Developing Thinking Skills

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Critical thinking skills, or thinking skills in general, are sometimes seen as attributes of natural high intelligence; a ‘you either have it or you don’t’ sort of thing. This could not be further from the truth! Even though intelligence is indeed inherited to some extent, just like an ability to grow massive triceps, for example, thinking can be trained. Teaching learners, young or older, to think is what the education system is built on. 

Remember all the times you joked around about trigonometry being useless in ‘real adult life’, or how you expressed doubts as to the need to know the Pythagoras theorem by heart? Teaching one how to think is exactly why trigonometry is taught to everyone, not just students aiming for a career in fields that require advanced mathematics. Every subject trains our brains in a different way in order to create new synapses and connections. Even if you do not specifically need to remember the formulae you had a test on once upon a time, you have been to ‘brain gym’ nevertheless and are better at thinking because of it.


How to train your brain muscles

So, if we consider our brain a muscle and our thinking skills as something worth training, where should one begin? Well, taking inventory, of course! We would like to invite you to reflect on which of the four thinking skills you use most often and which are most foreign to you. If you are a team leader or educator, feel free to do this short exercise in groups. Four types of thinking skills as per The Helpful Professor are: 

  • Convergent Thinking

    Convergent, or analytical, thinking relies on memory recall and logic. You will have used this type of thinking in a time-limited multiple choice test, for example. A convergent thinker would be excellent at speedily retrieving existing knowledge and applying it as needed.

  • Divergent Thinking

    Divergent thinking involves analysing situations, where there is no single correct answer, by deliberating different possibilities. If you’re prone to writing down pros and cons lists and tend to consider each option in depth, you might be an apt divergent thinker.

  • Creative Thinking

    Creative thinking, the driver of human development, involves generating alternative or unusual ways about an established topic. In daily life, this is what we refer to as ‘thinking outside the box’. Children are extremely good at it, but we tend to lose that skill as we grow up, mostly due to the systems in place in society that very clearly establish a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to do things (and, very often, they have proven time and time again to be the most effective ‘rule’ or practice, therefore there is no need to reinvent the wheel). However, new ways of seeing or doing things, that may well become the new orthodoxy, stem from creative thinkers.

  • Critical Thinking

    Critical thinking means one does not take any topic at face value, but analyses before forming a judgement. A critical thinker uses available intellectual knowledge to develop an insight into a topic, using three processes. Deduction involves drawing conclusions based on facts at hand; for example, by basing the logic of why many behave in the way they do and expanding it to why one individual might behave in a similar manner too. Induction means drawing conclusions based on a generalisation, such as previous events, patterns or clues. So, if one person might behave in some way, that would lead to the conclusion that (at least some) others must behave in a similar manner too! Abduction is about coming to the most likely or logical conclusion with a small amount of, or no, information and therefore trying to keep an open mind without forming any patterns too early – making an educated guess without being completely sure, basically.

Now try and rate these thinking skills, on a Likert scale, from 1 to 5, 1 being ‘this is not at all my strength’ and 5 being ‘I was born with ‘X’ thinking skills!’. Where did you score the highest? Where the lowest? Why do you think that is?


The Brain Training Plan

Next, let’s combine a training plan. Below is a list of ways to improve your thinking skills. Take a look and then write down your plan by filling in the blanks as to the frequency and length of your planned training. Make sure to set attainable goals – it’s better to aim low and come through than to aim high and let yourself down.


Useful practices to develop one’s thinking skills are:

  •  Sudoku
  •  Reading a book
  •  Solving a crossword puzzle
  •  Reading long-read news and features
  •  Completing mathematical quizzes or solving mathematical problems
  •  Using brain training apps, such as Peak, Elevate etc.
  •  Playing memory games, such as finding pairs etc.
  •  Solving actual, physical puzzles
  •  Learning a new language
  •  Practising drawing or painting
  •  Taking a course in a college or online in topics that you find very difficult
  •  Analysing one topic on the news each day by using De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats


My Brain’s Gym Plan

I, ________________, do solemnly swear I will improve my _______________ thinking skills by _____________________________ on a/an ______ basis for _____ weeks in a row.


Photo of Maia Klaassen
Maia Klaassen

Maia works as a Development Specialist at the University of Tartu and the main focus of her job, as well as her research, is in the field of information disorders. As research suggests, it is not possible to fight against the destabilising effects of the phenomena without involving media and information literacy. Taking this into account, Maia balances her research with Media and Information Literacy (MIL) projects, both as a project lead and a youth trainer. Her main focus for the coming years will be to find and highlight best-practice MIL training that could be taken from the formal and informal education system, which tend to cater to the young, but also to the whole population. She is currently coordinating the Baltic MIL network, in order to create a multinational hub to fight disinformation. She also heads the Estonian Digital Research Centre, which looks after the interactive information manipulation risk matrix at

Picture of Maria Murumaa-Mengel
Maria Murumaa-Mengel, PhD

Maria Murumaa-Mengel (PhD in Media and Communication) is currently working as an Associate Professor of Media Studies at the Institute of Social Studies, University of Tartu, and as a member of the Baltic Engagement Centre for Combating Information Disorders. She is involved in research primarily focusing on young people’s use (and non-use, ‘going off the grid’) of social media, different literacies (e.g. digital, MIL, social media, porn), and various online risks (e.g. gendered online hate, online shaming, online child sexual abuse and grooming). Maria Murumaa-Mengel’s main strengths lie in teaching and supervising – she is the recipient of the 2020 Estonian National Award for the Teacher of the Year and has supervised several award-winning theses. In regard to digital media literacies, she is a firm believer in the ‘know thyself’ ground rule – it all starts with knowing how we as people process information in the increasingly mediatised and datafied world.