What’s the Difference Between Critical Thinking Skills and Problem-Solving Skills? | exSTEMsions

What’s the Difference Between Critical Thinking Skills and Problem-Solving Skills?

Critical thinking vs. problem solving: the definitions

I was recently chatting with a colleague about the kinds of skills kids need to develop to be successful on the job, and in life. I started running down a list, and she said something along the lines of, “Well, critical thinking and problem solving… they’re the same thing right?”  That’s a really interesting question! For my colleague, “critical thinking” and “problem solving” are just phrases that are out there, somehow related to learning. And just like with anything else in life, when you haven’t had a reason to investigate them deeply, they might just be ideas that seem to mean something vaguely similar… but what do these ideas really mean?

First, let’s start with some basic definitions. Critical thinking, according to dictionary.com, is “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded and informed by evidence.” Well, that certainly sounds like something I want my kids to be proficient in! According to Merriam-Webster, problem solving is “the process or act of finding a solution to a problem”, and there’s another no-brainer, definitely something I want to instill in my children.  Can we move from these definitions to a real understanding of the differences between these two skill sets?

Looking deeper: what skills are involved in critical thinking?

We’ve looked up definitions for critical thinking and problem solving, but these definitions don’t tell us anything about the skills that are involved in each.  For instance, what exactly do my kids need to be able to do in order to think critically? Critical thinking skills are habits of mind that help us be more thoughtful, rational, creative, and curious.  Critical thinking can involve collecting information, organizing what we collect, analyzing and evaluating the information we have, making connections between different ideas, understanding what’s relevant and what isn’t, and so much more.  All of this gives us a basis on which an informed decision can be made.

But when do we make decisions?  When we’re confronted with a task, challenge, or problem.  Indeed, we apply critical thinking when we are faced with a problem that demands we apply some of those skills.  Critical thinking skills are general plans of attack, applicable to a wide array of problems!

Looking deeper: what skills are involved in problem solving?

So now we’ve discovered something interesting: critical thinking skills are problem solving skills!  And if you think about it, any critical thinking skill could conceivably be applied to finding the solution to some kind of problem.  (In fact, it's hard to define critical thinking skills and not make them about problem solving in some way!)  So, every critical thinking skill is a problem-solving skill.

Does that mean that every problem-solving skill is also a critical thinking skill? Actually, no.  For starters, there are lots of skills that help us solve problems, but are not thinking skills!  For example, brute strength is a body skill that is also a problem-solving skill.  (But probably much of the time, you need to figure out how to use that strength, say, so you don't unnecessarily break your best friend’s TV when helping her move to a new home; critical thinking skills to the rescue!)

There are also problem-solving skills that are thinking skills, but just not critical thinking skills.  For example, people with  “emotional intelligence” can soothe tempers, read other people, and help move ideas forward in contexts that have nothing to do with problem solving.  Skills of persuasion and oration are thinking skills, but they don't necessarily have to be critical thinking skills.  

There are even problem-solving skills that are the complete opposite of critical thinking, like following directions, and mechanical and rote thinking.  For example, learning the steps for solving a linear equation allows you to solve linear equations like a machine, no critical thinking required. However, rote thinking without critical thinking can be dangerous; you don't necessarily want to follow rules without checking that those rules make sense!

Critical thinking and problem solving: sometimes different, sometimes the same

We know that critical thinking skills are fundamental to problem-solving.  And we know that there are other skills that help us solve problems, skills that aren’t critical thinking skills.  Problem solving involves a wide array of techniques and attacks, some of which fall under critical thinking, and some which don’t.  Aspects of critical thinking and problem solving can be different, or the same, but both sets of skills are incredibly important for all kids to have. There isn’t a skill we’ve talked about here where I think “Well, my kiddo could probably live without being able to do that….” Critical thinking is the foundation that allows us to tackle challenges of all kinds, supplemented by other problem-solving skills as needed.  We want our kids to have all of these skills at their fingertips, so they can solve problems effectively, using strong evidence, logical thinking, and clear reasoning. All are vital ingredients to a successful and happy grown-up life!

Find this post useful? Follow the blog using the link at the top of the page to get notified when new posts appear! 

Want awesome tips and a mini-challenge, all designed to help you build vital problem-solving and critical thinking skills in your child?  Click here to sign up for our monthly newsletter!

Habits of Mind
Learning with Children