Critical Thinking Skills: Being the tortoise, not the hare.

The concept of “critical thinking skills has started to bleed across my different lives.  As post-secondary educator, a hot topic of training at that level has been to ensure critical thinking is a core part of the learning experience. Then as an industry professional, while out at an OMDC Digital Dialogue session on “Labour Market Issues and Insights, the panelists described how important evaluating critical thinking skills in new hires is for creative organizations.  Through a course I’m taking to further my own education this summer, the concept of what critical thinking skills finally hit me.

Critical thinking means stopping to think and evaluate. It means taking in all the information available, weeding out what isn’t relevant, honing on what is important, processing that information, and providing answers that are well-reasoned.

Therefore, if we say we want employees and workers of the future to be critical thinkers, we are in theory trying to apply Aesop’s Fable “Tortoise and the Hare” to real life. Slowing the decision process down a bit will lead to more success than constantly hopping with as many snap decisions as possible.

However, this concept of taking time to think is not typically what’s lauded.  Historically in classrooms as teachers, we want students to jump in with answers.  In the office we want people to make solutions on the spot. To “think on their feet”. And while yes, in crisis mode sometimes we do just have to go with our gut instinct, is it something we have to do for every decision?

Critical thinking seems to have especially been shunned within the learning experience as class sizes grew through the 1990s. Focus became on being right and saying what the teacher wants. Questioning the content and position might be seen as questioning authority. And when you just want something to be over, you don’t say anything.  Conflict (even asking questions) is seen as trouble, and we don’t want trouble. We just want to get through the course material, hit all the learning outcomes, and be done with it. (Disclaimer: half the detentions I had in school were because I questioned the legitimacy of the answer key for textbooks, and even though I was correct, the answers were wrong, the act of questioning was seen as disruptive to the prescribed process).

In a professional setting, we want smart employees who can contribute creatively.  But what do we prefer as acceptable behaviour in a traditional brainstorm meting? We’re supposed to absorb the group’s immense creative energy and blurt out brilliance as it comes to mind.  Critical thinking isn’t necessarily that. Yes, still have these big brainstorms and converse, but make it about exploring options, putting everything on the table instead of rushing to a solution.  Then let that stew overnight or a weekend or a week, and come back and discuss answers. Which is very different than walking out of a single brainstorm session with the exact answers/plan.

So if we see critical thinking as an important skill for the future economies, we have to recognize what it might entail to train and what it means to the way we run our businesses. It means we can’t all think we’re right. We have to explore all angles. It means being intelligent about an opinion instead of proclaiming something to be “stupid” or “excellent”. What makes it stupid? What makes it excellent?

In hiring people, I liked one of the pieces of advice that came out of the recent OMDC Digital Dialogue event. Stop asking “what are your strengths and weaknesses”. That’s just an opportunity for someone to list again what they said already in their cover letter/resume.  Evaluate their responses to more thoughtful questions like, “Tell me about a time you made a mistake at work. How did you identify and how did you resolve?” Did they truly assess the problem? Did they demonstrate reasoning for the solution? Or build on that and ask if the resolution worked, or what they might do differently if in the future they find themselves in the same situation.” That full collection would get the potential employee to demonstrate how well they could assess a situation, demonstrate an attempt to problem solve, assess the result, and did they learn from it for next time.

The trouble with teaching critical thinking or trying to hire people with critical thinking skills is that we the teachers and we the managers have to step back and think about what critical thinking is to us.  It’s easy for us to write off others as not demonstrating it well, but are we in a position to properly assess if we aren’t honing the skills ourselves on a regular basis?

The problem with critical thinking skills themselves is that they conflict with our business practices.  In an era where we value the highest productivity and still often measure employees like process/assembly lines, we’re demonstrating how well we value speed and reactions.  If we wanted to truly value something deeper like critical thinking, we’ll have to find a way to value processing, reflection, and contemplation as important qualities in the decision making cycle and allow for the time to do so.

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