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Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, & the Skills Gap

I'd like to spill just a few words on the topic of critical thinking and problem solving which I've started exploring in relation to the so called "skills gap." To make a long story short, there's a whole lot of noise out there at current around how underprepared colllege students are from the perspective of employers. There are a lot of dimensions to this conversation, but I'd like to focus on just one of them. A significant amount of research has been conducted asking employers about the skills they believe prospective employees should have (here's an example), and there are consistent themes that come up. One of them, regardless of how the question is asked, seems to be that employers want new hires who are strong critical thinkers and have excellent problem solving skills. I believe that these responses are indicative of a serious problem, and it's probably not what you think it is.

Basically, I'm not convinced that employers themselves have a strong capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and this is rooted in the way in which this problem is framed in the first place (and yes, researchers also carry some blame here). The bottom line is that from my perspective, if you don't understand that critical thinking is a set of dispositions and methods that provide an essential baseline for engaging in the activity of problem solving in different settings/disciplines, you're not thinking critically in the first place, and if you're not exercising critical thought, how are you supposed to recognize it in others?

The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as:

...that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

You can find their definition here, and you can find a set of other worthy definitions that they've assembled here.* I believe you can see the issue that I'm caught up on right there in that first sentence. Critical thinking is a mode of thinking about subjects, content, or problems. Alternatively, it entails commanding a range of problem-solving abilities, but either way there is something fundamentally wrong with the perspective that lists the top skills in the skills gap as critical thinking and problem solving. It's not that the capabilites tied to these terms aren't essential, but that these terms are either tautologically intertwined, or connected ideas that define a general approach and a set of capabilities when taken together.

Maybe I'm just hung up on semantics here. That's always a possibility for an academic after all. It's quite possible that employers are like art lovers who know it when they see it, and that is sufficient. I don't buy it though. It's not that I don't think we have problems connected to these topics in terms of our educational system (both K-12 and higher education), but rather that I think when we interview employers and they describe the problem space this way, it belies the deeper nature of the problem.

Our problem in the areas of workforce development, employment, and the global economy are protracted and intractable. It's very easy to say that there's an employment gap, and that the magic bullet is critical thinking and problem solving skills...that if we can somehow make prospective employees stronger in these areas, then we will have a fix and can move forward as a happy, more productive society.

The truth is far more complicated, but it starts with the simple understanding that if we don't organize our problem space thoughtfully we are, to put it bluntly, screwed. We need to frame issues like necessary skills for a successful workforce in terms of like objects rather than casually grouping together fundamentally different things like skills, capabilities, and dispositions. We also need to understand that cultivation of dispositions is an essential part of this whole process, and that it is frankly the biggest part of the problem for everyone from the owners of multinational corporations, to politicians, to line managers, to college graduates, and to, while, everyone if we're talking about a functioning democratic society.This is why we need to critically examine ourselves as part of our critical examination of "the problem", and that's just the first step.


*I've also been reading a fair amount by Diane Halpern, and thus far I've found that there's some convergence on this topic.

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