The Importance of Critical Thinking

July 25, 2013 — Theodore Marotta

 On my first day of high school English, as the class settled in and the noisy end-of-summer conversation reached its crescendo, our new teacher strode confidently into the room and said these words: “The name of the game is Molly and Ned.  You can only ask me ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.  The name of the game is Molly and Ned.”

Huh?  My classmates and I exchanged uncomfortable glances.  An agonizingly awkward silence ensued.  Our teacher stared at us with a halfway grin.  We waited for something—anything—to break the silence.  Finally, he said it again: “The name of the game is Molly and Ned.  You can only ask me ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.  The name of the game is Molly and Ned.”

Now I was feeling more than a bit unsettled, and I could tell that my friends were, too.  I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. What was going on here?  Were we going to be graded on this?  This was an English class.  Shouldn’t we be talking about The Great Gatsby or something?  Was this guy crazy?  Finally someone raised a tentative hand.  “Is there a point to this game?” she asked.  “Yes!” our teacher replied enthusiastically.  Another student raised a hand.  “Is this game winnable?” he asked.  “No!” our teacher thundered, rubbing his hands together.  Okay, now we were getting somewhere.

What followed was an intense, engaging, often frustrating hour.  We peppered our teacher with questions, sometimes feeling closer to the end of the maze, sometimes feeling even more lost.  Some students sat back and crossed their arms.  Some had that obvious moment of joyful discovery, gasping with delight, eyes opening wide, their expressions saying, “I’ve got it!”  By the end of the class, some students still hadn’t figured out the name of the game (feel free to contact me if you want to know the answer! ted.marotta@fmcc.edu), but we talked about it for days afterward.  I have never forgotten it.  It was my first conscious exposure to an exercise in critical thinking.

I bring this memory with me to classroom teaching at FM.  Critical thinking is a skill that is vital to every FM student, and to all of us, as we forge our way through this complex and often ambiguous world.  Fierce global competition has made the pursuit of a career ever more challenging, and encouraging critical thinking in our students gives them a crucial edge. 

As a history instructor, I focus on getting beyond what happened and delve into the more complex, nuanced, and difficult questions of why and how.  Often there is no clear answer.  Often it means enduring an awkward silence.  But once that first tentative hand goes up, and the glimmers of curiosity appear on students’ faces, the awkward silences become well worth enduring.  When our students shed that age-old impulse to ask, “Are we being graded on this?” and instead develop an appreciation for the value of an inquisitive mind and how to use it effectively, then I believe strongly that we have equipped them well for a competitive world. 

Theodore Marotta is a History Instructor at FM. 

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