The most important skill – Critical Thinking

There seems little doubt that there is a gap between the skills needed to do a particular job and those that are available, the so called “skills gap”, and it’s one of the biggest challenges facing the economy.

The skills Gap
According to the Office for National Statistics, “the number of job vacancies increased sharply to a record 1.2 million in the three months to November 2021, having reached a record low of 340,000 in the three months to June 2020”. As with most real-world problems the reasons as to why this has happened is complex, requiring a good understanding of individual sectors of the employment market. However, we can make a few generalisations, firstly there is a shortage of qualified candidates. This is the results of a number of factors including a lack of specific skills, the right work experience and or educational qualifications. And secondly there are less people in employment. The Institute for Employment Studies estimates there are 600,000 fewer people in work than before the pandemic. This is because there are less migrants, (Brexit), older people (Boomers) are retiring, more younger people are going into further education and the pandemic has resulted in changing lifestyles e.g. the great resignation.

What skills are lacking?
This is another tricky one to navigate but a good way of approaching it is to break it down, splitting the skills between technical (hard) and people (soft). Technical skills in say the Digital sector would include the ability to write code or use a particular type of software, whereas people skills include thinking (critical), communicating, problem solving etc. With regards to people skills the one employers often consider the most important is critical thinking.

As an aside, personally, I think the terms hard and soft skills is misleading, from a learning perspective it’s much easier to teach hard skills than soft ones, and in terms of which is the most valuable or important, they both are.

Critical thinking
Wikipedia tells us that Critical thinking is the analysis of available facts, evidence, observations, and arguments to form a judgement. There are however many definitions but they all have the same basic concept – the ability to reason by asking questions in order to from an opinion.

“People can be extremely intelligent, have taken a critical thinking course, and know logic inside and out. Yet they may just become clever debaters, not critical thinkers, because they are unwilling to look at their own biases.” Carol Wade Phycologist.

Everyone thinks, you’re probably doing it right now but the process of thinking is both complex and simple and, in some ways beautiful. Individual neurons sit next to each other in the brain similar to members of an orchestra, when instructed to do so they each perform individually but what emerges is something new, the orchestra create music, the brain a thought. My thanks to Henning Beck from the University of Tübingen for this great analogy, here is the link to his Ted lecture, How we think. Watch out for his example as to how the brain can transfer the outline image of a tree and turn it into a child.

The problem with our orchestra of neurons is that together they are biased, emotional and suffer from prejudice, and left to their own devices will form opinions that although appearing to be true are distortions made to fit prior beliefs and personal values.

“The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed, the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.” Bertrand Russell, Philosopher.

An Orchestra of Neurons

They need a conductor – And this is where critical thinking comes in.
Here is an example, imagine a situation where an individual tells a story that resonates with many people, they create sounds bites such as Make America Great Again (MAGA) or Take Back Control. There is something in the simplicity of this, a clarity that resonates, and as a consequence the brain latches on to the storyteller, making them the conductor. However, remember the brain, our collection of neurons is not rational, its often selfish, lazy and emotional, there is no interview process for our conductor, the brain will simply pick one, often without much thought.

But what if we don’t leave the brain to its own devises, what if we insist it follows a few simple protocols before making a decision.

The critical thinking process
Below is how the critical thinking might work using the MAGA example.

  1. Formulate the question – what problem(s) are you trying to solve?
    e.g. What do we know about the storyteller, what does MAGA actually mean?
  2. Gather information
    e.g. find out more about the storyteller, what bias might they have, are they qualified to make such comments?
  3. Analyse and Evaluate – ask challenging questions, consider implications and prioritise.
    e.g. what does great mean, was America great in the past, a logical question given that the idea is to do it again, what makes a country great, what are the pros and cons of being great?
  4. Reach a conclusion, form an opinion and reflect.
    e.g. This is what I think and this is the reason why. – let me think about that, does it make sense?

When you put this process in place you will be able to form your OWN opinion as to the credibility of the conductor and their story, this is independent thinking, its what employers value most and its what we need to close the skills gap.

If you accept the argument I have put forward as to the value of critical thinking, and of course you should think critically about it, the next question is probably:
Can you teach critical thinking? – this will have to be the subject of another blog, but by way of a spoiler the answer is maybe not or if you can it’s not easy.

A few more blogs to make you a better thinker – Sensemaking, humility and the humanities – Becoming a better thinker – Edward de Bono learning leader – Lessons from lies – Fake news.

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