Why Critical Thinking?

Under the auspices of Roy van den Brink Budgen ASM Plus provides a range of services in which the powerful tools of Critical Thinking (CT) are used. He is a member of the ASM Plus Civil/Commercial, Family, Education and Employment teams.

Roy van den Brink-Budgen’s CT expertise is considerable. He has been working in this area for over 30 years, and has applied it in a wide range of contexts including business, education, offender-behaviour, and the military. He has worked in various countries and has addressed many national and international conferences on the subject.

We welcome all expressions of interest. When an enquiry is made, the ASM Plus director, Paul Sandford, will be very pleased to have an initial without obligation telephone discussion and if appropriate to refer enquiries onto Roy for more detailed consideration.

The question ‘Why critical thinking?’ can best be approached by seeing critical thinking (CT) as a set of tools that can be used in a very wide range of situations. These tools of analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and reasoning are not ‘critical’ in the sense that they must be used to identify negative features, but are rather tools that can provide clarity, can enable opportunities to be usefully creative, and can emphasise the importance of looking at what might be significant in a scenario. In short it encourages and employs positively productive thinking which, in turn, enables justifiable and so worthwhile goals to be reached.

The critical thinking tools are increasingly being seen as of huge significance in many contexts including education, business, and indeed in all areas in which the role of decision-making is important. For example, Richard Branson has said that ‘Critical thinking is the key to creative problem-solving in business’, whilst John Baldoni (a leadership development expert) states that ‘If you want to succeed in twenty-first-century business, you need to become a critical thinker’.

As well as providing highly effective critical thinking services in the commercial and industrial sectors, Roy has an excellent track record at all levels of the educational sector. He has worked extensively and delivered excellent results working in all aspects of the public and voluntary sectors and with individuals. His skills, expertise and flexibility of approach are applicable to most aspects of daily life and in all spheres of his work he has provided a world-class service.

Some of the questions that CT can seek to answer are these.

  • What is the possible significance of this claim (evidence, statement, and so on) that has been made?
  • What is being argued for here?
  • What is being assumed in this position being put forward?
  • Is this claim relevant to the position being put forward?
  • Are these claims adequate for the position being put forward?
  • How can we explain this evidence? What could be another explanation?

CT has a general application and can usefully be applied to scenarios as diverse as employment disputes, marital disputes, compensation claims, commercial decision-making contexts, and the training of staff in the corporate, private and public sectors to be both reflective and effective thinkers.

BUSINESS APPLICATIONS OF CRITICAL THINKING AND THE CONTEXT IN WHICH IT OPERATES

Decision-making in business in the private, corporate and public sectors

The application of CT in business can be very powerful. The process of moving from an initial question to a decision, using a CT (‘tree’) framework, can be represented in the following way.

Question

Clarifying terms

Producing a continuum of choice

Selecting from continuum of choice

Generating criteria for evaluation of choices

Applying criteria, by selection and use of relevant evidence

Decision

This method, developed by Roy van den Brink-Budgen as a way of operationalising CT in decision-making, combines a very productive combination of clear and coherent reasoning with a strongly creative aspect in the production of a continuum of choice and the generation of criteria.

The method is further informed by using the overall CT criteria of relevance and adequacy, which are powerful criteria in judging the significance of claims and how they are used.

CT can also (literally) profitably be applied to the examination of the various sources of problems that can detract from good decision-making. These include the following:

  • alternatives not being clearly defined, described, and considered.
  • existing biases not being discounted (uncritically using familiar ways of thinking or acting);
  • the range of ‘traps’.

These traps include the following:

  • anchoring;
  • the status-quo;
  • sunk-cost;
  • confirming-evidence;
  • framing;
  • selective recall.

Possible solutions to each of these can be very clearly developed by using CT. For example, with the confirming-evidence trap, we should

  • stand back from the problem/issue and consider what sort of evidence might (and might not) be relevant;
  • think of possible counter-positions (including counter-arguments);
  • think of the ways in which we might be biased, and seek to compensate.

Given that good CT involves a dialogue that is sustained, purposeful, and reasonable (as in using reasons), it can be seen that the use of CT can make a significant contribution to decision-making.

We can produce a tailor-made consultancy package that brings CT to any aspect of a company’s or organisation’s decision-making.

How do the ASM PLUS Critical Thinking services work for companies and organisations?

ASM PLUS can normally arrange for an initial CT consultation very promptly. This consultation will enable there to be a focused discussion as to how CT can be used most effectively. This could include looking at general areas such as decision-making processes and at specific areas such as staff development. The CT work that we provide can be on a single session basis or on a regular basis looking for the incremental development and application of the CT skills with staff.

Following the delivery of the CT service that is required, it is expected that the organisation or company will see various benefits including greater efficiency and effectiveness both in the short and longer-term, resulting in possible cost-savings, increased productivity, and better use of staff time.’

This method, developed by Roy van den Brink-Budgen as a way of operationalising CT in decision-making, combines a very productive combination of clear and coherent reasoning with a strongly creative aspect in the production of a continuum of choice and the generation of criteria.

The method is further informed by using the overall CT criteria of relevance and adequacy, which are powerful criteria in judging the significance of claims and how they are used.

CT can also (literally) profitably be applied to the examination of the various sources of problems that can detract from good decision-making. These include the following:

  • alternatives not being clearly defined, described, and considered.
  • existing biases not being discounted (uncritically using familiar ways of thinking or acting);
  • the range of ‘traps’.

These traps include the following:

  • anchoring;
  • the status-quo;
  • sunk-cost;
  • confirming-evidence;
  • framing;
  • selective recall.

Possible solutions to each of these can be very clearly developed by using CT. For example, with the confirming-evidence trap, we should

  • stand back from the problem/issue and consider what sort of evidence might (and might not) be relevant;
  • think of possible counter-positions (including counter-arguments);
  • think of the ways in which we might be biased, and seek to compensate.

Given that good CT involves a dialogue that is sustained, purposeful, and reasonable (as in using reasons), it can be seen that the use of CT can make a significant contribution to decision-making.

We can produce a tailor-made consultancy package that brings CT to any aspect of a company’s or organisation’s decision-making.

Mediation and Critical Thinking

Mediation can be understood as the process of assisting disputing parties in resolving conflict. It is a process in which the clarification of issues is used as a central feature of enabling disputing parties to consider resolutions of conflict.

This fits very well with using the skills and dispositions of CT, given the ways in which CT can contribute to the production of clarity in dialogue, the ways in which it can invite those in the mediation to look at assumptions being made in positions, and the ways in which it can focus our thinking on the nature of the relationship between claims and counter-claims.

By being helped by the employment of the questioning approach of CT, those involved in mediation are highly likely to see more clearly how agreement on a useful outcome can be reached.

Facilitated Meetings and Critical Thinking

Whereas mediation normally involves parties in conflict, facilitated meetings do not normally do so. Though the facilitator works with a group to reach an agreed decision, the members of the group do not start with opposing positions. It might be, of course, that during the facilitated meeting, disagreements emerge about aspects of the decision-making (such as disputes over what is relevant, what evidence is significant, what assumptions should be made, and so on), and these will be examined during the meeting.

As with mediation, the skills and dispositions of CT are highly relevant to the successful operation of a facilitated meeting, given what they bring to the meeting:

  • initial clarification;
  • examining possibilities and positions;
  • generating and using criteria relevant to the issue(s);
  • making assumptions explicit;
  • encouraging focused and sustained dialogue;
  • highlighting the relationship between positions and counter-positions;
  • narrowing down of considered choices;
  • looking for agreement.

Further applications of ASM PLUS’s Critical Thinking Services

Diagnostic, training, and consultancy services

In 2020, ASM Plus will be introducing a diagnostic service for companies wishing to examine the critical thinking skills of their staff. This service will enable companies to look at how the skills (and sub-skills) are distributed and thus at their staff’s critical thinking strengths and weaknesses This diagnostic service can then be complemented by training programmes designed to develop (or further develop) specific skills. In addition, we provide bespoke training or consultancy services in critical thinking for companies and organisations in all sectors. We can provide bespoke training and consultancy services in critical thinking for companies and organisations.

Case Studies

USING CRITICAL THINKING WITH A BANK’S DATA ANALYSTS

A large international bank had concerns that its data analysts, though highly competent in the technical aspects of data analysis, were not necessarily sufficiently skilful in the creative interpretation of the data.

As a result, a tailor-made focus upon interpretation was seen as being of considerable value. The day used a wide range of material, including evidence drawn from a number of different economic contexts such as stock-exchange movements, retail statistics, and predictions in the tech industries. This evidence was initially used in order to demonstrate the significance of how assumptions (or taken-for-granted beliefs that are not made explicit) that are made in the interpretation of the data need to be examined critically.    

This initial work on assumptions was then further developed by looking at how one might use this focus to focus on possibility thinking by looking for and at alternative explanations. In this way, the analysts were encouraged to critically examine evidence which is itself, through familiarity or frequency of appearance, taken for granted.

Various questions were raised and developed as a result.

  • What more do we need to know?
  • If we can’t get this information, what effect could this have on our judgements?
  • How do we judge what is relevant in a scenario?
  • How do we judge what is adequate for making an initial judgement?
  • How can we discount existing biases, including impressions, estimates, and selection of data?
  • How can we take account of the confirming-evidence trap by which evidence is welcomed if it confirms our initial position (or is interpreted to do this) (and side-lined or even rejected if it does not)?

At the end of the session, participants reported that they could see the value of actively using a focus on possibility thinking. The questioning approach which is such a central aspect of critical thinking was seen as a very productive one, in that it was able to fruitfully inform the nature of ‘analysis’ in the task of data analysis.

This appreciation of the value of possibility thinking for the work of these data analysts was subsequently reinforced by the commissioning manager.

USING CRITICAL THINKING TO FACILITATE EFFECTIVE DECISION-MAKING IN THE VOLUNTARY SECTOR

A charity in the West Midlands was concerned that it was insufficiently focused on clarifying relevant issues and the effective generation of possible solutions to any problems that needed to be faced. After an initial discussion, it was agreed to look at the following possible obstacles to effective decision-making.

  • belief perseverance (We use what we already believe to filter out any information that doesn’t fit with what we believe.)
  • use of very limited data to draw inferences (‘Three people have said this, so…’)
  • ‘certainty’ obscuring other possibilities (We are so certain that x is the case, that we don’t think any further.)
  • retreat into unreflective familiarity (‘We’ve always done it this way, so…’)
  • uneven focus on what is to be thought about (‘It’s going to be too much to have to think about more than one thing, so…’)

Over a two-day session, the skills of critical thinking (CT) were introduced, developed, and applied. These included evaluation of the possible significance of evidence and other claims, looking at the production of good reasoning, identifying assumptions made in reasoning, looking for/at other possibilities (including explanations), and applying the skills to issues within their own organisation.

At the end of the session, participants reported that they were much more confident in their ability to avoid barriers to good decision-making and saw themselves as having a much clearer sense of their way forward.

This exercise in the use of CT proved to be of long-term benefit to the organisation. The improvement in strategic thinking, including looking for and at different possibilities in decision-making was notable. As a result of this improvement, the organisation’s resources (including staff) were used much more effectively and efficiently. The end-product of delivering a well-focused service to clients was, in this way, greatly enhanced.

This is but one example of the proven value of applying the many skills of CT in decision-making not just in the voluntary sector but also in the commercial and public sectors.