Monday, January 11, 2010

The Science and Art of Effective Problem Solving

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled "Multicultural Critical Theory. At B School?," author Lane Wallace describes how, in light of the recent worldwide financial crisis, a large number of prominent American university business schools are rethinking their curricular offerings to include a greater focus on what was once seen as the cornerstone of not a business education but a liberal arts one: critical thinking. One aspect of such thinking that Wallace mentions is “problem framing,” whereby students are asked in their studies to "think more broadly, question assumptions, view problems through multiple lenses and learn from history.

Do students at NUS think critically? Do the modules they take require them to "think outside the box" and explore alternatives that might be shaped by a deep understanding of historical precedent or radical perspectives?

Further, do students think through complicated issues while taking into consideration any moral imperatives?

If you are an NUS student, I'd like to know what you think of your university education in the context of how this education has already facilitated your development of critical thinking skills.

To read the Wallace article, go here.


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Jason said...

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I'd like to exchange links with you to help spread some traffic around between each other. If you'd like to, please leave a comment under our "Compadres" page when you've added our link and we'll return the favor.

Until then, keep up the good work.


Daniel said...

Hey Brad,

How have you been? Hope to catch up with you real soon.

Well, let me put in my two cents worth about the Singapore education system, the NUS education system in particular. In most modules in Science, undergraduates are not really expected to question assumptions or whatever is taught by the lecturer. The lecturer is considered to be the specialist in the area and so students would tend to take what the lecturers impart as the truth. Although there are a handful of enthusiastic students in every class who will ask questions about the lecture content, many are either not thinking about other perspectives of the matter or they just do not bother.

However, I think students in Arts may have different experiences, let's see if any of them will get to comment on this post.

On a side note, I recently watched an interesting movie which discusses the different facets of communication, "Have you heard about the Morgans?". I think some of the scenes in which the movie was shot in Wyoming, USA would tug some heartstrings as I think it would be similar to Ohio. I appreciated the (mis)communications between citygoers and Wyoming-ers better after listening to your stories. Do catch it if you have the time.

Till we meet again,

Stephanie said...

Hi Brad! It's good to know that lecturers are concerned about "critical thinking" even in the university level. Such skills are already over-emphasised in secondary school and it is thought to be instilled in every student already.

I do agree with Daniel that most of the undergraduates from the Science faculty do not have as much opportunity to think outside of the box, simply because most things are just facts.

However, in the event of a hypothetical question, it provides any Science student equal opportunity to put on their thinking caps. An example is "how do we use materials science to cope with climate change?" The answer is not that obvious and is debatable.

From my personal experience here in NUS, I would agree that Arts modules engage every student in critical thinking. But, Science modules do too, in a different and subtle way. I have had "magical moments" of saying "Aha!" to a question after pondering for quite sometime. I guess those are times where I truly grasp the reward of education.

Deenise said...

I disagree that NUS modules do not promote critical thinking.Some NUS modules in NUS do promote critical thinking among students.But the problem is that students generally do not have the courage to speak up and discuss about their thoughts openly.In some of the science modules, some lecturers actually posed us a few thought-provoking questions during lecture.But none of the students dare to raise their hands up.Some students merely whisper their answers or thoughts to their friends softly,thinking that everyone else could hear them.I guess this is because we were not taught to think critically during our primary or secondary school education.In Singapore, the skills involving critical thinking seems to be introduced only during the later stages of education.

Jude Too Soon Yee said...

Daniel: I disagree with your stand about Science modules not encouraging critical thinking.

On a purely logical point of view, if one person could think out of the box by engaging in this class, everyone else should be able to do so as well assuming everyone is equally intelligent. So the problem now lies with the effort put in and like you have said, some just do not bother. Alternatively, you could deny that everyone is equally smart which is quite a far-fetched statement but that means intelligence is the problem. Neither of these two factors, intelligence and effort, has anything to do with the modules itself.

Stephanie: You mentioned that science students have lesser opportunities than arts students to think outside the box. Same problem different solution. That applies to science, arts and maybe life. I believe that the usual conception of arts students being more critical thinkers are merely due to subject bias. Daily issues, conversations and problems arising from social interactions rarely require like deep scientific knowledge. You do not see people talking like the guys in Big Bang Theory. However, general knowledge from readings, theories from sociology amongst others would be something very common. To say it in a least formal way, the ball is in their court. The "ball" is in the realm of the arts. Bring the battle to the science platform and I am sure the scientists will make sure you are in for a surprise. Briliance is equally brilliant everywhere, you just have to find it.

Glenn said...

Hi, i personally agree with Daniel. The education system in Singapore very often feeds students with the answers and information rather than letting the students think and find the answers for themselves. This to some extend has led to just testing on how much you can memorise rather than your understanding. i guess that's why we don't produce exceptionally brillant people.

i'm a lousy student myself. just my thoughts.

Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks, guys, for responding to this post. Each of you has your own experience and views, which are reflected in the variety of answers. Each one is valid for different reasons.

In such a discussion, one might even start by asking what it means to "think out of the box"?

The next question might be this: what does it mean to think critically?

The Wallace article touches on that definition. (Did you read the article before responding?)

Whatever the case, in the wide range of different modules you've all taken, throughout the subjects discussed, I make the assumption that critical thinking is an important skill set, and we will be focusing on developing that set of skills in ES2007S.

kun lin said...

In NUS there is one module (EG1413 - Critical thinking and writing) that is made compulsory for all engineering students. However I am ashamed to say that I have returned most of the knowledge back to my tutor.

From what I remember, thinking critically is the ability to analyze the situation in an unbiased manner. In the above module, we were tested in our abilities to write a critique for an article and pinpoint the fallacies that the author used.

alvin then said...

Hi Brad,

looking at both myself and my friends, I am sad to say that critical thinking is never part of our dictionary.

Perhaps it might be due to the way we Singaporeans are brought up. We were taught since young to achieve the best grades possible. And so we learnt that the end product is more important than the process itself. Thinking more than what we are required to in school is deem as redundant. Afterall, why bother so much thinking 'out of the box' when it is not required of during exams. As such, the education system has in a way prevented our desire and urge to perform critical thinking.

A few years back, MOE decided to embark on new strategy- "teach less, learn more". However, till today students still find themselves memorising content materials. Perhaps it is time we pursue the need for students to think critically instead of memorising and regurgitating plain facts.


Anna, group 3 ES2007S said...

Interesting post. I often get frustrated when reading the articles required for the tutorials in ES2007S. Many of them set up certain rules for certain situations, and then we are to apply these rules on the dynamic art of communication. But reality isn't that simple according to me.Communication could be anything, so is it possible to narrow it down to for example the 7 Cs?

That's where the critical thinking comes in. To apply the rules given, analyze the situation and context. Try to think outside the box. Maybe there's an 8th C for your unique situation.