Critical Thinkers: Good for the Economy

While new and allegedly better standardized tests and an increased focus on STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is all the rage, if you ask businesses and economists whether standardized tests and more STEM classes will improve the economy, they will tell you that there is still something missing from our work force: Critical Thinkers.

An anecdote from my junior high school education illustrates this issue.  My science teacher gave us a paper airplane assignment.  The rules were simple.  We could only use one standard 8.5×11″ piece of paper.  We could not add anything (like a paperclip).  We could tear the paper, but we could not remove any paper.  We worked on our planes and the contest begun in the hall, the winner determined by the plane which flew the farthest down the hallway.  Many fancy folds were made. However, my friend Brian made the simplest and best design.

Brian simply crumpled the piece of paper into a ball.  Due to its density it easily flew the farthest and straightest.  The teacher was furious as she believed he was making a joke of her assignment, and disqualified him, scolding him in front of the whole class. The truth is that Brian engaged in critical thinking and should have been praised for his simple yet effective innovation.

“When more than 400 senior HR professionals were asked in a survey to name the most important skill their employees will need in the next five years, critical thinking ranked the highest – surpassing innovation or the application of information technology.”

Certainly no one is suggesting that students do not need to learn to read and write or that STEM based classes are not valuable.  But the heavy push towards evaluating schools and teachers based on standardized test results is the antithesis to critical thinking education.

Good decisions require focusing on the most relevant information, asking the right questions, and separating reliable facts from false assumptions – all elements of critical thinking. And yet too few employees possess these essential skills. A survey of HR professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and The Conference Board found that a full 70 percent of employees with a high school education were deficient in critical thinking skills. Even among employees with a four-year college education, 9 percent were deficient in critical thinking skills, 63 percent had adequate skills, and only 28 percent were rated excellent critical thinkers.

Sadly, since our educational system continues to get stuck in political rhetoric, one can even find political platform statements which fly in the face of economic progress, such as what the Republican Party of Texas wrote into its 2012 platform as part of the section on education:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

If politicians really want to promote education which improves our economy, they will increase emphasis on critical thinking and decrease emphasis on teaching  non-critical thinking test taking skills.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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