21st-century skills: Critical thinking
When you think of what skills it takes to get and keep a job in the 21st-century marketplace, you probably think of things like data mining, software, computer code, and maybe even the ability to work with chemicals and heavy machinery — in all likelihood, so-called ‘soft’ skills like critical thinking are at the bottom of your list. But it’s time to change that. Critical thinking has become a skill much in demand in the 21st-century workplace, and University of Phoenix is finding innovative ways to teach it.
A 2010 American Management Association survey argues that today’s managers want their workforces to possess skills in "critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation," and that demand for these kinds of ‘soft’ skills will only increase in the future (Partnership, 2010).
Richard Trottier is a successful entrepreneur who specializes in helping middle-market companies grow and adapt via acquisitions. A multitalented man who also has an academic background in philosophy and political thought, when Trottier isn’t busy running his own business, he teaches Critical Thinking to University of Phoenix students.
“I used to teach formal logic at the college level before the Critical Thinking movement took hold,” Trottier says. “Students had a very difficult time applying formal logic concepts to their own lives. But that’s not the case when I teach Critical Thinking.”
One way that Trottier makes critical thinking applicable to his students’ lives is via his fallacy journal. “This is an assignment I use in all my classes,” he says. “I have students go out and collect fallacies — standard errors in logic and judgment — that they encounter in the media, in advertising, in their daily lives. There’s poor logic everywhere, though there’s not always a uniform standard to what a fallacy is. The students collect the fallacies and bring them back into class for discussion and interpretation.”
As a business owner himself, Trottier can give a real-world example for why critical thinking is an essential workplace skill. “I once had a business client (a snack food company) that had outgrown their accounting system,” he says. “I brought in three different professional accountants to analyze the client’s situation and propose solutions. They were all equally qualified, but I ended up hiring the guy who offered the most creative solution. Ultimately, I wanted to hire the person who could help us think the best.” Trottier has the same attitude when it comes to teaching his Critical Thinking courses: “I tell my students to leave my classes more cocky and confident when it comes to confronting and analyzing arguments,” he says.
Synovia Dover-Harris, MBA, is another University of Phoenix Critical Thinking instructor who brings the real world into her classroom. “Critical thinking is really about what things are versus what they appear to be,” says Dover-Harris. “In my classes, I have my students go out and collect things they encounter in their daily lives — advertising, mail circulars, information about the justice system — and then bring it into the classroom and analyze it.” One of the most popular examples Dover-Harris uses in her classes are Publishers Clearing House mail-in entry circulars, which are notorious for their misleading headlines and ad copy.
Dover-Harris describes her Critical Thinking courses this way: “Basically, it’s teaching students to make decisions based on thorough analysis,” she says. “Things are almost never what they seem. My students and I get into some deep conversations.”
For Dover-Harris, her biggest takeaway from teaching Critical Thinking is the need for flexibility. “You have to let go of any preconceived notions and come into any analysis with an open mind,” she says. “I think employers are seeking people who have an open mind. When you’re more open-minded, it becomes much easier to work with others and also to come to careful solutions — and those are skills employers definitely want.”
Donald Wlodarski, MBA, is a retired marketing executive who now applies his own real-world experience working for Sears Roebuck & Co. and other companies to the courses he teaches. Having struggled with a statistics course when he was pursuing his own MBA (in which the professor could not provide any real-world examples of how the methods taught in the course could be applied), Wlodarski promised himself that if he ever taught college courses, he would always provide students with real-world applications for the concepts he teaches.
As a professor of Critical Thinking as well as marketing/management classes at University of Phoenix, Wlodarski has kept that promise. “All of the exercises and discussion questions in my courses ask the learner to show the knowledge as well as apply those teachings to real-world activities,” he says. “College is about thinking and decision-making. Once the learner understands the decision-making process and also understands that critical thinking and decision-making are cohorts, then the student starts to understand how to study, how to read, how to manage time and how to [prioritize]. Those are the same attributes that corporate executives have in the business world.”
Wlodarksi emphasizes that critical thinking skills are crucial to advancing in the 21st-century workplace, and also gives recent graduates an edge when it comes to finding employment. “Corporate America is looking for people with these skills because ... most management jobs today require decisions that are more qualitative than quantitative,” he says. “As I stress in my class, the person that is willing to think strategically without adding embellishments is the person that I would look to hire.”