Why Students Need to Learn Thinking Skills Now...More Than Ever
Derek & Laura Cabrera
Derek Cabrera (Ph.D., Cornell) is an internationally known systems scientist and serves on the faculty of Cornell University where he teaches systems thinking, systems leadership, and systems mapping and is Program Director for the Graduate Certification Program in Systems Thinking, Modeling, and Leadership (STML). He is a senior scientist at Cabrera Research Lab. Laura Cabrera (B.S., M.P.A, & PhD, Cornell) currently teaches Systems Thinking and Modeling and Systems Leadership at Cornell University at the Institute for Policy Affairs. She is also a senior researcher at the Cabrera Research Lab. Over the past decade, Cabrera has applied her expertise in research methods and translational research to increase public understanding, practical application, and dissemination of sophisticated systems science and systems thinking models.
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This post was adapted from Thinking At Every Desk.
While knowledge and thinking skills have always been important, globalization makes them more critical than ever before.
Globalization creates more links, interconnecting people and places that used to seem separate and unrelated. Problems are no longer contained in their own geographical areas but are linked to and impact other problems across the globe. Never has this been more true.
News today illustrates this point. As we face a global pandemic, we are reminded of the similarity to the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Today, there remains no consensus regarding where the virus originated, even though it it spread worldwide during 1918-1919 and killed 5% of the global population in one year. Cases of human infection with avian influenza A(H5N1) virus have been reported from 17 countries in the last twenty years alone. That virus (and others) is now only hours away from us by plane. In other words, even though other countries haven't moved any closer to us, they are more interconnected with us. So, other country's problems are our problems. This is increasingly more problematic as we face a global crisis with coronavirus, with over 200,000 deaths in the U.S. as of today in less than a year.
The problems we face in the U.S. have moved closer to others, too. For example, in 2003, one single cow in Washington state caught Mad Cow Disease. In less than a minute, just the news of this poor unsuspecting cow’s malady traveled—via the Internet—across oceans and continents to South Korea. As soon as South Korea caught wind of the problem on the Web, it banned all American beef imports, costing the U.S. beef industry $850 million. In this interconnected age, information is so prolific and instantaneous, it can wreak global havoc all by itself.
When two Stanford graduate students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founded Google in 1997, only geeks were googling. Ten years later, in November 2007, the number of people googling had exponentially increased to 112 million. What was the number one search term that month? iPhone. 112 million people were (ironically) searching for—a device that allowed them to google anywhere, anytime. And today when you google, "how many people google every day?" The staggering answer is that 6.9 billion searches are done on Google every day. That's an incredible 2.5 trillion searches per year across the globe. Google.com is the most visited website on the planet, because it currently has over one billion active monthly users.
So, at its core, globalization is about adding more links. The world gets more and more interconnected one link at a time. But links are like rabbits—they breed and multiply. Hyperlinks beget more hyperlinks, friendships beget more friendships, customers beget more customers, treaties beget more treaties.
We often tell our students that cause and effect are not neighbors on a timeline. Many things that you wouldn’t think are connected, turn out to be interrelated in this new world. Strange things correlate. What’s the connection between Montana wheat, Louisiana shrimp, and Saudi oil? In an effort to solve the decrease in crop yields caused by pests, we innovated a solution—pesticides. Use of these pesticides led to leeching of nitrates into soil, which traveled via the thousands of streams and tributaries in the Mississippi River Basin and emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. And at that moment, pesticides, which once were a solution to a problem, created an even bigger problem. The nitrates created algae blooms that depleted oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico, and subsequently decimated all life in an area the size of Delaware and Connecticut combined. This area where the Mississippi empties into the gulf, is now called the “dead zone,” because a place that once provided some of the best shrimping and crabbing in the world is now barren of all life. And, when the price of a barrel of oil increases, many shrimp boat captains can’t afford the fuel to get out to the area where the crabs and shrimp still inhabit the waters. Naturally, these fishermen must incorporate the price of the fuel into the price of their catch, and your shrimp cocktail just got more expensive. The more things are interconnected, the more often we see the unintended consequences that turn seemingly ingenious solutions into deleterious problems.
The increased interconnectedness across the whole world has made problems intractable, complex, and tougher to solve. There was a time when “loners in labs” could solve these problems; but modern problems require more knowledge and expertise that any single person can gain in a lifetime. The solutions we need today require interdisciplinary “teams at tables.” The problems we face—global warming, world health crises, terrorism, even globalization itself—pay no attention to disciplinary boundaries; they cut across social, political, scientific, theological, and financial domains. To meet the challenges ahead, problem solvers will need integrative proficiency in:
- Content knowledge: They need to know something about an
area or field of study;
- Critical thinking: They need to be analytical and logical in
- Creative thinking: They’ll need to think differently to address
these tough, interconnected problems;
- Interdisciplinary thinking: Problems don’t respect disciplinary boundaries, neither will the needed solutions;
- Scientific thinking: They must have a capacity to question, analyze, and use information to address problems in a formal way;
- Systems thinking: They must understand the interconnectedness of systems, concentric circles of context, and unintended consequences; and
- Prosocial thinking (emotional intelligence): Because they’re
working with a team at a table, they’ll need to be able to talk,
listen, and collaborate with others to resolve problems.
We have no idea what the world will offer to our students in the future; industries change, technology shifts, and problems seem more durable than ever before. The educational implications of this are massive and time-sensitive. Educators train the problem solvers of the future. They need to stock the future “teams at tables” with graduates that possess robust thinking skills so that they can solve the world’s most pressing problems and contribute to society. This means teaching students not only what to know (content knowledge), but also how to know (thinking skills).