Higher Education

Real World Thinking

As an expert in the area of The Science of Learning, I have ignored business training needs because of a couple of comments on previous articles about how businesses don’t want their workers trained to think because that might cause unrest in a business. More recently, a business leader bemoaned the fact that finding an employee who can really think is extremely difficult and he really wished they were more common. Looking at the comments on an article I recently wrote about critical thinking, I can see that the earlier comments that I latched onto about businesses not wanting workers who can think was seriously wrong.

Unfortunately, as I have written over and over, universities and colleges, where higher order thinking skills are supposed to be learned, have really dropped the ball on this one. Because of the incessant focus on filling the students’ heads with content, content, content, there is no time or energy left to devote to teaching them how to think. It is not that the professors don’t want their students to know how to think, it is that it is someone else’s job to teach them. As a result, the evidence is clear that university and college graduates are not being taught higher order thinking skills.

When you think what employee’s with higher order thinking skills would bring to a commercial enterprise, it is amazing that any business leader would not want to have as many graduates as possible who could think in their organization.

Four of the higher order thinking skills that I can see as being vital to bringing dynamism and excitement to a company would be critical thinking, higher order creativity, complex inductive reasoning, and hypothetico-deductive reasoning.

Critical thinking abilities are what many HR professionals and company directors are really looking for in many of their hiring decisions. Unfortunately, critical thinking may appear throughout in university marketing materials, mission statements, and pronouncements, however, research demonstrates that the vast majority of graduates lack critical thinking skills or possess them within a narrow band of subject matter (the problem of knowledge transference) that is irrelevant to the needs of a future employer. Over and over I read about business leaders who bemoan the fact that graduates come to their organizations ill-prepared to make a difference. Not surprising when you drill down into the statistics for higher order thinking skills in universities. Business, accounting, management, and economics departments rank near the bottom when it comes to teaching students higher order thinking skills.

Because higher order thinking skills require the understanding and manipulation of multiple abstract concepts, they cannot be learned until the brain has developed far enough for this to happen. This final cognitive brain developmental stage is not reached until at least adolescence, and for many, it is not finished developing until their early twenties. This means that colleges and universities are where these skills must be taught, or they are left to the businesses to teach them on their own. Unfortunately, the skills and know-how for teaching these skills are not only lacking in universities and colleges, but also in the corporate training world.

The sad part is that we know, from The Science of Learning, how to teach these higher order thinking skills. It isn’t rocket science, it is learning science (I’m offering a webinaron The Science of Learning for non-academics soon).

If we have a look at critical thinking as an example of a higher order thinking skill we can ask, “What would this skill bring to a business?” As I have written about in earlier articles about higher order thinking skills and critical skills specifically, there are six underlying abilities that come together to form the basis of critical thinking. To quote my earlier article, they are:

  • planning
  • cognitive flexibility
  • persistence
  • willingness to self-correct
  • directed and focussed attention
  • consensus seeking

I suppose that, in addition, all of these would have to be directed at a problem or goal.

Looking over the list, I have to ask myself, “Which ability on this list wouldn’t be a desirable attribute in an employee? Why would any business leader not want these in an employee?”

Imagine if all of the employees in a company used these attributes every day at work? The dynamism would be brilliant. And, that’s not even looking at any of the other higher order thinking skills.

The best thing about all of this is that we know how to teach these skills. We know what it takes to build an atmosphere that fosters critical thinking in students and employees. We just don’t do it. All we do is teach people the “right” answer. As a result, all we get are “right” answers.

How are we going to solve the real problems of the world, business or otherwise, if all we do, after careful memorization to please an authority figure, is regurgitate the “right” answer when faced with any kind of problem. Are we going to adequately address problems like early onset Alzheimer’s or global climate change by regurgitating the right answer or pressing the right button?

We are faced with real problems that will take real thinking to overcome. In the next few articles, I will write about the other higher order thinking skills that colleges and universities don’t teach, and how they might impact the commercial world and other real-world settings.

We can do it – we just have to do it.

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