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Exploring the nature of an independent thinker, a critical thinker and a dependent thinker

We all feel the need to fit in. But does that prevent us from making decisions for ourselves?

Education gives us knowledge of the world around us and a perspective of looking at life. It helps us form opinions and have different points of view on cultural, historical, social, economic and political aspects of life. Teachers and professors take on a significant role in facilitating this knowledge. As our educators, one of their primary goals is to help us stand on our own two feet as we move through our education, and to help develop the desire and ability to think for ourselves, that is, to be an independent thinker.

As independent thinkers, we want to be able to convince ourselves that the information being presented to us is true or reasonable. We trust our own ability to make judgement, even if they contradict what others may say. This means acting in accordance with our judgments, even if we sometimes make mistakes. As independent thinkers we recognise that it's psychologically better to make our own mistakes than someone else's. What’s important to note, is that independent thinking is not necessarily rational or critical. Mistakes are made and it can be difficult to identify whether the beliefs you hold are truly your own or simply uncritically borrowed.

To take it a step further, a valued and sought-after skill that we individuals are expected to learn, upon nurturing an independent thinker’s mindset, is to also be able to adopt the tool of critically thinking when information is presented to us. This can help us decide whether our old beliefs are sensible, examine new ideas and help us solve problems in reasonable ways. As critical thinkers, we follow through on the process of collecting and processing information in order to arrive at a logical conclusion. Therefore, whilst independent thinking has more to do with the desire to think for oneself, critical thinking is the process used to deal with the information presented.

In stark contrast to the independent thinkers, we have the dependent thinkers. As dependent thinkers we uncritically accept whatever we are taught and rarely question information or ask ourselves if the information presented to us really makes sense. To be clear, independent thinkers feel the need to make sense of the world, based on personal observations and experiences, rather than depending on the thoughts and words of others as observed by dependent thinkers.

By reflecting upon these summaries, despite being distinctly defined concepts in their own right, it’s important to be aware and to be accepting of how we as individuals and societies may drift between the three. Not feeling comfortable with labeling and confining people into categories, I believe that we can all be fluid free-thinkers and that we are not static beings. Therefore, I understand that this exploration, between the traits that accompany each way of thinking, follows a natural pathway of progression as we mature and better educate ourselves.

Educating individuals to be independent thinkers is often seen to cause an element of discomfort. This discomfort manifests itself when we feel challenged to apply our own thinking. I recognise now that this is a feeling we should try not to shy away from. Being a very quiet, polite and reserved individual throughout my years at school and university, I can strongly identify experiencing this feeling of discomfort on multiple occasions. At the time, feeling little confidence and a lot of embarrassment when required to share my own thoughts, I was often left feeling scarred by how I managed my responses or lack of response. However, I trust now that it is discomfort that comes with being an active learner. In order to reach the next level of learning and to encourage a growth mindset, we must learn to think for ourselves. When participating as active learners we are mentally and/or physically engaged with our environment. When we start to look outside the box, ask questions and form our own opinions, we begin to foster the mind of an independent thinker.

Revisiting the question I posed at the beginning - We all feel the need to fit in. But does that prevent us from making decisions for ourselves? I believe that at one time, or for many of us most of the time, we often find ourselves feeling the need to fit in. This is because we are social beings and, as such, we are driven by a profound and inherent need to fit in. Consequently, we are hugely influenced by our societal norms. Conforming and maintaining the status quo, more often than not, presents itself as the accepted ‘norm’ of how we should behave and what we should think. Those deviant thinkers among us, the ‘outliers’, the independent thinkers, are deemed a small minority in today’s societies. Importantly, this does not make their voices any less heard or valid. If anything, going back to the fundamental role of our educators in encouraging independent and critical thinkers, I believe that this is something for humanity to celebrate.

If we cannot or will not accept and/or listen to the opinions of others when they differ to our own and if we find ourselves in a society where conforming is praised, regardless of whether it is deemed as the right thing to do or not, it makes me wonder how far we have veered away from our right to be free-thinkers, and to want to protest for that right when it is taken away from us without fair and just reason.

I would like to live in a society where individuals can learn to live harmoniously together. This does not mean that we cannot make our own decisions, but that we should be able to do so without the risk of being scorned from our societies. I know what type of thinker I aspire to be – I wonder which sits comfortably with you?

Quotation by Benjamin Franklin.

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