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Critical Thinking
by Angela Millender, DoD / U.S. Army Career Program - August 29, 2016

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Are you merely thinking or thinking critically? While many people freely use the term critical thinking to describe their personal intellectual scope, critical thinking is, in fact, a quest with complex challenges, that can only truly be achieved through knowledge, experience, exposure, reflection and having an open-mind.

Critical Thinking image provided though WikipediaThis discussion is intended to inspire you to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of your thinking strategies and improve them as you seek to resolve everyday challenges in your personal and professional endeavors. Effectively, let's fine tune your decision-making process to ensure that you capture the right information at the right time and from the right sources to either predict or influence reasonable and reliable outcomes.

Critical thinking involves reflecting on the manner in which you think and making a conscious effort to refine those thoughts in order to produce well-informed decisions. To think critically, we must acknowledge the biases that we naturally embody and consider how these prejudices impact our perceptions, and therefore, actions and thought process. Only then can we adequately evaluate our thinking and appropriately process information. Additionally, we must question the facts and assumptions surrounding the problem at hand and maintain fair-mindedness in doing so. The application of critical thinking promotes awareness and enriches one's perception as it requires us to thoroughly examine the concept or question before us.

According to Linda Elder, President of the Foundation for Critical Thinking and Executive Director of the Center for Critical Thinking, “[Critical thinking] requires rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcoming native egocentrism and sociocentrism.” As we tackle complex problems and seek to answer difficult questions, critical thinking exists to improve decision-making and mitigate hindrances in the manner we evaluate information. Limitations in our core thought process directly impact how we arrive at conclusions and is often the basis for flawed reasoning, illegitimate arguments, and poor decisions.

Operating in a deadline-driven environment, Department of Defense professionals are challenged daily to engage, sometimes simultaneously, in various multifaceted problems and analyze possible solutions on behalf of senior leadership. Elder's research allows her to make an interesting observation, “much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced.” This is partially due to the fact that we naturally approach problems and respond to situations through our individual frame of reference. Consequently, we may not interpret information objectively. What's more, research shows that we have a tendency to make conclusions about information in accordance with our own self-interest. Consider the following excerpt from Richard Paul and Elder's Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools guide:

“We do not naturally appreciate the point of view of others nor the limitations in our own point of view... As humans we live with the unrealistic but confident sense that we have figured out the way things actually are, and that we have done this objectively. We naturally believe in intuitive perceptions – however inaccurate. Instead of using intellectual standards in thinking, we often use self-centered psychological standards to determine what to believe and what to reject.”

“So what?” you may be thinking. “The way I've always done things has gotten me this far.” Or perhaps you may be asking, “As a Department of Defense employee, how can I possibly apply critical thinking to my work environment? My response to any task I'm given is limited by declining resources, the burden of bureaucracy and well-developed cultures that resist change.” Well, I'm glad you asked!

The very boundaries in which we perform our duties provide excellent opportunities to apply critical thinking. You may discover upon conscious reflection that your thinking is constrained, perhaps influenced by biases that become entrenched when faced with shrinking fiscal and personnel resources. Let's take a look at one example. As Department of the Army force managers, consider our role in the development of capabilities-based doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy (DOTMLPF-P) warfighting requirement. Myriad functions exist within complex processes and systems which require force managers to perform functional analyses, studies and experiments to determine the development of DOTMLPF-P capabilities for the future force. In doing so, we must consider the facts before us, historical and current data, competing alternatives, personal experience and observation and the operating environment as influenced by the President, Congress, DoD and the Army among further dynamics. All of which aspects rely on the application of sound critical thinking.

In closing, we all have a responsibility to remove limitations in our critical thinking strategies and facilitate good judgment – whether you are a member of the Army's Senior Executive Service, an action officer in a field office, have four stars on each shoulder, or provide administrative support to a small team. We have an opportunity to not be bound in our thinking, yet consciously apply depth, clarity, breadth and logic. In becoming effective stewards of our profession, we should strive to evaluate data and make decisions derived from information founded in such disciplined thinking.

References: Elder, Linda and Richard Paul, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008.

By Angela Millender
DOD, Legislative Analyst, Programs Division, Office of the Chief, Legislative Liaison
U.S. Army Career Program
Provided through DVIDS
Copyright 2016

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