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January 18, 2011

"Study:" American College Students No Damn Good at Critical Thinking

I had this as an update to the last post but I figure it will be lost there and I am keen on this point so I'll give it its own post.

Study: American college students not trained to think critically.

Do you believe that critical thinking can really be directly taught? I sort of don't. I think someone who reads a lot and thinks a lot will tend to pick up on it. You can teach logical fallacies and such to get people's brains oriented in that direction, but ultimately I think critical thinking evolves, innately, from simply thinking, and thinking evolves, innately, from reading and doing those dreaded "rote memorization" times tables.

Education is turning more and more from the fundamentals, and towards higher-level sorts of thinking, but it winds up doing neither well, because the former can be taught but they're de-emphasizing it, and the latter largely cannot be taught, except indirectly by teaching the former, which they're not doing.

I don't know where other people learned to think, but I know where my own thinking boot-camp was: In Geometry (proofs) and Computer Science. That kind of tight, puzzly logic (where, in the end, there wasn't any guessing -- when you were right, you knew you were right, and could self-evaluate accordingly) really started me thinking, about a lot of stuff. It's not that I have any use for those subjects per se at this point (or at any other point in my life, really), but the sort of hard-thinking tough logic problems they presented me started my brain looking at other stuff similarly.

I do believe that, basically. That when a kid says "Well I won't use algebra when I'm 30" he's so wrong it hurts. First of all, pretty much anyone needs the basics of algebra. But second of all, it's not really algebra per se that it's important -- it's the ability to deal with tough, abstract problems, break them up into smaller pieces, attack each piece using what you know to solve those smaller, more manageable problems, casting about for some clever way of solving what's left, then reassembling everything together for a final answer.

I mean, that's critical thinking. That's -- that's life, actually. And you learn this stuff not by direct lessons, really, not by a teacher giving you a checklist of "First, look at the problem. Second, break the problem down into more manageable pieces, Third..." That, in fact, just turns "critical thinking" into a new exercise in the dreaded "rote memorization" category.

No, you learn by doing. You learn without really appreciating you're learning, or what you're learning. When you're doing alegebra (or, for me, Geometric Proofs), you're learning the skills of deduction, induction, analysis and synthesis without really realizing that you're doing anything other than proving that Side B must be larger than Side C.

That's how the abstract idea of "critical thinking" gets taught -- not by some airy discussion of what critical thinking is, but by getting one's hands dirty-- or rather, getting one's brain dirty -- by wrestling with smaller puzzles with set rules and axioms and such.

I don't get why educators don't understand what everyone else does. If you want high-level performance in anything, you don't begin by teaching high-level performance; you teach the fundamentals, and once the fundamentals are mastered, then and only then do you move on.

Every supposedly "stupid" football player knows this. Why don't educators?

Know Your Limitations: There is an advantage to having teachers teach just the basics, too. Teacher quality is highly variable, and tends to be low-ish. But even lower-skill teachers can successfully teach something like the times tables, or, with enough homework on their own, geometric proofs.

It's like McDonalds -- the kids in the back are not chefs employing improvisation and art to make a burger. They are going by set, strict recipes and rules, because that's as much as McDonalds trusts them.

That's about the extent I trust most teachers. I really don't want them improvising or following their own muses because I simply do not think they have the talent to do that. Some do; most don't. And incompetent people tend to be so incompetent that they fail to recognize their incompetence, so the most that that don't will mistake themselves for the some that do.

I'd like teachers teaching something that we know can be taught to kids, and, even more importantly, something we know can be taught to the teachers themselves.

I do not believe we can teach teachers to think critically, so I don't see how on earth one cadre of people untrained in thinking critically is going to teach a skill they don't necessarily abound in to another cadre.

I do trust them to diagram sentences and such. So let them teach what they can teach.

By the Way: I wasn't particularly good at Geometry or Comp Sci. I struggled with them (but in the end did okay at them). Maybe that's what made them such important subjects in my own education. They were both out of my comfort zone (and remain so). They didn't come easy. I had to sweat them.

For other people, maybe calculus was the Big Teacher. Not for me. By the time I hit calculus it was becoming obvious to me I was not a natural mathematician and I was just flailing about to keep from drowning that I don't know that I really learned a great deal from it. I needed easier mathematical subjects to learn from; calculus was just a big exercise (for me) in futility and learning one's, ahem, limits.

"The Hidden Curriculum:" Waterhouse tells me there's a great term for what I'm talking about.

While I was getting my engineering degree, they called this the "hidden curriculum"; even if you never used, say, your calculus or thermo equations again at whatever job you ended up with, the methodology and thought processes you used was actually surprisingly applicable in many other areas.

Speaking of... When I was young, the best teaching book I read was Winning Chess: How To See Three Moves Ahead. Out of print now, but it was like Geometry in that it was hard, sorta, but manageably so; once you got the basics down the puzzles were fun, and doable. And you knew when you were right -- looking it up in the back was just confirmation and validation.

This guy wrote a book (which I didn't read, it just turned up in the Amazon search) applying the three-moves-ahead thing to business.

Just from that chess book, you pick up a little somethin'-somethin' about life. The thesis is that you always attack (when possible); you always make forcing moves, moves your opponent must react to. The reason is to keep him off-balance, of course, but more specifically, it's because that's the only way to predict his moves. When you make a forcing move, he will only have two or three plausible options; and thus, having severely limited the range of possible moves on his part, you can then plan your next move, and his likely response to it (again, only one or two or three possible reactions) and your next best move, and then his next best move. The attack, the provocation, the threat limits the universe from chess' famous "millions of possible moves" down to a much more manageable one or two or three.

Obviously this has a lot of applicability in a lot of fields. For me, I guess the use I get out of it is the idea of controlling the conversation and forcing an opponent to answer a difficult question. Stick an opponent with a tough question and you can calculate his next likely response (and begin crafting your answer to his likely response before he makes it).

Anyway, my point is that learning practically anything that's abstract and tough will also wind up advancing the hidden curriculum Waterhouse mentioned. I really do not think the right way to go is to have a new course on "Critical Thinking."

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posted by Ace at 12:36 PM

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