An Exercise in Critical Thinking

Over the last seven years, while teaching at the Army’s Command & General Staff College, I strove to ensure my students departed as better critical thinkers than when they arrived.

critical thinking (n): the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion (1)

One aspect of critical thinking is looking at the situation from another perspective. Numerous phrases describe this problem solving approach: “put yourself in the other person’s shoes”, “think outside the box”, “think like the enemy”, etc.

Early on in the course, usually within the first two months, I presented a vignette to test how well they used that approach. The results, from over a dozen iterations, clearly revealed a failure to apply that approach to everyday decision making.  Below is the executive summary of my vignette, as sent to BG Mark O’Neill (then CGSC Deputy Commandant) in August 2006.

Executive Summary

A Colonel is briefing a group of Majors and they are very restless because they’ve all heard the exact same brief in the recent past.  The Colonel doesn’t know they have received it, but has noticed they are inattentive.  Eight have passouts saying they are one of the Majors, the other eight are the Colonel.  There are two choices that boil down to: A) raise hand and interrupt or B) do nothing.  Inevitably, a majority of the “Colonels” choose A and a majority of the “Majors” choose B.

Execution

Assuming a staff group of 16 students, I print out 8 of each of the two handouts (student.doc and cos.doc).  I then pass them out on separate sides of the room.  By splitting them up that way, it helps to minimize the chance of comparison between students next to each other and discovering the handouts are different.  Also, during the follow on discussion, it is easier to compare the two groups (“this side of the room said…”, for example).

TTP: If there is a LTC student (perhaps the section leader), or some other known strong personality, I’ll pass out the Colonel handouts on that side.  That person may be more likely than the others to consider the other point of view if assigned as the Major. [TTP = Tactics, Techniques & Procedures]

This is not tied to any particular lesson, just a hip pocket CE that I bring in sometime early in C200. When I do this, I usually do it as the very beginning of the first hour. [CE = Concrete Experience] [C200 was Strategy block of instruction in the core curriculum]

Prior to passing out the handouts, I tell them that it is to be done with no talking, write their answer on the sheet of paper and turn it over when they are done so that I know they are finished.  (Again, doing that to minimize possibility of compromising the “secret” that they have different sheets.)  I then put up the Power Point slide (choices.ppt) and wait for them to finish.

When they are done, I ask:  “How many chose A?” and/or “How many chose B?”  Then I’ll go to the side of the Majors, and ask one of them why they chose “B” (do nothing); after that I’ll do the same with one of the “Colonels” and ask them why they chose the “A” option. Somewhere during this process one or more of them may figure out that they are answering from different points of view.  If not, I lead them to it by asking “Why do you think there was such a divergence in the answers?”

At the end, I relate it back to CR/CT by emphasizing that when faced with a problem or dilemma, they are still not habitually looking at things from a different point of view. For if they had, nearly all of them would have chosen the “A” option.  (Usually I make this melodramatic, pointing out how “I failed” as their CR/CT instructor, etc.)

See my Critical Thinking Exercise presentation on SlideShare for more information, including instructions and materials necessary to execute the exercise.

(1) Dictionary.com, “critical thinking,” in Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon. Source location: Dictionary.com, LLC. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/critical thinking. Available: http://dictionary.reference.com. Accessed: August 15, 2009.

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About @subbob
Launched an innovative business development and marketing solutions company in July 2011 after a 25 year career in government service. In 2005 our family completed a goal of visiting all of the lower 48 States; up next, adding Alaska and Hawaii to complete the list.

5 Responses to An Exercise in Critical Thinking

  1. Mark Crowson says:

    Hi, Bob. I think there are explanations for your observed results other than “not habitually looking at things from another point of view”, and so I take issue with the assertion that practically everyone in the habit of looking at things from another point of view would choose option A.

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