My first job out of college taught me something about education controlled by religious institutions. I was working as clerical support to a book editor. The book being proofed was a study by a researcher, himself a Catholic, about the intellectual habits of people who had gone through various amounts of Catholic education. The more schooling a person had in Catholic institutions, the more they attended church services, the less intellectual curiosity they exhibited, and the less tolerant they were of ambiguous problems and situations that didn't have unequivocal answers. This conclusion probably applies to all religious education.

Remembering that experience led to my wry amusement a few years ago when I heard that conservative religious people were successful in making sure the State of Washington didn't include critical thinking as part of the curriculum in our public schools. I thought, "This is nothing new." I was puzzled as well, because while critical thinking is something I believe I can recognize when I encounter it, I really don't know how it's taught. Reviewing my own education, I never had a course, not even a class session, that focused on critical thinking per se. The closest was a class on research design that taught concepts such as two events occurring simultaneously doesn't mean either one caused the other - and that could apply to the Catholic researcher's conclusions as well.

Recently, however, my husband's experience teaching a group of adults led me to speculate that critical thinking may be similar to problem solving, if not the same thing. Problem solving seems to be a more socially acceptable process than critical thinking, but the decline in critical thinking may be the reason we're facing so many seemingly unsolvable problems.

My husband was teaching a workshop about remodeling, a pretty uncontroversial topic, at the SolWest Renewable Energy Fair in John Day, Ore. Over a two-day period, the intent was to provide some basics about solar energy, site evaluation, weatherization options and space planning. Part of the class involved site visits to two households to look at solar access, identify weatherization options and to interview the homeowners.

What was interesting to me was how often Anthony (as he retold the experience) had to remind the students not to jump to solutions before they'd thoroughly scoped the problem; he had to remind the class repeatedly, "Don't prejudice yourself by jumping ahead in the process." The process was to put all the information together before beginning to develop a solution; he was teaching a step-by-step problem-solving method.

Most of us do tend to jump to solutions when presented with a problem, and unfortunately, it's often without thoroughly investigating all the conditions, restraints, resources, barriers, or long-term implications. We could generalize Anthony's admonition as "Don't jump to conclusions."

As I listened to the process they used, I heard some principles that would apply to both problem solving and critical thinking: First, keep an open mind. Sounds simple, but a closed mind is an emotional construct and emotions are hard to control. Emotions just emerge and pop up as prejudices that we rationalize later. One way to keep an open mind is to remind oneself not to introduce conclusions or solutions until we're sure we have all the necessary information, but sometimes we define "necessary" so narrowly as to exclude vital information. It's when we choose to refuse to acknowledge offbeat sources of information that we get in trouble, a la Galileo and the Catholic Church. That's an outstanding example, but it is human nature to screen out views that conflict with mainstream opinion. We see it locally with the polarized views about spraying herbicides to kill spartina ... and it may be decades before there's conclusive evidence for either side.

Once we've exhausted all the potential sources of information, the next step is checking our assumptions. When the students interviewed one of the homeowners he said he wanted a mudroom. When no one spoke up, Anthony asked, "What does the term 'mudroom' mean to you?" and the homeowner rattled off a long list of functions including a sink and pantry. The list surprised the students, who learned another step in critical thinking: Clarify terms, which leads to "Ask questions." "Mudroom" isn't a value-loaded term so we think we all have the same definition, but there are many terms that evoke emotional responses with high potential for conflict.

Part of critical thinking, then, is asking questions, and that makes people uncomfortable. That's probably why religious conservatives don't encourage critical thinking... it questions authority.

Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who was raised in a family where "because I said so" was rarely a parental response.

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