Written by:

Holly Macdonald


January 7, 2010

My older daughter had a project at school (“environmental awareness”) that involved her counting the lightbulbs at our house and identifying which ones are incandescent and which ones are compact flourescent, and calculating the impact we as a household could have by switching to CFLs.  A timely topic, for sure.  She also had a debate during another block, where the kids had to debate the pros and cons of the Olympics, as the winter olympics are being hosted by Vancouver/Whistler (she grew up there, before we moved to our island paradise).

Both of these activities struck me as real life examples of learning critical thinking skills.

For the debate, it was good for her to see that there are a multitude of perspectives to consider, and while she was swayed from one perspective to another, I think the lesson could have been taken further.  I appreciate that she learned there are two sides to everything, but it would be great if it went deeper.  Why is that person’s argument more compelling to you?  Are they someone you admire/respect?  Have they been right before? Does everyone else believe them, and are you swayed due to peer pressure (she’s 12, everything is peer pressure at this age)?  How do you know that what they are presenting is “true” and not exaggerated or anecdotal?

Now, on the lightbulb activity, it seemed that there was a real “right” and “wrong” lesson being given.  CFLs = good.  Incandescent = bad.  There was not discussion about any possible downsides with CFLs (for example, it is my understanding that they do contain a small amount of mercury and are difficult to dispose, as heavy metals leach into the earth, can get into groundwater, etc), which I think is a “miss”.  She doesn’t need to count lightbulbs and stand on higher moral ground (we have “x” CFLs, so can feel superior to those who don’t), she needs to learn why this is an issue and what it might mean to transition them, and wonder what else might be having an impact on the environment.

We also have had a story on our news locally (Victoria area) of a person who presented himself as a doctor, who was being investigated because an RCMP officer questioned how someone who was 31 could have so many credentials and experiences.  It was a very useful real example of how you need to use critical thinking skills that I used when I talked with her about it.

This is not meant to be a critique of public education or a conspiracy-theory driven diatribe about news media.  Just consider this.  In our workplaces, we are faced with situations that require us to problem solve all the time, and my research tells me that educated individuals who can apply critical thinking skills to complex transactions and problems will become harder to find in the next decade or two.  So, we in the learning profession may need to figure out how to beef up this skill in current and future employees.  In fact, I’ve read in many places that it is one of the most essential skills we can teach in the 21st century.  It’s at the heart of learning.

I’d be interested to hear about how others might tackle it.  Suggestions?