The Emerging Crisis in Critical Thinking

Today's college students all too often struggle with real world problem solving.

Posted Mar 21, 2017

The mid- to late-1990s witnessed the rise of misguided attempts to arti­ficially accelerate brain development in children. Parents began force-feeding infants and toddlers special “educational” DVDs and flash cards in the hopes of taking advantage of unique features of the developing brain to “hardwire genius” by the age of three—or even younger. Since then, it has become increasingly clear that the brain science of “critical periods” and “neural plasticity” has been grossly misunderstood and that efforts to artifi­cially harness these important features of brain development by accelerating and distorting real-world learning beyond all reason are not producing the promised results. Recent years have seen only an acceleration of this trend, with parents and teachers adopting rote learning and “baby genius” style activities.

The ­ first generation of children educated under the “earlier is better,” “wire the brain,” and “baby genius” methodology is now graduating from high school and college, so we can examine the results of these techniques. Unfortunately, rather that creating a generation of “super geniuses” there are emerging reports that although modern students are quite adept at memorizing and regurgitating facts presented in class or in reading materials, the ability to reason, think critically, and problem solve has actually been dramatically reduced in recent years.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported, “On average, students make strides in their ability to reason, but because so many start at such a [critical thinking] de­ficit, many still graduate without the ability to read a scatterplot, construct a cohesive argument or identify a logical fallacy”1.  

Similarly, in their book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa studied twenty-four hundred college students at twenty-four different universities over a four-year period2. They reported that critical thinking and other skills such as writing were no longer progressing during college as compared to previous generations of students.

In an interview with NPR, Arum sounded the alarm as to why we should be concerned about these ­ findings: “Our country today is part of a global economic system, where we no longer have the luxury to put large numbers of kids through college and university and not demand of them that they are developing these higher order skills [such as critical thinking] that are necessary not just for them, but for our society as a whole.” 3 Arum and Roksa describe a number of factors that may be contributing to this decline in critical thinking skills, including pressure on college faculty to make lessons easier in order to get higher course evaluations for their classes.

Why is this happening? What is causing the dearth of thinking ability in young adults, especially after the Herculean efforts parents made during infancy and early childhood to ensure optimal brain development? One possible explanation is that these college students and recent graduates were on the forefront of the “earlier and earlier education is better” and “rote learning” approaches to teaching preschoolers and even toddlers and babies. Perhaps they—and their developing brains—have been programmed in a way that actually inhibits reasoning, critical thinking, and problem solving. In essence, these children—and their developing brains—have been “wired” from an early to memorize and retrieve “facts” on demand, but not to think or reason. Indeed, it is likely that the kind of learning that fosters these skills—namely, intuitive parenting4—has been displaced by parenting and teaching styles that overemphasize “teaching to the test,” and treat developing young minds as if they are computer “hard drives” to be inscribed using rote memorization.

Unfortunately, the reported decline in thinking ability is occurring at a time when there are increasing shortages of quali­fied candidates for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Indeed, a young adult whose brain has been “wired” to be innovative, think critically, and problem solve is at a tremendous competitive advantage in today’s increasingly complex and competitive world. Because of this, parents should consciously seek to foster independence, problem solving, critical thinking, and reasoning in their young children. This can be done by implementing an intuitive developmental “dance” between parents and their developing children; which provides everything needed to foster and nurture proper brain development and automatically yields hundreds of thousands of learning opportunities during critical learning periods.

It is vital to bear in mind that the acquisition of problem-solving skills is the direct result of children’s immature, incomplete, and often incorrect attempts to engage with the world that trigger authentic feedback and consequences. Rather than being psychologically damaging events, a child’s unsuccessful attempts are actually opportunities for them to learn persistence and resilience—as well as how to think when things don’t work out quite as they hoped. Indeed, “failure” and overcoming failure are essential events that trigger that neurological development that underpins thinking ability: Opportunities for a child to try—and to fail and then try again—are a crucial part of learning and brain development and should be sought out rather than avoided.

It is time to rethink early childhood priorities—and refocus our efforts as parents and as teachers—to emphasize critical thinking and problems solving and to abandon misguided attempts to induce pseudo-learning using “baby genius” products and “teaching to the test” educational materials. In the long run, short term “tricks” that artificially—and temporarily—boost test scores are no match for intuitive parenting and effective teaching; which convey a lifelong competitive advantage by providing a solid foundation for critical thinking and problem solving.

1. Douglas Belkin, “Test Finds College Graduates Lack Skills for White-Collar Jobs,” Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/test -­ nds-many-students-ill-prepared-to-enter-work-force-1421432744.

2. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).  

3. “A Lack of Rigor Leaves Students ‘Adrift’ in College,” Morning Edition, NPR, February 9, 2011, http://www.npr.org/2011/02/09/133310978/in-college -a-lack-of-rigor-leaves-students-adrift.

4. Stephen M. Camarata (2015). The Intuitive Parent. New York: Current/Penguin/Random House.