Critical Thinking Exercise


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A critical thinking exercise to assess the members of a target audience in their ability to consider a different point of view when solving a problem. Documentation of a vignette developed and presented at the Army Command and General Staff College for seven years.

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Critical Thinking Exercise

  1. 1. An Exercise in Critical Thinking Bob King, 15 August 2009 • Background • Executive Summary • Method of Execution • Results • Senior Leader Observations • Basis & Extensibility • Materials to Execute the Exercise A critical thinking exercise to assess the members of a target audience in their ability to consider a different point of view when solving a problem.
  2. 2. Over the last seven years (2002-2009), while teaching at the U.S. Army's Command & General Staff College (CGSC), I strove to ensure my students departed as better critical thinkers than when they arrived. critical thinking (n): the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion (1) One aspect of critical thinking is looking at the situation from another perspective. Numerous phrases describe this problem solving approach: • "put yourself in the other person's shoes", • "think outside the box", • "think like the enemy", etc. Early on in the course, usually within the first two months, I presented a vignette to test how well they used that approach. The results, from over a dozen iterations, clearly revealed a failure to apply that approach to everyday decision making. The next few slides present the executive summary of my vignette and the method of execution, as sent to BG Mark O'Neill (then CGSC Deputy Commandant) in August 2006. Background
  3. 3. A Colonel is briefing a group of Majors and they are very restless because they've all heard the exact same brief in the recent past. The Colonel doesn't know they have received it, but has noticed they are inattentive. Eight have passouts saying they are one of the Majors, the other eight are the Colonel. There are two choices that boil down to: A) raise hand and interrupt or B) do nothing. Inevitably, a majority of the "Colonels" choose A and a majority of the "Majors" choose B. Executive Summary
  4. 4. Assuming a staff group of 16 students, I print out 8 of each of the two handouts (student.doc and cos.doc). I then pass them out on separate sides of the room. By splitting them up that way, it helps to minimize the chance of comparison between students next to each other and discovering the handouts are different. Also, during the follow on discussion, it is easier to compare the two groups ("this side of the room said...", for example). TTP: If there is a LTC student (perhaps the section leader), or some other known strong personality, I'll pass out the Colonel handouts on that side. That person may be more likely than the others to consider the other point of view if assigned as the Major. [TTP = Tactics, Techniques & Procedures] This is not tied to any particular lesson, just a hip pocket CE that I bring in sometime early in C200. When I do this, I usually do it as the very beginning of the first hour. [CE = Concrete Experience] [C200 was Strategy block of instruction in the core curriculum] Prior to passing out the handouts, I tell them that it is to be done with no talking, write their answer on the sheet of paper and turn it over when they are done so that I know they are finished. (Again, doing that to minimize possibility of compromising the "secret" that they have different sheets.) I then put up the Power Point slide (choices.ppt) and wait for them to finish. Method of Execution (1 of 2)
  5. 5. When they are done, I ask: "How many chose A?" and/or "How many chose B?" Then I'll go to the side of the Majors, and ask one of them why they chose "B" (do nothing); after that I'll do the same with one of the "Colonels" and ask them why they chose the "A" option. Somewhere during this process one or more of them may figure out that they are answering from different points of view. If not, I lead them to it by asking "Why do you think there was such a divergence in the answers?“ At the end, I relate it back to CR/CT by emphasizing that when faced with a problem or dilemma, they are still not habitually looking at things from a different point of view. For if they had, nearly all of them would have chosen the "A" option. (Usually I make this melodramatic, pointing out how "I failed" as their CR/CT instructor, etc.) Method of Execution (2 of 2)
  6. 6. Inevitably, the split between the two groups is very dramatic, sometimes even 8 for A on one side, and 8 for B on the other. Usually there are a couple exceptions, with one or two of the Major Emerson’s choosing A (raise their hand) and an occasional COL Smith choosing B (sit there and listen). When I started this, I did not have the foresight to record & collect data. My observations were that other service students, typically Navy & Air Force, and Army Special Forces students were more likely to choose A. Also, on occasion one of the International Military Officers attending would choose A. This vignette was presented to every staff group I taught (seven at Fort Leavenworth, one at Fort Belvoir) and several of my electives. I can’t recall a single time, in over a dozen iterations, where more than 3 of 8 “Majors” chose to interrupt (Option A). Whereas, in nearly every instance, 6 to 8 of of the Colonels wanted to be informed (Option A). Results
  7. 7. In the summer of 2006, BG Mark O’Neill came in as the CGSC Deputy Commandant (DC). During his initial briefing to the staff and faculty, he expressed his interest in getting into the classroom to observe. Based upon that intent, I sent him an invitation to observe this exercise – much of the above information was drawn verbatim from that invitation. He responded favorably and tasked his XO to coordinate with me to get it on his schedule. He observed the exercise and remained through the follow-on discussion. One student remarked that he had bosses in the past what were not receptive to that kind of feedback. In the DC’s response he made two points that I have since referenced every time when processing this exercise (paraphrasing): Do not confuse your responsibilities with the limitations of your Commander and A Commander needs people that disagree with him more than those that agree GEN Casey, Army Chief of Staff, expressed a similar statement in June 2009, in his video- taped remarks to the graduating CGSC class. He related how one of his former mentors taught him to carry an index card in his pocket, a card that read: When was the last time you allowed a subordinate to change your mind? Based upon my observations, a more pertinent question to ask: When was the last time a subordinate TRIED to change your mind? Senior Leader Observations
  8. 8. Basis This vignette was derived from a personal experience while as a student in the CGSC Class of 2001. As part of the Advanced Space Operations elective, we took a staff ride to Colorado Springs, CO. The XO of ARSPACE (an O-6) presented the same slides briefed to us just a few weeks previously in Fort Leavenworth. For about 25 minutes, I struggled with the decision to interrupt and say something, thinking (or hoping) he would move on to new material or maybe someone else would interject. Finally, I raised my hand and explained we had all seen the slides before. At the end of the brief, the first person to approach me was the Army Colonel. He thanked me for saying something, adding “I only wish you would have done it sooner.” Extensibility Although never tested in other situations, this vignette would very likely play out the same in other hierarchical based organizations. It also is not limited to the MAJ/COL dilemma. For example, by simply changing it to “COL Emerson” and ”GEN Smith” it could be used at the service senior (O-6 level) staff colleges. Basis & Extensibility
  9. 9. The next three slides contain the necessary documents to execute the exercise as described. When printing the handouts, ensure you do not include the title of the slide. Materials to Execute the Exercise
  10. 10. Who You Are: MAJ Emerson Where: Conference Room Briefer: COL Smith, Chief of Staff Situation: You are receiving a briefing (Power Point presentation) in a large conference room along with a group of 60 to 80 other Majors. You are all TDY to the area for professional development. The command’s chief of staff, COL Smith, is delivering the brief. As part of your educational process your group has studied this command’s specific area of operations in a classroom environment. The briefing is approximately 45 minutes to an hour long. Three weeks earlier COL Smith’s boss, BG Jones, traveled TDY to your school to make a pitch to all of you. The briefing you are receiving now is the exact same presentation, down to the specific slides and same order that you received from BG Jones. Here and there you begin to notice a few of your fellow officers appear less than interested in the presentation. Some are looking at the various pictures, maps and wall charts displayed throughout the room. Others, further in the back of the room, covertly scan newspapers or magazines. You hear mumbled comments from those around you, along the lines of: “next slide”, “we’ve seen that one before”, etc. What would you do? Choose one of the options listed on the screen. Handout: Student
  11. 11. Who You Are: COL Smith, Chief of Staff Situation: You are delivering a briefing (Power Point presentation) about your command to a group of 60 to 80 Majors in a large conference room. They are TDY to your area for professional development. As part of their educational process they have studied your specific area of operations in a classroom environment. The briefing is approximately 45 minutes to an hour long. Here and there you notice a few of the officers appear less than interested in the material you are discussing. Some are looking at the various pictures, maps and wall charts displayed throughout the room. Others, in the back of the room, may be reading newspapers or other materials brought with them. Three weeks earlier your boss, BG Jones, traveled to TDY to their school to make a pitch to the same group of officers. You are not aware that the briefing you are giving now is the exact same presentation they have already received. What would you want them to do? Choose one of the options listed on the screen. When would you want them to perform the option you chose above? Handout: Chief of Staff
  12. 12. A: Raise hand, politely interrupt and point out the slides have already been viewed by everyone present B: Remain silent and allow the presentation to continue Chose One of the Options Below