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The College Try

According to a new study, college isn’t improving critical thinking skills like it is supposed to be:

Freshmen and seniors at about 200 colleges across the U.S. take a little-known test every year to measure how much better they get at learning to think. The results are discouraging. {…}

Some academic experts, education researchers and employers say the Journal’s findings are a sign of the failure of America’s higher-education system to arm graduates with analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in a fast-changing, increasingly global job market. In addition, rising tuition, student debt and loan defaults are putting colleges and universities under pressure to prove their value.

A survey by PayScale Inc., an online pay and benefits researcher, showed 50% of employers complain that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace. Their No. 1 complaint? Poor critical-reasoning skills.

“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” said Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor who co-wrote a book in 2011 about the CLA+ test. “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”

Employers complaining about a lack of critical skills seems important to those of us who believes that a lot of the public interest in higher education is as a conduit for economic contribution. On the other hand, this simply be another case of employers wanting the full package from each employee in each day. If we had an appropriate measure of which schools and majors were putting out graduates with good critical thinking skills, would graduates of that school and majors have an easier or harder time getting jobs compared to those whose graduates are more directly vocation-ready?

In any event, at first glance the article may be yet another indication that college may be an overprescribed solution to our various problems. One of the arguments for sending more people to college is that it increases human capital by creating smarter people. This is in contrast to the argument that it mostly acts as a signalling mechanism to employers, in which case there is a zero-sum aspect. If this holds true, then college isn’t even doing the positive-sum thing!

This kneejerk response on my part rested on assumptions of who it was helping and who it wasn’t. And more importantly, which schools. Intuitively, I expected the premier schools to promote the most positive-sum gains and schools with more marginal students to do the least. That turns out not to be the case. The average students at flagships (which are not necessarily exclusive but do attract better students than directionals) show comparatively little value, while “smaller colleges where students are less accomplished at arrival” do the best. Notably, that last part is only true if they pursue “a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum.”

Looking through the universities in question, though, it’s honestly not that easy to find the pattern described or any pattern. My question of what they meant when they were talking about “smaller colleges” was whether they were talking about posh private schools or Angelo State. The premier school, Plymouth State, has more in common with the latter. But while Plymouth State is at the top, the University of Louisiana Lafayette is at the bottom. Both have “Freshman with below basic schools” at around 40%, both are former normal schools. Louisiana is bigger, but falls in the middle of the “top four” in terms of student population. The University of Texas is mentioned negatively throughout the article, but scores in the middle of the pack when stacked against its smaller system brethren (ahead of Arlington, below San Antonio, and close with Dallas).

I was prepared to believe that maybe “smaller is better” as far as universities go, and am sympathetic to the notion that we would do better with a lot of smaller public liberal arts schools than Mammoth State Universities, but it’s not clear that’s where the data here leads. The data does seem to skew in favor of those that take in borderline students, suggesting that maybe it’s
a more worthwile investment or a matter of “more room to improve” depending on whether you’re optimistic or cynical, but the data there is all over the place. I am inclined to think that the schools that would perform the worst are schools with local kids getting business degrees because they’re supposed to, and while that describes Louisiana it also describes Cal State-San Bernardino (which scored well) and definitely does not describe the Citidel (second worst).

The past year has, to me, provided a more powerful argument in favor of more broad education, including liberal arts and critical thinking. So I’m unusually open to arguments like the above, rather than focusing primarily on the vocational aspects. Unsurprisingly, several of the universities with unimpressive scores are themselves unimpressed with the test on which they score unimpressively. They may or may not have a point as far as that goes. And, of course, Goodhart’s Law may apply here, so we should be careful. But if we can find out what Plymouth State is doing, that could be a good thing for all involved.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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99 thoughts on “The College Try

  1. It looks like they’re gigging UT Austin for having incoming freshmen who are really good [1] at the relevant skills and then don’t improve at all over 4 years. This seems like a very dubious way of ranking schools. If students are already good enough at something, isn’t it sort of, maybe, dumb to invest a lot of time and energy trying to make them better at it?

    [1] Better than the seniors at schools that they’re praising as doing a good job teaching critical thinking!

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  2. I’m going to tread lightly, because I am not quite sure that I know exactly what critical thinking is or how it is measured.

    I noticed something relatively late in my academic life. I spent a semester my last year of undergrad working as a TA and it was then that I realized that graders are looking for a certain answer. On multiple choice test, that’s self-explanatory, but on an essay test or a term paper, the same applies. There is a series of points that you want the student to demonstrate knowledge of and hopefully mastery. The differences between those who do that and those who don’t is quite stark. And the easiest way to get good grades is to go to the teacher beforehand and under the guise asking for help, suss out what those points are. The teacher will willingly give them to you more often than not, because grading is hard and giving the teacher the wrote answers makes it much easier.

    Fast forward 10 years and I go back to grad school and realize that somewhere along the line this had gone from being a poorly kept secret to a pretty mainstream pedagogical tool. That is, student were pretty up front about asking the teacher exactly what they were expected to give back on tests and papers. It’s wasn’t quite, “is this going to be on the test?” Rather, it was just the expectation that the teacher is going to tell you exactly what you’re expected to know and exactly how to get there and wouldn’t try to throw too many, if any, unexpected obstacles in your way.

    I kind of get it. Who has time for critical thinking now. The stakes are way higher. To really learn critical thinking, you have to fail. You have to hit dead ends and grope your way back to the right path. It doesn’t seem like kids have much room to fail these days. If you’re not hitting a 12.0 GPA, or whatever the number is now, in high school, how are you ever going to get into that good college?

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    • PS – I should add that this is my sense if how things are. I’m don’t work in education and I don’t have kids, so my level of certainty is not particularly high.

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      • I do work in education, and I’ve felt that way since college, and still agree with you. Although I would add that a) not all professors (though the ones who don’t usually get harshed on their teaching evaluations) and b) really good professors want you to do those things, yes, but they also want you to go past them to somewhere else you got to on your own. I’ve had maybe a dozen of the latter, only 2 of the former (but all 14-ish of them were far more useful and memorable than the rest).

        Anecdotally I fear this is getting worse – I have some very bright students who are still surprised when they get (not easy) A’s from a prof whose assumption set they treated as a jousting horse rather than an authority. I keep telling them how bored (dedicated) profs get with being treated as an authority, but their experience to date mostly suggests otherwise…

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        • There’s also professor quality — which gets mixed in with professor knowledge. I’ve had professors who, I had no doubt, were absolutely in the top tier of their field. They also couldn’t convey that knowledge to students with a map, three TA’s, and the help of Jesus himself.

          It was okay — I had a good book (sometimes that’s not always possible though, there was one class with a top-tier talent, no teaching ability, and we were diving through resale shops because the last ‘good book’ on the subject was at least 5 years old. All the ‘current’ books were written by the same guy, who also had a great deal of knowledge and no talent at conveying it) and I was capable of learning that kind of material from a book.

          It always struck me as weird that, in college, it seemed so very few professors seemed to have any sort of training in pedagogy. (Well, outside the education department). I mean clearly your physics and chemistry and literature professors don’t need to ALSO be fully trained educators (they are teaching adults), but maybe a class or two? Some training? Something?

          Or at least the TA’s, man. Give those guys a hand. They’re not much older than the students and aren’t that knowledgeable in the field yet.

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          • most of what I know about pedagogy and technique I learned “in the trenches” as a TA. (My grad school, bless them, had a “Center for the Advancement of Teaching” that did lots of programs about improving your teaching, and I did those).

            I also have to say being good at learning from OTHER’S mistakes helps. I’ve had a few profs down through the years where I looked at them and was like “Self, when you’re in his place, don’t be that guy.”

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          • Or at least the TA’s, man. Give those guys a hand. They’re not much older than the students and aren’t that knowledgeable in the field yet.

            When I was a beginning grad student at UT-Austin back in the 1970s, each department was required to have a one-credit-hour “education” class for new TAs. In some departments it was a joke — show up the first day, sign the sheet, and that was it. The math dept took it seriously — reading assignments, discussions, and sometime during the semester the prof critiqued a video recording of one of your classes.

            I am occasionally of mixed minds on the value of profs that are “deeply knowledgeable in the field”. At least in math departments, a very large number of the contact hours — perhaps a majority at schools with large engineering and science departments — come in a small number of early-on classes: calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, a stats class. At times I believe that such classes should be taught by people close enough to the beginning of their career that they can still remember when this stuff was hard.

            The math department at my undergraduate school made an effort to separate out the math majors from everyone else and did versions of those classes for the math majors that put a quite different emphasis on things.

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              • I’m not surprised.

                At my undergraduate school, the CS department taught their own “discrete structures” class: a bit of group theory, a bit of graph theory, an emphasis on algorithms. I expect that the math dept said no to teaching it. If they had taught it, it would almost certainly have been in the small group of classes that were taught by the math dept but labeled in the course catalog “May not be taken for credit by math majors.”

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          • The guy who taught my Electricity and Magnetism class eventually wound up winning a Nobel Prize.

            He would lecture, if that is the word, by sitting with the text book and reading aloud from it. Actually, “reading aloud” is probably too kind–it was more of a barely audible mumble.

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    • I can’t speak to the teacher guidance piece but I think you may be onto something with the idea that our current system doesn’t seem to allow for much failure. There were two instances in law school where I severely screwed up. One was a big fat D on my first graded exam, the other was getting stumped in an oral argument exercise due to my own hubris. I think I learned more from those episodes than any A I ever got.

      If the only way to succeed is A’s across the board, no blemishes of any kind, then we are making it impossible for students to learn the types of critical thinking skills I think the piece is trying to measure.

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      • One thing that makes it a lot easier to get an A is to know most of the material before you take the class. This actually seemed to happen with some regularity in college.

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          • I wasn’t trying to take courses where I knew all the stuff, it just kept seeming to work out that way. For example, I took my PDE course after taking E&M and a semester of quantum mechanics, so I already had a good handle on separation of variables, which made things much, much easier.

            Nonetheless, I’m very much in the, “College is mostly valuable as a signaling mechanism,” camp. Perhaps this sheds some light on why.

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            • As I said before, a lot of my upper level engineering classes were taught assuming you did not have a solid background in ODEs/PDEs/Linear Alg*, so they went through the basics in class. I did way better in Diffy Qs and linear algebra than I ever did in early Calc because I had those classes under my belt.

              *Partly because you may not have had a chance to take those classes yet, partly because the engineering profs never liked how the math department taught math.

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              • FWIW, I do not handle abstract math well. Tie it to a concrete engineering problem? Different story.

                I tend to use Laplace transforms as an example — was taught them in some Calculus class (III maybe?), memorized enough to pass, really never grasped them.

                They turned up in a circuits class and we had to use them against an actual problem, not demonstrate we could do it against whatever equation the book represented?

                I understood them. Everything that makes them important enough to teach, how to apply them, how they work — it all made sense in a way it didn’t in a Cal III classroom. I *still* remember the concepts behind them (not that, 20 years later, I could make one work — it’s not a skill I use).

                Some people, however, learn better abstractly.

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              • I had econometrics and random signals in the same semester. Surprisingly huge overlap. Some days it was roughly the same lecture morning and afternoon, but from two different directions.

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                  • What’s problematic is trying to solve physics problems using math you’ll learn next week in Cal II, with a physics professor who isn’t about to teach you some advanced integration techniques when there’s physics to be done.

                    I had one lovely few weeks wherein my physics assignments were literally due the day before the Cal II class that…covered the math needed to do the physics work.

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      • Hell, I got two Fs on my early transcript, one for 3 credits, one for 5.

        It’s amazing the difference in my GPA when you look at all 4 years, versus the last two, versus the grad school GPA. Clearly I figured it out, but those two Fs haunted me for a long time.

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        • My Master’s, taken about ten years later, shows a much better GPA than my undergrad. (Except for that advanced DB course, where only the grace of the professor got me a C. I struggled like hell with the theory side. His machine learning class, however, was an easy A for me — whereas for some strange reason, everyone else found it difficult….)

          But by and large, I was a much better student at 30 than at 20, and I had a much wider context to place the information in.

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          • I’m not convinced that we should be aggressively encouraging kids to go straight into college out of HS, less because of the value of college, and more because the population of HS grads actually ready to buckle down and do it is far smaller than the number of admitted freshmen out of HS.

            Some time out in the world before school is not a bad thing.

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            • I adjuncted for a while at a for-profit school [1]. Students who were returning to school after doing something else were almost invariably better than their straight-out-of-HS peers. Students who’d served in the military seemed to be particularly well-prepared.

              [1] Something I’m, at best, ambivalent about, given what I know now about such schools.

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              • This was my experience as well, when I was in grad school. The folks in the workforce, who had, at a minimum 5+ of RL work experience, always had more ideas than I did, coming straight from university. Generally, though their company was paying for their school and I was borrowing money to pay for mine.

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        • I’m still frustrated at myself, nearly 30 years on, for that C+ in calculus.

          If only I had worked harder. Or something. I keep trying to tell myself “You’re smart, you should get calculus” but I keep trying to re-teach it to myself without too much success.

          I also have a B in genetics, which shouldn’t be, except I sacrificed my A (by studying less for the final) in order to put that time in to raising my C in second-semester chemistry to a B. Though I guess I learned something there myself…..(long story short but one of the chem profs – it was a team-taught course – was a right a-hole who taught badly and didn’t follow the examples in the textbook. I wound up buying a supplemental copy of Fermi’s “Thermodynamics” in order to understand what he was on about)

          And I earned a B in the Transmission Electron Microscopy course I took as a grad student but that was because I couldn’t make a nice micrograph to save my life.

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          • I have more respect for the people who struggled through tough material and didn’t ace it. Speaks to character that they kept at it anyway, even though it was hard.

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  3. I’m just gonna note that 20 years old or whatever (we have a lot of non-trads, so our average incoming-freshman age is higher) is maybe a little late for “teaching critical thinking”

    Yes, I know: “Oh, yes, College Prof, blame the poor overburdened K-12 teachers”

    But it does seem so many things now are “why aren’t their professors teaching them to read/write/do background research/do basic math/critically think/shake hands*/whatever else they should come to college knowing” and it gets a little overwhelming.

    (*Yes. We once had a Dean who was displeased at all the dead-fish shakes she got at graduation, so she suggested we have a segment in our classes on it. I’m….not sure how I work that into Soil Science.)

    However, this has been a problem for a LONG time – the lack of critical-thinking ability, and in some cases I think it’s on the parents. In 1997, while in grad school, to make a bit more money, I put in an ill-fated semester teaching at what was colloquially known as “Last Chance Community College.”

    I remember vividly one of the lab assignments, where the students observed a phenomenon, and the question I asked on the write-up was “What do you think was going on?”

    I had a student ask me: “What do you want there?” And I said, “Think about what you observed. What do you think were the causations, what do you think affected the outcome? Why did you get the results you got?”

    She looked at me in disgust: “I don’t want to think. I want YOU to tell me what to think.”

    Yes, the singular of “anecdote” is not “data” but I’m honestly not convinced it’s got that much worse in the past 20 years. I think there’s just a very vocal and obvious couple of groups of people: one group being the monumentally lazy who just want to be told what to think, another group perhaps being more insidious and thinking, “If we can convince everyone else to shut up out of fear, we can run the world,” and maybe some other group, I don’t know.

    I regularly do the “Think about what they’re trying to ‘sell’ you” lecture to my students, particularly when I talk about using online sources**. Some people get it immediately (and very likely didn’t actually need my lecture), some don’t seem to care (Maybe they’re using critical thinking and not trusting me?), some make baby steps towards trying to seek out primary sources or getting “second opinions” on stuff they read….but to really be SUCCESSFUL at trying to “teach critical thinking,” I think I’d need a semester-long class of doing little other than that. (A colleague and I have been agitating for “Freshman Seminar” where we could do stuff like that, and also things like “this is how you write a research paper without plagiarizing” but so far we’ve been unsuccessful at persuading anyone.)

    (**Yes, but: this kind of thing has been the bane of my existence; in lower-level classes I’ve gotten papers referencing things like The Daily Beast or some site selling dodgy supplements as a “scientific” source)

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    • I agree with , a lot of these critical thinking skills have to be taught earlier than college. In the middle school humanities class I teach, developing strong argumentation and evidenced based critical thinking is at the forefront of what we do. Yet, I know that many schools (including lots of high schools) avoid our approach for a number of reasons.

      1. There can be a lot of pushback from parents if a student does not receive an A. Like others have mentioned in this thread, you need to be able to fail to really learn and if teachers are just handing over an A for by-the-numbers work, they are doing a disservice to students. Giving students the opportunity to fail, and not making it a punitive process, is vital to creating a strong critical thinking program.

      2. People want a very quantifiable grading process which instills in students a by-the-numbers approach to completing assignments/projects. We avoid a checklist-like rubric for that very reason. If tell them exactly what the essay should look like and say, you get people completing madlibs like work.

      3. Our program has developed a reputation in my local community and is generally supported by parents and administrators. We have given presentations to locals about the process and why they should expect their kids to see “approaching standards” quite frequently in the first few months of their time in our class. We have also had enough students go through our classes over the years to champion the process and detail why it is more valuable than rote memorization and an easy A. But it takes time and effort to build that credibility.

      4. We have tenure. We still get angry emails from parents who are unhappy to see “approaching standards” applied to their child’s work. We explain why and move on. I know plenty of college teachers that live and die based on student reviews.

      5. This is a more controversial point but one I will throw out there: a decent portion of society will never have the critical thinking skills to excel in some of these professional industries. They may go through college and get a degree but the number of folks who actually approach the world in a critical manner will always be limited.

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      • I can’t remember but do you teach at a private or public school?

        I grew up in an excellent public school district where an unreasonably high number of students went to colleges and universities in the very selective to most selective range of schools. We were all the children of upper-middle class professionals. Many of us have some form of professional or graduate-level education as well.

        But I think a lot of us still felt unprepared for college compared to our classmates who spent K-12 in private school or even 9-12. I haven’t studied it with much detail but based on the stories my private school friends tell (especially those who went to generally secular private schools), they were sort of mini-colleges at the High School level in ways that you can’t replicate even if every class a person takes is at the A.P. level in a public high school. The elite private schools can select which students they want just as much as Harvard and then teach them to do college-level work through out their high school years. So they enter Freshman Writing knowing what the professor wants in an essay. I know a lot of people from my hometown who never received a bad grade, sailed into top schools easily, and then were shocked to get a C or worse on their first college paper.

        There is also the resource issues even the most well-to-do we will fund anything public school districts can’t compete with private schools on resources often. My town never voted down a school budget but I am sure Dalton or Exeter still had better resources and spending per a student.

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        • I teach at a public school. Mind you, it is a bit different from many other publics in that we receive all of our funding from local property taxes and take nothing from the state.

          This has been a bit of a mission for me in the last few years as I got “woke” to a critical thinking approach to education. I think most schools, even good high schools like you mentioned, fail our kids because they:

          A. Don’t have the expertise to actually employ a critical thinking approach in their classroom. This is true even for good teachers who do wonderful things in their classrooms and inspire students to pursue the field later in life.

          B. Would receive backlash from parents and thus avoid it.

          I can’t stress how important B is in why our schools (K-College) seem to fail in developing resilient, critical minded individuals. I am writing a longer piece about how our grading policies and curriculum need to be updated to better instill this mindset, but it requires that we as a society drop the “I got perfect grades throughout school” nonsense as a badge of honor. When I see universities celebrated the fact that their incoming class has a “4.7 average,” I roll my eyes in disgust. What does that tell you other than the fact you have admitted people who have been only praised all their life and that your institution considers that a strength?

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        • There is also the resource issues even the most well-to-do we will fund anything public school districts can’t compete with private schools on resources often. My town never voted down a school budget but I am sure Dalton or Exeter still had better resources and spending per a student.

          Can you elaborate on what it is you think that Dalton and Exeter are doing with those extra resources? Ultimately, the students have to sit down with books and go through the drills, and I don’t see how any amount of money can accelerate that process. Short of gross incompetence on the part of teachers, I strongly suspect that the vast majority of variation in student performance at different schools is driven by variation in the IQs, personality traits, and home environments of the students.

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      • Pre-university private school can also let students fail in interesting ways. A friend who went to private high school was allowed to do a project where he directed and starred in Waiting for Godot. There is no way 99 percent of teenagers could pull this off successfully. But the school was small and had the resources so the teacher could monitor and teach him.

        My school had a great drama department as public high schools go but there were not enough resources to dedicate to an undertaking like this because we still had 1000 students, etc.

        Other people who went to private school have stories about how they put on really complicated plays as precocious high school students.

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      • In the middle school humanities class I teach, developing strong argumentation and evidenced based critical thinking is at the forefront of what we do.

        Thank you for this. I know that kind of thing is a lot of work.

        I have tenure, too, so I don’t need to worry TOO much about being “too hard” on the students – and in fact, I’ve found a lot of our dedicated students seem to prefer it if you “call” them on being lazy or sloppy about stuff, which is kind of heartening. (We are in an economically-depressed area, a lot of our students are already in the workforce and have perhaps developed a better BS detector than the more-typical incoming college student)

        but still. Sometimes you get that person who wants to make your life miserable because they’d rather have it easy. And I’ve learned that if you tick off the “wrong” person (e.g., parents are big donors), it can come back to bite you. (That’s probably a valuable life lesson in and of itself: what do you tolerate in the name of not disrupting your own life, where do you draw that line?)

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      • Critical thinking is overrated. There are only a couple possible explanations for whatever you observe:

        Is it evidence of racism?
        If yes. It’s racist and we need to fight white privilege.

        If no. Is it evidence of sexism?
        If yes. It’s sexist and we need to fight white male privilege.

        If no, it must be evidence of colonialism and American empire and we need to fight American hegemony.

        This applies to all possible observations, from amoeba to economics to condensed matter physics.

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    • “… I want YOU to tell me what to think.”

      This is the impression I get from a lot of students, and from some faculty as well.
      For the most part, critical thinking is not rewarded, but discouraged.
      The single biggest reason I left the legal studies undergrad program, the focus on acquiring faculty focused on promoting an ideology at the expense of other educational interests.
      From what I can tell, it’s good for funding; e.g., contributions from alumni, etc.

      There are a number of good professors out there. Around 40%, I’d say.

      Looks to me like sucking up to the right people is what college is all about, and that is the single most valuable skill they are inclined to teach.

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    • I will say the students we get who are good at critical thinking are REALLY good at it – I do journal article discussions with a group of seniors every spring and this year there were students who figured out questionable things in the paper that I didn’t even see.

      So I still think it’s that the really clueless folks have become more obvious, perhaps because of social media sharing their silly opinions with the world.

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  4. I remember something that sister Elizabeth Picciuto said a year or so ago. When she talks to her students about any hypothetical course they wish the college would offer, she mentioned how often “Adulting 101” came up.

    But I also look at this sentence: “According to a new study, college isn’t improving critical thinking skills like it is supposed to be” and I immediately start to wonder “did it used to do that?”

    “According to a new study, college isn’t improving critical thinking skills like it did back when Jaybird went to school” indicates a trend of some sort. Hey, maybe something went wrong somewhere between then and now. Maybe we need to hire 6-8 more administrators per college devoted to finding out why tuition keeps going up and people aren’t learning critical thinking skills like they used to.

    But that’s not what it said. It could be something as simple as “Millennials are more honest with grownups than people from previous generations, the fools, and answer questions honestly rather than by lying how they’ve ‘got this’ the way previous generations did.”

    Your point here:

    Employers complaining about a lack of critical skills seems important to those of us who believes that a lot of the public interest in higher education is as a conduit for economic contribution. On the other hand, this simply be another case of employers wanting the full package from each employee in each day.

    …made me immediately think about how OJT just doesn’t exist anymore. “How come we’re getting 23 year olds fresh out of college instead of 40 year olds with 17 years of experience in the industry?!? Oh well, better put in for some H1Bs!”

    But then I think about the answer the kids gave to sister Elizabeth.

    Did *I* have Adulting 101 skills when *I* graduated? Or did I just muddle through?

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    • I don’t remember (back in the late 80s) ever having an “adulting” class in college or having someone explicitly say ‘we are teaching you critical thinking right now.” Oh, critical thinking was on the agenda – already, there was talk about how “kids today can’t do it” and “they’re little Reagan-drones” and the like. But I don’t think my profs were told they needed to do it.

      I think I got to college with decent critical thinking skills. Some things I remember:

      1. The shady salesman character on Sesame Street, and how it led my dad to start discussions of “how do people want to get your nickels” with my brother and me, and ultimately, discussions of how advertising lied and we shouldn’t trust it, etc.

      2. I attended a v. good academic high school (okay, it was prep school – I guess I better check my privilege here) where we were expected to discuss and argue (in the rhetorical/fact based sense, not the “you’re a giant poopyhead” sense) points. We did a LOT of writing and we did research papers where we were expected to find “good” sources, not just use World Book.

      3. Probably my history as an unpopular kid in school helped; I saw through a lot of the popular kids (they were popular, but why? They were a-holes to a lot of people. They were popular because other people made them popular. That seemed really strange to me). Being “on the outside looking in” probably helped.

      4. I read a lot, and I read widely

      5. I remember early on being able to hold two ideas in my head and not being too concerned that they conflicted: having learned the Genesis account of creation in VBS but then reading a book on bird evolution (one aimed at kids: “Birds who stopped flying”) and thinking, “Well, this doesn’t agree with what my VBS teacher was insisting on, but it kind of makes sense, and maybe the VBS stuff is more like an allegory (except I didn’t know that exact word at the time)”

      6. My parents are scientists/professors and they did a lot of enrichment-learning stuff during vacation times and on weekends – we went to a lot of National Parks, we were allowed to do stuff like keep turtles in aquariums and observe them, we got to do some low-level “kitchen chemistry” experimentation, we learned pretty early on about cause-and-effect and the like

      And yes, in a lot of ways, I had a privileged childhood in that my parents bought books for me and let me mess around with baking soda and vinegar and baking powder and cornstarch, and they talked to me, and they cared about my education.

      There are a lot of things in school/college I would not have learned or would not care about now if I hadn’t already had that exposure at home.

      (Also: my mom took it on herself to teach my brother and me to cook, basic nutrition, do things like laundry, do basic clothing repair, do basic home repair, that kind of stuff. I remember teaching some of my dorm-mates in college how to do laundry so you don’t turn everything white pink (from red clothes) or grey (from black clothes).

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      • Well, I took a “Home Ec” class in 10th Grade. It covered a lot of very simple concepts (and was a fairly easy A) but we covered a lot of things that I use, yes, every day.

        When I talk about exploring cheesecake recipes? Sure, some of that is due to mom explaining stuff to me but some of it goes back to that class back in 1989. Mom taught me how to follow a simple recipe like how to cook on the oventop. Home Ec taught me the difference between mixing, stirring, and folding.

        I was also one of those “Latchkey Kids” that there were oh-so-many articles about way back in 1989 but I don’t see so many articles about these days. I got home at 3ish and Mom got home at 6ish and we were expected to fend for ourselves in those 3 hours. Get a snack, if we needed one. Do our homework without having someone overseeing our doing it.

        I’m sure that there must be Latchkey Kids today. There have to be. Practically every household is a two-income household these days except for the ones with single parents. So kids get off the bus and walk to their house and they’re the only ones in the house for a while. Only these kids have to do it without the benefit of Thundercats/Silverhawks.

        To go through each of your (excellent) examples, there were a lot of things that my parents (and then, after Dad died, my mom) taught me by standing back and having me watch what happened. “Oh, you want to spend 5 bucks on this thing that you think will make you so happy? Sure. I’ll let you buy that (with your money)” and, two days later, “hey, would you rather have the five bucks right now or is that broken piece of plastic still making you happy like the kids in the commercial?”

        Prep schools were good for me not because I appreciated them at the time (Lord, I didn’t) but because, 10, 15, 20 years later I found myself walking down the street and it finally hitting me what Moby Dick *MEANT*. Though, I suppose, I should also thank my Prep school for helping me be an adult with pretty clean copy.

        The outsider thing. Yeah. The reading thing. Yeah.

        The VBS thing. Oh, hell yeah.

        Like you, I was taught a lot of little adulting 101 things just by Mom demanding that we do chores around the house. Wash your own clothing. Vacuum your own room. Hang up your own clothes. Microwave your own dinner. Now cook your own Mac&Cheese.

        But a couple of months ago, I realized that I didn’t know how to make a cheesecake and I didn’t know the difference between a cheesecake that was likely to be really good and one that was merely likely to be okay (hey, cheese and sugar!) by looking at them on the web. So I had to call friends and get recipes from them.

        And then I had to make cheesecakes that weren’t very good. And then I had to make cheesecakes that were merely okay. And now, I think, I can make a cheesecake that will get people to say “Oh my God!” before they’ve finished chewing the first mouthful.

        And going from “making not very good cheesecakes” to “good cheesecakes” is, I recognize, a skill that probably involves critical thinking somewhere.

        But I learned it by being nudged and then muddling through. Being nudged again and then muddling through again.

        I hesitate to say that what worked for me would work for everybody, but have we stopped the whole “kids/teens need to muddle through” thing?

        I mean, assuming that we’ve got an actual situation here with college graduates and not a situation where they’re doing the exact same thing that we did only the people writing the articles know that “kids today suck” will get clicks in ways that “kids today are just like we were, only with fidget spinners” articles won’t?

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        • the Home Ec I had was dreadful. One grading period, half of it cooking, half of it sewing, so we spend 4 1/2 weeks trying to learn each. If I hadn’t already known how to cook and sew I wouldn’t have learned from it. (Also, I was kind of salty at the sewing teacher because I ALREADY sewed – had made some of my own clothes – and she wouldn’t let me use shortcuts I knew)

          Prep school was good for me partly because it was more challenging but mainly because (a) I was treated more as a responsible person with a brain: “Don’t have class this hour? Fine, you can go to the library and study if you want. Or you can go read their fashion magazines. Or you can go hang out in the student lounge and screw around. Or you can walk around campus to clear your head” – there was no “go sit in a room with 28 of your peers and do nothing but stare at a book quietly whether you need that or not” but also (b) because it got me out of the milieu of the local public school, which was awful and (surprisingly, compared to my prep school) super snobby and status-conscious and I often wonder what kind of a “victim” I would have been had I not gotten out of that system. I actually made friends in prep school, in the first week: it was a fresh start because very few people who actually knew me went there.

          And the cooking and sewing and all that: one thing I learned fairly early on with those is that a “failed experiment” is not the end of the world. Tried to make lo mein at home and it turned out a dog’s breakfast? You can either pitch it (if you have the dough to replace that food) or choke it down and just learn not to cook it that way again. It’s not the same as blowing something up in chemistry lab, where there is the possibility of being killed.

          I still have a hella big fear of “failure” though, which I am slowly working through: I could probably have submitted about a dozen more journal article manuscripts over the course of my career than I did, but I was afraid of the humiliation a rejection would bring. Then again: not trying means you don’t fail, but it also means there’s no chance you could have succeeded. I sent in a longshot ms this spring and just a week or so ago found it was accepted with revisions, which pleases me greatly and I feel more chuffed over this acceptance than about any other I’ve had.

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          • Excellent point here: one thing I learned fairly early on with those is that a “failed experiment” is not the end of the world.

            Unfortunately, this seems like one of those lessons that cannot be taught; it can only be learned.

            (Congrats on the longshot getting through!)

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          • “The Home Ec I had was dreadful. One grading period, half of it cooking, half of it sewing, so we spend 4 1/2 weeks trying to learn each. If I hadn’t already known how to cook and sew I wouldn’t have learned from it. ”

            Ha! I had it the same way.

            You’re right that if I didn’t know how to cook it wouldn’t have taught me, and it barely taught me anything about sewing, but I *did* at least learn that these things were *possible* to do for yourself. Like, if I want to make dinner I actually can combine ingredients and prepare them for eating, I don’t have to depend on frozen microwaveable pizzas or going out to eat. If I want reusable cloth bags, I can make them myself rather than paying $25 each for bags.

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      • I suspected that because your parents were scientists/professors they might have taught you differently.

        I grew up in a town where most of the kids had parents who went to college/grad school but our parents largely worked in the professions. I can think of two people who had professor parents and a few more that had one or more parents as educators. My mom was a teacher and then an education administrator. My dad taught while attending law school at night.

        But I sometimes suspect the lesson that many kids learned in my town was “Do you see this nice upper-middle class lifestyle? If you want it, you need to work hard in school and get a good job with a good salary.” There were plenty of nerdy kids but I think there was also a lot of working for the sake of staying in the upper-middle class and having a comfortable lifestyle with travel and nice things and savings.

        I was always a reader and interested in the arts but was generally a bit of a dreamer who rebelled against classes/assignments that bored me. Things worked out for me but I suspect there would be parents with no problem at cracking down on my pleasure reading because of my lacking grades at times.

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        • heh. the lesson in my town was more “You want a cushy job with a nice salary? Be born to at least one parent who owns a business that will employ you.” It was kinda standard for the rich kids to be C/D students – not for lack of smarts but because they knew that they could do fish-all and still have a good job upon graduations. People like me, we had to be swots. Luckily that came fairly naturally to me, and I kind of enjoy swotting and also being a swot.

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    • When I was in middle school and maybe early high school, we had classes on balancing a checkbook. I’m told by my girlfriend (who is a whole three years my junior /sarcasm) that this is an irrelevant skill because of technological advances. I also remember someone trying to do a “check writing” start up that would write checks for Millennials to their old stogy landlords who refused to accept electronic transfers.

      We also had an investments/personal finance class in my high school but a lot of the information was largely useless. We had to pick a stock for our investment portfolio and justify why we invested in that company. Is this teaching kids to be day traders? The Vox crowd would probably just want kids to park their money in an index fund and be right in doing so most likely.

      On the other hand, there was not a demand for Home Ec and those classrooms were turned to Science Labs.

      I suppose an issue in adulating is that a lot of the skills in becoming an adult can change because of technology. Is learning car mechanics still a useful skill? I think learning to change oil and change a tire are a yes. But cars have gone from being largely mechanical to largely electronic/computers in my lifetime. So all the guys who talk about how it is important to know how to fix an old engine are throwbacks in many ways. Car fixing is now more of a hobby or a vocational track than an important life skill.

      There were also a lot of gender assumptions in life skill classes. Women learned typing because they were going to be secretaries or assistants. Men did not need to learn typing because they would have secretaries and legal assistants.

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      • Saul,
        I agree on your last para. I wanted to take typing in high school and my Dad criticized it as “women’s work”. I told him that when I went to college, I wouldn’t be able to hand write term papers and would either have to type them up myself or hire someone. Paying someone to type term papers was more offensive to him than having me learn. :)

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      • The skills in adulting change due to technology, sure, but a lot of that is also a “class” thing. I don’t need to learn to sew. If one of my shirts gets shabby, I buy a new one. I don’t need to know how to change my oil filter. I can outsource that to any one of a dozen companies around town who will do it for around $25 and let me watch daytime television in the waiting room while they do it. I can afford that, though.

        But “learning to cook” is a skill that will need to be taught to pretty much all but the most privileged.

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        • There’s some special-case instances where it’s the opposite way round, I think – where learning to cook is only meaningful to the more privileged.

          If real estate is sufficiently expensive relative to wages where you live, that paying rent on the square footage for a kitchen is more expensive than some combination of hot meals from a food cart or cheap take-out buffet, and foods that don’t require cooking – then cooking at home for yourself becomes an optional luxury.

          At which point probably a lot of working class neighbourhoods have lots of apartments without kitchens, and food carts on every corner.

          I am told most apartments in Bangkok are like this, and that it’s not all that uncommon in New York either.

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            • @dragonfrog Actually a lot of people live in a food desert – I don’t think it’s a corner case at all. The folks in our old crime-ridden neighborhood apartment building here in the Springs had a) tiny kitchens and b) no grocery store within easy walking distance and c) a lot of cheap takeout within easy walking/ordering distance. They didn’t eat much healthy food – takeout and stuff from boxes as far as I could tell. (We ate a lot more cheap takeout and stuff from boxes back when we lived there too, even though you knew how to cook and so did I.) Having a reliable car and enough time to go to the grocery store and being able to afford the kind of foods that make cooking more appealing than dumping a can into a pot and heating it for five minutes / using a microwave / paying 2 dollars for 3 gas station hotdogs / etc (none of which count as cooking, IMO) is a marker of some amount of financial privilege, for sure, in just about any sizable city.

              I think cooking is a bell curve – people in the financial middle cook and people on both sides of the bell don’t. But I’m quite doubtful that the middle is wider than both edges put together.

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              • Perhaps we shouldn’t include “capable of turning a pound of hamburger and a box of Hamburger Helper ™ into a meal for 4” in our definition of “cooking” but I’m saying that adulting 101 definitely still included the ability to do something as paltry as turn a pound of hamburger and a box of Hamburger Helper ™ into a meal for 4.

                But if we, as a society, are failing to create people capable of doing that, then we, as a society, are failing.

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                • I’d also ask why “stuff from a box” is inherently less healthy.

                  A big pile of mashed potatoes–with the skins taken off because “it’s icky”–is not from a box, but it’s probably not as healthy as a box of macaroni with cut-up zucchini and frozen broccoli florets stirred in.

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                    • Yup. Which makes it even harder for folks with dietary restrictions AND who find cooking/obtaining fresh foods difficult.

                      Also with food allergies, you do a lot of cooking for yourself – I am mildly allergic to celery, which is used as a flavoring in a surprising lot of things. At least my allergy just results in hives; I have a cousin who has (diagnosed) celiac disease and is also allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. (And hers is challenge level “expert” because she is also a vegetarian)

                      I tend not to be big on the whole “social engineering in the classroom” thing but I sometimes think if Home Ec, instead of “here’s how to make brownies and boil spaghetti*” included a component on nutrition and its importance.

                      (*YMMV; that’s pretty much what my cooking Home Ec was – you couldn’t make a balanced meal off of what we learned to do, it was more “what do seventh graders particularly like?”)

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                      • “included a component on nutrition and its importance.”
                        My home ec had a component on that and it was terrible and full of wrong. Much like sex ed in health classes, when wishing a class included something, be careful what you wish for…

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                      • My stepmother was diagnosed celliac 20+ years ago. You talk about a PITA. She couldn’t even drink a beer. And all the food that was gluten free sucked. Now it’s much much better.

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                  • I think the problem is preservatives, which of course inhibit bacterial and fungal growth to extend shelf life. But if they do it on the shelf, they’re probably doing it in your gut, and that’s not good for your gut flora.

                    I’m not aware of any studies that have looked into that.

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                • Honey I wasn’t talking about Hamburger Helper, I was talking about beans, chili, and hot pockets. Super-cheap pre-prepped pizzas. Staples like that. Eaten straight up. Cheetos or 7-11 hotdogs for dinner, etc. That are, as you know, far from healthy. Particularly as a most-days thing rather than an indulgence thing.

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              • being able to afford the kind of foods that make cooking more appealing than dumping a can into a pot and heating it for five minutes / using a microwave / paying 2 dollars for 3 gas station hotdogs / etc (none of which count as cooking, IMO)

                There was a time in my life when I thought knowing how to scramble eggs or how to heat up a TV dinner counted as “knowing how to cook.”

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          • I’ve never been in an NYC apartment without a stove or a fridge. I’ve seen plenty of really miniscule fridges and ovens/stoves though including old ones in very small studio apartments.

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            • I’ve never been in a NYC apartment at all, so am totally going off hearsay.

              I had only been thinking in terms of small apartments – a step up from SRO / rooming house (room only, no board).

              I hadn’t considered food deserts, where a lack of kitchen facilities isn’t really the barrier to cooking. That’s not even just a big city thing by any means – I know that was a persistent problem in my hometown, a number of grocery stores closing through a combination of gentrification (the downtown grocery stores kept turning into antique malls and fancy coffee places) and whatever its opposite is (the big grocery store in the poorer area on the west side of downtown turned into a bingo hall).

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            • Hm, I’ve been to NYC once and I was in an apartment without a stove or a fridge. It had a sink and a microwave and a toaster oven and 4 people living in a one bedroom to save up money and pay off student loans (these were young career folk at the beginnings of their career, working really long hours, what I would call middle-class on their way to upper-middle). A fridge was not high on their list of priorities and they ate out all the time, though I know at least one of them knew how to cook – they were almost never home for more time than to sleep or change clothes though. My friend’s “bedroom” was actually a non-walk-in closet, to give you an idea of the crampedness of the situation. When they did buy food to prep it was mostly eaten right away or stuff like fresh fruit that could sit out for a while. That was in the mid-90s, though, maybe things have changed.

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        • Aside from the obvious, and hopefully universal, ability to cook vegetables and meats, I think everyone should be able to make biscuits and gravy from scratch, along with cornbread. Then comes brownies and cookies, and then cupcakes and rolls. Then I’d suggest simple yet tasty things to do with cheap cuts of chicken and some basic vegetables and a starch, such as chicken paprikash, Thai green curry, and Jamaican curry. Then comes pickling, fermenting fish, and mastering pressure-cooked KFC recipes.

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          • “Be able to make food that doesn’t break your own heart” is probably the baseline that I’d say that we, as a society, have a responsibility to teach people to cook for themselves.

            Beyond that, I’d say that each person ought to have one dish that they will be able to be proud to bring to a church potluck (or synagogue, or mosque, whatever) and feel that it will be able to be as well received at least as well as the bucket of chicken that that one guy brought. You know that guy.

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      • “We also had an investments/personal finance class in my high school but a lot of the information was largely useless. We had to pick a stock for our investment portfolio and justify why we invested in that company. Is this teaching kids to be day traders? The Vox crowd would probably just want kids to park their money in an index fund and be right in doing so most likely.”

        That’s really interesting if that was in fact what your stock picking game was.

        For us it was a sneaky way to introduce us to Business Accounting and with things like how to read a balance sheet and cash flow report. Sure you could pick any stock that you thought was cool (usually Coke and Disney)… but why? And do you see how Revenues and Costs have relationships that generate value?

        Critical thinking? I don’t know. But if the reason we don’t pick stocks any more as simple pedagogical exercise in the era of Google Finance is because you should use Retirement Adjusted Index funds… then we don’t understand the reason we used to pick stocks. Another useless gate torn down.

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          • Funny, so did I… but for more sophisticated reasons… my Grandfather worked there as a machinist.

            …and ironic for this discussion:

            In 1996, Albert J. Dunlap was recruited to be CEO and Chairman of Sunbeam-Oster. In 1997, Sunbeam reported massive increases in sales for its various backyard and kitchen items. Dunlap purchased controlling interest in Coleman[19] and Signature Brands (acquiring Mr. Coffee and First Alert) during this time. Stock soared to $52 a share. However, industry insiders were suspicious. The sudden surge in demand for barbecues did not hold up under scrutiny. An internal investigation revealed that Sunbeam was in severe crisis, and that Dunlap had encouraged violations of accepted accounting rules.

            Now this was about 12-years after my intro to economics… so I’m innocent.

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              • I kinda like the line “the sudden surge for barbecues did not hold up under scrutiny.”

                It doesn’t seem that their devious plan was as sophisticated as it might have been… c’mon, spread that shit around to irons, mixers, waffle makers…don’t just stuff the BBQ column.

                We all remember the summer of ’97… the summer of BBQ.

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        • “For us it was a sneaky way to introduce us to Business Accounting and with things like how to read a balance sheet and cash flow report.”

          Yeah, that’s how it was for us as well. (And an introduction to writing checks and maintaining knowledge of bank-account balance.)

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  5. Like J R I am not sure how to define Critical Thinking and/or how to quantify it as a skill.

    I suspect that there is something to letting people get bad grades in college but not have it sink their chances at grad school and/or employment but this is a prisoner’s dilemma/collective action problem. The employers don’t want to do on the job training and the colleges don’t want to take people’s money and then flunk them out or destroy their future chances (and the college’s future donation network) with bad G.P.A.s.

    The reason why smaller classes might lead to more critical thinking is that it is easier to give students more one and one attention and develop essays or problems that encourage such skills. This is harder in a 400 person lecture where even taking roll call is hard.*

    *Though something I’ve discovered is that big classes are often a feature and not a bug for many people including smart and successful ones. I’m a nerd who liked school and wanted small classes at a small college. A lot of people I knew in law school loved going to big state universities because they could skip more classes and sleep in with a large lecture and still do okay to well. These were not first-generation college students. These were the children of upper-middle class professionals who probably never doubted that they were going to undergrad and potentially grad school (Lawyers beget lawyers. Doctors beget Doctors, etc.) So maybe I think the SLAC have a very self-selecting population perhaps.

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    • The ability to safely fail is intrinsically tied to the structure of a class. The more dogmatically a professor teaches a topic, the less safe students will feel to fail, and the more carefully they will make sure to check the boxes, rather than allow themselves to explore the topic from other approaches.

      Such dogmatic teaching is not only harmful to learning critical thinking skills, it is also damaging to the students sense of identity, should the POV of the topic be hostile to their background.

      The one class I had on ethnic diversity had a very good prof who encouraged students to practice empathy, and not just us white kids being empathetic to our fellow students of color, but the reverse as well (remember, that white kid grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, ethnic diversity was not a thing and his only exposure to any other ethnicity was the TV – he’s not racist, he’s ignorant, help him not be). It was one of my favorite classes just because the in class discussions were very open and productive.

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      • “The ability to safely fail is intrinsically tied to the structure of a class. The more dogmatically a professor teaches a topic, the less safe students will feel to fail, and the more carefully they will make sure to check the boxes, rather than allow themselves to explore the topic from other approaches.”

        Additionally, if we are asking students to take risks and try new things with their work, we can’t punish them for the assignments they submit in the first few months of the semester that fail to achieve standards. Too many teachers include EVERY grade a student receives in a cumulative manner, which punishes students for things they tried but failed at early on. The sooner we can get away from the system, the more likely students will actually feel like taking risks is worthwhile and possible.

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  6. Yeah, critical thinking hasn’t been part of education in decades. And it does need to be earlier than college, or all the non college kids will miss out on it. But, how many kids are taught now a days, by a teacher or parent, how to cook, handle a knife in the kitchen, do laundry, sew a button, iron a shirt, fix a flat tire, balance a checkbook, you know–LIFE SKILLS. Critical thinking is one of those as well. Christ, can they even figure out the unit cost of a price in the grocery or make change?

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    • Yeah, this too. I remember being amazed as an undergrad how clueless some of my dorm-mates and friends were about stuff I totally took for granted like “what is a vegetable and why should we eat them” or “how do I wash underwear without turning it pink”

      Map-reading. That’s another one that’s gone but that I can still do. A friend of mine told a story about someone who apparently wound up in southern Oklahoma because they typed the information into their GPS wrong when they were trying to drive from Houston to San Antonio. I can’t QUITE believe that as being true because wouldn’t you go, at some point, “Wait, I’ve been on the road for five hours and the Houston-to-San Antonio trip should take about three?” But then again….I’ve seen students get totally bizarre and nonsensical answers to math problems where common sense should say “a calculated human lifespan of 200 does not make sense” and they don’t bother to go back and figure out what got messed up.

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  7. You know, I think there’s a big difference between STEM fields and non-STEM. Because, what college did for me was taught me things like calculus, multi-variable calculus, physics, data structures, theory of computation, abstract algebra, compilers and programming languages, and stuff like that. Maybe still a bit theoretical, but still an absolutely essential foundation for my employment.

    But even in my field, computer science, there’s a tension between practical and “theoretical”. For instance, students (and sometimes employers) always wanted us to teach the latest hot programming language (once upon a time it was C, these days it’s probably Go). But we wanted to teach the students something that wouldn’t be out of date in five years.

    I’m really not sure how you would teach “critical thinking” in the abstract. Students tend to be focused on objectified material, on “what will be on the test”. This isn’t a bad thing for life, I think. Focus on goals and the minimum effort to meet those goals. It’s disappointing to teachers, though, who tend to love their subject. But “critical thinking” as such isn’t an objectified, measurable thing. You could argue that by evaluating “what will be on the test”, students are using critical thinking, just not the way some would like them to.

    Likewise at their jobs, workers tend to want to do whatever rocks the boat the least, and brings home a paycheck. I think what we want is for them to self-actualize and actually own the job. College can be a bit of a signal that way.

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    • When I went back to graduate school for a Masters in Public Policy, one of the mandatory classes in the first quarter was “Critical Thinking”. It wasn’t in the abstract so much as a set of tools that could be generally applied — much like calculus, data structures, theory of algorithms were tools for thinking about problems in my previous career. The students could be easily divided into two sets. The first was those that already did evidence-based analysis, and the second were those that had no idea. Given that everyone in the class had at least a bachelors degree, the size of the second set was disturbingly large.

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    • I’m really not sure how you would teach “critical thinking” in the abstract.

      I took a class my first year in school, at the local community college, called “Logic and Critical Thinking”. It was a formal logic and argumentation class, and quite enjoyable.

      To the larger point of the OP – I agree with the others that being able to fail is hugely important in your ability to learn how to think critically and form good arguments. Our obsession with GPAs, both in HS and college, is, IMHO, damaging. The 3.8 or 4.0 is impressive, but so is the 2.3 who still graduated, once you can put that into context. I knew lots of kids who had the 3.8’s and 4.0’s, who also did not have to worry about money, and could get tutors, and any other academic support they needed because of wealthy parents, or a trust fund, etc. The guy with a 2.3 from a top school who was married, working full time, maybe raising kids or otherwise dealing with the crap life can toss at you when you don’t have wealth & privilege shielding you, that person is still impressive, because they learned the material, did the work, and got through it. Context matters, but no one has time to hear about context, just give me the numbers.*

      Also, I was lucky that in the handful of classes I took where essay questions were a big part of the grade, my professors took the time to have discussions in class, and they did not lead them, but instead acted as referees and tossed out the occasional idea to keep things rolling. Nobody got it right all the time, and everyone who bothered to speak up and engage got their rhetorical asses handed to them at one point or another. The instructors also refused to tell people what would be expected from exams, which meant you could write an essay that deviated wildly from what the professor expected, but as long as it was a well though out argument, you’d get credit. Professors who won’t let discussions happen in class, who spoon feed the students everything, and who have very specific expectations from an essay or who refuse to judge alternate argument on their merits, rather than their conclusions; they are not teaching college, they are teaching grade school.

      *Yes, that 2.3 was me. I went to grad school specifically to erase that 2.3, because no one wants to bother with an interview for a fresh graduate with less than a 3.5. Walked out of grad school with a 3.6 and lo and behold, offers out the wazoo.

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  8. I’m also joining j r in not knowing what critical thinking means. To me it’s the same thing as abstract thinking. The ability to take a text or object and wonder what it’s about or to talk about the significance of historical events. Most people probably do not see critical thinking as abstract thinking though. They might see it more as strategic thinking, how to reach a particular goal and how to adjust to changing circumstances.

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    • In the class I took, critical thinking was defined as the skill to be able to identify and address the techniques and fallacies of an argument, and determine what represents a strong or weak element of the argument.

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      • And for me it’s the ability to pull things apart regardless of whether there’s an argument involved, like what Jay says about looking at something and seeing it’s just not right – and then continuing on to figure out why and what to do about it. Whether that be an argument, bad math in your stats work-up, a planned patch operation on a bunch of computers, or, yes, a car engine.

        Plus the forward thinking part – “If I do this, what are the possible consequences and do I like my odds?” Which is really just pulling apart the future.

        All of which means I also think that just like there are different kinds of intelligence there are different kinds of critical thinking skills. I’m not very good at all at analysing a recipe, but I can knock over and dissect theology, biology, or cross-stitch related stuff in two seconds flat.

        I think the whole idea that you can divorce critical thinking from the field you’re in is a bit of a myth. You can get BETTER at generalizing from one field to the next, but it’s hard to be a critical-thinking expert in a field where you aren’t solid on the fundamentals (unless you are an expert at something the person you are critiquing is out of their depth on, in which case, well – you’re really IN your wheelhouse, not out of it). You can get to be a test-taking expert / quality bs’er n any field pretty easily – which is what the CLA seems to be testing for and what a lot of interview questions actually test for – but the actual *practical* day-to-day really getting it dig-in-and-explore stuff still requires a lot of reading and thinking and doing time, not just a glib set of “critical thinking” skills you can lay on top of whatever like a filter.

        I think this is why librarians are shifting from “information literacy” checklists to “information literacy” frameworks …. you just really can’t checklist this stuff.

        PS Rhetoric? Is a field. And seems like what gets taught as “critical thinking” as defined by is a piece of rhetoric…. which is important, there’s a reason it’s in the trivium – but it’s not all the critical thinking there is and not really what most employers want. They want specialists with deep reflective practice skills and experience… right out of the gate. For as low a wage as they can get away with. Which mostly makes me think said employers (ie, the ones complaining to the media) are lacking in critical thinking skills themselves.

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        • Plus the forward thinking part – “If I do this, what are the possible consequences and do I like my odds?” Which is really just pulling apart the future.

          Misanthropic confession: this is the thing that makes me the craziest and the crankiest about some of the Problem Students I have: “Oh, yeah, we let my ex-boyfriend’s brother who’s a meth addict and newly out of prison for burglary sleep on our couch and when I got up this morning he was gone and so was the laptop on which I was writing my paper, so I need an extension.” It’s like THE GUY HAS ABOUT FOUR STRIKES AGAINST HIM SUGGESTING HE MIGHT STEAL YOUR STUFF, AND YOU ARE SURPRISED HE DID?

          Or other things – I often have students trying to do far, far too much who are then upset when they earn a poor grade in my class but honestly? I can’t give someone a higher grade just because they are working two jobs or they have an ex-spouse and a new lover whose feelings they are trying to juggle. It’s an issue of priorities, and often the students who do poorly make college classes their very last priority, even below bingewatching Fear the Walking Dead or whatever.

          I may be a bit embittered about this personally because I’ve historically been too good at coming up with worst-case scenarios for “What could possibly go wrong?” which means my social life has often been somewhat limited….

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          • Learning accurate risk assessment has been of my greatest … uh, personal growth areas? Like you I was historically much better at overestimating risk than accurately assessing it.

            But I feel your pain on the whole BUT WHY DID YOU THINK THAT WOULD WORK OUT??? thing. We get some astounding “what happened to this library book?” stories.

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          • I would be quite understanding of a student who’d binge watched Fear the Walking Dead. Spending more than a couple hours drinking down such bad writing and unlikable characters would be horrifying, and I’m surprised their souls weren’t sucked right out of their bodies. Given a choice between that and serving at the Somme or Ypres in WW-I, I’d grab an Enfield and prepare to get muddy.

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