light bulbDoes critical thinking always have to be critical?

I’ve been teaching at Johns Hopkins (the MA/Communication program) for some years now. I started out teaching in person, but now I teach both my classes completely online. As such, class discussions take place in online forums. And to make sure students actually log in and, you know, have a discussion, many of these forums are graded.

My students are given detailed rubrics that tell them how their comments will be graded, explaining what an “excellent” post is, as opposed to a “good” or “average” one. And typically, at the start of the semester, I have to remind them to post quality comments – comments that provide a helpful and useful critique of their fellow classmates posts and discussions, as opposed to simply being effusive and flattering.

I had to do this just a couple of days ago, and I know it hit home. Because yesterday, as I was going through the discussion boards, a comment one of the students had made stood out to me. He was very complimentary towards his classmate’s post, and said he was having a hard time finding something to make a “critical point” about.

That was a very sweet comment. But it did leave me wondering whether he was confusing being critical with thinking critical.

Critical thinking is one of the most important goals in education. Some would say it is the most important goal when it comes to education; else we’re just teaching, and learning how to become, automatons that don’t have an original bone in our body. And it is the ability to think critically that determines, to a large extent, how successful we are in our careers.

Critical thinking is what sets really good strategists apart from the crowd. It’s the ability to evaluate pros and cons, and communicate them effectively and efficiently. It’s the confidence to steer clients in a direction more aligned with the organization’s strategy. It’s the willingness to state a reasoned opinion that you know is in the best interest of the client… even if they are so caught up with the nitty-gritty that they can’t see it right away.

Critical thinking does not always equate to being negative. Sometimes, yes, we have to say things clients may not like. But it also means clearly identifying what is working, and explaining why, so that we can work better, work smarter.

We live and deal with a vocabulary that has become highly-charged. If one is always critical, of course that’s going to wear on one. But let’s not confuse being critical with thinking critical.

In communication, and in business, critical thinking is, well, critical.