Lesson 1/4 ➯ The Art of Critical Thinking
Wellness is the opposite of illness. In order to delve into a life of personal and global wellness, we first need to understand the relevance of developing critical thinking skills. This lesson presents the latest scientific research which shows that we are not very good at critical thinking, explains what critical thinking is, and why developing The Art of Critical Thinking is so important for being healthy and happy.
The Oxford Dictionary defines critical thinking as “The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement“.
The most important word here is objective. Critical thinking is the ability to analyse and evaluate all sides of an argument and follow the most reliable facts and evidence, rather than assumptions and preconceived ideas, in order to form a position (or opinion).
Moreover, the ability to form opinions based on objectivity and open-minded examination – neither accepting nor rejecting a given hypothesis until all the evidence has been properly evaluated – enables us to then make informed decisions moving forward.
In terms of personal and global wellness, whether we are interested in making decisions that increase our own health and happiness, or the health and well-being of the planet on a global scale, most of us would probably agree that critical thinking (being able to separate facts from fiction and thus make informed decisions) is an essential skill, especially with the prevalence of unreliable sources, often referred to as fake news or post-truth in today’s world.
Indeed, The Art of Critical Thinking, which I define as the art of “developing and mastering the ability to form objective opinions and make informed decisions” is an essential skill for being able to make choices that increase our health and well-being on a personal and global scale; yet academic research shows we are not very good at it.
In 2014, a Cambridge International Examinations survey of more than 1000 teachers from more than 50 different countries revealed that teachers across the globe believe critical thinking is the skill their students most lack when they begin their post-16 courses at school, and 56% of teachers said students were still unable to think critically when they entered university.
A 2011 study by sociologists from New York University and University of Virginia that followed 2322 undergraduates at 24 colleges and universities in the USA through four years of college concluded that 45% of students made no significant improvement in critical thinking during their first two years of college and 36% graduated “without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event”.
More recently, a 2017 study of 1002 current college students and recent graduates by MindEdge, an online learning company founded by Harvard and MIT educators, found 44% could not correctly answer 6 of 9 questions designed to gauge their ability to detect fake news, stating “the survey provides a sobering look at the extent to which millennials need to sharpen their critical thinking skills”.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal in the same year analysed the results of the CLA+, a critical-thinking test given annually to freshmen and seniors in approximately 200 colleges and universities across the USA and concluded that at more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence or interpret data.
That is not all. A 2016 Stanford History Education Group analysis of 7804 students in schools and colleges across 12 US states, including their own Stanford University, discovered college students sometimes even perform worse than high school students at distinguishing between “legitimate and dubious sources”.
Meanwhile, a 2015 report by the Foundation for Young Americans found that the demand for critical thinking skills in new graduates has risen 158% in 3 years. A conclusion drawn from the analysis of 4.2 million online job postings from 6000 different sources in the period 2012-2015.
It is easy to focus on the students here, but if the majority of students are unable to critically think at 16 years of age, and are still unable to critically think when they enter university, and even when they leave university to seek employment, it follows that the parents, teachers and other adults whom they regularly come into contact with during these years of their lives are also failing to effectively demonstrate how to do so.
For example, in the EU today, according to the World Health Organisation, at least 86% of deaths and 77% of diseases are because of people’s diet and lifestyle choices; a Gallup poll found that as many as 87% of people worldwide are doing jobs that leave them feeling unmotivated, and studies in positive psychology show that pursuing money and materialism makes us unhappy.
Meanwhile, in 2018, the 3 main reasons scientists set the doomsday clock at 2 minutes to midnight were because of climate change, growing nuclear threat, and a lack of trust in political institutions.
Both personally and globally, we are not making informed decisions.
Clearly there is a very real need for all of us (students and non-students alike) to be able to successfully analyse and evaluate information so that we make decisions that increase (rather than decrease) our wellness on a personal and global scale.
The academic community are taking these findings very seriously. Stanford History Education Group demonstrate this quite bluntly in the executive report of their aforementioned analysis:
Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it.
The “educational response” they refer to is the growing academic and scientific movement that is actively involved in promoting critical thinking.
This academic movement, these strategies, and how they help increase personal and global wellness will all be presented in the third lesson.
The second lesson will look at the reason why we are not learning and developing critical thinking skills, and we will learn the first strategy towards achieving health and well-being on a personal and global scale.