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Do Companies Want Critical Thinkers or Problem Solvers?

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by Leticia McCadden and Alyssa Brown

Critical thinking -- companies say they desperately want more of it, schools try to teach it and job-seekers almost always mention it on their resumes. It seems that the ample supply of applicants who market themselves as critical thinkers would be more than enough to meet the demand for this hot skill.

Yet business leaders still constantly grumble about not having enough critical thinkers in their companies.

So why do companies complain that their employees lack critical thinking skills? The answer, according to top education and business leaders speaking in a recent Kaplan webinar, lies in the vastly different ways schools and businesses understand critical thinking.

Academics use the classic model to measure the effectiveness of a critical thinker. How well does a student defend their dissertation or an idea in front of peers and teachers? Was their argument able to withstand the criticism it received? On the other hand, business leaders see the ideal critical thinker as an original, creative and divergent individual.

So why the disparity? Panel moderator and Gallup Executive Director of Education Brandon Busteed cited a theory posed by Sir Ken Robinson, an English author, speaker and international adviser on education, which says schools are teaching the creativity out of students. "[In school] We are taught that a brick is used to build a building and that's the only use, while divergent thinkers can come up with 75 different ways to use a brick," says Busteed.

To teach students the critical thinking skills they will need to be successful business professionals, schools need to encourage original, creative and divergent thinking. If students come up with 75 different ways to use a brick rather than the one outcome their teacher is seeking, they should be encouraged not corrected.

The panelists concluded that when business leaders say they want critical thinkers, they often mean they want problem-solvers. "At the end of the day, businesses want to innovate and solve problems as to attract customers," said Johnny Taylor, CEO and President of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. "It is less about the theoretical, education-based concept of thinking."

While companies need problem-solvers to grow and thrive, they still need creative thinkers as defined in the traditional, academic sense. Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton says he employs some people who can analyze trends, dissect methodologies and sharpen products. But to grow his business, he prioritizes finding people who identify as problem-solvers and can demonstrate it in action.

So the next time you default to crafting the typical job posting that seeks a "critical thinker," stop and think about what you are actually looking for. You might actually be searching for a problem-solver.

Watch the panel discussion below.

To view the entire conversation about how to "Discover and Leverage Your Talents," please log on to Kaplan's KAPx platform .

Leticia McCadden is a Public Relations Specialist at Gallup.

Alyssa Brown is Deputy Editor of Gallup.com.

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