Over the next few days, I plan to blog on a variety of theories I’ve developed that explain why it’s so difficult for young people to step up into leadership roles today. I plan to offer a diagnosis and a prescription for each notion. Yesterday, I observed a paradox in young people that triggered my first theory. Today, I have another one.
Consensus Thinking vs. Critical Thinking
One of the chief reasons it is difficult for young people to assume leadership roles is that they’ve been conditioned to gain consensus on almost everything. I know teens that won’t make a move until they check with friends on Facebook. College deans have told me a new trend is that students will only sign up to take leadership positions if they can do it “with their friends.” They don’t want the responsibility of doing anything on their own. They have always worked on teams; they have played sports where everyone gets a trophy; they are told to fit in and accept everything including mediocrity.
Much of this is not bad; in fact a lot of it was well-intentioned. The unintended consequences are, however, that many don’t want to stand out and take a risk. They just want to fit in and make sure everyone is happy with their decisions. When they aren’t sure about something, their first response is to check and see what friends think. Unfortunately, many don’t think on their own.
The Art of Critical Thinking
This is almost a lost art. Most parents and teachers fail to do it. Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t simply teach me WHAT to think, they taught me HOW to think.
They passed on their values in such a way, that I had a clear grid from which to make wise decisions, to evaluate leaders over me and society around me. Today, long after I’ve left the home belonging to my great parents, I still use that grid. I face new situations every day that I cannot ask them about—but I don’t have to. I know how to think critically and objectively. My folks didn’t just “give me a fish” so I could eat for the day. They “taught me to fish” so I could eat for a lifetime.
I don’t see this too often today. We are too busy with our careers, or payments, or golf games or whatever. But this may be the most important task we have. May I suggest a few action steps for you to take with your young people?
- Process everything that happens. When you see a movie, hear a news report, or listen to a song, talk it over. Debrief its meaning, and the worldview of the people involved.
- Plan meaningful experiences together. Don’t simply go to ballgames (though I love ballgames) but feed the homeless in a soup kitchen or travel to another country and absorb it together.
- Ask lots of questions. When your young person tells you what they did, enjoy the story, but eventually (without sounding like a professor) ask them their opinion about what happened.
- Share principles you’ve picked up in your past. At the right time, in those teachable moments, pass along a nugget, a quip or a little phrase you’ve used to keep you on track. You’ll be surprise how they remember it.
- Build problem-solving skills. A teacher I know has her students write down problems around the world that trouble them on a slip of paper, and fill a jar in her college class with those slips. Then, whenever they get the work done and have some extra time—they can pull out one of those slips of paper and brainstorm what could be done to solve that problem. Students build problem-solving habits and thinking about solutions instead of excuses and complaints.
I read recently that 70% of Americans do no thinking for themselves. They simply parrot what the commercials tell them, what their friends tell them or what Oprah tells them. How about we start a quiet movement with our kids? Here’s to a new initiative where we, adults, teach the next generation how to think for themselves.
Our goal? To teach our students the art of critical thinking.