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Interview With CIS Chair Of Wilbur Wright College: Critical Thinking Skills Important To Success

By Jill Randolph
March 17, 2010

Wilbur Wright College, established in 1934, is an Illinois Community College on the Northwest side of Chicago. The college offers associate's degrees in arts, fine arts, general studies, science, and engineering. Wilbur Wright College also offers several distance learning, adult education, and continuing education classes, as well as occupational training in manufacturing, medical, and business fields. The College enrolls over 10,000 students every year, and has two campuses.

Julius Nadas, CIS Chair, was born in Austria in a displaced persons camp after World War II. He moved to the U.S. and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended the Case Institute of Technology and received a BS in Mathematics. Mr. Nadas also received his Master's degree in Mathematics, from the University of Wisconsin.

He began at Wilbur Wright College in the Department of Data Processing and taught for thirty years, during which time the department name was changed twice. The first name change was to Computer Information Systems and then to Information Technology, before it merged with the Business Department in 2006. Mr. Nadas has spent the last three years in the Department of Mathematics teaching statistics and general education math.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do to be successful in a math or IT-related field and how soon should they start working on their plan?

Julius Nadas: The most important thing is to be able to focus; if students can think strategically and if they can focus, they will have no trouble. I teach lessons anyone can understand, providing students are willing to focus.

"An education is not an obstacle course; it prepares students for life. Educators wouldn't teach students critical thinking skills if we didn't think it will be important to students' lives, but often, students don't see it."

My number one goal is that my students are engaged in the thought process of math problems, rather than only the mechanics involved in getting to an answer.

I think a lack of focus is the number one problem in society. People think that they can multitask - they can talk on a cell phone and do their nails at the same time they are doing their job, but it doesn't work.

Jill Randolph: Do students have to take prerequisites in order to get into your class?

Julius Nadas: Theoretically, yes. However, students usually don't remember what they have studied. A lot of them memorize enough to pass tests and then forget the material immediately afterwards. This may be in part because a lot of teachers "teach to the test," since their individual success and their school's ranking is based on students' test scores. Students learn to be good test takers, but not necessarily to accumulate knowledge and build on it.

One of my students explained to me that she had received good grades in high school because she studied the problems presented in class, came back the next day, and was tested on those problems. Her study skills were only focused on the next test, and by the end of the semester, she didn't remember what she had done the first week of class.

When I told my class we would have a comprehensive test at the end of the semester, including all of the material the students were supposed to have learned, that student said, "You don't want us to pass this course!"

An education is not an obstacle course; it prepares students for life. Educators wouldn't teach students critical thinking skills if we didn't think it will be important to students' lives, but often, students don't see it.

They sometimes don't understand that education is comprised of building blocks, so it's important for them to learn technical skills as well as critical thinking skills and build on them, versus cramming in order to pass a test and then immediately forgetting the material.

"A well-rounded liberal arts education helps make graduates flexible in their career path, which is very important, especially when the market shifts."

Jill Randolph: How have students changed from years past?

Julius Nadas: To give an example, I recently read that a school district has decided to no longer issue homework, and that it's the teacher's job to cover lessons during school hours. I am concerned that once those students get to the point that they're looking for employment, they may carry the same attitude with them and be inflexible regarding work. Compound that with the inability to think critically, , and those students may be at a serious competitive disadvantage compared to candidates with different mind and skill sets.

Jill Randolph: That reminds me of something I heard from a former boss. He said, "Don't come to me with a problem; come to me with a problem, and three solutions. Then tell me which of those is your best solution, because you are the subject-matter expert, you are the person who lives this job every day; so what is your best solution? Maybe your proposal won't be the best suggestion, but if I have an idea of where you are coming from, and I know that you are engaged in the solution, I can help you find the best answer."

Julius Nadas: He wanted employees to present the benefits and the disadvantages of each of the suggestions. One may cost the company more money, but it will leave the customer in a better position; another may protect the company from a legal liability. He was encouraging employees to think things through.

Jill Randolph: Right, and the thought process also required soft skills. An employee might not have legal savvy, but if her or she is wise, that person will consult with the legal department rather than guessing or leaving the company or him or herself in a vulnerable position.

Julius Nadas: Unfortunately, some employees want to be told what to do. Or they haven't learned critical thinking so they don't understand certain situations, what is being asked, what the problem is, or what they need to know in order to solve it.

For example, I have a friend who is a mechanic with a lot of young trainees. The trainees work hard, but they don't know how to diagnose to figure out what the problem might be. Their lack of critical thinking skills holds them back in their job and causes frustration all around.

"Networking is always important and a great way to find a job. Students shouldn't be afraid to start low and work their way up."

Jill Randolph: Another example is that a lot of people are going into healthcare. As a registered nurse, one needs to know math, because RNs have to have math skills for dosing. An RN doesn't want to give their patient an overdose of medication; their livelihood depends on not killing people.

Julius Nadas: Critical thinking requires more than simply calculating dosages. An RN needs to be able to look at the patient's chart and realize a decimal point was moved. Medical professionals need to be focused and engaged.

Jill Randolph: How do you think that colleges have changed from the past?

Julius Nadas: We are doing more remedial work, because 90 percent of the students haven't learned enough math to be successful at the college level, and don't understand what they are missing. I have heard the same thing from my university colleagues as well.

Jill Randolph: There are currently a lot of unemployed people applying to jobs, including those for which they may be overqualified. What do you recommend students highlight about themselves in order to outshine their competition?

Julius Nadas: A well-rounded liberal arts education helps make graduates flexible in their career path, which is very important, especially when the market shifts.

Also, a graduate needs to realize that he or she is not being hired as an "IT person," for example; that employee is being hired as a person who has IT skills.

Job-specific knowledge is important, but soft skills such as communications, are equally, if not more important.

Also, if people are aware of their surroundings, they are more likely to look around and be in touch with their environment so that they can be proactive to changes. In a nutshell, that's what I try to teach in my classroom.

Jill Randolph: Do you have any advice regarding networking?

Julius Nadas: Yes, networking is always important and a great way to find a job. Students shouldn't be afraid to start low and work their way up. They also need to be proactive about networking, and spread the word about their skills. They shouldn't be shy about asking questions to find out about their network's connections.

Jill Randolph: Does your program offer certificates to help students segue quickly into the workplace?

"I recommend journaling.... It provides some reflective feedback to how to improve and move forward."

Julius Nadas: Yes we do. Students here, who plan on getting their associate's degrees, rarely complete them; our completion rate is less than three percent. Because of the economy and students' realization that they need more education to be competitive, they take classes here and then transfer the credits to a four-year program, in most cases.

Jill Randolph: Do you have any books or websites you recommend to your students, especially if they are interested in pursuing a career involving math?

The first step is for the student to be aware of where he or she is at that point in time, and then to think about where he or she might want to be in the future."

Julius Nadas: No - I recommend journaling instead, because I think it is important for young people to be aware of what happened to them during the day. It provides some reflective feedback to how to improve and move forward. The first step is for the student to be aware of where he or she is at that point in time, and then to think about where he or she might want to be in the future.

I was assigned a journaling project in graduate school. The other students and I said, "We're in our mid twenties; where do we want to be when we are 40?" We started looking at people around us who were 40 years old, what they had accomplished or run up against, and that helped shape a lot of our expectations.

The thought process - the ability to focus on one's life and see what is happening, and where it will take the person tomorrow - that's what I am trying to help my students understand. Journaling isn't really about writing; it's about noticing what's happening around oneself and relating to it.

Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things students can do to prepare to find a job in the math field?

Julius Nadas: They won't find jobs in math fields, per se; they will find jobs where they need to use the skills I taught them in math class. Those skills are the ability to be able to internalize an external situation, use their critical thinking skills to try to define what the problems are, and determine how to solve them.

It is the same thing your former boss said. Students need to make sure they understand the problem, can explain it, and then provide a couple solutions with benefits and downsides. That is all I am looking for in my math class.

I teach my students transferable skills that help them analyze situations and determine solutions that might be appropriate. I teach my students how to think things through, not just with math formulas, but also by zooming out and considering the big picture.

"'If ignorance is bliss, then I want you to be unhappy. The right answer is not always the fastest and easiest one to find, and I try to impress this upon my students so that they will make educated decisions using critical thinking, not only in my classroom, but hopefully throughout their lives.'"

As another example, for 20,000 years, peoples' minds have been trained to react quickly and decisively. Cavemen were faced with danger and had to get out of threatening situations quickly. People who didn't make that snap decision died.

But now, educators and employers don't want people making quick decisions; we want people to stop, think, and decide the best solution. This is contrary to what is ingrained in us. When people learn to drive, they don't stop and think about oncoming traffic; drivers are supposed to react and think instinctively.

However, we want to do away with that in the classroom. In my class, I want students to explain a problem, tell me what the issues are, and then figure out how to solve it. The skills I am trying to teach are totally contrary to what students are expecting and what is ingrained in us.

A math class should teach skills useful to daily life. For example, when students are trying to figure out how much money can they spend on rent, how that impacts their transportation issues, and how to budget in order to make sure their paycheck will cover their expenses, that's what math is about.

How many people are in serious trouble because they didn't critically think things through? For example, there may be sales people who need to make a commission and push customers to make unwise decisions, but that sales person isn't thinking on the purchaser's behalf. Buyers have to think critically about what's in their best interest, in order to protect themselves.

I say, "If ignorance is bliss, then I want you to be unhappy." The right answer is not always the fastest and easiest one to find, and I try to impress this upon my students so that they will make educated decisions using critical thinking, not only in my classroom, but hopefully throughout their lives.


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