Friday, August 29, 2014

Is Thinking Critically, Nature or Nurture?

A close friend’s experience in a criminal trial this summer brought back memories of what turned me off to that profession in law school.

Before I get to that I am reminded that it was a desire to bring about social justice that fueled my interest in going to law school.  However, that isn’t what made me stand out on aptitude tests from the 50% of all first year college students back then drawn to law as an interest.

Manifest on tests to determine aptitude was an applied skill referred to back then as “thinks critically” and “reasoning.”

Many today argue that this skill can’t be taught in school contending it must be fostered in the family or by a combination of “nurture and nature.”  These naysayers may also fail to see the link of this critical skill to humility, integrity, perseverance, empathy and self-discipline.

Anyone who knew my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles back in my preschool years would have said this ability was directly descended from the “Neeley” branch, a lineage mix with Shumways, Grahams, McCrorys and many others back beyond those five generations.

But I have evidence that for me it was also honed in school beginning in the first grade (kindergarten didn’t exist then where I lived.)

These family members were great arguers and if you tried to agree with them, they changed sides and kept arguing.  No sentiment was ever expressed without requiring immediate and reasoned justification.

It wasn’t enough to watch them at dinner on Sundays, my dad would continue it during the week around our own dinner table.  He would describe current events, ask for our opinions, followed by your rationale and then engage you in debate.

But I also know it was taught in school and that I still had a lot to learn.  My first grade teacher wrote on my report card to my parents, “reasoning poor in workbooks.”

Later it was found across from my course grades on a page with other “soft skills” under headings such as “desirable habits and attitudes.”

Turns out as I will show later that this skill is “foundational” in the workforce.

Today, there is a cool little guide for teaching critical thinking in K-6 classrooms entitled The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking for Children.

By high school, my extracurricular activities involved sports.  But my dad who starred in four sports encouraged me to also join the debate team.

Debate as well as Model UN and similar activities are a ways to learn how to structure arguments, understand both sides of a controversy, identify the logical reasoning or lack thereof in an argument or statement, critique your own thinking, spot contradictions and identify factual or logical flaws in sources, etc.

As to the question of “nature vs. nurture,” I tend to agree with systems biologist, Dr. Michael White in an article in Pacific Standard, who also writes at The Finch & Pea, that too often we approach issues as “splitters,” but “we should recognize that the factors that drive our social behavior can, as found in Zen koans, be two things at once.”

In workplace vernacular, experts define “critical thinking/problem-solving as sound reasoning, analytical thinking, using knowledge, facts and data to solve problems.”

Surveys of educational professionals back when I graduated from college found that 97% believed critical thinking should be the primary take-away from a college degree.

Nearly 9-in-10 members of college faculties still identify it as the primary objective of any degree but many struggle with it themselves.

But researchers find that many “teach content only for exposure, not for understanding.”

NYU researchers found that 45% of college students made no significant gain in critical thinking in the first two years.  After four years, 36% showed no significant gains.

A study this year of executives in America responsible for workforce development by The Economist found critical thinking and problem solving far and away the most important workplace skill.  This is also the aim of employee training for 76%, more than so-called foundational skills.

But critical thinking is much more even than understanding.  It involves learning many other thinking-related traits including:

  • “intellectual humility,”
  • “intellectual integrity,”
  • “intellectual perseverance,”
  • “intellectual empathy,”
  • “intellectual self-discipline,”

I changed over to my lifelong career in visitor-centered economic and cultural development (community-destination marketing) because I found I could make a difference.

Throughout my career I was continually amazed at not only the lack of critical thinking in the general population including those in high office or others also working to effect change but because so many also seemed determined to prevent it.

There are some incredibly bright and well-meaning people in this world for whom any question of their ideas or reasoning is taken as criticism or insult.

They are threatened by critical thinking when it isn’t their own or in lockstep with what they want.

It is astounding how often phenomenally expensive decisions are made with a proverbial piece of paper in the file while some very simple and effective alternatives are required to provide reams of backup.

But I also turned away from the law after seeing far too many defense attorneys illustrate that the our justice system isn’t about justice and being a defense attorney involves putting the victim on trial, assassinating their character when the facts of a case don’t go the way of the defense.

Juries are ill equipped to sort out facts from theater.  It is a very slimy world where critical thinking takes a back seat.

But unfortunately, as I would find throughout my career, so can be community development, all for want of critical thinking.

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