There's No Excuse for Not Teaching Critical Thinking

Sep 27, 2021 12:00:00 AM


It was an engineer at Lockheed Skunkworks who coined the design principal of “Keep it simple, stupid.” His belief that complexity should be avoided, and that simplicity should always be the goal, has become a time-tested principle in design, business, and other endeavors.

Education, it seems, often ignores this concept. From elaborate teaching frameworks that emphasize complicated hand signals to complex policies and programs that grow into “Bermuda Triangles,” education often feels a bit like a Rube Goldberg machine.

This over complexity is evident when it comes to teaching young people how to think critically (if they’re taught this at all). Entire books and courses have been developed on the topic. I’ve long thought this was the wrong approach, and that we should strive to “keep it simple.”

Recently, the Reboot Foundation collaborated with researchers from Indiana University to test this theory to determine whether critical thinking skills can be developed through simple, quick classroom techniques and exercises. The results were, in the words of the lead researcher, “really spectacular.”

The research found that educators and others can support and hone their students’ critical thinking skills using a simple method – small amounts of critical thinking practice, employing basic exercises like multiple choice quizzes and analogies. The best part is that this method is easy to implement by virtually any teacher and can be used across diverse groups of students.

And it works.

When compared against a control group, the students who engaged in these critical thinking exercises scored three times higher than the control group on an open-ended critical thinking test.

There is no better time than now for these findings to emerge. Misinformation continues to run rampant online and across social media. Reboot surveys the American public annually, and every year [pullquote]an overwhelming majority — about 95% of respondents — agree that critical thinking skills are important in today’s world and should be taught in schools.[/pullquote]

How Can Teachers Support Critical Thinking in Their Students?

The question of “how” to teach these skills has proven to be elusive, especially in this era of standardized curriculum and test-driven accountability for schools. How can teachers also ensure they’re supporting critical thinking in their students? It turns out they can do this by adding one simple step in their daily routine – a critical thinking challenge or query to kickstart students’ brains and encourage them to better analyze the information before them. 

In the Indiana study, teachers presented students with short scenarios in which an individual makes a claim based on some evidence or observations. The students were asked to determine, in a multiple-choice response, if the claim was faulty, invalid, or was based on an unsound argument.

Imagine students starting the day with the typical routine of greetings and announcements. Then, add in a short multiple choice quiz that spurs students to really think, consider, and assess all the information presented.

The implications from the research, by professors Ben Motz and Emily Fyfe at Indiana’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, are significant for educators from kindergarten to college. Their findings provide an easy-to-follow, scalable blueprint on how to achieve better, more robust thinking.

Dr. Motz put it this way on Twitter:

Prior to the pandemic, I spoke to an association of school superintendents in North Carolina, and I asked them how many of their schools taught critical thinking skills. Only a handful of hands went up. Today’s children need more. Their parents want more. And while Reboot offers critical thinking guides for parents and resources for educators, the Indiana study points to a spectacularly simple solution: A low-key but consistent investment of time and effort to flex our critical thinking muscles. It is an efficient and affordable investment.

Helen Lee Bouygues

Helen Lee Bouygues is an experienced corporate director and senior executive with expertise in digital transformation, innovation and turnarounds. She has intervened in over 25 companies as interim CEO, CFO or as advisor. She is currently writing a book on critical thinking in this new digital world. She is also creating a site for parents of children ages 7-14 to access material on how to incorporate critical thinking exercises in our daily lives. Helen is a former investment banker, private equity investor and former Partner at McKinsey & Company. She is known for her deep business transformation expertise and was named by leading French journals including Le Point, Express, La Tribune and Les Echos as one of the top five leading turnaround experts in France. She has given courses at INSEAD Business School and at over 20 private equity funds on levers for operational improvement and tactics in restructuring. She sits on multiple boards, including sectors in oil and gas, retail, renewable energy and automotive parts. She is also on the executive board of the American Hospital of Paris and the founder of the Reboot Foundation, an organization that aims to better integrate critical thinking into the daily lives of people around the world. Helen Lee Bouygues is the proud mother of a 7-year-old, the age considered to be the “age of reason” since these children can begin to understand another’s point of view. Her daughter is more often reasonable than not. She wrote her Princeton thesis on Schumpeter and “strategic liberalism”; and is active today in French think tanks promoting liberalism and Schumpeterian principles. Helen graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University and earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She can be followed online @BouyguesLee.

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