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Five Steps to Teach Students to be Critical Thinkers

I will never forget a conversation I had with a college student a few years ago. She was a sophomore, majoring in psychology. In our conversation, she was buzzing about a news story she’d just read and passed on to friends. Evidently, a cat and a dog had mated and given birth to a hybrid cat/dog. I’m not sure if they called it a kitten or puppy. Maybe it was a “pitten” or a “kuppy.”

Whatever the case, she had no idea the story was fake news. Biologically speaking it is impossible for these two species to give birth to a hybrid breed. It turns out this fake story has cycled through cyberspace for years, complete with a photo-shopped picture of the animal. It’s all made up. This student, however, was so ecstatic she got to share the news, she didn’t take the time to check out the facts. In her passion to get the story out, she didn’t ensure she got the story straight. It’s common. It’s human.

We are often emotional more than rational beings.

The truth is, critical thinking is a skillset that university faculty are begging for in students today. For that matter, so are employers. Simply defined, critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.

Why Is This a Vital Issue Today?

photo credit: francisco_osorio University Life 143 via photopin (license)

In January 2016, the World Economic Forum issued a report entitled “The Future of Jobs.” It states: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine-learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3-D printing, and genetics and biotechnology, will cause widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labor markets over the next five years, with enormous change predicted in the skill sets needed to thrive in the new landscape.” In fact, in 2015, critical thinking was listed as the number four skill graduates need in the workplace. In 2020, it will be number two, right behind complex problem-solving skills. In the upcoming “smart world” we will need to think critically. It is rated as the number one skill of increasing importance over the next five years. Sadly, according to CriticalThinking.org, studies of higher education demonstrate three disturbing facts:

  • Most college faculty at all levels lack a substantive concept of critical thinking.
  • Most college faculty don’t realize they lack this skill, assuming they sufficiently understand it and that they’re already teaching it to students.
  • Lecture, rote memorization, short-term study habits are still the norm in college instruction and learning today.

With this in mind, we still face formidable gaps between today’s classroom and career-ready graduates who demonstrate critical thinking skills. 

What’s the Enemy of Critical Thinking Today?

So what is the chief culprit of our waning critical thinking skills? It seems I find educators, coaches and employers talking about the need for it all the time.

What exactly is preventing critical thinking from prevailing in our everyday life?

In my humble opinion, it is social media.

It was recently discovered that Facebook was used by Russian hackers as a platform for hate speech and fake news. Somewhere between 3-20 million Facebook users were affected. And we all know once something is posted that elicits emotion, it can blow up with comments and go viral in days. Let’s face it:

  • Social media users know: If it’s outrageous, it’s contagious.
  • Journalists know: If it bleeds, it leads.

Almost two-thirds of Americans agree that taking a break from portable devices (i.e. social media) is good for our mental health, but less than 30 percent actually do so. Many of us (both students and adults) are addicted to it. As I mentioned before—we are human. In our resistance to boredom, we actually look for sensational news. And in a world riddled with impetuous behavior, we pass it on rather than think it over.

We’d rather react than reflect.

So, What Are Some Realistic New Habits to Cultivate Critical Thinking?

As you cultivate critical thinking skills in yourself and in your students, this simple list below may be a good place to start. It won’t be a magic wand for you, but it will get both you and your young people moving in the right direction.

1. Always confirm the information with more than one source.

Everyone knows this is important, but frequently we fail to take the time to do it. If some information or news story can only be found in one place, go deeper. Question the details and inquire if it’s really legitimate, especially if it seems farfetched. Real facts usually can be substantiated by multiple sources.

2. Always work to see the opposite side of the issue.

It’s usually helpful to avoid “group think.” Too often, we just agree with everyone around us and fail to take control of our own thinking. It’s always wise to step into the shoes of the person who holds a different view and see it from his or her angle. This is closely tied to metacognition—thinking about your thinking. I have found I can be more objective if I take a few minutes and look at the issue from the other person’s perspective, and sometimes I even take a contrarian viewpoint to both angles.

3. Always take the time to evaluate the details and their logic.

Consider this analogy. When shopping for new clothes, you go into a dressing room and try it on for size. How many times do you turn around and look at all three mirrors they provide for you to see yourself? Lots of times. You want to see what you look like from different angles. This is how we should handle new issues.

4. Always try to detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning.

Henry Ford once said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it.” When “fake news” breaks onto your phone screen, ask yourself if there is any faulty reasoning or even lack of reasoning behind the story. See if you can spot mistakes or inconsistencies in the flow of thought.

5. Always ask hard questions, including why, how, and who?

Do you remember the last time you watched a movie with 3-D Glasses? Those spectacles enable you to see dimensions on the screen (three of them to be exact) that you can’t see in a regular two-dimensional film. Similarly, ask three types of questions about new information. For example: Why is this information important? How will it affect people? Who stands to gain from it?

I recently asked myself a question before speaking at a parent event: What if people had to pass a test before they became parents? What 5-7 questions should be on that test? These kinds of questions led to a great discussion at the conference, and it gave me a great starting point to address the audience. It just required a little extra thinking.


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  • Bill Mann

    Good writeup. I recently did a post entitled Dumb and Dumber which quoted the founder of Twitter as saying that social media platforms (including his which is limited to 140 characters) are helping to “dumb the entire world down” and “undermine our sense of truth.” He goes on to say that the limited “quality of the information we consume […] is reinforcing dangerous beliefs and isolating people and limiting peoples open- mindedness and respect for truth.” That’s a very dangerous and slippery slope.

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