“Did we vote for him?” my son asked. “No.” I replied. “Is he conservative or liberal?” Andrew knew the answer, but wanted confirmation. “He falls into the liberal camp.” There was a thoughtful moment of silence and then, “Wow! What he said sounded so good. It seemed to make sense.” Andrew was understandably confused because he just heard a liberal speech with words and ideas that made sense to a conservative.
The issue here is not that Andrew is actually liberal at heart. (Far from it. You have to know him to understand how strong his conservative values are.) We had just finished listening to President Obama’s speech to the nation (Monday evening, July 25) in which he addressed the budget and debt ceiling issues. Politicians are generally skilled at presenting ideas and concepts in a way that sounds good to the general populace as a means to garner support (and votes). That is what Andrew had just witnessed.
My purpose here is not to debate the budget or debt ceiling, or to argue liberalism and conservatism. Andrew’s experience highlights the need to develop critical thinking skills. Andrew was aware of his personal worldview and has a feeling for President Obama’s worldview, so when the unexpected occurred, he wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it. So we engaged in a discussion of critical thinking.
Andrew is 15 years old. He is a bright kid, but we know that brain development and higher order reasoning doesn’t fully develop until about age 25. So it is understandable that a teenager would struggle with the difficulties of critical thinking. What about adults?
I was engaged in a discussion with a 50-something gentleman about education. He is a project manager and teaches others how to engage in research. He posited that the U.S. needs nationalized standards and control of education from early childhood through secondary education. Very interesting. I asked his reasoning. All he could offer was anecdotal evidence of the poor writing, math, and reasoning skills among his students. I asked what he knew about the demographics of these students. Not much. I told him what I knew – that these students have some fairly consistent demographic characteristics. This additional information created his own little collision of thought and forced him to step back and reconsider whether a national standard is appropriate.
Whether he is right or wrong about national education standards isn’t the point. The lack of critical thinking about the subject was evident. So this phenomenon of weak critical thinking is not limited to a particular age group. (Just to be fair, I will apply critical thinking to my argument and recognize that two data points, my son and my friend, do not prove anything!)
Why is critical thinking important to leaders?
The most basic function of critical thinking is to assess the quality and meaning of information and make a sound judgment or decision. What do leaders do all day? They take in information and decide what to do. Business settings are increasingly complex and individual worldviews are colliding at every turn. Leaders must be highly skilled critical thinkers.
Is critical thinking important to followers?
This is one of the areas in which there is little distinction between leaders and followers. Followers, too, take in information and decide what to do. The only difference is perhaps the scope or level of information. Followers nevertheless need the ability to think critically, too.
A few weeks ago, I published an article, and shared a personal perspective on “How to Develop Critical Thinking.” I noted that critical thinking requires three skills: self-awareness, learning, and curiosity. That’s a good place to start, but I was only scratching the surface. I want to up the ante here and present a more robust perspective on critical thinking from the work of Richard Paul and Linda Eller. (Do a search in Google for “Paul Elder critical thinking” and you will get many good sites to review.)
The Paul and Elder model has three main elements:
- Standards of thinking – Clarity, accuracy, relevance, breadth, depth, significance, etc.
- Elements of reasoning – Purposes, questions, assumptions, points of view, implications, etc.
- Intellectual traits – Humility, integrity, courage, empathy, etc.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking connects these elements this way:
Standards of thinking must be applied to Elements of reasoning as we learn to develop Intellectual traits.
Let’s apply this to my son’s recent collision with critical thinking. Without knowing it, Andrew was applying the standards of thinking by seeking clarity and accuracy. However, he hasn’t yet developed the skills to do this on his own. A great deal of self-awareness, exposure to competing possibilities, and practice is needed. This is why I asked him questions about the accuracy, relevance, and significance of what he heard in President Obama’s speech.
To get the full benefit of the standards of thinking we need to explore elements of reasoning. Why is this topic important? What assumptions are being made in that speech and from what point of view? If the nation follows through with any particular plan what are the implications? (The answers to those questions are also the targets of the entire critical thinking discipline!)
Finally, this process of using the standards of thinking and the elements of reasoning results in internal change. Critical thinkers become different people through the development of humility, integrity, courage, etc. These personal traits further enhance the ability to engage in critical thinking.
Recently, I heard it said that someone engaged in critical thinking is able to hold an argument with himself. That is a great statement. Being able to argue with yourself on a subject indicates you are working toward embracing the three elements of critical thinking.