The decline of critical thinking

Among peoples of the world, Filipinos are the third “most ignorant” about their country’s key issues, after South Africans and Brazilians.

This is according to the Perils of Perception 2017 study, which surveyed 29,133 people from 38 countries on a wide range of subjects. These include murder and suicide rates, deaths resulting from terrorism, teenage pregnancies, foreign-born prisoners, health, religion, alcohol and sugar consumption, and Facebook and smartphones usage.

Despite giving inaccurate answers, the study’s Filipino respondents also ranked third among those who are most confident. This is explained by a behavioral anomaly called the “Dunning–Kruger effect.” It is a form of cognitive bias, in which people of little ability suffer from illusory superiority, manifested by overconfidence, that results from their lack of self-awareness and cognitive ability.

That the Philippines is ranked as the world’s 16th most ignorant country should worry us, for it signals the decline of our national cognition. I blame this on Filipinos’ worsening critical thinking skills. This is supported by employers I’ve talked to, who lamented their difficulty of finding employees who possess such skills. Another manifestation of this is social media discourse, which is full of nonsensical news and posts.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
In short, it is just the objective evaluation of an issue to form a judgment or conclusion.

What is vital about it is that this capability is developed during a person’s formative primary and secondary schooling. But Prof. Rolando de la Cruz, founder and president of the Darwin International School System, asserted that “the problem of lack of critical thinking among Filipino students goes way back, from Spanish colonial times, to the time of the Thomasites during the American occupation, to the post-war Philippines before, during and after Martial Law.”

This problem stems from the rote memorization pedagogy of schools, which most people agree have been present in our educational system. Graded recitations and examinations reward students who memorize lessons, which do nothing more than temporarily storing information in their brains.

What is more concerning, however, is the decline of critical thinking from an already low base. This is because of the widespread use of smartphones, social media, and video gaming that now play a bigger role in our daily life.

In fact, a study by Patricia Greenfield, a psychology professor at UCLA and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center in Los Angeles, revealed that learners have changed because of their exposure to technology. It changed to the point that their skills in critical thinking and analysis have deteriorated.

What is even more disconcerting is that critical thinking is one of the skills required now and in the future, when artificial intelligence and robots replace jobs so fast that employees need to upgrade their skill sets to do more data analytics and complex problem-solving.

Can this problem be reversed? Yes, but it needs a long-term solution.

Since education plays a crucial role in developing critical thinking among young people, our educational system, both public and private, needs to develop teachers who employ “reflective teaching.” That is, allowing students to raise questions, explore different possibilities and scenarios, and engage in substantive discussions and debate.

Teachers’ pay, especially in public schools, should reflect the competency of educators who can use this approach. The government should make this a top priority.

Parents should take up the cudgels for their children by allowing them to develop their own viewpoints. They should expose them to meaningful television and multimedia programs, and instilling discipline in using gadgets at a young age.

How about the adults, who are responsible for making our country one of the most ignorant in the world?

For those with solid critical thinking skills, they can be further developed through training and practice. In my graduate business classes, I see my adult students transforming into hardcore analysts and debaters when we discuss business case studies. Employers can implement training programs and sustaining activities to improve, if not reverse, the critical thinking skill inventory of their workforce.

New graduates entering the workforce should take it upon themselves to continue their education and exposure to meaningful media that promote reflection, thinking, and analysis of various issues, instead of wallowing in wretched discourse on social media.The rest are either relegated to a lifetime of blissful ignorance, until a new generation of critical thinkers enters the workforce; or transformed through a massive multisectoral national initiative to overhaul social and mainstream media that promote open debate and issues discussion instead of continuing with the mindless content that aims to only entertain.
I choose the latter option.

The author is the president of Hungry Workhorse Consultancy, a digital and culture transformation consultancy firm; and co-founder and counselor of Caucus Inc, a data-privacy consulting firm. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. He is also an adjunct faculty of the Asian Institute of Management. E-mail: