What do we need to bring more of into the world in order to solve the problems of the day? As educators, parents, workers what are the essential qualities that we need to cultivate in ourselves and draw forth from those with whom we interact?

Human life has always been primarily about solving problems. Whether it is gathering food, finding a mate, surviving war or famine, or facing an environmental crisis, problem-solving is the heart of living.

The problems we face now are so complex that we need to develop a way of thinking that can adequately deal with this level of complexity.

Critical thinking is a term that is thrown around a lot. But what does it really mean? If we are to successfully overcome the collective challenges we face, we must learn to become better thinkers. How do we do this?

The heartbeat of critical thinking, writes the critical educator Bell Hooks, is the desire to know; to understand how life works. Thinking is an action, claims Hooks, and thoughts are the laboratories where one goes to pose questions and find answers. Children are natural critical thinkers, coming into the world with a voracious longing for knowledge. To become a critical thinker one must, says Hooks, embrace the power and joy of thinking. Engaged pedagogy is an approach to teaching that seeks to restore the will to think and self-actualise.

Daniel Willingham says critical thinking is about “seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms young ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and conferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth”.

Hooks writes that it is about discovering the who, what, when, where, and how of things – finding answers to the eternal questions of the child. Then it is about using that knowledge in a way that helps you to see what matters most. Figuring out what is significant is central to the capacity for critical thinking, says educationalist David Rader. Meta-cognition or thinking about thinking, mindfully considering ideas, is also an essential component.

Critical thinkers are clear about their purpose; they question information. They seek clarity; to dig down and get to the heart of an issue. This way of thinking seeks to understand and get to the core truth of an issue, rather than being satisfied with superficial explanations. Critical thinking is developed in an interactive process or dialogue between active agents; it is a participatory rather than a spectator sport.

At the core of this practice is what Bell Hooks calls a ‘radical openness’; this means not being attached to any one point of view, hence dismissing other perspectives. On the part of teachers this requires them to admit that they do not know and to let go of the need to be the expert, the one who knows. It takes daring and imagination to practice. A great flexibility is required to go beyond our own perspective, imagine alternatives, and reflect on our own position.