What is ‘Critical Thinking’ all about, anyway?

I’ve written before about the remarkable access to information enabled by web search engines.  I’ve also shared with you one of many employer surveys that highlight the importance hiring managers place on critical thinking skills.  Today, a quick story which brings these two things together.  It all started with a question:  Why is  college tuition becoming increasingly more expensive?

First, let’s start with the ‘information access’ part of this story.  I sat down at my computer with a high speed internet connection, and started to search on the topic of tuition, tuition cost, tuition affordability, etc.  Within an hour or so, I had no fewer than 8 published studies that analyzed this question, shared gobs of data, and presented conclusions and recommendations for how to improve college affordability in the future.  Ten years ago, this would have been a months-long exercise, if doable at all.  I would have had to get on the phone and ‘fish around’ for people who I thought might be experts, wait for snail mail to deliver hard copies of documents, data, and reports, and in the end, probably have gotten a mere fraction of what I have sitting in front of me after an hour’s work.  Think about this.  Information is literally at our fingertips.  I continue to have a ‘gee whiz’ sense of wonder about this.

But, the second part of the story…the part about critical thinking, is even more important, and more important precisely BECAUSE so much information is so easily accessible.  It occurs to me that many of us, myself included, toss around ‘critical thinking’ pretty loosely, not being clear about what it really means.  Does it mean being negative and hating every idea one sees?  Does it mean being skeptical?  I’m sure those who study such things have a nuanced definition, but for today’s purposes, critical thinking is all about an analytic capability, not in the sense of acuity with numbers, but in having the ability to get below the surface, to go beyond others’ conclusions and really get to the root causes of an issue or problem or challenge.

Let me try to bring this alive with my own critical thinking journey around tuition increases.  In the studies I reviewed, there are dozens of conclusions regarding the ever-higher cost of higher education.  They range from external factors like income stagnation across much of the U.S. household population over the last decade, to internal factors within colleges and universities.  Had I read only one of these reports, I would have seen only a subset of them.  But, I read them all, and one conclusion from several studies illustrates the need for critical thinking.

Here’s the conclusion from several publications:  Colleges and universities, in an ever-more-desperate effort to attract students, are engaging in an ‘amenity escalation’, providing more and more expensive accommodations that have nothing to do with the quality of the academic experience.  Examples include more and more elaborate food service options, fancier, apartment-style dormitories, and shiny fitness centers.  The list goes on and on.  There was data presented by these studies which supported this amenity escalation conclusion.

I thought to myself, if this were really true…..that non-academic amenities are at the root cause of tuition escalation…..then we should see a pattern where 4-year colleges and universities are showing much higher rates of tuition increases than true for 2-year institutions.  I think you can see the logic of this (the critical thinking) behind this.  Two-year institutions do not have the kind of amenities that would be feeding tuition increases.  So, a little more Google searching later, I found a comparison of tuition increases for 4-year and 2-year colleges.  Guess what?  The trend is virtually the same.  This flies in the face of the amenity escalation conclusion….there must be something else going on to explain tuition increases if they are happening at similar rates across such different types of institutions.

Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  The moral of this story, if there is one, is that the wonderful access to information we now have comes with an obligation.  It is easy to find an analysis and supporting data to support any conclusion, and if you search the web on pretty much any topic, you’ll find it.  The challenge for all of us in the workplace is to avoid the temptation to blindly accept conclusions as presented by the pundits, experts, and analysts, and be critical about how we approach this explosion of information.  This is really the kind of thinking that is at the root of something called The Scientific Method; it’s all about Hypothesis Testing; and it is about avoiding something the psychologists would call Confirmation Bias….the tendency to only ‘see’ data which supports your own initial thinking.   But, all of these are topics for another day.

For now, I’ve got to get back to my original question around the causes of tuition increases in higher education, because the more I read, the less clear is the picture.  I’ll let you know if I come up with some answers.

Stay tuned…..

One thought on “What is ‘Critical Thinking’ all about, anyway?

  1. Andy Burkhardt

    Chuck, this definitely speaks to the things we talk about all the time in the library and when we go into classes and talk about information literacy. So often we find the easiest thing or first thing in our searching and information gathering and believe it to be the whole picture. But as your example points out, there are a number of factors that go into the increasing cost of higher education. It isn’t simply building fancier amenities or paying football coaches exorbitant salaries. It is more complicated and involves income stagnation and internal issues in institutions.

    Critical thinking and information literacy are about recognizing that you can’t stop at the first thing or the easiest thing. You need to be willing to spend time and dig deeper as opposed to simply regurgitating what someone else said. When you want to truly understand an issue, such as the rising cost of higher ed, you need to dig below the surface.

    Reply

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