I used to teach research methods, which is about creating knowledge. Now I teach critical thinking, which is about assessing knowledge. How do we know what we know and how can we assess knowledge in an objective, fairminded way?
It’s a fun course because we think about thinking. We discuss everything from egocentrism to reason, logic, ethics, media bias, and unfair ways to win an argument. Many of the students challenge their own beliefs and we all challenge each other. It’s a stimulating way to learn to think clearly and to avoid getting bamboozled.
What surprises me about the class is how surprised the students are. Even though much of the course is applied common sense, they’ve rarely thought of this before. That concerns me because these are Master’s students. All of them have at least four years of undergraduate study. Yet they haven’t thought about how to think. Here are some quotes from recent student papers:
I never thought to think about thinking
It is revolutionary for me to understand that there is an analytical process called critical thinking that I can [use] to systematically develop clearer thinking…
… while I practiced some critical thinking basics, I had really only scratched the surface
This class taught me that I was unconscious of the connection between my thoughts and emotions.
It was not required in my undergraduate program and I have never taken a class similar to it.
So, I’ve been asking myself, why aren’t we teaching college students how to think? My Mom always told me that the purpose of college was to learn how to think. Was she wrong or have we given up on that objective?
When I was in undergraduate school, the first two years of our four-year curriculum were given over to “general education”. We didn’t start to specialize in our major – finance or engineering or anthropology – until the third year. Today, it seems that general education has simply evaporated. Students start specializing as soon as they land on campus.
So when do they learn to think? If a finance major takes four years of accounting courses, what do they really gain, other than an exceedingly narrow view of the world? I wonder if we haven’t gone too far in the direction of preparing students for the job market. We identify the technical skills the market requires – accounting, programming, etc. – but not the thinking skills.
Do companies really want ace spreadsheet jockeys who don’t know how to evaluate whether an assumption is logical or not? As someone who hired several hundred people in my career, I would say no. I preferred hiring people who can think clearly and communicate effectively. The rest is trivial.
So, I’m all in favor of bringing back general education and teaching students how to think. I’m not sure how to go about it but I’m developing a theory that the MOOCs will help get us back to basics. That may be the silver lining in the coming wave of MOOC disruption.