Encouraging critical thinking

In today’s digital age, we have more access to information than ever before, and fewer protections in place to ensure that the information we find is unbiased, factual and authentic. This makes the ability to think critically more important than ever.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking can be understood as careful thinking, and can help us gain a better understanding of the information that we read, see, hear, or think. Critical thinking means not accepting information or arguments without question – it invites us to examine the perspective of others and our own experience when interpreting information and viewpoints. Critical thinking is not one unified approach – it’s a collection of cognitive skills (thinking skills) that help us approach information in a rational and informed way.

Tips for helping others to think critically:

Below are some key elements of critical thinking and some ways we can encourage it in others. These techniques could be used during conversation or debate, as well as in helping others interpret what they watch, read or listen to.

  • Teach how, not what: The first step is to show others how to think critically, rather than tell them what to think. Demonstrate the need to examine opinions and ideas, and where they come from, but leave them to decide where they stand on an issue or argument. Allowing people to form their own opinions will mean they are more likely to apply these analytical skills in other contexts.
  • Discussion: The more we hear from others, the less likely we are to see things in “black and white”. Modelling fair and respectful debate, where everyone gets space to talk, is key to developing critical thinking skills. Listen, give people a chance to “talk it out”, and don’t impose your views too soon. The more people feel you are listening, the more they may be open to hearing other perspectives.
  • Evaluation and Analysis: Breaking information down and analysing all its parts is key to critical thinking. For example, let’s say you show someone a clip of a politician making a statement. Ask them to think about the backdrop they have chosen. Does it enhance their message artificially? In listening to the argument, consider if the conclusion drawn by the politician is the only one suggested by the facts, or if there are other possibilities. It is also important not to rely only on just the source at hand. Consider if there have been any facts left out that may have changed your perception. Once someone has read widely and analysed a variety of sources, interpreting the biases and goals of each position, they are better placed to determine their own stance.
  • Questioning: Ask questions and encourage others to do the same. A simple “tell me why you think that” may emphasise the need for factual evidence behind opinions. It may also encourage people to ask questions of others, rather than shutting them down. Think about asking “why?” more than once, in order to gain a deeper understanding of an issue. Take, for example, someone who says they have a friend who is “lazy because they don’t have a job”. If they dig deep enough they may discover several reasons behind this (lack of appropriate training, illness, mental health, family issues etc.), rather than the uncritical assumption given.
  • Logic: While giving people the space to speak, also show them that you are more likely to agree with them, or at least understand them, if their position is backed by accurate facts and a clear logic to conclusions. Explain that all messages can be examined further. This particularly applies when reading content, watching a news story, or listening to a friend.
  • Benefits: There are many benefits to developing critical thinking skills. Critical thinking has been found to be a better predictor of life outcomes than IQ, as practised critical thinkers are often flexible, adaptive problem solvers. Critical thinking also enhances communication skills and develops empathy as we learn from other perspectives. Critical thinking also helps people to be more discerning in what we read and view, less open to “Fake News”, and potentially less vulnerable to uncritical acceptance of extremist messaging.

Critical thinking is a skill set we can help others continue to apply, and further develop, throughout their lives. In encouraging these skills in others, it’s important we have ongoing discussions and model analytical skills that can help others interpret the wealth of ever changing opinions and information sources they come across.

Find out more

Below are some useful resources that may help you or others to apply more critical thinking skills.

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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