Thursday, February 27, 2003

Critical thinking

I don’t do it enough, or well enough, or deep enough. Let me give you an example. Take my last post, where I first lay out the research question the guy tried to answer. I can see deeply enough into the problem to point out one potential issue, the fact that using actual data may not be a perfect test of revealed preference, because the retailer may have already reduced the choice set facing the consumer and therefore the data may not represent what people are truly willing to pay for recycled paper towel.

So, this might be fairly obvious to better minds, but it is a big insight for me. Yet, I still can’t get my mind around how the reduced choices, could actually bias the data. That is too say I believe it is probably true, I can say it, but I can’t articulate it in a clear concise argument. And I might never, unless I spend more time on it. People with better, more well honed critical thinking skills could do this, and do it quicker, and do it deeper. By deeper I mean they can see several issues down the road, that may be more interesting, or they see a bigger problem.

I think chess might be a good analogy. I can see one or two moves ahead. The people with better critical thinking skills can see more then that, maybe three, four or more moves ahead. And more importantly, they’ll also have perspective, the ability to step back from the problem, and understand the situation, so they don’t waste time looking at moves in the wrong areas, but rather they recognize the situation, and seem to search for moves in areas that will pay off. How is it that they always know which areas will payoff? Is this learned? Is it merely experience? How do you get it? I’m not sure what that is, but the people who have it routinely demonstrate it.

Take Paul Krugman as an example. He seems to offer clear insight into problems he discusses, and what’s nice is he takes you on the intellectual journey his mind went through to get to the point where he is. The problem is I’m always left amazed. I’ll think to myself, I understand that connection, another interesting connection, and then wammo. He hits you with the ultimate conclusion that you didn’t see coming. He tied his argument into an important insight, and one I’m sure I might never have come up with, but one he can clearly convey, and I can thoroughly understand. I understand part of this is his writing technique, but as they say writing is thinking.

So how do you teach this? How do you learn this? I think I’m finally a mature enough learner to be able to identify this, but how I improve it is a bit more daunting a task. Am I confined by nature? Or is this truly a skill like swinging a hammer that can be learned?

I do think that it can be learned to some degree. I do think that deep thinkers employee techniques that they’ve developed, and those techniques have been learned. I’m not sure these techniques are entirely transferable; I think they may be unique to the owner. So other then getting students to think deeply about problems I’m not sure I can teach them.

Keywords: Critical Thinking, Learning

No comments: