Critical Thinking in the 'New World Disorder'
By: Geraldine Ee
Critical thinking is not just about making good decisions, but making decisions for the social good. The new world disorder has only heightened the need to work together, challenge assumptions and make better decisions.
"Critical thinking is about working in an interdisciplinary environment with other people, and thinking about the impact of what you do on the world around you", said Sarah Springman, Rector, ETH Zurich at the ‘Critical Thinking in a Changing World’ panel discussion in Singapore. On the world stage, events that took the world by surprise, such as Brexit, would have made many critically rethink 'critical thinking'.
Critical Thinking at ETH Zurich
Going back to the root of education, Professor Springman lauded the aptness of the German term for education ‘Ausbildung’, with the word ‘bildung’ embedded, suggesting the embeddedness of holistic character building in education. Indeed, set up as a driver of industrialisation in 1855, ETH Zurich has since groomed 21 Nobel laurates. The university must have been doing something right. “We provide the opportunity to study a broad spectrum of subjects that can be combined in a multidisciplinary way to solve the problems of the future,” she said. Even though ETH Zurich is a technical university, courses in the social sciences is an integral part of its education, to ensure that technical knowledge students acquire is put in perspective for society as a whole.
ETH’s Critical Thinking Initiative, mooted by ETH Zurich President Lino Guzzella when he was Rector, is rooted in the core values of ETH and what it stands for. Today, the critical thinking initiative to help students keep up with evolving trends takes shape through programmes such as the thematic ETH Week, Student Project House, and the Pioneer Fellowship at the Innovation and Enterprise Lab (ieLab). “We want to provide our people with the opportunity to develop their creative and innovative ideas,” said Prof. Springman.
Diversity promotes critical thinking
It seems diversity is key to providing fertile ground for critical thinking. Sarah Springman defined critical thinking as “the ability to differentiate between various positions, views, beliefs, and approaches, and to challenge them critically (and self-critically), to eliminate the poor ones and to be able to decide about the best solution from those remaining.” Beyond Zurich, ETH Zurich, recently named by Times Higher Education as the most international university, has a diverse global scientific network. In fact, Springman was at the event organised by the Swiss Embassy and the ETH Alumni Singapore chapter to meet with ETH Zurich alumni and researchers at the Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC) on her way to the International Alliance of Research Universities (IARU) President’s meeting in Canberra, Australia.
Commenting on ETH Zurich’s presence in Singapore, Prof Springman said the Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC) is “absolutely central to our international focus”. Christoph Hoelscher, Professor at the Chair of Cognitive Science and member of ETH’s Critical Thinking Initiative, who was among the audience, could not agree more. He is currently based in Singapore as Principal Investigator at the Future Cities Laboratory at the SEC. Prof. Hoelscher affirmed that the diversity in disciplines—ranging from architecture to engineering and the social sciences—and the diversity of researchers from 29 countries at the SEC provide an environment that fosters critical thinking.
Challenging assumptions in the ‘New World Disorder’
Turning to the need for critical thinking at the age where we deal with a tsunami of information on a daily basis, Beatrice Weder di Mauro, Professor of Economics at the Johannes Gutenberg University, in Mainz, Germany and board member of the ETH Zurich Foundation, spoke about critical thinking in the post-factual age. Formerly a member of Germany's prestigious Council of Economic Advisors, she cited the Greek debt crisis to illustrate how different methods and assumptions led to divergent views of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). She said it takes hard work to work out the differences and to build the bridge for solutions and compromise. Prof. Weder di Mauro added that if we were “citizens of the world” instead of individuals confined to ‘echo chambers’, we would be in a much better position to think critically.
In the discussion panel moderated by ETH alumni Dr. Katja Fink and Sim Boon Yee Jasmine, Associate Professor of Curriculum for Teaching and Learning at the National Institute of Education in Singapore suggested that critical thinking should be a “disposition”, rather than a process, that can be developed in practice by challenging assumptions every day. Prof. Weder di Mauro added that the 'curiosity' in individuals would help us challenge assumptions. Prof. Springman concluded that particularly in research, the German term “hinterfragen”—or the culture of scrutiny and questioning—might just be the perfect embodiment of critical thinking.