Critical thinking

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Engineer-it main page

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The Foundation for critical thinking


The discipline of critical thinking An IES strategy report

Barr.M Experiences of a critical thinking approach in engineering practice A 3-page IES Journal paper

Lucas B, Hanson J and Claxton G, Thinking like an engineer, Implications for the education system, Royal Academy of Engineering, 2014.

Case Studies

Manufacturing robot cranes (page 27) A manufacturer uses critical thinking

Inventing a bionic hand (page 39)

Athena, godess of wisdom
The Wikipedia defintion of critical thinking is: 'the analysis of facts to form a judgment'. A complementary definition is: 'the use of guiding principles that support the achievement of good outcomes'.

Ethos is defined as ‘the principles and attitudes that are associated with a particular type of activity’. Critical thinking can therefore be viewed as the ethos used for managing complex uncertainty.

Critical thinkers constantly seek to identify and use principles that will lead to success.

Guiding principles

Here are some guiding principles used by critical thinkers:


  • Adopt a refelective ethos: question, review, consult, challenge, be challenged, expect to be challenged, be sceptical about all information; avoid preconceptions and bias.
  • Proposals for action should be thorougly tested before they are accepted.
  • Use intuition but never trust it.
  • Validate processses, verify procedure outcomes
  • Use logic and evidence to the limits of their potential to make well-informed judgements.
  • Use, where appropriate, the Engineer-it strategies
  • Think for yourself but not by yourself.
  • Adopt a system approach: consider the system as a whole as well as its parts.
  • Adopt a holistic approach: take account of all relevant issues.
  • Learn from successes and from failures.
  • If a feature can be quantified, quantify it: use predictive models, use data.
  • Monitor the results of actions and compare the actual outcomes with the intended outcomes.
  • When working with standards, seek to identify and address issues that are not covered by the standards.
  • Constantly seek to improve products and processes.

Seek to:

  • embrace integrity without question: honest, trustworthy, reliable
  • be humble, listen to other views and be prepared to change your mind.
  • be open, friendly, respectful
  • be committed
  • be collaborative, inclusive
  • be dispassionate about outcomes

Avoid being:

  • autocratic
  • deferential

Proposal testing

An appropriate amount of resouce should be allocated to testing of proposals for action. The amount of resource should be proportional to level of risk of negative outcomes.

Before accepting a proposal it should be tested:

  • taking account of all requirements, both objectives and constraints, addressing the complexity
  • against other proposals
  • using the most appropriate testing methods for the context
  • by a multidisciplinary team, if that is needed
  • by being open-minded, sceptical, not relying on intuition, avoiding bias
  • using reliable evidence and logic to the limits of their potential

Learning for critical thinking

The development of good habits should start as early as practical. That learning for critial thinking should start in primary school and be addressed continuously in education is becoming recognised. Critical thinking should be treated as a discipline in education i.e. as a branch of learning - see Section 4 (page 10) of the Discipline for critical thinking paper.

However, you cannot rely on being coached to be a critical thinker. People need to discipline their minds to develop critical thinking skills, Strategies for doing this include:

  • Be a student of crtitical thinking. Collect guiding principles. Write them down,memorise and use them.
  • Watch how other people operate and identify the principles that guide them to be successful. Discuss the issues with them. Add their good ideas to your list of principles.
  • Read about contexts where critical thinking was needed to identify principles
  • Identify the reasons for people to be unsuccessful. Actively avoid copying them.
  • Remember that some guiding principles are context specific. You are not using a set of fixed rules that result in success. You need to use critical thinking about your critical thinking strategies.
  • If you have a leadership role, work with your colleagues to develop the principles under which the team will operate.