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Emma Sue Prince



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Why we have to rethink critical thinking skills


We’re familiar with critical thinking from our university days. It’s what you are meant to be doing, after all, alongside all the partying and studying. But now, the current harsh economic conditions and competitive environment demand from all of us a rethink of critical thinking, AND a trainer who is able to effectively develop and hone these skills in themselves and others. Why is this?

Well, at a simple level critical thinking means to question assumptions, evaluate a situation from different angles, solve problems creatively and use a reflective, considered approach. And there is sufficient evidence to suggest that our graduates do not come out of university with strong critical thinking skills and, even more, that the current type of learning and teaching at university does not really encourage critical thinking.

And students who study courses entitled “critical thinking” are more likely to learn how to label certain types of thinking than how to actually think critically for themselves and relate this to their own work, life and goals.

On a deeper level, our own ability to think critically and solve problems creatively is being challenged by our changing world environment. A thinking skills explosion has not accompanied the information explosion.

This means that the need for far stronger critical thinking skills is relevant for every employee at every level of an organisation. Many people are simply overwhelmed by work overload, information overload and stress. Yet strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills are the very ones that are going to be able to help them manage these and work and live smarter. Skills like rationality, self-awareness, honesty, open-mindedness, discipline and judgement. The ability to be an active thinker, a sceptical thinker, to question, to analysis, in depth and faster than ever before.

Let's look at six principles to underpin why I say we need to rethink these skills.

1.    Sense making

This is the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed. In our fast-moving world this requires a reflective, considered approach which does not come easily. Also, the way we work is changing: as manufacturing and service jobs are automated there is increasing demand for the kind of skills that machines are not good at – yet. These are higher level thinking skills (Critical reasoning skills-numerical, verbal & spatial) that as yet cannot be codified. So we need to be ready in ways we haven’t been in the past. Just think for one minute about all the massive technological changes just in the last ten years. This isn’t stopping any time soon and is, in fact, accelerating!

As we renegotiate the human/machine division of labour in the next decade, critical thinking or sense making are the skills workers will need to capitalize on.

2. Novel & Adaptive thinking

High-end jobs demand “situational adaptability”- the ability to respond to unique unexpected circumstances of the moment. In addition, given high rates of rising unemployment, everyone will need to up their ability to respond effectively. We are now experiencing job polarization: middle-skill white collar and blue-collar jobs are declining due to automation of routine work and global off-shoring. On the other hand, job opportunities are increasingly concentrated in both high skill, high wage technical and management occupations and in low skill, low wage occupations such as foods service and personal care. Jobs at the high end involve abstract tasks, and at the low skill end manual tasks. This trend will accelerate increasing societal inequalities.

3. Computational Thinking

This is the ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data based reasoning. Many more roles will require computational thinking skills in order to make sense of the vast amounts of information. This is already happening and most people already feel huge amounts of pressure in their day-to-day work. It’s only going to increase so get used to it!

4.    New Media Literacy

This is the ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication. We have an explosion in user-generated media including the videos, blogs and podcasts that now dominate our social lives and these will be fully felt in workplaces over the next few years. Those who do not embrace these new media or do not know how to use them to the best effect, will simply be left behind.

5. Cognitive Load management

This is the ability to discriminate and filter information for importance, and understand how to maximize cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques. Given how the way we work is changing and the sheer amounts of information we are expected to understand, coupled with the distraction of social media and the Internet, this ability is crucial.

6.    Transdisciplinarity

This is a literacy in and an ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines. The ideal future worker is “T-shaped”- they bring deep understanding of at least one field, but have the capacity to converse in the language of a broader range of disciplines. Life- long learning will be of paramount importance in parallel with extended life-spans. Let’s face it, we are all going to be working for a lot longer than we thought!

So, what does this mean for trainers?

There is a stigma to critical thinking training in that it is stuffy, too academic to be engaging and an abstract concept. Creative problem-solving sounds like more fun and is something that trainers will happily include in sessions. Perhaps now, though, given the need for our critical thinking skills themselves needing to change, this brings yet more scope for the trainer to introduce a whole range of new types of exercises. To start with we probably need to work on our own critical thinking skills and this article has loads of tips on how to do this.

Once some basic critical thinking models have been introduced, the learning can be reinforced by fun and creative exercises. Here is a great one called the Zombie Apocalypse activity.

Interested to know what other trainers think. Surely we need to up our own game here, to meet the demand for a rethink on critical thinking skills.

4 Responses

  1. CT Skills

    I think there is scope for teaching Critical Thinking (CT) within companies.  There are many who have advanced their careers without university or have not encountered CT at university.  Certainly some graduates might benefit from a refresher.

    I certainly think it can be reframed as: Clarity of thought, business essential, competitive advantage etc.


  2. We we have to rethink critical thinking skills

    Thanks Steve – good comments especially about reframing it for companies – there’s a lot of scope there

  3. Critical Thinking

    Indeed, we have found managers in many organisations seerely lacking in critical thinking (CT) skills, so we have developed CT learning activities around the IFRAME Model.  This model is a six step ramework that guides you through the CT process – Incident, Feelings, Reflection, Assumptions, Meaning, Execution – and was developed by colleagues a few years ago.  Details of the model and book ‘IFRAME  : A Manager’s Guide to Critically Balanced Thinking’, can be found t .  Our CT workshops have an action learning / practical approach, and are in regular demand.  Impact assessments from client organistions show that managers are applying the model and learning in their daily work activities.  There is hope yet !

    Paula Hart, HRCgroup


  4. Rethinking critical thinking

    Thanks Paula, this looks like a great tool

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Emma Sue Prince


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