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The 7 Common Traits of Highly Effective Critical Thinkers

What are traits that personify effective critical thinkers?

Critical thinking skills are among the most useful and vital for today's learners (and for everyone) to build on. Every educator knows how crucial it is to cultivate them in our classrooms and indeed throughout our whole lives. What are the most crucial defining characteristics of effective critical thinkers?

Let's begin our exploration by stating that effective critical thinkers function by way of different thought processes in different circumstances. You have to be able to analyze and test your thinking in order to improve it (Elder & Paul, 2020).

Figuring out how to make it to work on time when your car breaks down in rush hour traffic requires critical thinking as much as negotiating world peace does. Both scenarios facilitate such skills in far different settings, and with different stakes and outcomes, but they call upon these skills nonetheless.

Critical thinking has long been considered a valuable asset for young people to master, and its necessity is likely to increase as our world becomes more augmented by transformational concepts such as emerging technologies (Willingham, 2019). The question is about what universal traits the effective critical thinkers in each circumstance, and all those in between, would share.

That's the mystery we intend to solve here by offering suggestions of what the most important defining characteristics of critical thinkers would be.

1. Curiosity

Curiosity means being willing to explore the unknown, experience new stimuli, and accept uncertainty (Arnone et al., 2011). Effective critical thinkers are inherently curious about a wide range of topics and generally have broad interests. They tend to have a healthy inquisitiveness about the world and about people, which they temper with common sense and prudence.

For example, as one study states, critical thinkers, "understand that assumptions often contain prejudices, stereotypes, biases, and distortions ... they routinely assess their assumptions, as well as those of others, to determine whether those assumptions are based in sound reasoning and evidence" (Paul & Elder, 2019).

Figuring out how to make it to work on time when your car breaks down in rush hour traffic requires critical thinking as much as negotiating world peace does.

One article seems to support this by suggesting that "instead of taking everything at face value, a curious person will wonder why something is the way it is" (Patel, 2018). Another reinforces that, "being curious is necessary for critical thinkers, leaders, and managers to obtain a deeper knowledge of issues, processes and individuals" (Indeed, 2022).

What does the trait of curiosity mean for learning? Ultimately, being curious translates to, according to one study, an increase in engagement and academic achievement and improved performance in any given profession (Harackiewicz, et al., 2002). And although it is only recently that research has begun to reveal curiosity to be associated with improved learning outcomes, the fact remains that it is still considered a strong learning motivator (Wade & Kidd, 2019).

2. Compassion

As we seek to gift our learners with these indispensable skills, we must not forget that they embrace the emotional and instinctual as much as the intellectual. Effective critical thinkers act as much with their hearts as they do with their minds.

Teaching our learners about accountability, service learning, and the need to demonstrate compassion and empathy go a long way toward cultivating a sense of belonging while simultaneously building their awareness, interaction, and leadership mindsets (Grigoropoulos, 2020).

Although it's not likely thought of as an obvious trait for critical thinkers to have, compassion is nevertheless a vital component of it since critical thinking is not only about facts and data but also about relating to others:

"Without compassion, we would view all information and situations from the viewpoint of cold, heartless scientific facts and data. It would be easy to allow our cynicism to become toxic and to be suspicious of everything we look at. But to be a good critical thinker, we must always take into account the human element. Not everything we do is about detached data and information—it's also about people." (Patel, 2018)

The world is full of enough judgment and segregation, much of it from a lack of a clear understanding of one another's secret history of perseverance through often unimaginable suffering. Each one of us has a story of our own that makes us who we are, as well as personal trials and challenges that have shaped us. Critical thinkers recognize this and compassionately celebrate the uniqueness in everyone and are willing to help us see the best in ourselves and others.

3. Mindfulness

Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of mindfulness is encapsulated within this quote from Sunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (2010):

"When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything. It appears as if something comes from outside your mind, but actually it is only the waves of your mind, and if you are not bothered by the waves gradually they will become calmer and calmer." (Suzuki, 2010)

To be mindful, then, means to be completely aware of one's thoughts and surroundings in a way that's free from judgment. It is exactly this type of self-regulation that paves the way for one to practice profoundly effective critical thinking, which addresses a range of behaviours, "from minute-to-minute choices to the larger, more significant decisions that can have a substantial impact on whether people meet their goals" (Heydarnejad, et al., 2021).

As we seek to gift our learners with these indispensable skills, we must not forget that they embrace the emotional and instinctual as much as the intellectual.

Opportunities to apply critical thinking skills are all around us every moment. Effective critical thinkers remain tuned into these opportunities by applying the principles of mindfulness. Critical thinkers are always on alert for chances to apply their best thinking habits to any situation and retain the disposition to use critical thinking when appropriate (Hitchcock, 2022). A desire to think critically about even the simplest of issues and tasks indicates a desire for constructive outcomes.

Effective critical thinkers don't take anything at face value, either. They never stop asking questions and enjoy exploring all sides of an issue and the deeper facts hiding within all modes of data. As such, those who think critically also tend to be instinctual problem solvers, which ranks as probably the most important skill we can help our learners build upon (Crocket, et al., 2011).

4. Decisiveness

Many situations that call for critical thinking also call for quick and decisive action. When we think critically, we weigh our options and imagine the outcomes in the moment with speed and clarity and are able to put aside fear when it comes to making decisions.

Critical thinkers are decisive by nature in that they consider all options in making clear, informed decisions (Clarke, et al., 2019). In essence, critical thinkers like to move things forward rather than move backward or procrastinate, because they thrive on progression. They typically buck the status quo by constantly searching for more logical and efficient ways to do things (Altman, 2016).

In addition to this, often choices have to be made even when we don't have all the information we need to make them with confidence. In the book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argues that snap judgments can be just as effective or even better than carefully weighed decisions and that each has its time and place depending on the situation (Gladwell, 2006). When facing any kind of challenge, however, often someone has to take the lead and make the hard decisions others shy away from.

Effective critical thinkers realize that, more often than not, it's necessary to take the initiative and make a decision even if it ends up being the wrong one. To them, that's preferable to not making any decision at all.

5. Honesty

Honesty is important in any sense, but it is especially important to critical thinking. Moral integrity, ethical consideration and action, and citizenship practices are all hallmarks of effective critical thinkers (Paul, 1999).

It's not a surprise that honesty resides at the core of all these things. We see in such people a strong desire for harmony and fulfilment in the world, and part of attaining this involves pursuing honesty in all endeavours and relationships. 

The practice of honesty in critical thinking also extends to how one looks within oneself to embrace what resides there. It takes into account the processes behind managing our emotions, controlling our impulses, admitting our mistakes, and recognizing any attempts at self-deception (IPL, 2023). Critical thinkers are as equally aware and accepting of themselves as they are of others.

Opportunities to apply critical thinking skills are all around us every moment. Effective critical thinkers remain tuned into these opportunities by applying the principles of mindfulness.

6. Willingness

Willingness and flexibility encompass a number of key considerations for the critical thinker. One might argue that the willingness to think critically trumps ability, but perhaps it's best if we clarify the importance of willingness using a simple example.

Suppose you are trying to roll a ball downhill, and there is an object in the ball's path preventing it from fulfilling its trajectory. Would you get behind the ball and try to push it over the object and down the hill, or would you simply remove the obstruction and let the ball continue rolling?

It sounds obvious, but it might surprise you how many times people will choose the harder way to solve the problem. This can be attributed to many things, not the least of which are an unwillingness to be helped, an overwhelming sense of pride, or even a lack of ability to be decisive (Seltzer, 2021).

Willingness as a critical thinker includes but isn't limited to things like the ability to:

  • learn from their own personal mistakes and shortcomings
  • challenge the status quo when the need arises
  • openmindedly embrace other opinions and views that challenge their own
  • reconsider and revise their opinions in the wake of new evidence
  • listen actively rather than simply wait for their turn to talk
  • constantly improve, learn, and excel

7. Creativity

There's no question that effective critical thinkers are also largely creative thinkers. Creativity has unquestionably defined itself as a requisite skill to have in the collaborative modern workforce. What's important to remember is that critical and creative are two separate modes of thinking that complement one another.

As one study asserts:

"Critical thinking supports as well as follows creative thinking because once the focus has been widened by creative thinking, then critical thinking serves to evaluate ideas, which can be accomplished by narrowing the focus again to catalogue ideas and identify the most reasonable ones, or those most likely to succeed."(Forrester, 2008)

Critical thinking in business, marketing, and professional alliances relies heavily on one's ability to be creative. When businesses get creative with products and how they are advertised, they thrive in the global marketplace.

The Path to Critical Thinking

Teaching our learners to be effective critical thinkers doesn’t require countless hours of lesson planning. You don’t need special courses of study or guest speakers to do it for you. All you need are what both you and your learners already have in abundance—curious and open minds, committed hearts, diverse interests and abilities, and a desire to be better than you were yesterday.



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