Keys to Success: Be a Critical Thinker in Life and in the Classroom

Keys to Success: Be a Critical Thinker in Life and in the Classroom

By Donna Hildreth, English Faculty – Charlotte Campus

Almost everyone has heard the term “critical thinking,” and it gets bandied about in academic settings frequently. Most college syllabi have something about teaching students to be “critical thinkers.” But what is it, exactly? And why do you need it? Well, there are good reasons you need it.

Critical thinking, according to the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, is the act of getting some kind of information—whether it is read, written, watched, or observed, and then processing or evaluating the information: Thinking about it.  It’s the extra step after getting information that makes it “critical” (evaluative) thinking. Why is this important? Well, thinking is always important. Consider your favorite news source.

Because today’s online media is “free,” meaning you and I don’t have to pay for it, getting the attention of large numbers of viewers is essential for media outlets to make money. Fake news and social media work this way. They want your valuable attention. Modern students are exposed to an endless stream of skillfully selected information marketed in a simple, easy-to-digest, appealing format.  The more hits websites get, the more money they can charge advertisers. How do they get your attention? In many cases, it’s too easy.

Ryan Holiday, contributor for Forbes and a leading strategist says everything you are exposed to online is “manipulated” and “nothing can escape exaggeration, distortion, fabrication and simplification…The lure of gaming you for clicks is too appealing for anyone to resist.  Information exposure drives a fiercely competitive market where “the line between the real and the fake becomes indistinguishable.” And besides, exposure to the message is enough.

According to Randy Kasten, an attorney who is also an educator specializing in critical thinking, people tend to believe the information, stories, and news they are exposed to, whether it’s a news article, blog post, pitch for a vote, political idea, product, or someone’s pet interest.

Why is exposure enough? Because most people don’t process—i.e. think about—what they’re exposed to, especially if they already believe the message. It’s current, fashionable, and “what to think.” How many times have you checked your Facebook, SnapChat, or Instagram today? Those clicks are exposure, and they are making somebody money.

How much do you think about what you take in from websites? People who cannot discern subtle trickery and bias are targets—targets for all kinds of media manipulators who choose and shape the information you see. Understanding how to research, interpret, and evaluate information for credibility can protect you from being manipulated. Don’t take anything at face value. If you’re not analyzing and evaluating the information you consume –critically thinking about it – you are being manipulated.

To put all this in perspective, think about your classes. Students who don’t think about what they are reading and learning are sleepwalking through their education, and likely through life as well, because how you think is a habit. As Plato famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Thinking, and thinking about thinking, is what separates us from animals, who just react to whatever happens to them. Students who learn how to think instead of what to think have discovered the difference between a leader and a follower. Be a leader, not a follower. Think.