By Jeff Van Pelt
Common sense is not so common, to borrow a quote from Voltaire. Critical thinking, to use a more technical term, seems to be on the wane in the world. From Donald Trump’s lack of concern about, and failed response to, the coronavirus, to other governments’ heavy-handed, knee-jerk responses to it, we are left scratching our heads and saying, “What were they thinking?”
This is my definition of critical thinking:
When analyzing a situation in order to decide on a plan of action, you think through the likely results of each possible choice, and then you think several steps ahead about the possible subsequent results of each choice, much like in a game of chess. You take into consideration all available credible data. You might consult others. But you don’t act on first impulse, or second or third.
Following are some examples of a lack of critical thinking, first comical and then more ominous.
One Christmas we wanted roast pork for dinner, so my wife went to a sanduche de pernil shop, which sells roast pork sandwiches. They had a nice big pork roast on the counter. She asked to buy just a pound of pork (pounds are often used here instead of kilos when buying food). The employee told her that they don’t sell pork, only pork sandwiches. So, my wife asked for six sandwiches with the bread in a separate bag. A few weeks later I went back to that store and they had a sign over the counter saying, “pork x dollars per pound.”
Just last April we were stranded in Buenos Aires because Ecuador had closed its borders due to Covid. We were in quarantine there but were allowed to go out for food. I passed a pizzeria that had the door roped off and chairs on the tables, but they were making pizzas fast and furiously. A sign said delivery only. I asked for a pizza to take away. He said they only do delivery. I was tempted to say, “Okay, I’ll be across the street waiting for my delivery,” but instead he lost my business.
I snapped the accompanying photo in the bathroom in a museum because it amused me. I jokingly say they are toilets for close friends.
Once when I was tutoring elementary school students, a student showed me her homework assignment. It was to blacken in with a pencil every other line on a sheet of lined notebook paper.
Now for some more consequential examples.
First, the election of Donald Trump was a signal event, a clear failure of critical thinking for a near majority of the electorate, and some would include the people who didn’t vote or voted for a third candidate who had no chance of winning.
Moving on, there was the time when President Trump said that Californians could prevent forest fires by raking leaves. More recently, he claimed that ingesting disinfectant could kill coronavirus.
But there are so many examples from Donald Trump’s performance that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, so I’ll leave it there.
Many evangelical preachers in the U.S. have told their gullible flocks that God sent AIDS, a hurricane, or Covid to smite us for (fill in your current favorite prejudice).
U.S. senators have proposed that global warming and the rising oceans are due to increased body heat because of population growth, and to rocks falling into the sea.
There is no shortage of naive people willing to pay for some unproven “alternative treatment,” ranging from caffeine enemas to “bad memory removal.”
Then there are all the anti-science, anti-intellectual, fake news, and conspiracy theories, on social media. My motto is if it sounds too stupid to be true, it probably is, so fact check it, and while you’re at it investigate the credibility of the site that published it.
An example of the failure of critical thinking in the age of Covid is certain government regulations that were intended to stop the spread of the virus but accomplish nothing more than wasting time and inconveniencing people, or worse, hurting their livelihoods and the economy. (Just to be clear, I support practices recommended by the experts, such as social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding gatherings of people, washing hands, and using sanitizer.)
But this article is about the concept of critical thinking, not a critique of government policies, so I will not go into specifics.
How can we get more critical thinking in the world?
“Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal.” –Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Teaching critical thinking must start in elementary school – or sooner. Having children just read, memorize, and spit back information on a test, or worse, copy facts from a book into a notebook, does not help them develop intelligence, wisdom, judgment, or maturity.
When I was in the fourth grade, I had the assignment to write a paper about ancient Greece. I copied reams of text from the World Book Encyclopedia, and I got an A+. To this day I’m fascinated with ancient Greece, but it didn’t teach me anything about critical thinking. Authoritarian governments like it that way.
Following are some strategies for teachers to develop their students’ critical thinking skills (adapted from Waldenu.edu/online).
Ask questions. Asking questions, especially open-ended questions, makes students think and gives them a chance to apply what they have learned and build on prior knowledge. It allows them to problem-solve and think on their feet, and boosts self-esteem by providing an opportunity for students to express themselves in front of their peers. Spend as much time asking questions as you do presenting information.
Encourage decision-making. Since a large part of critical thinking skills revolves around applying knowledge and evaluating solutions, elementary school teachers should give students the opportunity to decide things as much as possible. This enables them to apply what they have learned to different situations, weigh the pros and cons of a variety of solutions, then decide which ideas work best.
Work in groups. Group projects and discussions involve active, cooperative learning. This not only exposes students to the thought processes of their classmates, it expands their thinking and worldview by teaching them to communicate and come to a consensus, and they learn that there is no one right way to approach a problem.
Inspire creativity. Imagination and brainstorming different courses of action are important in learning to think critically. Teachers should seek out ways for students to use old information to create new ideas. Art projects, writing a story or poem, creating a game, and solving brain teasers are a few ways to do this.
Examples of exercises and practices that teach critical thinking
Teach the habit of paying attention to detail, as it is a prerequisite for critical thinking.
Hand students a sheet of paper on which you have written the following at the top of the page: Important: read the entire paper before you begin to answer the questions. Then have a list of questions for them to answer, pertaining to a recent lesson topic, or anything you like, as the subject is not relevant. At the bottom of the page, write the following: I just wanted you to think about these questions. You don’t have to answer them. Please be quiet until everyone has finished the assignment. Then lead a discussion about the importance of paying attention to details in everything you do. Ask for some examples where a failure to do so could lead to problems.
You can also make this exercise amusing. Start with the same statement, but instead of test questions tell them funny things to do, such as stand in your chair and sing the Star-Spangled Banner, or moo like a cow. At the end write, Ignore all the exercises above. They are just for people who don’t pay attention to instructions.
Ask age-appropriate students to solve the following math puzzle. People will surely get it wrong the first few times because the correct solution requires acute attention to detail. The correct answer is 43. (You have to look closely at each picture, and you multiply before you add.)
There are lots of one-off questions, riddles, and conundrums you can ask the class to make them think. For example:
Which weighs more, a kilo of rice or a kilo of oregano?
When the fishermen tie up their boats to the buoys, why do all the boats point in the same direction?
If a plane crashed on the border between Ecuador and Peru, where would they bury the survivors?
There are more elaborate exercises to teach critical thinking skills. As an alternative, these can be done in groups to also teach interpersonal skills.
When I learned the following exercise, it started with “you are stranded on a desert island.” That might not resonate so much today, so here is a way to bring it up to date.
Because of coronavirus fears, you are going to be isolated alone in a room for a month. You cannot leave the room for anything. Food will be brought to you. You can only take 5 things into the room with you. What would you take and why?
One possible modification is to give them a list of 25 items that they must select from among. And again, it can be done in small groups, which report their decisions and reasons to the class.
Next is a somewhat complicated exercise. It could be attempted individually at first and then done as a class exercise. It helps if the teacher finds pictures of the components as visual cues for the students.
There is a farmer, a fox, a chicken, and a bag of corn. They have to get across the river, but they only have one boat and it can only carry two things at a time. The farmer must always be in boat to paddle and steer. How do you get them across without the fox eating the chicken or the chicken eating the corn? … Solution: First the farmer takes the chicken across. Then he takes the corn across, but he takes chicken back with him to the other side so it can’t eat the corn. Then he takes the fox across. And finally, he goes back for the chicken.
Questions about current events are especially relevant. There are many possible thought-stimulating questions around the Covid pandemic. Have them explain their answers and encourage respectful debate:
- Which is more important: keep everything closed and keep people at home, or let businesses open? If they open, what safety measures should they take?
- Is it a good idea to limit the number of people in the grocery store at one time? Why?
- Do you need to wear a mask when there are no people nearby? Why or why not?
Learning to play chess can help children learn to consider various options and think ahead about where each one might lead. Have a discussion with them about this strategy and skill and ask them for some situations in life where you have to think this way.
Teachers can find thousands of riddles, puzzles, conundrums, and educational games on the internet for teaching critical thinking skills to children.
Take it to the next level
For those who have the opportunity and desire to go to college (university), there are many courses that develop a higher level of critical thinking. I would include formal and informal logic, history of philosophy, scientific method and research design, English literature, English composition, world history, and statistics.
As with many social phenomena, we have to ask ourselves: Is there really a weakening in critical thinking in the world today or are we just more aware of it because of the internet and social media. In this case, I think the election of Donald Trump and the continuing adoration he gets from so many supporters, indicates that indeed critical thinking is a diminishing trait in the U.S. population.
And I don’t think the problem is likely to change unless we change the public education system in the United States. As it is, children in affluent counties get a world class education, while children in poor areas get a substandard one. Often, in the latter, school buildings need repair, there isn’t enough money for computers and science labs, and many of the teachers (not all) are those who couldn’t get hired anywhere else. These things lead to lack of motivation, absenteeism, and the failure of discipline, all of which means not much learning occurs.
One of the biggest ironies in my mind is that the adults in those poorer areas continue to vote against their own interests.
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Jeff Van Pelt earned his master’s degree in social psychology from New York University and his doctorate in counseling psychology from the College of William and Mary. He has worked as a psychotherapist, wellness program consultant, and health and psychology writer. Jeff and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca since 2013.