A template for critical thinking

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By John Riddell

You might recall that last week we touched on the subject of critical thinking skills being included on college syllabi with the underlying and false assumption that this important skill was being taught to college students.  
Interestingly enough, the Wall Street Journal on June 5 in an article written by a Douglas Belkin also addressed this issue. According to the article, freshmen and seniors at about 200 colleges across the United States take a little-known test every year to measure how much better they get at learning to think. At more than half the schools, at least one third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document or interpret data in a table.  
Given that the number of bachelor-degree earners has remained relatively steady at 2.8 million, this means that roughly 925,000 students are graduating every year totally deficient in critical-thinking skills. As a country, we are turning out “educated” citizens who lack the basic skills to sift through virtually any public policy debate.
Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in his seminal “Democracy in America” that he regarded an uneducated voter as the single biggest threat to democracy. When you look around today at the attacks on free speech, the attacks on the wealth generation, the willing acceptance of fake news, you have to conclude that he was on to something.
Drs. Richard Paul and Linda Elder in a pamphlet put out by The Foundation for Critical Thinking (www.criticalthinking.org) very nicely summed up our collective problem: “Everyone thinks it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly both in money and quality of life.  Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.”
Now obviously the tendency to engage in thinking that is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or downright prejudiced is not the sole domain of any one generation or political philosophy or party.  But when you look around today, there is no shortage of egocentric thinking on both sides of the aisle.
In the last article, I suggested that when you see or hear the word “allege,” simply stop reading or stop listening because to continue would be a waste of your time. But, of course, this does not address those articles and presentations that carefully avoid the word. Fortunately, I was able to come across a very handy template that will help anyone better analyze the logic of an argument. Simply follow the nine steps listed below and you will have done yourself a proper job with this sliver of critical thinking.
• The main purpose of this article is _____. (State as accurately as possible the author’s purpose for writing the article.)
• The key question that author is addressing is ____. (Figure out the key question in the mind of the author when the article was written.)
• The most important information in this article is ____. (Figure out the facts, experiences, data the author is using to support his/her conclusions.)
• The main inferences/conclusions in this article are ____. (Identify the key conclusions the author comes to and presents in the article.)
• The key concept(s) we need to understand in this article are ____. By these concepts the author means ____. (Figure out the most important ideas you would have to understand in order to understand the author’s line of reasoning.)
• The main assumption(s) underlying the author’s thinking is (are) ____. (Figure out what the author is taking for granted [that might be questioned].)
• If we take this line of reasoning seriously, the implications are ____. (What consequences are likely to follow if people take the author’s line of reasoning seriously?)
• If we fail to take this line of reasoning seriously, the implications are ___.(What consequences are likely to follow if people ignore the author’s reasoning?)
• The main point(s) of view presented in this article is (are) ____ (What is the author looking at, and how is she/he seeing it?)
Now if this appears to have the potential for a lot of mental work, it is because it can take some time and some definite energy. Clearly, no one has the inclination to apply this template to every article, but if you will just try it by applying it to one, I assure you that the results will be worth the effort.    

Following a successful international business career, John Riddell turned his attention to small-business/entrepreneurial pursuits that included corporate turnarounds, start-ups, teaching as an adjunct business school professor, authoring noted business and sports columns, and serving as vice president for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce directing its Center for Entrepreneurial Growth. E-mail him at jfriddell@msn.com. The former Georgetown resident now splits his time between Tennessee and Colorado.