Jun 10, 2008

Thinking About Critical Thinking

A reader, AM, writes from Melbourne University to tell me that he is a final-year law student. Recently he has had to write many legal essays. AM wonders how he can learn to think more critically. Evidently he feels that his earlier education in Singapore has disadvantaged him:
"Of course at this time, being a Singaporean, I would readily point the blame finger at the government and MOE for creating a flawed system where schools do not encourage critical thinking but hard memorization and accurate application (or maybe that was just my school only). So I was just wondering, how does one develop critical thinking if the system we are in doesn't necessarily encourage it?"
Personally I am very interested in the mind. But less interested in critical thinking. While critical thinking is no doubt a useful tool, my personal adventures into the intuitive right brain (via meditation, self-hypnosis and certain other esoteric methods) have made me a little wary of the dangers of over-reliance on the logical left brain.

I'm sure that the above statement will surprise, perhaps even upset, some people. And it is not exactly the easiest thing to explain to a general audience via a blog post. So I shall not elaborate. Not now anyway.

Back to the left brain then. Here are six questions about critical thinking:

1. What is it?
2. Who said so?
3. Why should I be interested?
4. Where can I use it?
5. When shall I use it?
6. How can I apply it?

Guess what, I am not providing the answers. I posed those six questions just to demonstrate a certain critical thinking skill. It's called asking questions. This one, specifically, is known as 5W1H.

The five W's are what, who, why, where and when, and the one H is how. 5W1H was originally conceived as a journalistic tool. Out in the field, reporters would use 5W1H as a mental checklist to generate questions and make sure they cover all the basic facts needed for their news story. Now 5W1H shows up in all sorts of other places, such as in the Six Sigma processes.

As far as AM's law school adventures are concerned, 5W1H can be applied as follows. Suppose you are reading a legal article where the good professor is expounding certain opinions. Since he writes persuasively, you feel inclined to agree. On the other hand, if you wish to consider his article more critically, you simply generate questions to consider. Such as - what is he really saying here? Who would agree with this? Who wouldn't? Why not? What is the justification for this point? Where are the examples? What are the alternative views? When would this idea fail? And so on.

You might not have expected that such a simple thing as asking questions would be so important as to merit its own special acronym "5W1H". Well, it just goes to show you that critical thinking isn't that difficult, after all. On the other hand, many of us know from our personal experiences that Singapore's teachers often implicitly discourage questions, especially if the question strays outside the confines of the school syllabus. And over the years, many Singaporeans will forget how to ask questions. So perhaps we do need to remind ourselves about 5W1H. In fact, asking good questions is probably the most important thing that an MP can do in Parliament.

Not to flog a very dead horse, but there's a useful illustration from April this year:
Mr Low Thia Khiang: "Did MHA conduct regular audits at the Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC) prior to the escape of Mas Selamat?"

Mr Wong Kan Seng: "The WRDC and the Gurkha Contingent guards have their respective procedures. When the detainees are in the cell block, they are watched by a significant number of guards. The ratio of guards is more than what one can see in the prison.

When they're taken to other blocks, most of those movements are in passageways that are enclosed and they're also blindfolded, to keep them from familiarising themselves with the surroundings.

The only thing that ought to have been done better is a regular system check and audit. These will now be carried out on a regular basis."
Paragraph 1 of Wong Kan Seng's answer was irrelevant to the question. Paragraph 2 of his answer was also irrelevant. Well, no, not exactly, they did serve a purpose. They distracted people.

Now, look at Low's question again. And then just focus on the only relevant part of Wong's answer:
"The only thing that ought to have been done better is a regular system check and audit. These will now be carried out on a regular basis."
What would be the most natural follow-up question you would ask?
Probably something like this:
"Did MHA ever conduct any audit at WRDC at all? If so, when?"
The question was not asked. So we will never know the answer. We do know what happened next. Various lowly MHA officers were punished for the Mas Selamat escape, while the Minister was completely unscathed. In fact, he was the one handing out punishments.

But what if the question had been asked? And what if the truthful answer was that not only was there no regular audit system, but there had been no audit at all, for many years. For example, what if the answer turned out to be something like this:
"WDRC has never been audited. Not even once, ever since I became Home Affairs Minister fourteen years ago, back in 1994. As a matter of fact, we've simply never bothered to audit any of our prisons and detention centres for security."
Under such circumstances, I think that it would be more difficult for PM Lee to assert so blithely in Parliament that it is unthinkable for Wong Kan Seng to be punished.

But then we don't know. We probably never will. The right question wasn't asked; it was never asked; Wong didn't have to answer it; and so, the political history of Singapore took a certain turn, and went on in a certain way. As I predicted quite long ago, Wong Kan Seng managed to make the Great Escape.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Wang, thank you for this post. I used to work at a company in the aviation industry where we would use the 5 Whys as one of our tools during our investigation reports for incidents/problems and believe me, that was the one item which always has us tearing our hair out over. That said, I’ve seen reports from our overseas sister companies and the 5-Why portions were very shoddily done as well, so maybe it’s not just a Singaporean thing. I personally think that if used properly, the 5W1H system can be a very useful tool in getting to (or at least near) the bottom of things, and if the system is serious about encouraging critical thinking, we should start getting our kids to ask more questions instead of discouraging them.

You illustration of the exchange in Parliament also shows why LTK to me, has largely disappointed during his tenure. He sees himself as a watchdog, but if we were to use that analogy, he would be the watchdog who barks at an intruder scaling the fence, but shrugs its shoulders and walks off once the intruder gets past the fence. I’ve no doubt he cares for his constituents, but that’s not a sole criteria for being a good MP. Then again, we can probably say that for many backbenchers as well.

Anonymous said...

Critical doesn't mean anti system. It is to find bugs in the system just like in programming. It is better to be critical of a system then to play the innocent lamb and have wool pull over the eye when something can be corrected before it go into production and cause a crash later on. It's okay to disagree just make sure the point is valid and feasible.
If it is not feasible look for alternate methods or algorithm.
points now questionable && buggy
Hi pay = Hi output & Hi responsibility ? MSK WKS
GST = help the poor ? |hi inflation
Life annuity = secure retirement? see above.
FT = more jobs? for police?
Uni place 20% FT where PR = FT turn blue that turn FT and leave after graduation
Non answer OTC amount of citizen PF = stonewall OTC no Pres burial for.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr Wang,

I've taken up meditaion a few months back, inspired by Ajahn Brahm's talks (Thai forest tradition of Theravada Busddhism- which is mainly atheistic as far as I know) and your posts about the mind/brain. I am very interested in exploring into this and I wonder if you can point me to any resources of info in this area.

You may be interested in this 18minute clip if you haven't seen it. It's Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher,speaking on TEDtalks her experience of her left hemisphere stroke and watching that part of the brain lose it's function.


Alex Tan said...

hahah mr wang do u mind doing Singaporeans a favor?

go stand in as an independent candidate in the next election.

Singapore will get endless hours of entertainment in parliament with u asking the right questions (:

Anonymous said...

"While critical thinking is no doubt a useful tool, my personal adventures into the intuitive right brain (via meditation, self-hypnosis and certain other esoteric methods) have made me a little wary of the dangers of over-reliance on the logical left brain."

I'm more interested in your thoughts on over-relying on the logical left brain.

Anonymous said...

Just compare the outcome when the American Air Force accidentally flew a nuclear-armed plane across states. The air force chief and the secretary got the boot.

What happened to our Mr Wong?

Still happily counting his million $$$$$ monthly salary...his bank account is swelling!

Anonymous said...

Our States Times is still spinning stories why WKS should not be given the SACK which is long overdue!!

Anonymous said...

Not so surprised that Mr Wang the blogger would say that about the left brain, but am surprised that Mr Wang the lawyer would think so too :)

Henry Leong said...

Hi Mr Wang,

I agreed with you that sitting down there just listening to the teacher create little value, if a student asks interesting questions, the teacher got to find the answers for the students. So both ways it can improve the communications and lead to more innovations and discoveries.

Anonymous said...

I think even if LTK had asked the right question, it will make no difference to the 100% confidence PM Lee has openly said of WKS. Opposition MPs (a pathetic 2 of them), no matter how "critical their thinking and questions" make no difference at all to the way PAP thinks and acts, unless PAP has less than 2/3 majority. This is the hard reality of parliamentary politics.

Anonymous said...

For a follow up question to be asked in Parliament, you must have super fast reflex in raising your hand.

This must however occur in concurrance to the Speaker's eyes having your hand in his line of sight, and willing to let you stand up to the mic.

So Low might have a disadvantage for wearing blue in a sea of blinding white. The Speaker might have had his glasses on to combat the glare.

Anonymous said...

When LTK raise the question, what about the others [N}MP are doing ?

? [0]w[0]h right ?

Xtrocious said...

I don't think it is just critical thinking but just plain thinking i.e. do people do enough of that even?

A case in point - I used to work in the media and one of my responsibilities was crafting questions for TV personalities to ask during interviews...

Most of the time, the presentators do not process the answer (new information) given back to them and many a times they would ask an irrevent question later (which has already been answered earlier)...sigh

And I see this in Parliament as well...no one can process the new information (misinformation) to form a follow up question...

Well, maybe Overseas Sinaporean is correct - our education system is flawed in getting us to accept what is shoved to us as the gospel truth...

Admittedly, I was quite a "difficult" student back in school...maybe I was a rebel (being left handed makes me right-brained too I guess) but I kinda of enjoyed putting my teachers and lecturers in a spot with tough questions...hahah

This happened to me in uni here too...in a tutorial class, I pointed out that the "model answer" to one of the past examination questions was flawed...the look I got from my tutor and fellow undergraduates was one of incredulity...

The tutor even had the cheek to say the lecturer (a professor) who set the question and the answer can't be wrong until I walked him through the question and the implication of the answer...

Blogter said...

This photo is considerably prettier than the last one. Who's she? Kasparov I can recognise but this...

How about another game?

hugewhaleshark said...

LTK, like many Singaporeans displays the weakness of backing down easily when countered by forceful, though meaningless response. Sad.

Anonymous said...

yes, LTK and SL are both disappointing and I have written off the WP as an opposition party i can support. i wrote to LTK after he failed to answer LHL when asked if WKS should be sacked. he did not reply. i forwarded the note to SL and asked her, but the same no reply policy i guess held. i guessed they were too embarrassed to answer.
but, now that i read this post, i wonder if LTK was allowed to be an mp because he was compliant and does not follow up with the hard questions as you pointed out. maybe he was supported to oust JBJ from the WP??

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

It must be a rather complicated conspiracy theory then, LOL.

Interestingly, there is the question of how you judge the worthiness of an MP. Would you use the following as a criterion? - the number of times the MP has contested and won an election.

If you use such a criterion, it's clear that Low Thia Kiang is truly well-loved by the Singapore people. He has contested and won four straight elections.

In contrast, the first and only time Wong Kan Seng ever contested and won in an election was in 1984. The rest of his "victories" over the next 20+ years were by walkover.