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by Angela J. Rabatin
(Associate Professor, Business Management)

For a mere $5,450 fee, and a four-day commitment, the Wharton School of Business offers its expertise on critical thinking. Its course, Critical Thinking: Real-World, Real-Time Decisions, “… focuses on reframing issues so that the right problems are addressed, distinguishing systematic patterns from random events, and identifying acceptable risks in alternative decisions.”

Speculation is that this worthy instruction has nearly universal appeal across disciplines, and to a variety of students – young, old, executive, upper level, lower level, returning, life-long learners, online, and so on. Why? It offers, among others things, two ingredients treasured by students: real world application and “the” answer.

Should one have any misgivings whether students want “the” answer, try utilizing the Socratic Method in class. “But, what’s the answer?” or “Just give us the answer,” is a familiar, anxious student appeal during the Socratic process. The refrain is understandable on several fronts, but missing in it is a comprehension of the importance of process in arriving at an answer and/or acquiring knowledge. It extends beyond the moment – and beyond memorization. It extends beyond the answer key.

As Richard Paul states, in an interview cited on, “Critical thinking can be defined in a number of different ways, but in trying to foster quality thinking, we don't want students simply to assert things; we want them to try to reason things out on the basis of evidence and good reasons.”1

In law school, we were told – and taught – to not memorize. Similarly, “In real life we are not given a set of facts in a nice neat package. We find facts buried with less objective information including opinions, generalizations and other people's conclusions. Therefore, what is taught should address this.”2

To illustrate, consider this letter from a teacher with a Master’s degree in Physics and Mathematics, with 20 years of high school teaching experience in physics:

After I started teaching, I realized that I had learned physics by rote and that I really did not understand all I knew about physics. My thinking students asked me questions for which I always had the standard textbook answers, but for the first time it made me start thinking for myself, and I realized that these canned answers were not justified by my own thinking and only confused my students who were showing some ability to think for themselves. To achieve my academic goals I had to memorize the thoughts of others, but I had never learned or been encouraged to learn to think for myself.3

By extension, when I pose a hypothetical work-related ethical dilemma and ask students how they would solve it, frequently the answer is that they would turn it over to their supervisor.   

Or, when I provide students with a newspaper article on a current event, and then ask what they think about the particular event as reported, they will often repeat (parrot) what the newspaper article said – or at least what they believe the article said. No questioning, no thinking, no trying to connect facts, or wondering what facts may be missing, or what items may be misstated. However, when I review the article with students, the light goes on. 

Is a person innocent until proven guilty? Yes! Was Richard Jewel the Atlanta bomber? It certainly looked like it from the reports – but, ultimately no. Is Social Security broke? Should the rich be given tax cuts?

Newspapers are usually careful to couch in protective language that about which they are unsure, but this subtlety is often missed by the reader. Moreover, sometimes newspapers are openly in error. After reading his own obituary in a newspaper, Mark Twain quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Interestingly, Twain also said, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.” His point is perhaps well taken. Our educational system was not known to foster independent thinking; historically, that is a relatively recent event. Independent thinking was considered counter-productive to the orderly routine of the day. But, society has changed. Our economy is a more “thought-based economy,” and independent thought is now needed, productive, and valued.  

For this article, we were asked to address critical thinking experiences with students. I could provide many discipline-specific examples, but critical thinking tools can likewise be used to bring transparency to matters of generalized application.

Display an 8x10” black and white portrait of an older man. The picture shows nothing but the person’s head and shoulders. His expression is ambiguous. Ask onlookers to tell you something about him.

Answers include such things as he does not look like he goes outside very much, he is probably retired, and he is unfriendly; yet, nothing in the picture revealed information about the personality, work, or activity of the person. The language used to describe the portrait is not what is being observed. In some cases, the descriptors are not even neutral – but slanted with preconceived notions and bias. Similarly, under a Pathfinder grant, I conducted focus groups with older individuals who revealed much information and specifically noted the negative effects of stereotyping on their lives.

As Wharton recognizes, critical thinking is needed in the real world. So, how do you make critical thinking more applicable to everyday life? Some believe that what people need is help making sense of the world as they see it – and that critical thinking teaching methods should apply to thinking about real life.4

1 “Defining critical thinking.” (2004). The critical thinking community.
2 “Critical thinking─an interview.” (n.d.)
3 “Socratic teaching.” (1997). Critical Thinking Resource Home Page.
4 “Defining critical thinking.” (2004). The critical thinking community.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 20, No. 2 

Spring 2005