Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Critical Thinking?

The first days of school are upon us, and starting my fifth year, I remain amazingly excited about being associated with Duke School. And I remain so for the exact reasons that attracted me in the first place—our commitment to preparing the next generation of problem solvers and the methods we use to meet our commitments.

One of the most important things that Duke School focuses on is engendering critical thinking skills. Much of my summer reading has reinforced my belief that critical thinking is both in short supply and (well) critical.

Most of us agree that the best decisions are reached by objectively surveying relevant facts and letting them lead to a rational decision. However, most of us do not make decisions this way most of the time. Indeed, we are hard-wired not to think critically and objectively but instead be influenced by lots of other factors.

Duke’s very own Dan Ariely, in Predictably Irrational , discusses many ways the mind is not only irrational but consistently irrational. He notes that people place a higher monetary value on items they own than ones they don’t. This helps explain why the current owner of home thinks it is worth more than an interested buyer or why the possessors of Duke final four tickets (who camped out to enter the lottery) thought the their tickets were worth 1300% more than those who also camped out and did not get the tickets. Ariely also talks about the fact that an aspirin “known” to cost 1¢ will be less effective than one “known” to cost $1.00 even if they are chemically identical. Clearly these folks are not thinking critically—they are not relying on objective facts to reach decisions.

Another interesting book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz explores why people make errors. She mentions that not only are people often wrong, they are quite poor at “knowing what we don’t know.” She talks of folks who listen only to those who agree with them falling prey to “confirmation bias.” She talks about the power of like-minded communities to bolster “our convictions that we are right and shielding us from the possibility that we are wrong.”

The need to seek other perspectives on our views was highlighted by David Brooks in his Op Ed piece in the New York Times on August 24. Brooks states we have a “metacognition deficit.” He claims that “very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate.” Again, he is bemoaning that not enough of us engage in critical thinking.

Finally a couple of TED videos make the same point. (If you are not aware of TED, you should become so. They produce short videos by brilliant people on lots of cool topics.) Two speakers, David McCandless, , and Hans Rosling, , talk about the effective and ineffective use of data. (This might sound dry but these are fascinating, particularly Rosling who insists that his data set should change your mindset). Both speakers claim that we must be able to judge data to see if the point being made is understandable, rational, and relevant. Without critical thinking skills, that cannot be done.

When you visit a Duke School classroom, you often see the hard work of promoting critical thinking. Students are in small groups discussing how did the building of the Durham Freeway affect race relations in Durham. Others are timing the length of a pendulum swing trying to discover what variables effect swing frequency. Preschoolers are investigating wheels trying to understand why some vehicles have two wheels, some three and some four. Others are involved in debates struggling to understand both sides of an issue. This is the kind of work that makes me most proud.

So, a new school year embarks. And we want to make sure our learners know their math facts, understand how to use a comma correctly and know the accurate dates of when events happened. More importantly though, we want to make sure they can read, listen, and see with care and wisdom. We want them to be able to garner relevant facts and draw logical conclusions from them. We want them to be able to avoid the pitfalls associated with group think. We want and need them to be critical thinkers. For only critical thinkers will help make our world a better place.