The “Analytical Skill” and “Critical Thinking”

The “Analysis Skill” is the skill one uses to process the information he/she has collected into something that he/she can actually use with confidence. The “Analysis Skill” may also be termed, “Critical Thinking,” and I use them interchangeably.

The analysis process itself is rather simple in concept. After collecting and testing the information for validity and truth, he/she then performs the task of determining what that information – those “facts” – actually mean. This is the process of developing “findings.”

Once the “findings” are developed, he/she can then develop “conclusions” based on those findings (which, in turn, are based on the validated facts).

From the “conclusions,” he/she then can build with some confidence a set of  “recommendations” or action steps necessary to address the needs of a problem.

In essence:

Data → Information → Validated Facts → Findings → Conclusions → Recommendations

The analytical skill is used daily by nearly everyone in making decisions ranging from the very simple to the enormously complex. For example, one needs to engage the mind:

• to determine which way to walk to the grocery store;
• to determine what sort of automobile to purchase;
• to decide whom to marry;
• to decide whether or not to vote on a bill in Congress;
• to decide whether or not to vote to approve a war.


P → Q

This notation dates back to antiquity. Simply put, it says, “”P implies Q; P is asserted to be true, so therefore Q must be true.” It is one of the simplest expressions of symbolic logic – it’s easy to remember – and it can be a helpful friend to help clarify your thinking.

If “P” is true (i.e., your hypothesis is true) then you can infer that “Q” (your conclusion) will be true. If “P” is NOT TRUE (i.e., your data is faulty or you are just assuming it to be true on faith), then “Q” can be either true or untrue. With a faulty hypothesis, you can draw any conclusion you wish.

There are many books written about logic and the entire subject can become quite complicated. As a basic guide to clear thinking, however, it helps you sort out good thinking from bad thinking.

It is NOT valid, however, that to assume the converse is true. That is, if “P” implies “Q,” it does not follow that “Q” will imply “P.” It might – but don’t count on it.

I remember being introduced to symbolic logic in a first year mathematics course at Carleton College. We spent an entire semester fiddling with far more complicated derivations from this little syllogism, and while I was rather adept at understanding all the permutations and combinations at the time, the only thing that stuck with me over the years was P → Q. That was enough.

Over the past five years or so, recognition of the need to equip our students with the “Analysis Skill” (Critical Thinking and P → Q) has been the spark that initiated the development and implementation of the Common Core Standards in K-12 curriculum.

The “Analysis Skill” and the “Information Skill” are closely related with the “Information Skill” gaining new importance simply because of the ease at which large volumes of information may be accessed simply by clicking the mouse in Google. The information skill is a necessary prerequisite for use of the analysis skill simply because the analysis skill is totally dependent upon accurate information at the beginning of the analytical process.

Once the information relating to an issue under study is gathered and verified, the process of developing “findings” takes place.

A “FINDING” consists of a statement relevant to the issues being addressed and is derived entirely from the facts learned during the data collection process. Findings are used as the foundation from which conclusions regarding the issues may be drawn. Findings are the RESULTS of an investigation.

“CONCLUSIONS” are statements of closure about issues under examination. They are developed entirely from FINDINGS and are supported at all levels by the FACTS. They are the “Q’s” in the logical expression “P implies Q,” and in order to be true, the “P’s” have to be true. Therefore, the entire process of developing conclusion is based on the fact that the FINDINGS have been developed carefully from the facts.

Be careful NOT to confuse a “Finding” from a “Fact” or a “Finding” from a “Conclusion.” FINDINGS tell you what the FACTS mean; CONCLUSIONS are statements of closure and are inferences drawn from the FINDINGS which are dependent on the truth and accuracy of the FACTS.

RECOMMENDATIONS are the “action steps” an individual should take to resolve the issues of the Field Study. The Recommendations are based ONLY on the findings and conclusions developed from the data collection process. By definition, Recommendations should be worthy of endorsement and implementation.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines a well cultivated critical thinker as able to:

• “Raise vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;

• Gather and assess relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;

• Come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards’

• Think open mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and

• Communicate effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

The foundation concludes by writing “Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It requires rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcoming our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.”

The analysis skill and critical thinking are hard to teach. Typical “teaching to the test” does not even come close to stimulating an analytical mind; and teachers who do the traditional lecturing of facts while having students take notes do not ignite the thought process unless they engage in open discussion with the class. Such engagement requires a very confident teacher who has strong listening skills and who can guide a discussion effectively.

The most powerful method of teaching the analytic or critical thinking skill is the “Socratic method” where students are engaged in discussion about questions asked of them – not regurgitating facts coming from a lecture. This is the method upon which the Harvard Business School is built. Students are engaged in three complex case studies each day where there may or may not be any right answers. The learning comes from knowing what is in the case and then engaging in guided debate about what the case means, what one can conclude, and what action the individual about whom the case is written should do. Students also typically have 4-5 years of business experience before attending the school, so part of their discussion and arguments are based on what they have learned and share from that experience.

Another powerful method of teaching not only the analytical skill but the other “critical skills” is the “Field Study.”

A “Field Study” is a project conducted by a team of students to address a problem or issue in the “real world” under faculty supervision.
Field Studies are rigorous projects designed to enable students to practice the “Critical Skills” while working productively with an educational partner in the real world. Such a project should have real value for the educational partner and contribute meaningfully to each student who participates as a member of the Field Study team.
Field Studies offer a kind of educational experience that is quite different from the traditional classroom. Students must deal with data that is often incomplete, sometimes unclear, and quite often not definitive. There are no multiple choices from which to pick a “right answer,” and more often than not, the problem or issues to be addressed need to be defined by the students themselves.
Field Studies are not designed to make experts of students in the subject matter of what the project is about. For example, students may or may not have an interest in medical science or health care in order to benefit from practicing the “Critical Skills” with a medical practice or, for that matter, with any other kind of business.
It is the PROCESS that is being taught and practiced – the process of defining a problem, gathering data, analyzing the data, developing findings, conclusions and recommendations, and communicating the results clearly.
Field Studies are highly appropriate for the college-bound student. Field Studies require the students to formulate a problem, break it down into its component parts, determine the issues to be addressed, determine the data needed to address the issues, develop interview guides, conduct fact to face interviews, analyze data, develop findings, conclusions and recommendations, prepare a written and oral report, and present the report.
Field Studies involve problems and issues that confront owners and operators of small businesses and not for profit organizations. They require teamwork by participating students, an understanding of how to define a problem in order that it may be solved, how to determine what information is necessary to analyze a problem, how to obtain that information, how to analyze a problem, and how to present results in a clear, logical and persuasive manner.
Although the final field study product may appear clear and simple, field studies are not easy to conduct. They require a different kind of thinking that students are accustomed to using in both high school and college classes – they require an understanding of how to gather, analyze, use, apply and present information, identify fact from fiction, and develop findings, conclusions and recommendations. They require clearly written and articulate oral reports.
Field Studies are process driven. The content of a field study is usually less important than the process by which the Field Study is conducted. Experiencing the process itself is the ultimate goal of a field study project for students at all levels of secondary and higher education.
Field Studies come in all forms, sizes and shapes – limited primarily by the level of the student team’s ability and the ability of the faculty to supervise. Experience with Field Studies at the high school level suggests that while students are capable of high performance, the scope of the field study should be rather narrow and kept at a level where the problem may be solved or the issue addressed completely. The level of sophistication of the Field Study must not be beyond the students’ ability to succeed in the process of conducting the study.
Field Studies are not easy, but they are not “student limited.” Students have proved time and time again that they have the capability to conduct such projects. Rather, Field Studies seem to be “teacher limited” in two ways:
• many teachers do not have the requisite training to supervise such projects;
• teachers are focused on standardized test scores.
Those limitations, however, do not excuse the schools or teachers from conducting rich learning experiences. Field Studies will be described in detail and a sample provided in Chapter 13.

The Common Core Standards

My own view of the Common Core Standards is that they are an attempt to enable students to exercise their communications skills, sort through data and information, do some analysis, and, in general, practice the “Critical Skills.” That makes me a supporter of the effort.

The most appropriate definition of the Common Core Standards is provided through the frequently asked questions about the Common Core on their website:

What is the Common Core?

“State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”
Why are the Common Core State Standards important?

“High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live. These standards are aligned to the expectations of colleges, workforce training programs, and employers. The standards promote equity by ensuring all students are well prepared to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad. Unlike previous state standards, which varied widely from state to state, the Common Core enables collaboration among states on a range of tools and policies, including the:

• Development of textbooks, digital media, and other teaching materials;

• Development and implementation of common comprehensive assessment systems that replace existing state testing systems in order to measure student performance annually and provide teachers with specific feedback to help ensure students are on the path to success;

• Development of tools and other supports to help educators and schools ensure all students are able to learn the new standards.”

Initially the Common Core Standards were adopted by 43 states, but recent and highly vocal opposition has caused a few states to drop out and to pursue either their own standards or none at all. The arguments against the Common Core Standards come from teachers who resist the reality of required retraining, parents and schools who resist the newly developed assessment processes, and from political opponents who resist anything stemming from the Federal government (even though the standards were developed by the states).

When one does an internet search to determine the pros and cons of critical thinking or the analysis skill, the results are rather empty. There simply aren’t many (if any) cons about the ability to think clearly.

In 2012, the Texas GOP came up with some that, quite frankly, were a bit terrifying but provided excellent fodder for television comedians. The Texas GOP platform reads as follows:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

OMG! I find it difficult to comment on this other than to wonder what the Texas GOP actually does advocate.

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