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Clear thinking in the Digital Age


Clear thinking in the Digital Age

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The ability to think critically has perhaps never been more valued, and more needed. In a world grown more complex, where our digital devices inundate us with instant information and opinion, we believe that sharpening critical thinking is a must.
While definitions of “critical thinking” vary, Harvard professor Steven Pinker’s description of the skills necessary for success in the professions is a good start: “organizing one’s thoughts so that they may be communicated clearly to others, breaking a complex problem into its components, applying general principles to specific cases, discerning cause and effect, and negotiating tradeoffs between competing values.”
MindEdge Learning commissioned a recent online survey of critical thinking skills of young adults, and found that millennials need to improve their cognitive skills for their civic and professional futures.
Skills for the future
Employers seek out critical thinkers because they make better decisions and “work smarter.” The careers of the future will require people who can analyze data, arrive at conclusions, find solutions, and effectively communicate to others. By 2020, complex problem solving and critical thinking will be the top two skills workers need, according to chief human resources and strategy officers surveyed by the World Economic Forum.
On the civic front, sustaining our democratic system requires people who can intelligently debate the pros and cons of the issues, separate reality from partisan rhetoric, and make reasoned political decisions. With liberal democracy under assault around the world, we need citizens who are engaged, informed, and clear thinkers.
At the same time as these skills have grown in importance in both business and the political sphere, there are clear signs that our educational system isn’t adequately meeting the challenge. For example, fewer than half of 1,000 hiring managers surveyed by Harris Interactive in 2013 felt that recent college graduates were equipped with solid problem-solving skills—yet 69 percent of students believed they were “very or completely prepared for the workplace.”
Even more disturbing: the results of a 2016 Stanford University study of “civic online reasoning” (defined as “the ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets and computers”). Some 93% of students surveyed at six different universities were unable to identify a lobbyist’s website as a biased source. Further, fewer than a third of the students could recognize how the political agendas of certain organizations might influence their social media posts.
The Stanford researchers added that “we would hope college students, who spend hours each day online, would look beyond a .org URL and ask who’s behind a site that presents only one side of a contentious issue. But in every case and at every level,we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.” They called this deficiency a “threat to democracy.”
Addressing the need
The need is clear, then. Some good news: we can report a renewed emphasis on teaching critical thinking skills from the universities, colleges, and community colleges that we’ve assisted with online programs. Many of them have sought not only to incorporate these vital skills across the curriculum, but also to offer stand-alone instruction in reasoning, logic, and critical thinking. We’ve seen schools emphasize evidence-based writing in their composition courses, an approach that helps students improve research skills, avoid fallacies and biases, and make logical arguments. Some of them measure their students’ progress by employing one of the three major standardized critical thinking assessments: the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) from the Council for Aid to Education (CAE); the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency Critical Thinking Test from ACT; and the ETS Proficiency Profile’s critical thinking proficiency measures.
What more can and should be done?
Perhaps the most pressing need is to increase digital literacy, to help students move beyond the clever tweet or the first page of a Google search. As the Stanford researchers noted: “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.” Students should be encouraged to “dig deeper” whenever they turn to the Internet for information. What websites are reliable? Trustworthy? How can claims about controversial topics be verified? Where can peer-reviewed studies be accessed? How can digital disagreements remain civil? These all represent questions that can be raised, and addressed, in our classrooms (both physical and virtual).
Daniel R. Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, has described the mission of higher education as “preparing intellectual leaders for a future we cannot know, and that we need them to help create.” Sharpening the critical faculties of students (which can also address the opportunity divide), so they can take their place as citizens and productive members of society, squarely meets that mission.
Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge Learning. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, at Babson College, and at Boston University.

To help foster the conversation around critical thinking, MindEdge is offering access to Dig Deeper: Critical Thinking in the Digital Age, a brief online course that includes sections on website reliability, the power of social media, native advertising, and how to spot fake news — along with videos, interactive games, and an online poll.
Sign up for FREE ACCESS to the Dig Deeper course.
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