What is Critical Thinking?

As we speak to employers about what skills they value, they often talk about Critical Thinking. When we talk to colleges and universities, at least in the UK, Critical Thinking comes right at the top of the list of the things they want their students to be able to do. Someone I know, who has been working on the Educator-Employer interface for more than a decade now, tells me that even if they are using similar language, they mean different things by Critical Thinking. According to him, this creates the disconnect, and this is why while 70% educators may think the students are ready for the workplace, less than half the employers think so.

With this in mind, I was engaging with educators and employers to figure out what the different definitions of Critical Thinking may be. It seems that both employers and educators mean the same thing - the ability to test and validate the assumptions that underlie a decision - when they talk about critical thinking. They are both talking about not accepting any situation or a piece of information at its face value, but being able to, reflexively, examine the backdrop, the assumptions and the contexts.

However, the difference occurs often in application. The academic world, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, is dominated by philosophy of language, and deeply inclined to understand language in its context. One of the key focus of university teaching in the UK, as Baroness Wolf of Dulwich (Dr Alison Wolf, a distinguished economist) so eloquently explained in a recent House of Lords debate, is to make the students conscious that no statements should ever be made loosely - they should be backed by analysis, thought, evidence and accuracy. On the other hand, the employer, within a dynamic, action orientated business setting, wants the employee to test the assumptions with a focus of getting things done. They would indeed want them to validate the courses of action, analyse its effects, check the data and ensure accuracy. Independent thought is encouraged in academia, within those parameters, it is so in the workplace, within those parameters.

So, essentially, the focus of the activity that may really be the problem. When the student is doing critical thinking, he is supposed to be thinking - is this right? When the employee is doing it, they are asking - can this be done? There should not be any conflict between those two approaches, as long as this difference is acknowledged and understood. Many people make the transition perfectly well, and sometimes (like me) continue doing both. In fact, the ability to ask the former question, arguably, endow the employees to develop Higher Order skills of reflection and ability to improve over time, ability to handle unfamiliar situations and diverse teams, and work with integrity and consistency.

However, the problem arises when this transition is not done, or even worse, it is rejected as a possibility. The world of work is the world of practise, messy, pragmatic, action-orientated. One could argue that the Critical Thinking taught at the university somewhat misses out on testing one of its key assumptions, that of a lofty Technical Rationality divorced from practise. Indeed, this is not always so, and this is an old issue, Donald Schon was writing about this in the Eighties. However, the influence of positivist, rational methods of thinking is still very common in Academic practise. And, if I extend my argument, the disconnection between the Critical Thinking as understood in Academia and what it is in context of work is not about how you do Critical Thinking, but what you are seeking. The Positivist quest for truth is somewhat opposed to the more Pragmatist thinking of goal orientation that dominate practise.

In the end, it is perhaps appropriate that I think about this issue as a question of practise rather than a philosophical argument (there is one to be had, but one that was not resolved over thousands of years). And, it is not an either-or, but a way to translate the commitment to seek the truth into a mechanism to produce better action. This is what successful professionals do, translating their quest into a constant balance between pragmatic action and finding better ways of doing things, progressing iteratively. That way, the Critical Thinkers can not be produced in isolation, but only with the commitment to progress and do things better. It becomes, at this point, a question of values, rather than the mechanics.





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