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Therefore, there is no doubt about how critical is critical thinking in industry and business. However, let us take a look at the current state of critical thinking in industry and business.
Sadly, studies of higher education demonstrate three disturbing, but hardly novel, facts:
These three facts, taken together, represent serious obstacles to essential, long-term institutional change. It is because, only when administrative and faculty leaders grasp the nature, implications, and power of a robust concept of critical thinking — as well as gain insight into the negative implications of its absence — are they able to orchestrate effective professional development.
When managers have a vague notion of critical thinking, it impedes their ability to identify opportunities for improvements, or develop more effective, business practices. It prevents them from making the essential connections (both within subjects and across them), connections that give order and substance to productivity, cost reduction and innovation.
This page highlights the depth of the problem and its solution — a comprehensive, substantive concept of critical thinking fostered across the industry sectors. As long as we rest content with a fuzzy concept of critical thinking or an overly narrow one, we will not be able to effectively tale advantage of it in the industry or business. Consequently, companies will continue to suffer on the face of tough competition and nothing new to add to the winning strategy.
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An Initial Look at the Difference Between a Substantive and Non-Substantive Concept of Critical Thinking
Managers Lack a Substantive Concept of Critical Thinking
Studies demonstrate that most managers lack a substantive concept of critical thinking. Consequently they do not (and cannot) use it as a central organizer in the organization design, work design or in strategy planning. They do not clearly understand who the the real customer is, and what are the real requirements of their customer groups. It does not affect how they conceptualize their own role as providers of products or services. They do not link it to the essential thinking that defines the domain area they operate. They, therefore, usually work isolated from the thinking employees need to engage in if they are to take ownership of that work. They work in the area of engineering but don’t have engineering thinking. They work in insurance, but don’t have insurance thinking. They know innovative companies do analysis, but have no clear idea of how to teach employees the elements of that analysis. They know employees of successful companies use higher levels of intellectual standards in their thinking, but have no clear conception of what intellectual standards they want their employees to use or how to articulate them.
Most managers are unable to describe the intellectual traits (dispositions) presupposed for intellectual discipline. They have no clear idea of the relation between critical thinking and creativity, problem-solving, decision-making, or communication. They do not understand the role that thinking plays in understanding content. They are often unaware that didactic teaching is ineffective. They don’t see why employees fail to make the basic concepts of the discipline their own. They lack workplace training strategies that would enable employees to master their work and become skilled resources.
Most managers have these problems, yet with little awareness that they do. The majority of mangers consider their management strategies just fine, no matter what the data reveal. Whatever problems exist in their area of operation, they see as the fault of employees or beyond their control.
Studies Reveal That Critical Thinking Is Rare in Most Companies
Research demonstrates that, contrary to popular management belief, critical thinking is not fostered in the typical work environments. Managements aspire to develop employees’ thinking skills, but research consistently shows that in practice we tend to aim at facts and concepts in the disciplines, at the lowest cognitive levels, rather than development of intellect or values.
Numerous studies of companies reveal that, rather than actively involving employees in learning, managers involve them in wasteful lectures, even though lectures are not nearly as effective as other means for developing cognitive skills. Most of the time the quality and experience of the faculty is questionable.
Studies suggest our methods often fail to dislodge employees’ misconceptions and ensure learning of complex, abstract concepts. Capacity for problem solving is limited by our use of inappropriately simple practice exercises.
Tests often set the standard for employees’ learning. As with instruction, however, we tend to emphasize recall of memorized factual information rather than intellectual challenge. Taken together with our preference for lecturing, our tests may be reinforcing our employees’ commonly fact-oriented memory learning, of limited value to either them or society.
Managers agree almost universally that the development of employees’ higher-order intellectual or cognitive abilities is the most important strategy related task of organizations. These abilities underpin the employees perceptions of the outside world, market, customers and the consequent decisions they make. Specifically, critical thinking – the capacity to evaluate skillfully and fairly the quality of evidence and detect error, hypocrisy, manipulation, dissembling, and bias – is central to both personal success, organizational success and national needs.
A study of 55,000 faculty members by the American Council on Education found that 97.4 percent of the respondents indicated the most important goal of undergraduate education is to foster students’ ability to think critically. However, industry is forced to accept students with almost no ability to think critically.
Process-oriented instructional orientations “have long been more successful than conventional instruction in fostering effective movement from concrete to formal reasoning. Such programs emphasize employees’ active involvement in learning and fostering teamwork and de-emphasize classroom lectures . . .”
A recent survey conducted by ChiefMentor focused on the question: To what extent are managers encouraging critical thinking at the workplace? For example, to think clearly, accurately, precisely, relevantly, or logically, etc. Very few mentioned any of the basic skills of thought such as the ability to clarify questions; gather relevant data; reason to logical or valid conclusions; identify key assumptions; trace significant implications, or enter without distortion into alternative points of view. Intellectual traits of mind, such as intellectual humility, intellectual perseverance, intellectual responsibility, etc . . .
The study included randomly selected companies from over two hundred companies from fourteen countries.
Though the overwhelming majority of managers claimed critical thinking to be a primary methodology of their communication (88%), only a small minority could give a clear explanation of what critical thinking is (21%). Furthermore, according to their answers, only 9% of the respondents were clearly training critical thinking on a typical day in a workplace environment.
Though the overwhelming majority (79%) claimed that their team lacked appropriate intellectual standards (to use in assessing their thinking), and 75% considered that employees doing their routine work was of primary importance, only a very small minority (9%) could enumerate any intellectual criteria or standards they required of their team members or could give an intelligible explanation of those criteria and standards.
While 50% of those interviewed said that they explicitly distinguish critical thinking skills from traits, only 7% were able to provide a clear conception of the critical thinking skills they thought were most important for their team members to develop. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority (78%) provided either minimal or vague allusion (32%) or no illusion at all (44%) to intellectual traits of mind.
Although the majority (69%) of managers said that their concept of critical thinking is largely explicit in their thinking, only 19% could elaborate on their concept of thinking.
Although the vast majority (88%) of managers stated that critical thinking was of primary importance to their employee communication, 76% of the respondents had little, limited or no conception of how to reconcile official communication with the fostering of critical thinking.
Although the overwhelming majority (82%) felt that their team members develop a good or high level of critical thinking ability while in the workplace environment and training programs, only 22% said that their departments had a shared approach to critical thinking, and only 9% were able to clearly articulate how they would assess the extent to which a manager was or was not fostering critical thinking. The remaining respondents had a limited conception or no conception at all of how to do this.
A Substantive Conception of Critical Thinking
If we understand critical thinking substantively, we not only explain the idea explicitly to our employees, but we use it to give order and meaning to virtually everything we do as managers and mentors. We use it to organize the design of work processes and the way to identify and solve problems. It informs how we conceptualize our employees as problem solvers and innovators. It determines how we conceptualize our role as managers and mentors. It enables us to understand and explain the thinking that defines the processes we collectively deploy.
When we understand critical thinking at a deeper level, we realize that we must instruct work processes through thinking, not theory, and then thinking. We model the thinking that employees need to formulate if they are to take ownership of the content. We teach engineering as engineering thinking. We teach finance as financial thinking. We teach project management as project management thinking. We expect employees to analyze the thinking that is the content, and then to assess the thinking using intellectual standards. We foster the intellectual traits (dispositions) essential to critical thinking. We teach employees to use critical thinking concepts as tools in entering into any system of thought, into any subject or discipline. We teach employees to construct in their own minds the concepts that define the discipline. We acquire an array of workplace strategies that enable employees to master content using their thinking and to become skilled resources.
The concept of critical thinking, rightly understood, ties together much of what we need to understand as managers, mentors and learners. Properly understood, it leads to a framework for institutional change.
If we truly understand critical thinking, for example, we should be able to explain its implications:
Managers’ Quick Guide to Critical Thinking
Humans are designed to be thinkers. Therefore, the concept of Critical Thinking is easy to understand.
One definition says, it is “self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way”. Another definition is more simpler, “Critical thinking is the art of thinking about thinking with a view to improving it”. That means, critical thinkers seek to improve thinking, in three interrelated phases. They analyze thinking. They assess thinking. And they up-grade thinking (as a result). Creative thinking is the work of the third phase, that of replacing weak thinking with strong thinking, or strong thinking with stronger thinking. Creative thinking is a natural by-product of critical thinking, precisely because analyzing and assessing thinking enables one to raise it to a higher level. New and better thinking is the by-product of healthy critical thought.
People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically." Fair-mindedness, complemented by rational decision-making in a reasonable manner that emulates empathy, is a characteristic any employer would be lucky to have in all of its employees.
A person is a critical thinker to the extent that he or she regularly improves thinking by studying and “critiquing” it. Critical thinkers carefully study the way humans ground, develop, and apply thought — to see how thinking can be improved.
The basic idea is simple: “Study thinking for strengths and weaknesses. Then make improvements by building on its strengths and targeting its weaknesses.”
Therefore, a critical thinker does not say: “My thinking is just fine. If everyone thought like me, this would be a pretty good world.”
He or she would say: “My thinking, as that of everyone else, can always be improved. Self-deception and folly exist at every level of human life. It is foolish ever to take thinking for granted. To think well, we must regularly analyze, assess, and reconstruct thinking — ever mindful as to how we can improve it.”
A Substantive Concept of Critical Thinking Reveals Common Denominators in all Academic Work
Substantive Critical Thinking Can be Cultivated in Every Academic Setting
This program make all learning easier because it focuses on the rational capacities of participants’ minds, designs instructions so participants explicitly grasp the sense, the logicalness, of what they learn, we can make all learning easier for them. The uniqueness comes from the substantive learning that multiplies comprehension and insight; whereas lower order rote memorization multiplies misunderstanding and confusion.
Though in colleges and universities very little present instruction deliberately aims at lower order learning, most results in it. “Good” students have developed techniques for short term rote memorization; “poor” students have none. But few know what it is to think analytically through the content of a subject; few use critical thinking as a tool for acquiring knowledge. And it is for industry to make these men and women supermen and superwomen.
In companies, we often talk of knowledge as though it could be divorced from thinking, as though it could be gathered up by one person and given to another in the form of a collection of sentences to remember. When we develop such a culture, we forget that knowledge, by its very nature, depends on thought. Knowledge is produced by thought, analysed by thought, comprehended by thought, organized, evaluated, maintained, and transformed by thought. Knowledge exists, properly speaking, only in minds that have comprehended it and constructed it through thought. And when we say thought we mean critical thought. Knowledge must be distinguished from the memorization of true statements. Students can easily blindly memorize what they do not understand. A book contains knowledge only in a derivative sense, only because minds can thoughtfully read it and, through this analytic process, gain knowledge. We forget this when we design instruction as though recall were equivalent to knowledge.
Every discipline — engineering, finance, marketing, materials, software, multimedia — is a mode of thinking. Therefore, every discipline can be understood only through thinking. We know mechanical engineering, not when we can recite theories of mechanical engineering, but when we can think the way machines work, or the mechanical engineering way. When we train or mentor so that participants are not thinking their way through subjects and disciplines, participants leave our training programs with no more knowledge than they had when they entered them. When we sacrifice thought to gain coverage, we sacrifice knowledge at the same time.
For example, in the typical history class, students are often asked to remember facts about the past. Students therefore come to think of history class as a boring place where one hears names and dates and places; where one tries to memorize and state them on tests. Students think that when they can successfully do this, they then “know history.”
Alternatively, consider history taught as a mode of thought. Viewed from the paradigm of a critical education, blindly memorized content ceases to be the focal point. Learning to think historically becomes the order of the day. Students learn historical content by thinking historically about historical questions and problems. They learn through their own thinking and classroom discussion that history is not a simple recounting of past events, but also an interpretation of events selected by and written from someone’s point of view. In recognizing that each historian writes from a point of view, students begin to identify and assess points of view leading to various historical interpretations. They recognize, for example, what it is to interpret the American Revolution from a British as well as a colonial perspective. They role-play different historical perspectives and master content through in-depth historical thought. They relate the present to the past. They discuss how their own stored-up interpretations of their own lives’ events shaped their responses to the present and their plans for the future. They come to understand the daily news as a form of historical thought shaped by the profit-making motivations of news collecting agencies. They learn that historical accounts may be distorted, biased, narrow, misleading.
Every Area or Domain of Thought Must Be Thought-Through to Be Learned
The mind that thinks critically is a mind prepared to take ownership of new ideas and modes of thinking. Critical thinking is a system-opening system. It works its way into a system of thought by thinking-through:
It assesses the system for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and (where applicable) fairness. There is no system no subject it cannot open.
There is a Necessary Connection Between Critical Thinking and Employee Training
The skills in up-grading thinking are the same skills as those required in up-grading learning. The art of thinking well illuminates the art of learning well. The art of learning well illuminates the art of thinking well. Both require intellectually skilled meta-cognition. For example, to be a skilled thinker in the learning process requires that we regularly note the elements of our thinking/learning:
There is a Necessary Connection Between Critical Thinking and Skilled Reading and Writing
The reflective mind improves its thinking by reflectively thinking about it. Likewise, it improves its reading by reflectively thinking about how it is reading. It improves its writing by analysing and assessing each draft it creates. It moves back and forth between thinking and thinking about thinking. It moves forward a bit, then loops back upon itself to check its own operations. It checks its inferences. It makes good its ground. It rises above itself and exercises oversight on itself.
One of the most important abilities that a thinker can have is the ability to monitor and assess his or her own thinking while processing the thinking of others. In reading, the reflective mind monitors how it is reading while it is reading. The foundation for this ability is knowledge of how the mind functions when reading well. For example, if I know that what I am reading is difficult for me to understand, I intentionally slow down. I put the meaning of each passage that I read into my own words. Knowing that one can understand ideas best when they are exemplified, then, when writing, I give my readers examples of what I am saying. As a reader, I look for examples to better understand what a text is saying. Learning how to read closely and write substantively are complex critical thinking abilities. When I can read closely, I can take ownership of important ideas in a text. When I can write substantively, I am able to say something worth saying about something worth saying something about. Many students today cannot.
We can Get Beyond Non-Substantive Concepts of Critical Thinking
Fragmentation and Short-Term Memorization Are Predictable Outcomes of a Non-substantive Concept of Critical Thinking
Students in colleges today are achieving little connection and depth, either within or across subjects. Atomized lists dominate textbooks, atomized teaching dominates instruction, and atomized recall dominates learning. What is learned are superficial fragments, typically soon forgotten. What is missing is the coherence, connection, and depth of understanding that accompanies systematic critical thinking.
Habitual robotic learning has become common mode of learning in every subject area. The result is a kind of global self-deception that surrounds teaching and learning, often with the students clearer about what is really being learned than the teachers. Many students, for example, realize that in their history courses they merely learn to mouth names, dates, events, and outcomes whose significance they do not really understand and whose content they forget shortly after the test. Whatever our stated goals, at present, students are not learning to think within the disciplines they “study.”
A Substantive Concept of Critical Thinking Leads to Deep Learning & to the Acquisition of Substantive Knowledge
Substantive knowledge is knowledge that leads to questions that lead to further knowledge (that, in turn, leads to further knowledge and further vital questions, and on and on). Acquiring substantive knowledge is equivalent to acquiring effective organizers for the mind that enable us to weave everything we are learning into a tapestry, a system, an integrated whole. Substantive knowledge is found in that set of fundamental and powerful concepts and principles that lie at the heart of understanding everything else in a discipline or subject. For example, if you understand deeply what a biological cell is and the essential characteristics of all living systems, you have the substantive knowledge to ask vital questions about all living things. You begin to think biologically.
Teaching focused on a substantive concept of critical thinking appeals to reason and evidence. It encourages students to discover as well as to process information. It provides occasions in which students think their way to conclusions, defend positions on difficult issues, consider a wide variety of points of view, analyze concepts, theories, and explanations, clarify issues and conclusions, solve problems, transfer ideas to new contexts, examine assumptions, assess alleged facts, explore implications and consequences, and increasingly come to terms with the contradictions and inconsistencies of their own thought and experience. It engages students in the thinking required to deeply master content. (See Learning to Think Things Through)
Conclusion: Take the Long View
Critical thinking is not to be devoured in a single sitting nor yet at two or three workshops. It is a powerful concept to be savored and reflected upon. It is an idea to live and grow with. It focuses upon that part of our minds that enables us to think things through, to learn from experience, to acquire and retain knowledge. It is like a mirror to the mind, enabling us to take ownership of the instruments that drive our learning. Not only to think, but to think about how we are thinking, is the key to our development as learners and knowers.
How do I know this? What is this based upon? What does this imply and presuppose? What explains this, connects to it, leads from it? How am I viewing it? Should I view it differently?
Short-term reform can do no more than foster surface change. Deep change takes time, patience, perseverance, understanding, and commitment. This is not easy in a world saturated with glossy, superficial, quick-fixes, a world plagued by a short attention span. Nevertheless it is possible to create a long-term professional development program that focuses on the progressive improvement of instruction and learning. (See Elder)
But this can only happen when those designing professional development have a substantive concept of critical thinking. Only then will they be able to guide faculty toward a long-term approach. Only then will they be able to provide convincing examples in each of the disciplines. Only then will they see the connection between thinking and learning, between understanding content and thinking it through, between intellectual discipline and education. Only then will the “learning college” become what it aims, all along, to be.
“If you don't understand how the world works, then everything is a mystery to you. If everything is magical and mysterious, then you really don't work on logic anymore. Then, everything is all about belief.” ― Joy Reidenberg.