Logic gap

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 10:49pm


On a recent trip overseas, I was hiking up to a glacial lake with my wife when I asked her how to say the word 'tarn' in Cantonese. The resulting blank stare was expected, but this got me thinking about all the glacier-related terms stored away in my memory that I learned in my high school geography class.

'Tarn' is the exception. Many of the other terms, concepts, historical facts and mathematical formulas I learned in high school disappeared soon after the final exam. This begs the question: why do we spend so much time in high school learning concepts and formulas that we will never use again in life?

Yes, we have heard the arguments about how our youth needs a solid grounding in the basics of a wide variety of disciplines in order to become informed citizens. Although many of the facts and concepts learned in high school are not directly applicable to everyday practical needs, they still provide a foundation. Or so the argument goes.

We also often hear that critical thinking skills are honed via tasks and exercises in school. While we will never have to prove congruency between two triangles after leaving high school, the process of doing so sharpens our critical thinking skills.

True enough. But if this is the case, why not actually implement a class on critical thinking instead of peppering curriculum policy documents with the term in the hope that these skills will somehow rub off? Let's take an example of what such a course could offer.

One of the most disturbing critical thinking deficiencies is the confusion between correlation and causation. For instance, there is broad belief in society that vitamin C helps to cure a cold. I have had students mention to me that that it helped cure their colds.

It's a matter of fact that their colds would have disappeared at the same rate whether or not they had taken the vitamin C, given that there is no medical evidence that this vitamin can cure a cold. However, because they have consumed vitamin C, and this has coincided with the decline of their cold symptoms, they associate the two in a causative relationship. This basic error is commonly made by people on a myriad of events in life.

If there were a dedicated, mandatory subject on critical thinking, basic concepts such as this one would be explained. Other concepts such as base-rate neglect, regression to the mean, representativeness and the halo effect, all of which have an immediate impact on daily life, are a few more among many that students would be exposed to. Difficult concepts perhaps, but surely not as tough as the parametric equations taught in mathematics class. And certainly more applicable to everyday life.

Indeed, I appreciated knowing that a glacier carved out the tarn I saw recently. However, such knowledge pales when compared with the need to make informed and appropriate decisions in our daily interactions with people. Many of the critical thinking concepts mentioned above are non-intuitive and need to be taught. They are simply not acquired by way of studying mathematics or even liberal studies. In essence, if we are to instil critical thinking abilities in our youth, we need to establish a subject in which these abilities are taught.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education