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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Critical Thinking & Problem Solving Essential Skills for Today’s Workforce

Albert Einstein once said that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Einstein’s words were prescient as critical thinking and problem-solving are quickly becoming the most sought after “soft-skills” in the job market. According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of job postings that mention “critical thinking” as a desired skill has doubled since 2009., one of the nation’s leading job search sites, found that over 21,000 health-care and 6,700 management positions contained references to the skill. The Fourth Industrial Revolution powered by rapid advancements and consolidation of technologies in artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3-D printing, genetics, and biotechnology will lead to significant disruptions in the global workplace. A recent report published by the World Economic Forum titled The Future of Jobs revealed that human resource officers from leading international employers cite complex problem solving and critical thinking as the two most essential skills for 2020. And while these skills are difficult to define, according to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, critical thinking is "that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them." In other words, critical thinkers can articulate the exact nature of a problem. They gather and assess information and interpret it to come to conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant standards. Critical thinkers are open-minded and entertain alternative systems of thought while continually challenging their assumptions and bias. And they can effectively communicate while trying to figure out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking and problem-solving are essential skills for the 21st-century knowledge economy because the proliferation of information requires individuals to possess the ability to make decisions and judgments about data. In other words, individuals must learn to think clearly, and analytically to solve complex problems in a milieu that increasingly requires flexible intellectual skills. According to a recent article published by titled Why Critical Thinking Skills Are Important in the Workplace, critical thinking is a learned skill, not just an automatic response possessed by all human beings. Most people go about their lives thinking in uncritical ways. For example, they make personal and professional decisions based upon their own bias, self-interest, and unexamined emotions and ideologies. The Harvard Business Review offers three approaches to grow one’s aptitude in critical thinking and problem-solving. First, question personal assumptions. This means that we need to look beyond conventional wisdom and challenge our own beliefs and examine all possible alternatives in a given situation. Don’t assume everything you think you know is right, keep an open mind, and always strive to learn more about the world around you. Second, apply rational thought and logical thinking to problem-solving. Human beings frequently fall into the familiar trap of assuming they know why things are the way they are, often allowing unexamined correlations to pass for causation. Assuming a cause-and-effect relationship, when one does not exist, stifles out-of-the-box thinking and the ability to solve complex problems. Finally, seek out diversity of thought and collaborate with others whenever possible. Working with diverse teams of people helps us break out of familiar ways of seeing the world. They allow us to challenge assumptions, the status quo, and groupthink. Diversity is important because we are likely to associate with people like us, living in the proverbial “bubble” of conformity, safety, and comfort.

Because critical thinking skills are essential in the 21st-century knowledge economy, some argue that requiring students to engage in memorization of any kind is anathema to complex cognitive processes. This point of view is held by many who point out that most students have access to smartphones and computers and can simply look up information anytime, anywhere, making memorization of content moot. However, tempting as it may be to minimize the importance of learned material, there is value in memorization. Like muscles in the body, the brain must undergo regular exercise, or it atrophies. Memorization strengthens the brain by increasing and strengthening neural pathways through repetition. Subsequently, the learned content establishes a base of knowledge in long-term memory. This frees up short term memory so that it can learn new things. Further, it is impossible to think critically about things you do not know. As cognitive scientists, Lauren Resnick and Megan Hall point out, "What we know now is that just as facts do not constitute true knowledge and thinking power, so thinking processes cannot proceed without something to think about." In other words, schools must provide students both the content and the skills to think about their learning critically.

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