Here’s what most people think critical thinking is. You take on a position, then you develop arguments as to why this viewpoint is the correct one. It’s the stuff of debate, polemics, law and politics. We admire people who can present strong arguments, then defend their positions under withering pressure. Sometimes we elect such supremos to powerful positions. It’s a handy skill, not to be dismissed, often to be admired. But I’ll tell you one thing it isn’t: it’s not critical thinking.

Real critical thinking takes a bit more work.

To be truly critical about a viewpoint, first you need to figure out if it’s wrong. That’s not an easy thing to do, because it goes against our innate mental biases. Our brains are naturally predisposed to taking on positions then finding support for such positions. What critical thinking asks of us is to challenge this mental process head on; finding evidence that suggests it’s not true, or not valid under certain circumstances. From this a more complicated picture can be drawn.

A critical thinker needs to spend time to understand if their position is based on valid or fallacious logic. If you are basing your position on the mere fact that everyone else accepts it, that’s not a great starting point. Neither is it much help if it originates from an emotional feeling or a desire for something to be true rather than bothering to establish if it is true in the first place. There are a ton of pitfalls – logical fallacies – that can trap the unwary thinker.

Or maybe the sources themselves are invalid. A peer-reviewed scientific paper may hold more water than the flatulent utterances of a Daily Mail headline, but even this might require consideration if it’s rowing against other research on the same topic. Many newspapers and websites promote strong political, cultural or religious viewpoints. There may be vested interests involved, whose job it is to muddy the debate. It can be a minefield trying to winnow the grammes of wheat from the tonnes of chaff.

If you do put in the ground work to validate and perhaps adjust the stance you have taken, it’s then when argumentation and debate has a role to play. But even then, you have to be willing to accept that, even at this late stage, you might be wrong. There may be evidence out there that you failed to consider. You need to be open to this possibility.

Going through this process of formulating hypotheses and testing is one of the most valuable skills an education can give us. It’s the basis behind most forms of professional and scientific inquiry and it’s fast becoming a useful tool of business and management. So why aren’t our kids learning more about it in school? Why aren’t they getting any chances to practice it?

So many subjects are presented as just-so facts. The desire to complete the curriculum as expeditiously as possible trumps everything else. Where discussion is permitted, there is little effort to evaluate positions on their merits or to examine our biases and the many flaws of argumentation. Debates are little more than exercises in one-upmanship – opportunities to talk across each other while playing to the audience. Being wrong is something to be avoided at all costs. Our education system is miles from where it needs to be.

We have to find ways to break this cycle. We need to give curiosity, exploration and inwardly directed criticism greater prominence in our educational system. We need to elevate hypothesis formulation, testing and investigatory work, allowing kids to make mistakes as they try to figure out what is right and what is wrong. Instead of telling them the answers, give them the tools to find the answers for themselves.

A real critical thinker has to shroud themselves in doubt, and it’s from doubt that real critical thinkers are born. Our education system has become too enamoured with certainty to give this much consideration. We need to find ways to change this.