The imminent death of critical thinking

When someone asks you for “the damned forms I’ve got to fill out to get a project started,” there are one of two issues at play — either the forms don’t add any value to the process, and need to be modified or eliminated or, more ominously, you’ve got people (or you are one of these people) who won’t or can’t do the critical thinking that the process, and the subsequent forms, is trying to encourage.

Number one is fixable, but number two is a serious problem that is becoming more prevalent. And I think I know why: our institutions of higher learning are doing students a considerable disservice by not demanding critical thinking in their work.

Example: a typical assignment in my class would ask students to look at a specific area of project management practice in a specific industry and write a paper about it, accompanied by a significant in-class presentation. What do I look for specifically? A paper and presentation that reflects the student’s ability to compare and contrast:

1. their own experience

2. their research

3. what they’ve learned in class

And I ask them to think through what they’ve learned from the exercise, to make observations, to draw conclusions, and then to make recommendations about improved practices in the chosen industry.

Seems fairly straightforward, right? Not to the undergrads I’ve seen lately.

Ask undergrads to do the same thing, and they’ll say (and I’m quoting here): “Compare and contrast — what do you mean by that?” or “What do you mean ‘draw conclusions and make recommendations?'” and then almost invariably “Is this on the test?”

Maybe they’re just trying to annoy me. If so, it’s working. To anybody who says that there is no such thing as a dumb question, here is my refutation. Those are dumb questions, no matter how you cut it.

My initial response? I want to take them by their young throats and yell: “Compare and contrast, dammit! I’m certain that both of those words are in any &^%#$^&*^ dictionary! You do know how to use a dictionary, don’t you?”

It’s made worse by a teaching system that defines success strictly based on marks, marks too often derived from a series of multiple choice tests that encourage students to gorge themselves with non-contextual data, tick off the right box, and then dump everything they’ve memorized before the next non-contextual, multiple-choice exam.

We’re turning out mark-driven technocrats who can think, but they can’t bloody well think. And they’ll all be in the workforce sooner or later. God help us.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, in IT or otherwise should be made to take a course or two in logic and philosophy before they graduate from anything. I think they should also be required to learn how to polish their own shoes, tie a tie with a well-centred double Windsor knot, and make a decent martini too, but that’s another column entirely…

And then I hear that the universities are giving up on take-home papers and essays because plagiarism is running rampant, and because students can too easily copy assignments off of the Internet.

Give up? Not me: my students get marked on presentations in class and sometimes in-class (non-multiple choice) exams — and I assign ’em research on very specific areas that are tough to plagiarize. And I make ’em stand and deliver on their papers — present, defend, and critique the work of others — all of the things that I expect them to be able to do when they get out in the working world.

It’s all part of critical thinking, and it’s a beautiful thing. If you’re someone who doesn’t know how, or has no desire to, be thankful you’re not in my class. And I’ll be thankful you’re not working in the same IT shop I am.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at

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