Ph.D. Thinking

In order to tie my two most recent articles about The Science of Learning together (Why we Learn, and Connections to Long-Term Memory), I’m going to talk about critical thinking (again), and how it is related to increased education.

Critical thinking has two primary purposes, to solve problems, and to better align our internal representation of reality with the physical reality of the world using concrete evidence.

I define critical thinking as a combination of the definitions used by Halpern and Willingham, along with a bit of my own understanding:

The use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome and the ability to see both sides of an issue. To be a critical thinker, you must be open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, be able to reason dispassionately, demand that claims be backed by good evidence, be able to deduce and infer conclusions from available facts, and solve problems through the use of the afore mentioned abilities.
This definition encompasses both of the primary purposes I outlined above, solving problems, and better aligning our internal representation of reality with the physical reality of the world using concrete evidence.

I read recently that 99% (virtually all) of the teachers and professors list critical thinking as one of the most important outcomes of a higher education qualification, and yet, according to Arum and Roska, 40% of our students show no improvement in critical thinking from the time they enter until the time they leave higher education. Another 50% demonstrate some ability to use critical thinking skills, but because of the problem of transference (the topic of another article), the critical thinking skills that they acquire are context-dependent, meaning that they are only available within the context or subject within which they are learned. Only about 10% of the students emerge from a higher education facility with the ability to regularly use critical thinking skills across a wide range of settings and contexts.

The core components of critical thinking are: planning, flexible cognition, willingness to self-correct, activation and persistence, attentive thinking, and the ability to reach consensus. The primary roadblock to critical thinking is the unwillingness to engage in the process. Unfortunate when this is the process that we need to engage in for us to reconstruct our internal representation of reality in order to understand the world better.

If you look at the list of attributes that a person must develop in order to engage in critical thinking, what you see is a list of difficult things to do. Planning our thinking is tedious and unexciting. The ability to be open and consider new ideas and carefully weigh the evidence behind these new ideas is awkward. In order to self-correct, we have to be willing to admit to ourselves that we might be mistaken in the way we think about something – very uncomfortable. In order to reconstruct our internal reality to better align with physical reality, we have to be willing to begin the process and then keep working at it until the process is complete – an equally tedious task. All of us know that attentive focus over any length of time is just plain hard work. And, in a world of increasingly polarized and non-compromising thinking, do we even value consensus seeking?

So, where do we stand? These abilities not only have to be taught, but fostered over time in order for them to become embedded as the way we think. As our education becomes more focused, from a Bachelors to a Ph.D., our ability to think critically becomes increasingly focused and more difficult to use in other contexts. And, because of our prestigious and vaunted education, we are less willing to engage in a number of the necessary steps outside of our area of expertise.

To the educated, open-mindedness has come to mean hearing something from a trusted source. Most of us don’t really engage in critical thinking outside our own area of expertise. Our internal representation of reality is good enough and we have more important things to use our mental energies on than to think through the veracity of information that arrives from a perceived trusted source, even if something that we are closely associated with is non-optimal.

As a result, oftentimes the more educated we are, the more close-minded we become.

Somehow, we have to engage. Somehow, we have to change. Somehow, we have to decide to become a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem.

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