Example Of Tolerating Ambiguity In Critical Thinking

As you walk into William & Mary’s Mason School of Business, vanilla-cream tiles catch your eye as the sunlight streams down from the third-story atrium and reflects off the lobby floor. The walls, painted the colors of warm beach sand and cool teal water, seem to illuminate as wrought- iron stair railings lead you to the second floor.

At the very end of the hallway, nestled in the back corner, are two locked doors hiding an unknown space from the outside world. What could be behind these walls? Computers, high-tech gadgets, the latest business invention? 

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Students who entered the Miller Design and Innovation Studio for the inaugural “Solving Creative Problems” course this spring – co-listed between graduate business and theatre, speech and dance – were shocked to discover a space they had never seen: an unfinished ceiling; commercial grade concrete flooring; movable tables and chairs; black foam boxes to sit on, shift and manipulate; and rolling whiteboards for brainstorming. The castered design looks and feels more like an art studio than a classroom.

The teaching space is part of a new, design-thinking module that is being infused into the business school curriculum. Design thinking teaches traditional business skills and merges them with creative, divergent thinking skills in an intentionally structured, yet highly flexible and active process. Simply put, it uses best practices for problem defining and problem solving.

Recent research by Professor Kyung-Hee Kim in William & Mary’s School of Education shows that while American IQs are getting higher, creativity scores are declining. She calls it the “creativity crisis.”

To combat this growing trend, Professors Matthew Allar and Jim Olver taught a prototype course using the design studio to help students discover their creative problem-solving capacity.  Allar is an assistant professor/scenographer in the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance who specializes in design and theatrical space. He also served on the faculty working group to recommend how the space could be creatively used.

Olver, an associate professor of business administration, has taught at William & Mary for 25 years. A decade of his tenure has been spent working in administration, leading the undergraduate and MBA programs.

He said one of the trends he’s noticed over the years is that William & Mary students were getting less and less tolerant of ambiguity and more and more concerned about having the one right answer – or , believing there should be one right answer to solve complex problems.

“I’m looking at that and comparing it to the world that they’re going out into, which is increasingly complex and disruptive, and nobody knows what the right answer is,” said Olver. “And so, there’s this growing disconnect.”

He cited Kim’s creativity research, coupled with conversations held with business colleagues in academia across the country that expressed the same concerns of students lacking flexible, innovative thinking skills. 

“Starting in kindergarten, we teach kids to get good grades because you have to get A’s or you’ll never get into a school like William & Mary,” Olver said. “Then, as they get older, it’s about mastering the SATs and finding a formula that gets you to the right answer… so in essence we’ve taught them not to take any risks and to know exactly what’s expected of them.

“And this serves students well until they get to the university, and they find out actually we don’t know if there is a right answer to a lot of these things … let alone what the right answer is when you start talking about serious problems like global warming or sustainability, or a lot of the things were facing as a society today. And a lot of those things are what businesses are facing.”

Allar and Olver wanted to test their students’ ambiguity tolerance, so they created a non-structured course consisting of weekly lectures from professors across the university in disciplines such as history, information technology, chemistry and art, along with practitioners from widely divergent fields of thought such as advertising and product sales. 

“We were curating the course more than teaching it,” explained Allar. “We were structuring the experience, but allowing the students to make their own experiences and, by default, we were having the same experiences with them.”

On the first day of class, students were handed a loosely scheduled outline with a list of guest speakers and topics. Similar to the theory of experiential learning, the professors wanted students to start thinking about problems not only from the how-to-solve-it or need-the-right-answer perspective, but to embrace uncertainty in order to find a better answer using multiple perspectives through conversations with classmates.

Undergraduates and graduate students enrolled in the course hailed from majors in theatre, government, public policy, religious studies, dance, music, English, marketing, economics, graduate accounting, along with the MBA and combined JD/MBA programs. 

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Trevor Colley, a second-year MBA student, was one of 22 students to take the course.  He signed up because he felt a creativity course would help him develop the critical thinking skills needed to compete in a global economy and job market.

“For me the most impactful part of this class is that it gave me a venue to introspect,” said Colley. “A lot of the projects that we do and assignments we are given by professors are highly structured …the class was a great venue in helping us develop our own thoughts and spark the innovation initiative of the program."

Class activities and projects varied from week to week. One of the first in-class activities students participated in was called the “yes and” conversation. Inspired by a lecture from innovative consultant Barry Saunders, students held a conversation with a classmate on a topic they disagreed about. But, instead of saying “no,” they had to say “yes and” to build on the conversation, acknowledge the other person’s perspective and find common ground.

For their culminating project, students were asked to create a highly distinctive William & Mary “brand” around a dominant selling idea. 

Blogging was another tool used by Allar and Olver to track student development and their understanding of the creative problem-solving process. At first, the students questioned what the class was really about, said Olver, but soon they started to write about how the course was changing them, he said.

“They started to talk about how it was changing their perspective on what they could and couldn’t do,” recalled Olver. “A lot of them talked a lot about risk taking – which seemed to be sort of a taboo kind of thing in the very beginning. One student in particular said, ‘My mantra for the rest of my time here at William & Mary and when I go out of here is to take the risk; take the chance and embrace that as an opportunity.’”

“When I read that, I thought, ‘Wow, she’s got it.’”

Jiaorui Jiang ’17 said the course taught her how to have constructive and creative conversations, helping her to critically think about one’s thoughts and ideas.

“People contribute different insights and have different ways of saying things,” said Jiang. “When you get to see and learn that, and you do you own introspection, you then begin to see how your thoughts are different from someone else’s and how you can build off of each other’s thoughts and how creativity comes out.”

Ultimately, Allar and Olver view the design studio as a physical manifestation of the mindset that they would like to cultivate in William & Mary students.

“The mindset we’re really looking for,” said Olver, “is that I don’t have to be right, but I have to be willing to try.” 

Critical Thinking


What is Critical Thinking?

When examining the vast literature on critical thinking, various definitions of critical thinking emerge. Here are some samples:

  • "Critical thinking is 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" (Scriven, 1996 ).
  • "Most formal definitions characterize critical thinking as the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference, and evaluation" (Angelo, 1995, p. 6 ).
  • "Critical thinking is thinking that assesses itself" ( Center for Critical Thinking, 1996b ).
  • "Critical thinking is the ability to think about one's thinking in such a way as 1. To recognize its strengths and weaknesses and, as a result, 2. To recast the thinking in improved form" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996c ).

Perhaps the simplest definition is offered by Beyer (1995) : "Critical thinking... means making reasoned judgments" (p. 8). Basically, Beyer sees critical thinking as using criteria to judge the quality of something, from cooking to a conclusion of a research paper. In essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc.).


Characteristics of Critical Thinking

Wade (1995) identifies eight characteristics of critical thinking. Critical thinking involves asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding emotional reasoning, avoiding oversimplification, considering other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity. Dealing with ambiguity is also seen by Strohm & Baukus (1995) as an essential part of critical thinking, "Ambiguity and doubt serve a critical-thinking function and are a necessary and even a productive part of the process" (p. 56).

Another characteristic of critical thinking identified by many sources is metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about one's own thinking. More specifically, "metacognition is being aware of one's thinking as one performs specific tasks and then using this awareness to control what one is doing" (Jones & Ratcliff, 1993, p. 10 ).

In the book, Critical Thinking, Beyer elaborately explains what he sees as essential aspects of critical thinking. These are:

  • Dispositions: Critical thinkers are skeptical, open-minded, value fair-mindedness, respect evidence and reasoning, respect clarity and precision, look at different points of view, and will change positions when reason leads them to do so.
  • Criteria: To think critically, must apply criteria. Need to have conditions that must be met for something to be judged as believable. Although the argument can be made that each subject area has different criteria, some standards apply to all subjects. "... an assertion must... be based on relevant, accurate facts; based on credible sources; precise; unbiased; free from logical fallacies; logically consistent; and strongly reasoned" (p. 12).
  • Argument: Is a statement or proposition with supporting evidence. Critical thinking involves identifying, evaluating, and constructing arguments.
  • Reasoning: The ability to infer a conclusion from one or multiple premises. To do so requires examining logical relationships among statements or data.
  • Point of View: The way one views the world, which shapes one's construction of meaning. In a search for understanding, critical thinkers view phenomena from many different points of view.
  • Procedures for Applying Criteria: Other types of thinking use a general procedure. Critical thinking makes use of many procedures. These procedures include asking questions, making judgments, and identifying assumptions.

Why Teach Critical Thinking?

Oliver & Utermohlen (1995) see students as too often being passive receptors of information. Through technology, the amount of information available today is massive. This information explosion is likely to continue in the future. Students need a guide to weed through the information and not just passively accept it. Students need to "develop and effectively apply critical thinking skills to their academic studies, to the complex problems that they will face, and to the critical choices they will be forced to make as a result of the information explosion and other rapid technological changes" (Oliver & Utermohlen, p. 1 ).

As mentioned in the section, Characteristics of Critical Thinking , critical thinking involves questioning. It is important to teach students how to ask good questions, to think critically, in order to continue the advancement of the very fields we are teaching. "Every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously" (Center for Critical Thinking, 1996a ).

Beyer sees the teaching of critical thinking as important to the very state of our nation. He argues that to live successfully in a democracy, people must be able to think critically in order to make sound decisions about personal and civic affairs. If students learn to think critically, then they can use good thinking as the guide by which they live their lives.


Teaching Strategies to Help Promote Critical Thinking

The 1995, Volume 22, issue 1, of the journal, Teaching of Psychology , is devoted to the teaching critical thinking. Most of the strategies included in this section come from the various articles that compose this issue.

  • CATS (Classroom Assessment Techniques): Angelo stresses the use of ongoing classroom assessment as a way to monitor and facilitate students' critical thinking. An example of a CAT is to ask students to write a "Minute Paper" responding to questions such as "What was the most important thing you learned in today's class? What question related to this session remains uppermost in your mind?" The teacher selects some of the papers and prepares responses for the next class meeting.
  • Cooperative Learning Strategies: Cooper (1995) argues that putting students in group learning situations is the best way to foster critical thinking. "In properly structured cooperative learning environments, students perform more of the active, critical thinking with continuous support and feedback from other students and the teacher" (p. 8).
  • Case Study /Discussion Method: McDade (1995) describes this method as the teacher presenting a case (or story) to the class without a conclusion. Using prepared questions, the teacher then leads students through a discussion, allowing students to construct a conclusion for the case.
  • Using Questions: King (1995) identifies ways of using questions in the classroom:
  • Reciprocal Peer Questioning: Following lecture, the teacher displays a list of question stems (such as, "What are the strengths and weaknesses of...). Students must write questions about the lecture material. In small groups, the students ask each other the questions. Then, the whole class discusses some of the questions from each small group.
  • Reader's Questions: Require students to write questions on assigned reading and turn them in at the beginning of class. Select a few of the questions as the impetus for class discussion.
  • Conference Style Learning: The teacher does not "teach" the class in the sense of lecturing. The teacher is a facilitator of a conference. Students must thoroughly read all required material before class. Assigned readings should be in the zone of proximal development. That is, readings should be able to be understood by students, but also challenging. The class consists of the students asking questions of each other and discussing these questions. The teacher does not remain passive, but rather, helps "direct and mold discussions by posing strategic questions and helping students build on each others' ideas" (Underwood & Wald, 1995, p. 18 ).
  • Use Writing Assignments: Wade sees the use of writing as fundamental to developing critical thinking skills. "With written assignments, an instructor can encourage the development of dialectic reasoning by requiring students to argue both [or more] sides of an issue" (p. 24).
  • Dialogues: Robertson andRane-Szostak (1996) identify two methods of stimulating useful discussions in the classroom:
    • Written dialogues: Give students written dialogues to analyze. In small groups, students must identify the different viewpoints of each participant in the dialogue. Must look for biases, presence or exclusion of important evidence, alternative interpretations, misstatement of facts, and errors in reasoning. Each group must decide which view is the most reasonable. After coming to a conclusion, each group acts out their dialogue and explains their analysis of it.
    • Spontaneous Group Dialogue: One group of students are assigned roles to play in a discussion (such as leader, information giver, opinion seeker, and disagreer). Four observer groups are formed with the functions of determining what roles are being played by whom, identifying biases and errors in thinking, evaluating reasoning skills, and examining ethical implications of the content.
  • Ambiguity: Strohm & Baukus advocate producing much ambiguity in the classroom. Don't give students clear cut material. Give them conflicting information that they must think their way through.

References & Resources

  • Angelo, T. A. (1995). Beginning the dialogue: Thoughts on promoting critical thinking: Classroom assessment for critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 6-7.
  • Beyer, B. K. (1995). Critical thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Cooper, J. L. (1995). Cooperative learning and critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 7-8.
  • Jones, E. A. & Ratcliff, G. (1993). Critical thinking skills for college students. National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, University Park, PA. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 358 772)
  • King, A. (1995). Designing the instructional process to enhance critical thinking across the curriculum: Inquiring minds really do want to know: Using questioning to teach critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22 (1) , 13-17.
  • McDade, S. A. (1995). Case study pedagogy to advance critical thinking. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 9-10.
  • Oliver, H. & Utermohlen, R. (1995). An innovative teaching strategy: Using critical thinking to give students a guide to the future.(Eric Document Reproduction Services No. 389 702)
  • Robertson, J. F. & Rane-Szostak, D. (1996). Using dialogues to develop critical thinking skills: A practical approach. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 39(7), 552-556.
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Strohm, S. M., & Baukus, R. A. (1995). Strategies for fostering critical thinking skills. Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, 50 (1), 55-62.
  • Underwood, M. K., & Wald, R. L. (1995). Conference-style learning: A method for fostering critical thinking with heart. Teaching Psychology, 22(1), 17-21.
  • Wade, C. (1995). Using writing to develop and assess critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 24-28.

Other Reading

  • Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, & active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass.
  • Bernstein, D. A. (1995). A negotiation model for teaching critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 22-24.
  • Carlson, E. R. (1995). Evaluating the credibility of sources. A missing link in the teaching of critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 39-41.
  • Facione, P. A., Sanchez, C. A., Facione, N. C., & Gainen, J. (1995). The disposition toward critical thinking. The Journal of General Education, 44(1), 1-25.
  • Halpern, D. F., & Nummedal, S. G. (1995). Closing thoughts about helping students improve how they think. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 82-83.
  • Isbell, D. (1995). Teaching writing and research as inseparable: A faculty-librarian teaching team. Reference Services Review, 23(4), 51-62.
  • Jones, J. M. & Safrit, R. D. (1994). Developing critical thinking skills in adult learners through innovative distance learning. Paper presented at the International Conference on the practice of adult education and social development. Jinan, China. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 373 159)
  • Sanchez, M. A. (1995). Using critical-thinking principles as a guide to college-level instruction. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 72-74.
  • Spicer, K. L. & Hanks, W. E. (1995). Multiple measures of critical thinking skills and predisposition in assessment of critical thinking. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, TX. (Eric Document Reproduction Services No. ED 391 185)
  • Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1995). Influences affecting the development of students' critical thinking skills. Research in Higher Education, 36(1), 23-39.

On the Internet

  • Carr, K. S. (1990). How can we teach critical thinking. Eric Digest. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://ericps.ed.uiuc.edu/eece/pubs/digests/1990/carr90.html
  • The Center for Critical Thinking (1996). Home Page. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996a). The role of questions in thinking, teaching, and learning. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996b). Structures for student self-assessment. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univclass/trc.nclk
  • Center for Critical Thinking (1996c). Three definitions of critical thinking [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Ennis, Bob (No date). Critical thinking. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://www.cof.orst.edu/cof/teach/for442/ct.htm
  • Montclair State University (1995). Curriculum resource center. Critical thinking resources: An annotated bibliography. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.montclair.edu/Pages/CRC/Bibliographies/CriticalThinking.html
  • No author, No date. Critical Thinking is ... [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://library.usask.ca/ustudy/critical/
  • Scriven, M. & Paul, R. (1996). Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. [On-line]. Available HTTP: http://www.criticalthinking.org/University/univlibrary/library.nclk
  • Sheridan, Marcia (No date). Internet education topics hotlink page. [On-line], April 4, 1997. Available HTTP: http://sun1.iusb.edu/~msherida/topics/critical.html

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