2. Present change we are considering – What should change to meet changed expectations?
  3. Future change that might occur – What could change and cause performance or expectations to change?

To understand the nature of the ‘problem’ they are solving, identify the knowledge gaps they need to close to reach sound conclusions or make good judgments about the solution, and ask the right questions to close the knowledge gaps, Critical Thinkers first PARSE, break down and analyze, their ‘problem’.

The PARSE approach begins with an understanding of Purpose.

Purpose – Critical Thinkers understand their intent; they understand the nature of the change at hand (Past, Present, or Future), the type of answer needed to resolve it (Explanation, Solution, or Preparation and Mitigation), and the information required to reach sound conclusions or make good judgments about the solution. The first question Critical Thinkers ask is “What do we need to know?”

Assumptions – Critical Thinking requires ‘CYA’ or Check Your Assumptions. Critical Thinkers understand the difference between what they know and what they think they know, Glaser’s first point. “Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends.”  To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, Critical Thinkers separate known knowns from known unknowns, and consider unknown unknowns. The second question Critical Thinkers ask is “What do we really know?”

Response – Critical Thinkers understand they need different information to resolve different types of ‘Problems’, Glaser’s second point. Critical Thinking “generally requires ability to recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems, to gather and marshal pertinent information,…”  To do this efficiently and effectively, we need to have what Kahneman refers to as “programs we can retrieve and run”; systematic sets of questions to identify knowledge gaps, then gather, sort, organize, and analyze information to close them. The third question is “What questions do we need to answer?”

Support – Critical Thinkers accept they may need knowledge outside their experience to reach sound conclusions or make good judgments and the engagement of others to ensure acceptance or successful implementation of the solution. Critical Thinkers recognize when they need to work with others and involve the right people from the start. The final question they ask is “Whose information and commitment is needed?”

Execute – Critical Thinkers choose the most effective and efficient path forward. Because they have separated what they know from what they don’t know, they know the specific knowledge gaps they need to close and the questions they need to answer. They are then able to work with others to gather, sort, organize, and analyze the information necessary to reach sound conclusions or make good judgments, and make that information visible to ensure common understanding and agreement.

To Glaser’s third point, not all people are naturally skilled in Critical Thinking. But knowing the right questions to ask, like reading and arithmetic, can be learned and become part of our Fast Thinking. “We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.”  People can learn an alternative to relying on intuition and assumptions; Critical Thinkers have learned the questions that help them understand their intent, examine their assumptions, ask the right questions, involve the appropriate people, and then execute flawlessly.

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