Preparing Teens for the 21st Century Work Place: Critical Analysis

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Your kids will be growing to adulthood in a century where the complexity of technology and the pace of change is unlike anything humans have ever experienced.  This is one in a series of columns devoted to identifying core competencies that will help teens be successful in this 21st century workplace.  Critical analysis is one of the abilities separating us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.  (That and grammar.  Which means that if you can’t critically analyze a situation and be grammatically correct when you describe it you are no better than an ape.)  With the increasing amount of responsibility required of employees from the front line to the executive suite, thinking logically, objectively interpreting information or situations and drawing well-reasoned conclusions will make them a significant asset to their employer (as well as a paragon of humanity).

But how to you get teenagers to critically analyze situations and ideas?  (Not criticizing.  They seem to have a natural talent for THAT.)  Critical analysis uses facts and reasoning skills to determine whether something is true or accurate (rather than because you WANT it to be true).  Your kid must be able to critically evaluate another person’s views and ideas as well as their own.  They have to be able to evaluate the legitimacy or relevance of information for supporting an idea or position.  They will need to be able to see both sides of a situation, argument or idea.  And, they need to be able to do it thoughtfully and with a sincere attempt to understand.  Critical analysis provides a reliable way to determine truth.  But for our purposes, critical analysis skills will help your kid be more employable.   (I mean, really, who has the time to waste pursuing truth in this economy?).

So, what are the components of critical analysis?

  • Identify the specific, important points, ideas, information or data of a proposition
  • Base the analysis on facts and observations
  • Interpret the point, idea, information or data
  • Think through the potential implications for each point, idea, information, data or outcome
  • Draw well reasoned conclusions and generalizations

Here are some ideas for helping your adolescent develop the skills associated with this analytic process.

What’s the point?  Critical analysis enables you to get to the heart of an issue.  That means identifying what is really important (and what isn’t) in a situation, idea or argument.  Have your kid practice identifying the important aspects of a situation.  “What is the point I am making here son?”  “What do you think the most important aspects of this situation are?”  “What does all of this entire project hinge on?”

Because because!  Vague ideas and broad, general statements make it difficult to critically analyze information or situations.  Your kid will need to be able to clearly identify the issue at hand.  Otherwise, they just bounce from vague point to irrelevant issue.  Require your kid to be specific about the point, idea or objection (their own or that of others).

Prove it!  Require your kid to provide facts rather than emotional pleas or manipulations to support an argument, position or request.  Don’t accept statements unless they are supported by relevant information or facts.  “What’s your evidence?” “Why should I accept that interpretation?”  Give them the evidence, facts and reasons for your decisions or conclusions.  For a twist, have them question your statements (respectfully, of course).  “How do you know I’m right about that?  Where did I get my facts?”  [You may have to set some limits on this “We’re not playing prove your point today.  Just do it.”]

What’s THEIR point?  To critically analyze ideas or opinions your kid will also need to think through different viewpoints.  There is no real analysis with only one idea, thought, perspective or point.  True understanding takes all sides into account and weighs the intellectual merits of each.  Require your kid to conduct an analysis of alternative or opposing views (both pros and cons).  Have them analyze a rule or response they disagree with including why it may have been implemented (and “because my parents are fascists” would be only ONE possible reason).

Who says?  The strength of conclusions drawn from a critical analysis depends on the sources used to inform the evaluation.   Teens need to learn that their opinion isn’t good enough to convince reasonable people (which, by definition, excludes the internet and their friends).  Any time they reference something from the internet, require them to prove it is legitimate.  Any time they call upon an expert, require them to justify their status as an expert.  Anytime they make a wild statement (like “nobody else’s parents have a problem with it”), require them to back it up with some kind of proof.

So what?  What are the implications of a point, reason, view or action?  What will happen?  How is their point related to the issue at hand?  Have them evaluate the effects or consequences of political arguments, legalization of marijuana, having sex or using alcohol or drugs.  “Let’s think this through.  What would happen if . . .”

That makes no sense!  A critical analysis also requires you to recognize when a point is not related to the issue being discussed (often referred to as a red herring).  The most frequent form of this is inconsistency.  First they say one thing then they say another, whichever gets them what they want.  Require them to provide only facts and opinions that are directly related to the topic at hand.

But it’s so pretty!  Wit. Sarcasm. Crying.  Anger.  Despair.  Guilt.  Desire.  None of these have a place in critical analysis.  Sure they are funny, flashy, distracting (or all three).  If you try to reason with your kid and they respond with one of these, they are not analyzing the situation.  In fact, they are likely to muddy the crystal clear waters of logic.  “Very funny.  Not convinced though.”  “I’m sorry this is so upsetting to you but I need some reasons or proof you have that I should take your point seriously other than you are upset.”

You’re a stupid head!  Insults, debating and arguing have no place in critical analysis (though they do utilize critical analysis skills).  Insults are irrelevant to understanding the issue at hand.  (And, they are mean.)  In debate, you take a position and THEN set about proving it is true or best or right.  Critical analysis, by comparison, is an examination of the legitimacy of all points and THEN selecting the one that has the most support for it.  Arguing uses emotion to influence the outcome or issue.  Critical analysis uses objective facts.  Do not accept name calling, insults, debating and arguing when you expect critical analysis.  “No, no.  Don’t go there.  This is about analyzing the situation not about whether you like me or respect me or not.”

Let me explain.  Require them to make their case using these different critical analysis skills.  Pick some event or activity they want to do (e.g., go to a concert) and require them to analyze the pros and cons (again that isn’t based on emotion).  “OK, I understand that is how you feel (or “that is what you think”) but to convince me you have to present reasons and expert sources that support your position.”

Where can they apply these skills?

Analyze family rules.  Have them analyze the legitimacy of a rule or response they disagree with.  But, it has to be a logical evaluation.  They have to identify the important goals of family rules and then assess whether the rules accomplish these goals.  (When they get the hang of this, they will realize that parenting is not just about saving you trouble.  It is also about having teenagers learn, practice using judgment, develop skills, establish and maintain meaningful peer relationships, etc.  You may have to help them with this one.  Then you will regret it when they turn it against you.  So, don’t forget “Because I said so.”)

Catch logical flaws.  Have them identify flaws in arguments from you, friends, people in the news, etc.

Who?  Me?  Humans have a remarkable knack for being perfectly logical about other people and being perfectly irrational about what they want.  They can be perfectly logical about analyzing the faults and irrationality of others while having a big old blind spot for how they are doing the exact same thing.  See what you can do to help your kid be more aware of this human failing.

Gotcha!  Video game designers have taken sophisticated psychological principles and designed them into video games to hook customers.  Have your kid analyze how video game designers are trying to reel them in.  For kids who frequently play video games, this is a really interesting exercise.  See what they decide.  (And, watch for them to use the “everyone is average but me” argument where they accept the facts but then say it doesn’t apply to them because they are special.)  More generally, marketers are doing the same thing.  Have your kids (particularly girls) critically analyze the messages they are getting from advertisers.

Play.  Playing can disguise a lot of important learning.  Any play that requires problem solving and obtaining a goal will require critically analyzing the situations (as well as problem solving, creativity, flexibility, persistence and patience. Do these sound familiar?)  Strategy games, puzzles and complex card games all will help develop critical analysis skills.  For some ideas of games and puzzles, check out the Mensa site here and this site for gifted kids and this for younger teens.

Help them.  They don’t have a clue about how to do this so you are going to have to help them critically analyze the flaws in their arguments.  “Let’s dig up some things that support your view that I’m completely wrong about this.”  Once again you will have to take time to learn about yet another thing AND help them prove yourself wrong about one of your expectations. (On second thought, forget about teaching them this 21st Century skill.  It’s just going to make more trouble for you. Some experts have the craziest notions about child rearing!)

originally published in

Print Friendly, PDF & Email