Why Is Thinking Critically So Hard?

Educators have long known that attendance at college and even academic success is no guarantee that in all cases a student can graduate a successful thinker. There is a peculiar propensity for systematic analysis to stick to specific examples and categories of concerns. Thus, before starting calculations, a student may have learned to estimate the answer to a math problem as a way to check the accuracy of his answer, but in the chemistry laboratory, the same student calculates the components of a compound without noticing that his estimates are more than 100%.

And a student who has learned to reflect on the causes of the American Revolution from both the British and American perspectives does not even think of questioning how the Germans viewed World War II. Why are students capable of thinking critically in one situation, but not in another? The brief answer is: Processes of reasoning are associated with what is being contemplated. Let’s explore this in detail by looking at a specific type of System Thinking that has been extensively studied: problem-solving.

Imagine a math class of seventh grade immersed in word issues. How can students answer one problem, but not the next one, even though mathematically, all word problems are the same, that is, they depend on the same knowledge of mathematics? The students typically focus on the scenario described by the word problem (it’s surface structure) rather than on the mathematics needed to solve it (its deep structure).

So even though students have been taught how to solve a specific type of word problem, students still struggle to apply the solution when the teacher or textbook changes the scenario because they don’t recognize that the problems are mathematically the same.


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