Whether or not you can teach something as subjective as critical thinking has been up for debate, but a fascinating new study shows that it’s actually quite possible. Experiments performed by Stanford's Department of Physics and Graduate School of Education demonstrate that students can be instructed to think more critically.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of critical-thinking skills in modern society. The ability to decipher information and interpret it, offering creative solutions, is in direct relation to our intellect.
The study took two groups of students in an introductory physics laboratory course, with one group (known as the experimental group) given the instruction to use quantitative comparisons between datasets and the other group given no instruction (the control group). Comparing data in a scientific manner; that is, being able to measure one’s observations in a statistical or mathematical way, led to interesting results for the experimental group.
Even after these instructions were removed, they were 12 times more likely to offer creative solutions to improve the experimental methods being used in the class, four times more likely to explain the limitations of the methods, and better at explaining their reasoning than the control group. The results remained consistent even in the next year, with students in a different class. So what does this imply about critical thinking, and how can we utilize these findings to improve ourselves and our society?
We live in an age with unprecedented access to information. Whether you are contributing to an entry on Wikipedia or reading a meme that has no sources cited (do they ever?), your ability to comprehend what you are reading and weigh it is a constant and consistent need. That is why it is so imperative that we have sharp critical-thinking skills. Also, if you don’t use them, you will have nothing to argue with your family about at Thanksgiving. More importantly, it keeps your brain from nomming on junk food and on more of a kale-based diet. Look at any trending topic, and test yourself. Is this true/accurate? How do I know either way? Is there a way I can use data (provable, factual information) to figure this out?
Certainly, we can train ourselves to become better critical thinkers, but it’s also important that we teach these skills to kids. Studies have shown how important this ability is to our success, and yet many feel that we’re doing a terrible job of teaching it. This study, however, may lead to educators and parents realizing that these skills are teachable. The implications of a better thinking society are not quantitative, but I do believe they would be extraordinary.