Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Highlights of SLA 2009: Critical Thinking

One of the best sessions I attended at the SLA annual conference was "Critical Thinking", presented by Rebecca Jones and Jane Dysart of Dysart & Jones and Deb Wallace of the Harvard Business School Baker Library. With such a short and plain title, this session might have been easy to miss in the program, but I'm extremely glad I decided to attend. I'll share here a little of what I learned.

Critical thinking is an intellectually disciplined process that requires skillful action. It's a way of thinking that requires constant acknowledgment of certain biases and traps that may impact your decisions. It is recognizing that you can't make decisions alone or in a vacuum. According to the presenters, it's hard, and it's worth it.

Critical thinking requires constant mindfulness not to fall into decision traps. The four biggest traps we we fall into are framing, status quo, anchoring, and sunk cost fallacy.
  • Framing is the idea that you already have about a situation and the way you approach it. The types of questions you ask will determine the types of answers you'll get. Reframing will take you from "How do we cut 10% of our budget" to "We have X dollars. How will we spend it best?". To avoid the trap of framing, don't accept the first frame or question. Look at it from different perspectives.
  • Whether we like something, we have a tendency to stick with what we know. Breaking status quo is psychologically risky because you open yourself up to criticism. Sticking with the status quo is not action, it's comfort. To avoid this trap, identify what IS the status quo, and ask how it is helping reach a goal. Evaluate the status quo against all other options in terms of the future.
  • Anchoring seems to be a bit like framing. The first things we hear or see determine our subsequent thinking - you have to take into account your past experiences and the order you learned about them. Awareness and using different starting points can help to prevent anchoring. When explaining a situation, give as little info as possible to begin.
  • The Sunk Cost fallacy revolves around people's tendency to want to justify past decisions no matter how the present and future are affected by that decision. It's thinking like, "We've already spent so much money on this. Why stop now?" To avoid it, consciously set aside past investments. Remember that a rational decision is one based on current assets and future consequences. Stop sinking costs into sunk ones. It's important to reward new ideas.
We were encouraged to remember that a little disagreement is necessary, and that disagreement does not equate to disloyalty. Essential characteristics for critical thinking are:
  • good listening skills
  • a keen sense of self-awareness (what is your conflict style?) and acceptance of that style
  • curiosity and interest
  • the ability to admit when you don't understand or feel you are missing important information
  • a willingness to assess and evaluate the issues at hand for their current value
Immediately, I began to notice the power of reframing: that is, changing the way you look at a given circumstance. I saw this sort of thinking displayed in a recent article in AALL Spectrum, Manhattan BigLaw Libraries with a Smaller Footprint: The analyses and processes of physically downsizing the law library/information center. In the article, one library director described the proactive approach he took to downsizing, whereby he negotiated a loss of space in exchange for an increased electronic resources budget:
“The second you find there is a potential reduction, be forthcoming. Be proactive if you have to reduce the library space,” says Cohan. “Think of ways you can save money. I gave up one half of the space and picked up a huge amount for my electronic resources. View it as an opportunity—not a take-away from the library.”
It's this sort of thinking ("View it as an opportunity") that Dysart, Jones, and Wallace encouraged us to try to develop. I think critical thinking skills are going to become more and more valuable for the library field, as we find ourselves facing change at an ever-quickening pace.

You can see more of Jones' thoughts on critical thinking on the Dysart & Jones blog. Interestingly, she submits that critical thinking comes more easily to Gen Xers and Yers because we were taught to ask "why?" in school. (That may be giving us too much credit, but it's worth considering.) The slides of the presentation are also available at the Dysart & Jones website.

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