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Critical Thinking and Writing: Problem Solving

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

One important application of critical thinking is solving problems, which is a key skill at most workplaces. UK universities commit to prepare students for their work life, and encourage students not only to gain knowledge, but to learn how to use it. 

Types of Problems

Problems can be divided into well-structured and ill-structured problems.

Well-structured problems have right answers, for example mathematical problems that can be solved with deduction.

Ill-structured problems have "best/better solutions", which need to be justified with evidence and argumentation. 

All types of problems need critical thinking to be solved. 


Looking for an algorithm to solve problems? You can try use the Six Steps to Effective Thinking and Problem Solving, or “IDEALS” (Facione, 2007 cited in Snyder and Snyder 2008, p96): 

I - Identify the Problem: What is the real question we are facing?

D - Define the Context: What are the facts that frame this problem?

E - Enumerate the Choices: What are plausible options?

A - Analyze Options: What is the best course of action?

L - List Reasons Explicitly: Why is this the best course of action?

S - Self-Correct: Look at it again … What did we miss? 

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Try solving the following problem: 

Thinking, fast and slow

This problem illustrates the point that problems need to be solved with critical thinking. Only very simple problems can be solved with intuition. 

Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahnemann maintains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, that there are two systems in our mind: System 1, which operates automatically and quickly, and System 2, which allocates attention to effortful mental activities. All too often System 1 takes initiative when it really should be System 2 to intervene. Unless the situation we are facing requires nothing but our intuition, we should try to use System 2, thinking "slowly" and carefully. 

“Those who avoid the sin of intellectual sloth could be called ‘engaged’. They are more alert, more intellectually active, less willing to be satisfied with superficially attractive answers, more skeptical about their intuitions” (Kahnemann, 2011, p.46).