Geoff Johnson: Critical thinking is an essential skill

If I had to do it all over again (well, not all of it, thankfully) I’d certainly do some things differently — teaching, for example.

Every lesson — math, science, literature and surely history and geography — would have some element, some subtext, that emphasized critical thinking about content and the conclusions we draw from what we might otherwise accept and take for granted as truth.

article continues below

To avoid misunderstanding, we need to differentiate between what critical thinking is, especially in terms of teaching and learning, and what it isn’t.

Critical thinking is not necessarily being “critical” and negative. A more accurate term would be evaluative thinking in the face of reality.

Critical thinking, to quote Robert Ennis, emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, means making “reasoned judgments.” In essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something: a statement, news story, argument or piece of research.

Ideally, says Ennis, critical thinkers care that their beliefs are not just opinion-based but are demonstrably true, and that the decisions coming out of those beliefs are justified by evidence, historical or otherwise. In other words, critical thinkers would learn, throughout their school careers, about the importance of “getting it right.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of how a lack of ability to think critically failed an unsuspecting population with unfortunate consequences.

Election promises that even a moment’s critical thought would have dismissed immediately are an excellent example. Some instances are just funny, as when Sarah Palin promised to stand by America’s North Korean allies or Newt Gingrich promised a moon colony.

Left unchallenged by critical response, then-candidate, now U.S. President Donald Trump (who professed in one speech to “love the poorly educated”) promised to build a wall along the southern border so great that the nation would likely one day name it “the Trump Wall” and that Mexico would pay for it.

Closer to home, the notion was bruited about that three to five LNG plants would be in operation by 2020, creating more than 75,000 jobs and a $100-billion Prosperity Fund that would pay off our provincial debt.

Some of the above was patently absurd and would not have survived any conversation based in reality. Others, such as the LNG proposal, sounded sensible initially, but were never subjected to fact-based critical analysis or evidentiary check before the promise was made.

A moment’s critical thought might have saved everybody, including several First Nations, significant disappointment.

Flying in the face of the history of such events, it is claimed “there is no risk of [a cost] overrun” should Victoria host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Admittedly, the Commonwealth Games don’t compare, in terms of scale, with the FIFA World Cup or the Summer or Winter Olympics, but the irrefutable evidence is that there is a pattern of overruns for huge sports events.

Looking at a history of Olympic Games finances, a study conducted by researcher John Varano and others at the University of Oxford found that, in real terms, the average cost overrun for all Olympic Games was 156 per cent. His calculations are based on numbers covering the period 1960 to 2016 and include only sports-related costs. Wider capital costs for general infrastructure, which are often larger than sports-related costs, have been excluded.

The cost of the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games was estimated at $4.48 billion US, but overran by about 50 per cent. There were cuts in health care and education, and police went unpaid for weeks at a time.

Huge events always come with significant costs and long-term impacts.

It depends, research tells us, on the urgency of other needs and priorities: health costs, education, public safety and that ever-present poor relation on your doorstep, aging infrastructure.

None of this is to say with any certainty that any of the claims above, from a great wall paid for by Mexico to a moon colony to a debt-free Commonwealth Games, are not possible.

It is just that a population educated in a system that emphasizes critical thinking might be better equipped to value skepticism based on evidence over blind faith.

 

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

gfjohnson4@shaw.ca

Read Related Topics

© Copyright Times Colonist

Find out what's happening in your community.


Find out what's happening in your community.

Most Popular