Thinking Matters: Critical Thinking Is Crucial for Success

Rapid advances in technology make it crucial that we not only learn new skill sets, but that we also continually assess the results and impacts of our new habits.
12/12/2014 03:48 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom" -- Isaac Asimov

Critical thinking, the ability to ask effective questions and formulate original solutions, is not an optional skill in the 21st century. Innovation is needed to solve the serious problems of global warming, economic crises, and food and water shortages. In addition, rapid advances in technology make it crucial that we not only learn new skill sets, but that we also continually assess the results and impacts of our new habits. This ability to learn, practice, and analyze is at the heart of critical thinking, which many consider the key to closing the wisdom gap in our country.

"A serious problem right now is the gap between our skill and our wisdom. Today, deep reflection about our future circumstances is eclipsed by the rush to build faster, cheaper, smarter, more-efficient gadgets ... Society's best brains are saturated with immediate issues that become ever more complex, rather than reflecting on why we are doing this and what the long-term consequences will be." -- James Martin, Oxford University

Critical thinking is self-directed, self-monitored, and self-corrective. It requires self-discipline to question new information and continuously analyze the results.

Nowhere is this more important than in the lives of our children. And according to Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, we are not succeeding in this task.

Ripley follows the journey of three American high school students who study abroad at countries with some of the best scores on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). This test is designed to measure critical thinking rather than just memorization skills.

In 2012, American teens ranked 27th in math among 34 nations. When the results are analyzed further, the test indicates that American students are performing poorly on questions associated with real world applications.

Our children are not able to take what they are learning and make it relevant to their lives. And this is not just a philosophical problem -- it is a real world disaster.

We can do better. We must do better. We must make learning skills more important than memorization skills. We must lead the world in educational excellence to succeed.

This is the challenge of our lifetime. As technological innovations advance rapidly, we are faced with a serious dilemma. Our children are finding traditional education less and less relevant to their lives. They would rather learn the latest coding tricks for their favorite game or talk about the newest way to download music. As adults we face challenges too. Many of us feel left behind if we can't keep up with the latest and greatest advances in technology. We are expected to produce fast, rather than get it right. Our senior citizens, rather than being revered for their wisdom and experience, are demoralized by their inability to navigate technology or perform at the speed demanded in our world.

Instant answers, rather than thoughtful consideration or better questions, are the new measure of success in our country. But instant answers usually measure just two things: the ability to memorize, or, the access to technology. Let's face it. We all have the answers, usually right on our phones, but many of us, especially in the younger generation, are falling behind in our ability to ask the right questions or analyze the answers we get.

"The public has learned that instant answer giving is the most important sign of an educated man." -Neil Postman

It's not about the gadgets. Most of us have access to technology. In fact, the more we are investing in the latest and greatest technology, the less we tend to invest in the greatest gadget of all: our minds.

It's not about the money. Ripley's book takes note of the impressive PISA results and education experience in Poland, a country who still suffers from a high poverty rate and spends half as much per student as the United States.

It's about the will to make learning matter. In South Korea, they ground jets on student testing days so that silence reigns during exams. In Finland, a top performer in almost every measure of educational success, science classes are capped at 16 students for maximum learning opportunities, and teachers are given the same status in society as doctors and lawyers.

It's about the wonder. We need to hear the phrase "I wonder..." more often and see the lowered eyelids of people staring at a screen for information less.

Leaders must be able to take information and make it relevant to their life. Teachers must be supported in the firm belief that school is for education, not gadgetry mastery, or even sports excellence.

We need to go back to the basics. We need to think.

Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein did not memorize their theories, they thought of them. The more we saturate our landscape with technology, the less we need to think.

Answers can be too easy to find.

We need to reignite will, wonder and wisdom. And we need to do it now.

"If I have done the public any service, it is due to my patient thought." -- Isaac Newton