Are Critical Thinking Skills On The Decline?

February 20, 2019

Employers cite critical thinking as one of the most important skills young workers must develop to be successful. A 2016 report, titled “Leveling Up: How to Win in the Skills Economy,” looked at the what managers are seeking in young workers. The report stated that 60 percent of managers feel critical thinking/problem solving is the soft skill lacking the most among recent college graduates. But hope springs eternal. Indeed.com says advertised job postings listing the skill have doubled since 2009.

One definition of critical thinking is the ability to make judgments about what we read, see, or hear – to determine if the information presented is authentic, verifiable, and free from false premises or bias. The second component, the one managers hope for, is the ability to solve problems using clear and rational thinking. William Gormley, author of The Critical Advantage, says “By my view there are three elements of critical thinking: doubt, self-doubt, and the search for good evidence.” Doubt refers to being skeptical, not taking information at face value without doing your own evaluation. This skill is even more critical now, when the internet offers billions of bytes of information daily from sketchy or hard to trace sources.

Self-doubt is the ability to consider your own biases, your own hidden agendas or fallacies. This requires humility and openness to being wrong, traits that often come with maturity (if at all.) Employers can screen for this quality by asking good questions in the interview. Recruiters can use a challenge currently facing company managers and see what fresh ideas or new thinking might come from a candidate. Even if they don’t have enough information to create a viable solution, you may get insight into their thought process.

Companies can also teach the concepts of critical thinking to workers, helping them develop over time the skills they need for analysis and problem-solving. Executive coach Joel Garfinkle says that asking questions that make your team think is a good start.

What will happen if we do this? What other options can you come up with? What is the counterargument for going ahead with this plan? What could possibly go wrong? What evidence supports implementing this solution? What evidence contraindicates this solution?

“What If” training can also help workers think hypothetical problems through and debate the merits of various approaches. Choose scenarios that have happened in the past, so you can discuss the steps the company took and eventual outcomes. It’s important, especially for young workers, that the group is not searching for one “right” answer. Encourage healthy debate, using facts and logic to defend the merits of ideas that come up. Watch for signs of Groupthink, where dominant team members push their point of view and less dominant members give in just to avoid conflict.

Students often believe that college-level work is preparing them for the workforce and that high grades are proof of their superior abilities. But employers often say young graduates “can memorize and regurgitate” but struggle to convert classroom exercises into the ability to solve problems on the job. One problem is the tendency to conflate knowledge with intelligence. Author Thomas Vato says each has its own role: “Knowledge is a tool that intelligence uses to solve problems.”

In other words, in seeking critical thinking, hiring managers must be on the lookout for intelligence – and not allow themselves to be dazzled by shiny, brand new knowledge.


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