Critical Thinking

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There’s more to a good grade than the right answer. There’s the thought process that led to it. Lauren John has this Perspective.

I teach English at a local college where this week a student asked for help with what we used to call a book report. Now it is called a critical essay.

“I showed this essay to three different classmates,” she said. “Each one made different changes. Now I’m really confused.”

Why had she come to me for a fourth opinion? She thought that since I was a teacher, I would instinctively know what her professor wanted her to write. If you teach or tutor, you are likely to hear the plea “just tell me the right answer so that I can get a good grade.” Parents may pay thousands to a company or coach that promises to teach kids the right way to “get schoolwork over with” and get into Stanford.

What happened to critical thinking? These days, our sports coaches are the best advocates for such analysis, because there is actually a game to win, in real time. Coaches are the ones asking tough questions with no easy answers. Why did we win? Why did we lose? What should we do next time?


I am helping a high school freshman prepare for his Advanced Placement European history exam. He is also a disciplined athlete. He understands that shortcuts don’t work. He also knows that even though I am the teacher, I don’t have all the answers. His world history grade this semester has averaged out to a B+. I asked if he was concerned that with all our work together he wasn’t getting A’s.

“No,” he said. “I just feel calmer about the class and the test. And talking it out first makes my essays better.”

Calm is good. Talking it out is good. And I hope that it translates into passing the AP exam. But more importantly, I hope that it leads to a thoughtful answer to questions like the one that we worked on for the textbook chapter on 20th century dictatorships.

Why would ordinary people support dictatorships that trampled on political freedoms and civil rights?

One theory: They wanted fast solutions, not critical thinking.

With a Perspective, I’m Lauren John.

Lauren John teaches English and critical thinking at Menlo College and after-school centers.