Becoming a critical thinker

At the start of our learning journey we are a little like sponges – uncritically soaking up snippets of knowledge that emerge unchanged when we are squeezed to produce them. Our aim though is to be able to adsorb information and make something new with it.  This means adding it to the great soup of information that we already have and synthesising it – really understanding it, and appreciating its value. We need to be able to determine whether this information is accurate, believable, relevant, contradictory, confirmatory, useful, current, and trustworthy.  In other words, we need to become critical thinkers.

Some aspects of critical thinking include:

  • not taking what you see, hear, or read at ‘face-value’
  • developing your curiosity – wanting to know more
  • asking why and following up your questions
  • having an open mind
  • constructing an argument that stands up to external scrutiny
  • using evidence to support your arguments
  • drawing together the thoughts, ideas, or opinions of a number of different authors or schools of thought
  • appreciating the theory, model, or framework that provides the scaffolding for a group of ideas or argument

There are a host of resources available to help us to appreciate what critical thinking and to develop the skills needed. Google ‘what is critical thinking?’ and a host of excellent sites are returned.  It would be a good idea for you to look at The Foundation for Critical Thinking and undertake the University of Birmingham online course in critical thinking on canvas.

But there is something else you can do that no course, blog, or website can teach you and that is to READ.  If you don’t read A LOT you won’t be able to become a critical thinker.  The best you will do in your assignments and verbal debates is repeat what you know – what has been presented you in taught sessions and in the clinical environment.  The information transmitted in these arenas is only going to scratch the surface of what you could know.  It won’t be enough to help you construct an argument – it is only meant to introduce you to the topic and wet your appetite – to help you begin to ask questions and seek more knowledge – and often to provide a solid foundation from which you can build.

What should you read?

  • Level 1 – regularly read a professional journal that covers a broad spectrum of topics that might be of interest.  Read it regularly and build up your speed reading ability.
  • Level 2 – in addition to level 1 reading add in some papers from other journals that you have identified using a database search (e.g. Cinahl, Medline, PubMed) that are about the specific topic you are interested in right now.
  • Level 3 – books about topics that help you to develop your intellectual capabilities and general knowledge.  Try something like ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell, about how small changes can make a big difference.  Read voraciously about humans and how they behave, read about morality, ethics, philosophy, psychology, sociology – start with books that seem very basic and build up.
  • Level 4 -papers from journals that you find challenging.  If you only read what you can easily understand you won’t grow the additional brain connections that make the harder stuff become easier – and it will become easier.

Also – take it easy – don’t make your reading habit a chore.  Mix it up a bit.  Develop a LISTENING habit too.  Listen to podcasts and radio programmes about topics related to your area of interest.  Listen while you do something boring like the ironing, or on your commute.  There are masses of radio shows and podcasts out there that can help you develop a broader perspective and better understanding of issues.  Don’t just go for programmes about healthcare or medicine, also listen to documentary style shows that sometimes will cover something health related but often provide an interesting insight into different cultures, political issues, and things that impact on people and the way they behave.  They will help you expand you knowledge but also make you question what you know – and becoming a natural questioner is what critical thinking is all about.

Suggested radio shows and podcasts to get you started:

BBC Stories Like Minds series

This American Life

All in the Mind

Thinking Allowed

BMJ Open Podcast 

Evidence Based Nursing podcast

Nursing Standard podcast

The Guardian Science Weekly podcast

Seriously

so the principle is

READ regularly

READ widely

LISTEN eclectically

QUESTION everything 

SEEK answers