This blog was originally posted on April 2nd, 2015.
In my last blog I discussed the importance in critical thinking of precisely establishing what, exactly, one is thinking critically about. As I continue to ponder the essence of critical thinking—both as co-author of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. and in my current role as assessment director for my university—I am experimenting with ways of conveying, to both professors and students alike, what, exactly, critical thinking itself is.
My task is not made easier by the fact that a lot of what passes for critical thinking is really critical reading—as when a critical “thinking” assignment is to unpack the argument in an assigned reading. Critical reading, of course, is an essential skill for college students, who must master it both for their collegiate careers and for their lives beyond, and it does bear a close relation to critical thinking, but it is not the same thing. Critical reading, one might say, is the equivalent to establishing the whatness of someone else’s text; critical thinking goes beyond that—often to the expression of one’s own argument, but before getting to that argument (which is a rhetorical act) one has to do some critical thinking.
I put it this way: critical thinking is a movement from what to . . . so what then? It enlarges upon the recognition of something (an argument, a phenomenon, a problem) and reflectively seeks a further significance, or, in the case of a problem, a solution.
Let me take a simple example from the business world (I choose a business example because that is the world towards which most of our students are destined, and because business surveys consistently complain that new employees can’t think critically). So, imagine that you are in the soft drink business, with an emphasis on selling sweetened sodas, but your sales are falling. The reduction in sales, in this case, is your what, which is also a problem demanding a solution. To solve the problem you need to do some critical thinking, and the first thing is to find the cause for your drop in sales. This can involve testing hypotheses—for example, “Is it because our product doesn’t taste good anymore?” Some research is likely to show that sweetened soda sales are down across the board, so taste probably isn’t the cause of the problem.
So, a second critical question would be “Is there something wrong with sweetened sodas?” Here, you can situate sweetened sodas into a larger system involving public health, wherein sweetened sodas are receiving a lot of blame for America’s obesity problems. You might jump at this point to a solution: “OK, we’ll crank out some new diet soda products”—which is exactly the sort of thing that has happened a number of times in the history of soft drinks.
Except this time, further critical research will show that diet soda sales aren’t doing so well either due to a growing concern about health implications of artificial sweeteners. So maybe another diet product isn’t the solution to your problem.
But what about naturally flavored soda waters?
I think you can now see what I’m doing here: essentially, I’ve reverse engineered something that has clearly taken place in a lot of soft drink manufacturing boardrooms recently, because America is currently awash in naturally enhanced flavored soda waters, with more varieties appearing practically every day. That didn’t happen by accident. It happened because a lot of business people went through a what to so what then? critical thinking process.
In an era of information overload, when just about everyone is accustomed to receiving enormous amounts of information without thinking much about it beyond tweeting it here, or pinning it there, this simple, yet profound, movement from what to so what then? needs to be pointed out. As I play with the idea (writing this blog is a form of playing with it) I am hoping to solve a problematic what that especially afflicts assessment: the fact that while just about everyone agrees that “critical thinking” is an essential university skill, no one can agree on what, exactly, critical thinking is. Will I solve my problem with a what . . . so what then? explanation? I don’t know yet, but I have arranged a test of my hypothesis to see what happens.
I just hope that it doesn’t end in . . . you know, whatever.