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 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.

The knowledge verses skills debate – Strictly speaking

The skills gap
Although it is estimated that by 2030 there will be more people than jobs for those with lower skills, research conducted by the Learning and Work Institute estimated that England faces a deficit in higher level skills of around 2.5 million people, this is why we have a skills gap.

It’s not that we don’t have enough people it’s that we don’t have enough people with the right skills. It’s an education problem not a resource one…..

The solution is of course easy, train more people, but its skills we need not knowledge, right?

What are skills
A skill is the knowledge and ability that enables us to do something well. There are many definitions of skills but I like this one because it highlights the importance knowledge plays. But although knowledge is valuable, on its own it has limitations. For example, knowing the steps to the Argentinian Tango doesn’t mean you will be able to dance it. Knowledge is theoretical, whereas skills are practical. There is arguably no better place to see how skills are learned than Strictly, the BBC’s hugely successful dance show. Celebrities with differing abilities are given a dance that they need to perform each week, the process they go through is however always the same, and involves practice, practice and more practice.

What is knowledge
Most people will assume that knowledge relates to something written in a text book, be it words, facts, dates, numbers etc, and they would be right. To be precise this type of knowledge is called explicit or declarative knowledge. In addition, you will be aware that you “know it”, which on the face of it might sound strange but some types of knowledge (implicit and tacit) are unconscious, that is you have the knowledge but don’t know that you do, for example, “I can hit a golf ball straight down the fairway without thinking, but don’t ask me to explain how I do it because I have no idea, I guess I’m just naturally talented”. One final point, for knowledge to be understood it should be applied in a specific context or illustrated by way of example, which lifts the words from the page, often putting the learner in a more practical environment where they can “see” what they need to learn.

The Knowledge V Skills debate
Often knowledge and skills are put into conflict, with some promoting knowledge as being the more important. The current national curriculum in England as set out by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove requires that pupils should be taught a robust “core knowledge” of facts and information.

“Our new curriculum affirms – at every point – the critical importance of knowledge acquisition”.
Michael Gove

Whilst others promote the value of skills over knowledge, suggesting that technology provides knowledge for free.

“The world no longer rewards us just for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know.”
Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy at the OECD

But like so many things this type of dichotomy is not helpful, with evidence on both sides attesting to the importance of each. The truth is you need both, you can’t learn skills without knowledge and although knowing something has value, it’s what you can do that is most highly prized.

How do you learn skills?
To learn a skill, you first need knowledge, for example here is some of the knowledge required to help dance the Argentinian Tango.

Every dance has its own unique music, and you can’t master it without developing a feel for the music. Tango is a walking dance, meaning that all the steps are based on walking. When you start learning, you must first master some basic movements. Beginners usually start with 8-Count Basic or simply Tango Basic. The rhythm is slow, slow, quick, quick, slow.

We can then follow what is called the four-step approach to learning skills:
One – Demonstrate the skill with little or no explanation (demonstration)
Two – Repeat with an explanation whilst encouraging questions (deconstruction)
Three – Repeat again with the learner explaining what is happening and being challenged (formulation)
Four – Learner has a go themselves with support and coaching (performance)

Skills are developed through continual practice and repetition, learning by trial and error, asking questions whilst receiving advice to improve performance. An analogy or metaphor can sometime help e.g. Finding your balance is about feeling stable like a ship with an anchor.

Transferable skills are not that transferable
The ultimate goal of those that promote skills development is that once learned they can be taken with you from job to job, they are in effect transferable. However, research suggests that this is not the case. In July 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK released the results of a two-year study involving almost 100 schools. The experiment looked at the benefits of teaching chess as a means of developing generic skills, in this instance mathematical ability. It concluded, that there were no significant differences in mathematical achievement between those who had the regular chess class and the control group. Playing chess, does not make you better at maths, on the whole it only improves your ability to play better chess.
This supports the argument that skills are domain specific and that critical thinking learned whilst studying medicine does not necessarily help you become a better critical thinker in other areas. One reason for this may be that to become a good critical thinker you need large amounts of knowledge on which to practice. Which brings us full circle, skills need knowledge and knowledge becomes more valuable when applied in the form of a skill.

Strictly foot note – there is an argument that the celebrities on Strictly are only skilled in one dance at a time, and what is learned from one dance does not transfer easily to another.