A Note on Critical Thinking

Miller, S. A. E., “Note on Critical Thinking,” NASA Alumni Association Magazine, Dec., 2022. pp 5. (one-page)

One might visit any leading university campus in the United States and ask the graduate faculty training future researchers one question, “what is the purpose of educating students?” One of the most frequent answers is to create critical thinkers. An obvious follow-up question is, “how do you create critical thinkers?” More opinions are presented than there are graduate faculty.

We live in a marvelous time where the majority of knowledge is accessible within a minute. Using a pocket computer (cell phone), we can query any question and have the answer almost immediately. We are able to create artwork, essays, poetry, and simple mathematical proofs with emergent machine learning technology.

Often today, when students are faced with problems in the university classroom such as design, mathematics, religious studies, fluid dynamics, economics, art, English, or even creating a poem, students almost unanimously and immediately reach for their pocket computer.

But what does the growing mind do when faced with an ill-posed problem or one that is well-posed but without a solution? In my own experience teaching students, there is often a range of human reactions that have included confusion, frustration, anger, fear, humiliation, and many others. These are emotions to be celebrated, because they represent a reaction from the student of being pushed outside their boundaries and intellectual comfort zone.

Here, students are no longer in the K-12 or early university environment, which lay out lesson plans in carefully constructed curriculums where problems and answers are well-defined. Educated wise minds should be fortunate to be in the position of not knowing or understanding something. As it represents an opportunity to define and solve a problem that challenges us as a people.

If our goal is to create a society where ideas are openly discussed, debated, and used for the benefit of our people, then training critical thinkers are essential. We cannot have a ‘mob’ mentality where ideas are repeated without being criticized.

The computer and Internet are a miracle of our age. These technologies have advanced the world civilization beyond all recent predictions and comprehension. However, we have come to be addicted to these tools as a people. They have created an intellectual handicap and have limited our creativity and critical thinking. It is no wonder that in recent years scores nationwide in mathematics have dropped significantly [1]. As students are using online groups and past homework solutions to ‘ace’ their courses.

I continually ask students in my own research group and classes to perform analyses on their own. They are required to close their laptop, turn off their phone, find a quiet room alone, define the problem, and attempt a solution on a blank piece of paper with a pen. I ask that they write down the laws of motion and examine the variation of a physical phenomenon.

Often a student will use every technique and manipulative emotion to not use their own mind. Instead of presenting their own ideas and analyses, they return to an unfortunate habit of seeking answers online that do not exist.

This is the core beginning of training critical thinkers – to overcome their fear of being wrong, to present their ideas with welcome criticism, and to challenge the status quo. The idea of critical thought is completely foreign to students, as no one has demanded they think critically.

Technology should allow us to enhance critical thinking, but not replace it. We must teach students to use technology in conjunction with their most useful resource, which is their own mind. The solution is simple – first, use our minds to think critically and independently without technology, and use technology for what it is – a tool.


[1] Mervosh, S. and Wu, A., “Math Scores Fell in Nearly Every State, and Reading Dipped on National Exam,” New York Times, Oct. 24, 2022.