If you have been anywhere near a television, Internet video, or newspaper you have been inundated with stories about the debt ceiling and our national debt. Lots of talk, yelling, and finger pointing. And while the economics, the politics, and the humanity of the issue are critically important to our nation, I would like to use this issue as a jumping off point to a broader–and dare I say–more important topic: Critical Thinking.
Critical thinking is constantly called for (in schools, in the workplace, in relationships) but I wonder how critically our thought processes really are. What passes for critical thought many times is little more than narrow agendas that are presented with little or no objective information. Lots of assumptions; minimal fact. And it is not just politics.
We see it (or the lack of it) in doctors’ offices, restaurants, the college campus, and government offices. While we hear that employers want employees who can critically think, at times I wonder if they really do. That is, is there lip service for critical thought–while at the same time demanding that employees stick to a pre-arranged script? Are workers encouraged and rewarded for critically thinking–or are they chastised for thinking on their own?
Social media requires critical thinking. For instance, should you post that photo or not?
Studies like the “Skills and Abilities for the 21st Century: A Workforce Readiness Initiative” (http://www.coedu.usf.edu/zalaquett/workforce/sa.htm) remind us that the workplace requires workers to communicate appropriately, plan efficiently, and effectively problem solve. In short, our students need to be prepared to critically think–not simply spit back isolated facts.
Listen to debates about standardized testing. No matter where you stand on the issue, ask yourself if the tests further critical thinking. If they do, how do you know? If they don’t, how do you know that?
Video recommendation for the week:
Was George Carlin right? How do you know?
Let’s look at five simple steps for the critical thinker.
1. Stop, Breathe, Think. How many times have you had a problem in front of you–and you immediately dove into the problem solving mode? Do you measure first–or cut first? Obviously, some situations require quick response. But we will do much better if we stop, take a breath or two, and then think about the situation at hand. Get rid of the chatter in your mind; focus; begin to engage in purposeful prioritization.
2. Determine Fact Or Fiction. Do you remember the old adage, “When you assume, you make and ass of u and me”? Listen for assumptions that are passed off as fact by others and yourself. Many times what you hear will be little more than personal opinion that is not substantiated by research. Something known as confirmation bias also comes into play. That is, we tend to accept only the information that confirms our existing bias. If we are not aware of this stage, critical thinking can become derailed before it even leaves the station. Don’t be side tracked by distractions.
- · Example. You read a news story about a government official traveling to another city to gather information about the local transit system and downtown revitalization. Do you stop and examine the benefit of such travel, or does the default position become “All government travel is wasteful; nothing more than taxpayer-funded junkets”? My wife and I recently returned from Denver and Boulder. We were amazed at the vibrant downtown areas in both cities. We could not have understood this energy by viewing video or reading reports. Hands-on experience was needed. When we read about an official traveling, we need to check our assumptions against reality.
3. Examine Of What You Have. In this step we move beyond examining fact or fiction. We need to make sure we have all the information need to make a well-informed decision. Are we making a judgment on one or two pieces of information, or do we have lots of information–that we agree with? Are we only looking at information that confirms our biases (see step #2 above)? Are we willing to entertain ideas that differ from our deeply-held beliefs? What else and who else do we need to consult? What obstacles are holding you back? This takes mindful persistence and concentration. Avoid relying on a 30-second sound bite as your basis for decision making.
4. Make A Decision. Once you have separated fact from fiction and have objectively analyzed and evaluated the information presented, you are in a better position to make a decision about what you have before you. If you think about it, this is what learning is all about (or, at least, should be). We have an experience or gain some knowledge and draw a conclusion based on the experience or knowledge. Perhaps what we have learned reinforces our behavior, or maybe we change how we act. In either case, we have made an evaluation that to act or not act a certain way works or does not work for us. We have given the situation critical thought.
5. Plan Your Next Step. Now that you have objectively viewed the information and challenged your own biases and prejudices, you can establish a more reasoned plan. Depending on the situation, you may move into a brainstorming session to problem solve. Or, perhaps you decide that a creativity workshop will help you break through old barriers.
Here are a couple resources you might find helpful:
- · “Critical Thinkers: Think Like a Pro at Work, Home, and Play” http://critical-thinkers.com/category/critical-thinking-primer/
- · “Critical Thinking: Today’s Number One Skill”
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© 2011. Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog.