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Stay curious! Three steps to activate your critical thinking

“Critical thinking is thinking that analyzes thought, that assesses thought, and that transforms thought for the better.”

- Richard Paul, Foundation for Critical Thinking

A women holding a pencil close to her head in deep thought while working in front of a computer.

As I read the above definition from a leader in the field of critical thinking, I find my focus is drawn to the goal of making thinking better — something that’s relevant to my own thinking and its impacts in my life, my work, my community, and really, everywhere.  

As I’ve led workshops on this topic over the years, each time I’m reminded that it’s not a one-time activity; it’s a habit that I can always work on. For me, that habit is captured by curiosity, something all of us humans are hard-wired to do, so you can, too! Today, I’ll share some details and then a three-step tool that you can use to stay curious and activate your critical thinking.

Let’s break down what’s in the quote by Richard Paul. First, it’s thinking that analyzes thought. Analysis also means to examine, explore, and probe — all activities that tap our curiosity and ask us to pause to review what we’re thinking. We might ask: What did I say there? How did I come to that? What assumptions am I making?

This pause to analyze includes not only our thoughts in the "idea" sense of the word but also our feelings. Emotions can be important clues to our thinking and our response to others as well. The pause itself can be powerful in that it gets us to look before we leap or to at least notice where we’re leaping.

Next, Paul’s definition says we need to assess our thoughts.  Here we’re moving to evaluate and make a judgement about the quality of our thinking. We could just ask ourselves if our thinking is good or bad, but that doesn’t give us any specifics that we can work on. Instead, a series of questions can help us kindle our curiosity and explore some depth.  What if we ask: 

  • Is it clear and precise? 
  • Is it accurate?
  • Does it raise vital questions and issues? 
  • Does it follow the evidence?
  • Does it reflect complex realities? 
  • Is it fair to other relevant viewpoints?  

Essentially, through these questions, we give our thinking a more thorough review and assessment so that we can frame what’s working well and what might be improved. Instead of a good/bad, we get a “to what extent” and some potential for strengthening. And what applies to assessing our own thinking can apply to others’ thinking, too, whether we voice it out loud or in our own minds.

Finally, we come to transforming our thinking. Here, we can take our analysis and assessment to choose where to improve our thinking. We may find we are finding the issue to be more complex than we first thought. Maybe we learn that our ideas have consequences we don’t actually want. Whatever we determine, we use what we learn to choose what we’re going to do about it — to take action to make our thoughts and actions better.

Again, this can apply to what we hear from others — what do we choose to do in response to others’ ideas and approaches? Do we choose to follow? Do we offer an alternative and lead in another direction? Making choices highlights our power to influence better thinking and action that benefits our own lives, as well as those of others in our communities.

This brings us to the three-step tool that summarizes this approach.  Shared by a colleague years ago, I’ve found it helpful in both quick moments and when I need more depth. It’s called the P.F.C. Drill, which stands for pause, frame, and choose.


  • Stop
  • Don't act or react
  • Take a breath
  • Observe how you are feeling
Arrow pointing down from pause, the first step in the process, to the next step.


  • What are my assumptions?
  • What objective data support and/or challenge my assumptions?
  • What are other possible interpretations?
Arrow pointing down from frame, the second step in the process, to the next step.


  • What are my options?
  • Of the options, what seems best — based on the facts and long-term interests?
  • Choose an option and follow through
Arrow pointing down from choose, the last step in the process.
Compiled by Boyce, K. (2010). University of Minnesota Extension. Sources: Wilson, L., & Wilson, H. (1998), Terry, R. (2001), Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2002), Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). 

When we pause, frame, and then choose, we give ourselves a chance to use that hard-wired curiosity to analyze, assess, and transform our thinking to improve it. That has great potential for our lives, our work, and our communities.

Three steps, easy to remember, and over time, strengthen the habit of critical thinking.  What a great reward for staying curious!

Author: Lisa Hinz, Extension educator, leadership and civic engagement

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