How To Use Critically Thinking To Solve Problems

How To Use Critically Thinking To Solve Problems

Critical thinkers approach a complicated situation with awareness of their thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, and how to direct them rationally. In addition, critical thinkers are willing to explore, question, and search for solutions to problems. All those skills add up to greater success at school, on the job, and at home. Generally, critical thinking involves both problem solving and reasoning, terms often used interchangeably. Here are a few steps to on how to use critical thinking to solve problems

1. Recognize the problem

If you want to begin to think critically so you can solve problems, you first have to recognize that there is a problem and decide its importance or severity. We all face problems every day. Some are simple, like running low on gas in your car, and take a short period of time to solve. Others are complex and demand more time and thought. For example, someone’s boss might ask him or her to figure out why the company’s latest sales pitch to the most important client failed, and come up with a new one.

Once you know you have a problem, you need to prioritize—does the problem demand immediate attention, or can it wait until you are finished working on something else? If there’s more than one problem, you need to rank them in order of importance, tackling the most important first. 

When you recognize that you are faced with a problem, you also recognize the need for action on your part. But that action depends on the kind of problem you are facing. Is the problem severe? If there is more than one problem, which should be tackled first? Use your critical thinking skills to pinpoint any problem before you begin to anticipate a solution. 

2. Define the real problem

No matter what the problem, the only way to come up with an effective solution is to identify the actual problem that needs to be solved before you do anything else. If you don’t, you could end up spending your time treating the symptom or consequence of your problem while the real problem remains waiting to be dealt with.

People often mistake a more obvious consequence of a problem for the actual problem. This can happen for different reasons. People may be busy, so whatever irritates them the most gets the most attention, or they may make assumptions about the nature of the problem and take action without determining if the assumptions are valid.

Effective problem solving begins with the identification of the real problem, as opposed to the perceived problem. Do not allow the size of the problem, your own assumptions, or a lack of information stand between you and an effective solution. Think the situation through, and do not be tempted to deal quickly with consequences or symptoms of your problem instead of the actual one.

3. Increase your awareness

To improve your critical thinking skills, you have to be more attuned to what’s going on in your environment. If you consistently use focused, not casual, observation, you’re more likely to notice when your input is needed. When you focus, you increase your awareness to what’s going on and process the information more skillfully.

When you increase your awareness, you make more sense out of your observations. Do that by using your senses, listening to what others say, and seeking more details. And when you are in the process of gathering information, concentrate, put it in context, and be thorough. You will not miss a thing if you pay careful attention—and you will become a better decision maker and problem solver in the process.

 4. Brainstorm with graphic organizers

Word webs, Venn diagrams, and concept maps are called graphic organizers because they do just that: organize ideas graphically. So they’re really helpful when you’re brainstorming your thoughts to find solutions to problems. 

Once you recognize and define a real problem, it’s time to start looking for a viable, effective solution. That’s why brainstorming is such an important critical-thinking skill in a problem/ solution situation. Brainstorming allows you to come up with as many ideas as possible, including way out-of-the-box suggestions, without making any judgments. You’ve probably done brain- storming before to generate ideas when assigned a group project in school or to plan a writing assignment. You probably made a list of ideas, or possible solutions, on paper. Then what?

While lists are good for recording information, they don’t help you organize your thoughts very well. But graphic organizers do. They combine words and images so that you can see a lot of information at a glance. By visually arranging information, you can map your thoughts. That map can point you toward effective decisions and solutions.

Graphic organizers more effective than lists because they:

  • are a meaningful display of complex information.
  • help you see patterns and methods in your thinking.
  • help you gather and compress information.
  • keep you focused on the problem.
  • show what you know and what you still need to find out.
  • help you interpret your thoughts and ideas.

Graphic organizers are great tools for brainstorming. They create visual maps of your thinking, showing patterns and processes where you might not have expected them. Graphic organizers also keep you focused on your objectives, and can clearly point the way to effective solutions and smart decisions. 

5. Set Goals

When you have a problem, you want to solve it, right? So you make a plan, or set a goal, to resolve the problem. The clearer you are about what you want to achieve and the steps you’ll take to do so, the more likely you are to reach your goal. 

A goal is a clear statement of something you want to accomplish or a problem you want to solve in the future. Goals may be personal, educational, or career oriented. For example: “I’m going to learn to play soccer this year,” “I want to earn an A on my term paper,” “I’m going to ask my boss for a raise in the next six months,” or “I want to refinance my mortgage while rates are low.” Whatever the goal, you need a step-by-step plan for reaching it. You also need to identify any obstacles in your way and things you might need, such as research or help from others. 

Setting goals is an important part of problem solving, but always remember to set goals you can reasonably achieve. Use a goal-setting chart to create a map that can show you the way from the problem to the solution. The chart forces you to break down your goal into manageable steps, set a deadline, and spell out exactly what you’ll do, and when. That exercise can help to move from where you are—facing a problem—to where you want to be—problem solved! 

6. Troubleshoot

Sometimes things can go wrong as you follow your plan for reaching a goal or solving a problem. Small, or even large, stumbling blocks may appear and try to stall your forward progress. Troubleshooting involves thinking ahead, spotting problems even before they surface, or preparing to take care of them if they do. You anticipate what might go wrong and keep it from happening or, if something does pop up, keep it from growing into a major problem by resolving it while it’s a manageable size. By doing so, you deal with any setbacks that might block the path to your goal. You have to learn to handle everything from small annoyances to major obstructions in order to get where you want to be. So troubleshooting is kind of like building bridges over troubled waters!

7. Find Resources

Sometimes when you have to make an important decision, you don’t have all the facts you need to help you make the best choice. Other times, especially at work or school, you may be asked to produce evidence to justify a decision you’ve made. Many decisions and solutions don’t require a lot of work. After all, you don’t need to gather much information to decide when to study for an exam or whether to bake a pie or a cake. You already know the facts, so you simply use them to make a wise decision. But what if you don’t know which facts to base a decision on? What if there are things you aren’t familiar with that really need to be considered? That’s where thinking critically comes into play. You do whatever you can to find accurate information about the missing details, knowing that the quality of a decision is only as good as the information used to make it.

The three best resources to consult are the Internet, the library, and other people (experts). Knowing how and when to use each type of resource can mean the difference between making an uninformed decision, and standing solidly behind the facts as you solve problems and decide among various options. 

8. Evaluate the facts

Many people believe that newspapers are good sources for current, factual information. But the last time you were in the supermarket checkout line, did you happen to notice any newspapers with stories about the impending end of the life on Earth, people who’ve had close encounters with aliens or been “abducted” by them, or an animal born with two human heads? Well, most of us are smart enough to know the difference between those kinds of newspapers, which are considered more entertainment than news, and the prize-winning papers that are widely accepted as trustworthy resources.

But there’s more to determining accuracy and objectivity in informational sources than just knowing the difference between hard news reporting and superficial sensationalism. You need to develop a skeptical eye to spot the subtle differences between truthful, impartial resources and those that claim to be truthful and impartial before you can rely on any resource to help you make an important decision to solve a problem. Finding resources is important, it’s true, but you have to figure out which you can trust and which you can’t. 

Thinking critically means being armed with accurate information. It’s vital to evaluate information to see if it’s subjective or objective, fact or opinion, accurate or false, and/or biased. You have to look at the source of the information, or the author(s). Can you trust the source and the credentials of the author(s)? Keep a skeptical eye out for opinion posing as fact, inferior research and documentation, and bias from every source.

When using the Internet, which can be a hazardous place to find information, you have to evaluate any Web page you come across in your research. It’s important to find the author and dates for each web site, as well as judge the accuracy of its content, and use its links to evaluate even further what you read. Your critical-thinking skills are enhanced when you learn to evaluate the information you receive. Think for yourself! Never assume that something is true without checking it out, and don’t take for granted that any source’s viewpoint is unbiased. 



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