Teaching critical thinking: a high school example

September 8, 2016 by Joshua
in Education, Entrepreneurship, Stories

Have you ever found young adults self-righteously holding ideas, unwilling to consider alternatives?

I have.

This summer I also saw a room full of them change their minds in an instant on an issue I know they would have been fixed about before.

I taught a summer session of high school students entrepreneurship. One exercise is to project financials for your project for two years. I’ve gotten good at helping people who have never used spreadsheets to do the exercise, which is quick-and-dirty, to learn their project’s most important assumptions, to see if they can reach profitability, and to learn the details, as only doing financials can.

Before the exercise, most students look at their projects idealistically. They think everybody benefits so starting it will be easy. The exercise changes that view for nearly everyone as their first projections show they won’t make money. The exercise changes into one of lowering and delaying costs, raising revenues, and tabling non-essential parts of the project. They have to question their values and make difficult decisions.

While doing the exercise, one student jokingly asked “How little can we pay our employees?”

Another student followed up “Yeah, they’re making my business not profitable.”

And a wave of similar sentiments went across the room. Paying employees makes profitability hard.

The students started talking about getting their businesses started before New York’s minimum wage went up.

Then the magic happened, which I couldn’t have started if I had tried. The class started having a free and open dialog about the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage. As best I could tell, each of them, before this exercise, considered raising the minimum wage a slam-dunk obvious good thing to do. Also as best I could tell, each of them, while projecting their financials, wanted to pay their employees below minimum wage.

They saw multiple sides of an issue they didn’t before and struggled internally and as a group to reconcile their earlier gut feelings with the results of their exercise and their enthusiasm for entrepreneurship.

I’m not taking a side on the issue here. I take a side on students learning and growing where they were fixed before, in questions that matter to society. I couldn’t have been more proud of them.

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