By Frank J. Rich
In all areas of endeavor it is easy to form expectations of the benefits to target groups. We expect students to learn, customers to appreciate the value in our products, societies to live by moral standards, and so on, but we seldom teach them “how” to do it. We are a society given to information transfer, but have little patience for the “process” that is necessary to learning. We are so invested in telling others “what to think” that we fail to teach them “how to think.”
This is a failing of advertising in general. It is, perhaps, with purpose that we avoid this critical element of the “sell” for fear that it will get in the way. For instance, why would an advertiser want to compare your desire for something with your need for it? The logic in such analysis would alter the sensitive math between seller and buyer. It might also better inform the rhetoric of politics.
Typically, we do two things when educating others: (1) we transmit content, and (2) we equip the object group with ways to understand and use it. Here, we are addressing “what to think” and “how to think,” the twin pedals of the learning process. The second of these is called critical thinking, and it is what singularly makes the difference in learning. Yet, it is a skill that is lacking not only in education but also in marketplace organizations.
In its landmark report A Nation at Risk, the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded: Many 17-year-olds do not possess the ‘higher-order’ intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.
Exposing the Method of Critical Thinking
What does critical thinking look like and how might we tie it inextricably to the information gathering and use model? The first to gain is the “mindset” that aids critical thinking. Let’s begin with “thinking” itself, which we are encouraged to in organizations, but allowed little time for.
Though a key problem-solving technique, critical thinking is hard to find among managers who are generally more comfortable with the traditional plan, organize, coordinate, and control. In truth, critical thinking is a simple method of self-questioning that reveals the logical path to productive ends and the winnowing of the subjective influence in most decision making. To use it requires that we adopt a mindset of critical thinking and then learn the simple tools that aid the practice of it. Simply, critical thinking may be described as “ … reasonable, reflective, responsible, and skillful thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do.” Through critical thinking we are better able to ask useful questions, gather good data, analyze them effectively and form conclusions that serve agreed-upon goals.
The following are a number of the skills we might apply in critical thinking, as outlined by Raymond S. Nickerson, an expert of critical thinking. In each is the method of critical analysis that delivers the critical thinking model.
- Uses evidence skillfully and impartially
- Organizes thoughts and articulates them concisely and coherently
- Distinguishes between logically valid and invalid inferences
- Suspends judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision
- Understands the difference between reasoning and rationalizing
- Attempts to anticipate the probable consequences of alternative actions
- Understands the idea of degrees of belief
- Sees similarities and analogies that are not superficially apparent
- Can learn independently and has an abiding interest in doing so
- Applies problem-solving techniques in domains other than those in which learned
- Can structure informally represented problems in such a way that formal techniques, such as mathematics, can be used to solve them
- Can strip a verbal argument of irrelevancies and phrase it in its essential terms
- Habitually questions one’s own views and attempts to understand both the assumptions that are critical to those views and the implications of the views
- Is sensitive to the difference between the validity of a belief and the intensity with which it is held
- Is aware of the fact that one’s understanding is always limited, often much more so than would be apparent to one with a non-inquiring attitude
- Recognizes the fallibility of one’s own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions, and the danger of weighting evidence according to personal preferences
If the skills above are recognizable and familiar practice, you have discovered the power within. Make them your daily bread and you’ll increase your contribution to any organization and society.