Jeffrey Wagner is a Professor of Economics in the College of Liberal Arts. This month, he shares with us his engaging take on fostering critical thinking in students, using it to organize our thoughts regarding sustainability, and in our everyday lives. Read his answers to a few critical thinking questions here:
1. How do you teach applied critical thinking?
My teaching approach invites students to learn the economic concepts we study in class in the context of the work each of them is most interested in doing upon graduation. One strategy for promoting this approach is to ask students to prepare responses to exam questions in the format of a one-act play. Writing a one-act play that explains the applicability, strengths, and weaknesses of concepts we study is a pretty realistic way of conveying knowledge, beginning in our job interviews. I find that this format for exam questions provokes a lot of useful critical thinking—anticipating good questions and formulating insightful responses.
2. Why do you think applied critical thinking is important in your domain?
I am an economist and most economic challenges and feasible solutions involve both qualitative and quantitative factors. For example, when we think about consuming in more sustainable ways, there are important qualitative aspects such as trying to stay true to one’s overarching moral philosophy and there are also quantitative aspects (such as the fact that one only has so much time and income, and more sustainable options often cost more). Applied critical thinking skills help organize these different factors in ways that enable deliberate assessment. I think that this is important in order to feel as though we are living a life rather than feeling tugged along by life’s forces without sufficient agency.
3. Can you share a story where quality applied critical thinking was key to your success?
My favorite activity as a faculty member is to carry out publishable research studies with my undergraduate co-authors. The critical thinking that led me to begin working along these lines involved identifying how I could simultaneously be of service to my students beyond standard class work while also maintaining the pace of my research agenda. I gathered advice from more experienced faculty and I put elements of that advice into practice that works with my skill set. I discovered within my research agenda new opportunities where my undergraduate students’ interests could dovetail with mine—opportunities that would not likely have occurred without intentional critical thinking.
4. How do you use critical thinking in other areas of your life outside of RIT?
Two immediate examples are planning for retirement and trying to be a good parent. In both examples, we have part of our attention on the short-run and part on the (very) long-run. So it is not easy to identify all of one’s real options nor to imagine the full range of consequences of each choice. Critical thinking involves patiently sifting through permutations of possibilities to discover a best course—not just best in a mean/average sense, but taking into account how robust a choice might be to unexpected developments. Moreover, critical thinking involves not just reflecting upon what we know and perceive, but also formulating useful questions to ask and listening carefully to the feedback we receive. Applying my critical thinking skills helps me be comfortable with the choices I ultimately make.
5. Any last critical thoughts?
My own critical thinking skills continue to develop year after year; I learn new ways of thinking about problems all the time. So I urge students to anticipate that the development of these skills, and so many others, do not end—but rather start—with courses and degrees.