CONTRIBUTED CONTENT — There’s a reason critical thinking always pops up in lists of desired workplace traits. The ability to carefully assess, analyze and reason through problems and information gives employees an edge in the workplace.

Stock image courtesy of the University of Utah, St. George News / Cedar City News

Good critical thinkers evaluate risk and use logic and evidence to make decisions. They question processes and approaches and are more likely to come up with creative, innovative solutions. Employment experts say these “human” skills will only become more in demand as artificial intelligence takes up a bigger role in the workplace.

But here’s the twist: research shows critical thinking skills might be on the decline. In a 2022 survey, workers listed burnout, multitasking and frequent distractions as obstacles to deep, analytical thinking. And it’s not just the workplace – critical thinking isn’t taught consistently in schools, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The good news is, we can train ourselves to become better critical thinkers.

“Becoming a strong critical thinker takes practice and an understanding of what the skills are,” said Madlyn Larson, associate director of education initiatives at the University of Utah’s Natural History Museum of Utah.

Larson is project director for the development of Research Quest, a digital science education program that teaches middle schoolers across the country to become better analytical thinkers. Research Quest began out of a desire to equip kids for navigating a world where “fake news” is an everyday term. Students investigate real-world scientific mysteries designed to teach them specific skills: how to make strong observations and inferences, how to engage in analysis and how to develop arguments based on evidence. 

Another strong venue for developing critical thinking: the humanities.

“Critical thinking is about approaching dilemmas as a human,” said Hollis Robbins, dean of the University of Utah College of Humanities. “Being human means interacting with and having dilemmas with other humans.”

Robbins says literature, philosophy, social sciences, history and other humanities disciplines give a window into human nature. In the classroom, students are challenged to engage in deeper thinking, question their own assumptions and take part in thoughtful discussions. 

Some argue these “soft skills,” which have been practiced at universities for millennia, are less relevant in today’s world. Stephen Downes, a professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of biological sciences at the University of Utah, disagrees. 

“Employers like people with an education in humanities for what they bring to the workplace, like the ability to pause and consider the situation,” he said.

Downes teaches a class called “Reasoning and Rational Decision-Making,” where he unravels methods throughout history to make sound judgments and predictions. By learning tools like statistics, students learn to spot logical fallacies in their own thinking. For example, when they stereotype someone, they’re employing a statistical generalization.

“It’s the worst kind of statistical generalization – an inference on the basis of one,” he said. “Once you understand this is what’s going on every time this happens, you start realizing, maybe I should stop and think first.”

Ready to hone your critical thinking skills? Here are some tips from University of Utah experts:

Question everything. Take any new information with a pinch of skepticism. Whether it’s a news article, a health claim or data for a work report, ask yourself where it came from and what the source’s motivations might be. Cross-check your info with reputable sources like educational institutes, established news sites, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.

Stay open-minded. When working on a problem and gathering information, don’t rush to conclusions. Keep your mind open until you’ve established a pattern of evidence.

Follow the clues. Take an objective look at what the evidence points to and support your ideas with the strongest possible evidence. “Ask yourself, ‘How many ideas does my evidence support?’” said Larson. “One idea means the evidence is strong, while multiple ideas mean the evidence is weak.”

Embrace diverse perspectives. Stepping into someone else’s shoes can change your way of thinking. Attend talks, such as the Tanner Humanities Center lectures, to hear from people of different backgrounds. 

Read literature. “The best works of literature have the richest dilemmas,” said Robbins. “They give you the best lessons about how human beings behave and make decisions about other people.” 

Get comfy with probability and statistics. “I can’t exaggerate how important it is to understand probability when it comes to decision-making,” said Downes. Don’t let the topic scare you off – there are many fun and accessible materials. Downes recommends “How to Lie with Statistics,” “Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking” and the Freakonomics books and podcast.

Enroll in a humanities course. The University of Utah offers many classes to the general public as academic noncreditthe same courses college students take at a much lower cost. The best part? You can exercise your intellectual muscles without worrying about grades.

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