If our institutions of higher education are truly going to do a great service to our students and society, then they will facilitate critical-thinking skills. Every educated person understands that memorizing facts is only one initial building block in the total intellectual persona. Knowing the facts is great, but it will only take that person so far. That person will travel much further if critical thinking is applied.
Serious institutions of higher education have always recognized this idea as intrinsic to the academic experience. It is not only intrinsic to the academic experience, but it also is required for success in the real world. The person who thinks critically will always progress further than the one who does not.
Therefore, anytime we find evidence that our schools and universities are somehow failing in the fostering of critical-thinking skills, it demands our attention. A new study out of Stanford University reveals some interesting observations about critical-thinking skills with students in China as The New York Times reports:
“Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Those skills included the ability to identify assumptions, test hypotheses and draw relationships between variables.
Yet Chinese students showed virtually no improvement in critical thinking after two years of college, even as their American and Russian counterparts made significant strides, according to the study.”
The study indicates that the students in China achieved critical thinking skills during primary and secondary education that were superior to most other countries. It is specifically the college years in which that edge seems to disappear. Were the American and Russian students playing catchup, were the Chinese students slowing down, or was it a bit of both? Perhaps more research will clarify those details. What do the Chinese students believe? Here’s their answer:
“Students say the energetic and demanding teaching they are accustomed to in primary and secondary schools all but disappears when they reach college.”
Well, that explains a lot, now doesn’t it? Critical thinking does not magically appear. It is an ongoing cognitive, intellectual, passionate pursuit. If we fail to exercise it, then it disappears.
China has done an excellent job with its development of critical-thinking skills in its precollege schools. However, it appears they have some work to do to refine what is happening at the college level. Let’s face it: critical thinking should never stop.