Critical thinking came up twice last week for me. It’s something that I’ve often thought about and wanted to see more of in society generally but I’ve never really sat down and thought about where we learn it (if we do at all) and who has the responsibility for teaching us.
The first thing that sparked this train of thought was while I was presenting about developing learning culture to a group of leaders within an organisation. We were talking about what a learning culture would look like for them: what did it feel like, what support was needed, etc. During this group activity I overheard one of the leaders say to the group – “We just really need to teach people how to think. Our people need to learn to think critically.” This gave me pause for thought for a number of reasons. I first thought that it was a good thing to hear, in a way, because it was starting to go to the heart of learning-to-learn, an area that I am passionate about. I then started to think though about whether it was really the responsibility of organisational learning professionals to teach people “how to think”. How would we go about it for a start? Universities are supposed to produce graduates who can think critically but in my experience lecturing and tutoring I can safely say that even after three years of university level education only around 50% (if you’re lucky) graduates can actually think critically based on the essays I’ve marked.
The second event that got me thinking about critical thinking as a skill was at a dinner. I was seated next to someone I don’t know very well and the conversation turned to a new appliance that she had bought and that some of the others were also thinking of purchasing. This thingy basically did everything but eat the food for you and enabled wonderful things to be made from scratch. Anyway, the conversation then moved on a bit to how it was better to feed one’s children fresh food that you knew the provenance of. No arguments here so far. All sounds good. The opinions started to get a little more out there however, with the lady in question telling us earnestly about how many cancer-causing agents were in our food, etc, etc. As far as I know all this is correct. I haven’t done the research. The thing that worried me though was finding out where she got her information from. When someone expressed surprise at how much research this lady had done she revealed her sources as the saleswoman who sold her the whizz-bang appliance and an iPhone App. This is a long-winded way of getting to the point where I wondered about this lady’s critical thinking skills. When I heard where the information came from I started thinking about its reliability, whether those providing the information maybe had a vested interested in providing it, etc, etc.
The summary to all this is that critical thinking is definitely a skill that people need, both at work and outside of work, but where and how is it learned? Can we even teach it? Is it something that you develop based on certain experiences? Are we born with the skill? It’s an interesting question for something so…well…critical.