Last year Reebok was forced to refund $25 million to customers who purchased their EasyTone toning shoes after research published by the American Council on Exercise found that the toning shoes were no better than regular sneakers at toning muscles or burning calories (Porcari, Greany, Tepper, Edmonson, Foster, & Anders, 2011). The incredible popularity of the toning shoes (even with no evidence of their effectiveness) illustrates the need for critical thinking among consumers who face an onslaught of marketing campaigns that seek to persuade them to purchase things that are ‘good’ for them. Consumers who can think critically about sensational product claims may have saved themselves the $100-$245 expense of purchasing these faux-fitness shoes. Critical thinkers should also make better decisions about other aspects of life, for example, in the context of important financial, legal, medical, and interpersonal decisions.
Over the last several decades, educators, employers, and organizations around the world have expressed concern about student preparedness for a 21st century world (e.g., Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010; Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011; Galagan, 2010; Halpern, 2010b; Hunt, 1995). In response to these concerns an increased emphasis on the training of critical thinking skills has been incorporated into international education standards (European Higher Education Area, 2011; Redden, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2006).
Critical thinking has been defined in many differt ways (e.g., Halpern, 2003; Moseley et al. 2005; Sternberg, Roediger, & Halpern, 2007), but experts generally agree that critical thinking involves an attempt to achieve a desired outcome by thinking rationally and in a goal-oriented fashion. Recently, Stanovich argued that critical thinking is what intelligence tests fail to adequately measure (Stanovich, 2009; Stanovich & West, 2008). This idea echoes the general consensus among researchers that intelligence and critical thinking are separate constructs, but share at least one common attribute – they are difficult to adequately assess.
One relatively new test of critical thinking ability, the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment (HCTA) moves beyond the limitations of previous multiple-choice tests by combining both open-ended and multiple-choice questions, and by assessing thinking in relation to daily, easy-to-relate-to situations (Ku, 2009). It is a standardized instrument that consists of 25 everyday scenarios that respondents analyze and critique. The scenarios involve thinking in various life domains including health, education, work, and social policy. The test is also coded for a variety of thinking skills, including (a) verbal reasoning skills, (b) argument analysis skills, (c) hypothesis testing skills, (d) likelihood and uncertainty judgment skills, and (e) decision making and problem solving skills.
A number of studies have established the reliability and validity of the HCTA (c.f. Halpern, 2010a) using a variety of methodologies (e.g., correlational, pretest-posttest experimental designs), with respondents that vary widely in education level (e.g., high school students, community college students, state university students, private liberal arts students, graduate students, community adults) and with participants from numerous countries (e.g., China, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, United States, Viet Nam, etc.). Consistent with other assessments of critical thinking, much of validity evidence for the HCTA is based on the prediction of academic achievement scores (e.g., grades, standardized test scores). However, critical thinking skills should predict more than academic outcomes. We make 100s of decisions each day that are likely to be influenced by our critical thinking ability. At the very least, we would expect critical thinkers to avoid certain negative life outcomes.
A series of recent studies have examined the relationship between critical thinking and real-world outcomes of critical thinking (Butler, in press; Butler et al., 2012) using an adapted version of an inventory of life events created by de Bruin, Parker, and Fischhoff (2007). This self-report inventory measures negative life outcomes from many domains (e.g., interpersonal, business, financial, interpersonal) that vary in severity from mildly negative (e.g., paying late fees for a movie rental) to severely negative (e.g., foreclosure on a home). The recent studies by Butler and colleagues sought to expand the validity of the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment (HCTA) cross-nationally and to determine whether HCTA scores predicted real-world outcomes of critical thinking.
The findings were clear: In both the United States and the Republic of Ireland, those with higher critical thinking scores reported fewer negative life events than those with lower critical thinking scores. While this is bad news for people with lower critical thinking scores, the good news is that that critical thinking can be improved through instruction (see Chance, 1986; Halpern, 2003; Moseley et al., 2005; Nisbett, 1992). Future research could explore the causal link between critical thinking and real-world outcomes of critical thinking, with special emphasis on the role of education and behavioral outcomes.
In a world that is more complex and technical with each passing day, thinking critically about the information we consume is of the utmost importance. The evidence suggests that critical thinking scores can predict real-world outcomes and thus we need to appreciate that critical thinking is more than simply the new buzz word in education. Critical thinking is critical for life success. The good news is that there is a plethora of evidence that critical thinking skills can be taught and learned – critically important news coming at a critical time in history.
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