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Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking, ’ but What Is That?

Bosses Seek ‘Critical Thinking,’ but What Is That?

Oct. 21, 2014 4:35 p.m. ET

Critical thinking is a critical skill for young workers these days.

What that means, though—and how to measure it—is less clear. Employers complain that colleges are not producing graduates who can solve problems and connect the dots on complex issues, but bosses stumble when pressed to describe exactly what skills make critical thinkers. That leaves job seekers wondering what employers really want and, once on the job, unsure of whether they’re supposed to follow the rules or break them.

Mentions of critical thinking in job postings have doubled since 2009, according to an analysis by career-search site The site, which combs job ads from several sources, found last week that more than 21,000 health-care and 6,700 management postings contained some reference to the skill.

“It’s one of those words—like diversity was, like big data is—where everyone talks about it but there are 50 different ways to define it,” says Dan Black, Americas director of recruiting at the accounting firm and consultancy EY.

Some Definitions of Critical Thinking
  • “The ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument. To sift through all the noise.”
    -Richard Arum, New York University sociology professor
  • “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.”
educational psychologist; president, Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • “Do they make use of information that’s available in their journey to arrive at a conclusion or decision? How do they make use of that?”

    global head of recruiting, Goldman Sachs Group

  • Brittany Holloway, a music-business major who graduated last spring from New York University, says critical thinking appeared in so many postings during her job search that it, along with traits like “detail-oriented” and “organized,” was nearly meaningless. Only in interviews could she tell what a company meant when it sought those traits.

    Ms. Holloway, who now works as a content-review and fraud specialist at Brooklyn-based digital-music distributor TuneCore, defines the skill as “forming your own opinion from a variety of different sources.”

    Ms. Holloway, 21 years old, says her current job requires her to think critically when screening music releases before they’re sent to digital stores like Apple Inc.’s iTunes.

    Behavioral interview prompts, such as “Talk about how you handled working with a difficult person,” help EY bosses assess critical-thinking skills, says Mr. Black. (His definition: “The ability to work with data, to accumulate it, analyze it [and] synthesize it, in order to make balanced assessments and smart decisions.”)

    In late-round interviews, candidates must show how they would tackle business problems, such as whether it makes more sense for a company to make or buy a product, and why.

    Goldman Sachs Group Inc. GS 0.11 % asks investment-banking and sales-and-trading candidates to assess company valuations and stock pitches and then to explain how they arrived at their conclusions.

    By the end of one of those exercises, “the candidates should have displayed whether they possess critical thinking,” says Michael Desmarais, global head of recruiting for the bank.

    Critical thinking may be similar to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous threshold for obscenity: You know it when you see it, says Jerry Houser, associate dean and director of career services at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

    When recruiters tell Mr. Houser they want students with problem-solving skills, “that usually has something to do with critical thinking,” he says. His office encourages students to prepare stories to illustrate their critical-thinking prowess, detailing, for example, the steps a club president took to improve attendance at weekly meetings.

    Colleges’ capacity to mold thinkers has been a topic of heated debate. Richard Arum, co-author of “Academically Adrift” and “Aspiring Adults Adrift” as well as an NYU sociology professor, is a prominent critic of how schools are faring on that front.

    “Schools have institutionally supported and encouraged [a] retreat from academic standards and rigor,” he says, adding that he thinks colleges have allowed students to focus on their social lives at the expense of academic pursuits.

    According to research detailed in those books, students rarely study on their own for more than an hour a day, and most don’t write in-depth papers that require sustained analysis.

    For their part, students seem to think they are ready for the office. But their future bosses tend to disagree. A Harris Interactive survey of 2,001 U.S. college students and 1,000 hiring managers last fall found that 69% of students felt they were “very or completely prepared” for problem-solving tasks in the workplace, while fewer than half of the employers agreed.

    Judy Nagengast, CEO of Continental Inc. an Anderson, Ind. staffing firm, says she has come across young graduates who “can memorize and they can regurgitate” but who struggle to turn book learning into problem solving at work.

    Ms. Nagengast says she grew frustrated with young accountants who didn’t understand the importance of accuracy on tax forms and filed “B-minus financial statements.” She wants and needs to recruit young workers, though, and she is testing the waters with a fresh graduate who’s handling the firm’s compliance with the Affordable Care Act.

    Linda Elder, an educational psychologist and the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, which promotes educational reform, says employers really want well-trained problem solvers and not critical thinkers, especially in the lower ranks. Critical thinkers, she says, tend to challenge the status quo, which isn’t always what a boss is after.

    At Goldman, “we don’t expect new hires to propose changes to our chairman or board on a firm-wide strategy level on Day One,” says Mr. Desmarais. But the bank’s entry-level hires are expected to do more than just fulfill orders, he adds. “We do encourage our junior people to recommend changes.”

    Other articles

    Critical Thinking: How to Grow Your Child - s Mind

    What kind of thinker is your child? Does he believe everything on TV? Does she always figure out how to get what she wants?

    Does he ask questions? Does she go along with what her friends suggest? You can help develop your child’s critical thinking skills by learning a few key guidelines!

    Whether your child is just starting summer vacation or in the midst of the school year, parents can help keep minds active in fun ways. Critical thinking skills don’t fully develop until adolescence, but the foundations for good thinking develop in younger children.

    The nonprofit Foundation for Critical Thinking cultivates core intellectual virtues that lead to fair-minded thinking. They have identified three ways K-6 children typically think.

    • Naïve Nancy doesn’t believe she needs to think because her parents do it for her! She believes most things she hears on TV, doesn’t ask questions, and goes along with what her friends decide.
    • Selfish Sam thinks a lot because it gets him what he wants. He believes whatever is necessary to achieve his goals, regardless of whether it hurts others. He figures out how to get other kids to do what he wants them to do. Sam is a clever manipulator of adults and other children.
    • Fair-minded Fran thinks a lot because it helps her learn. She knows she can’t always believe what people say or what she sees and hears on TV. Fran thinks about others as well as herself. She is motivated to understand other people’s situations and attempts to put herself in their shoes.
    What is Critical Thinking?

    What is critical thinking? Critical thinking comprises a number of different skills that help us learn to make decisions. It is the ability to evaluate information to determine whether it is right or wrong. To think critically about an issue or a problem means to be open-minded and consider alternative ways of looking at solutions. As children grow into pre-adolescents and teenagers, their critical thinking skills will help them make judgments independently of parents.

    To be good at thinking, children must believe that thinking is fun and want to be good at it. Parents can make thinking fun throughout the academic year as well as during the summer and on vacations. Good thinkers practice thinking just like they practice basketball or soccer.

    You can talk about these ways of thinking with your children by watching this video together. Afterwards, have a discussion about how they can practice being like Fair-Minded Fran.

    5 Ways to Help Kids Think Critically

    The Foundation for Critical Thinking developed a short series of five “Intellectual Standards,” ways of helping elementary-aged children learn to think better. Teach these standards to your kids, and then interact with them in ways that reinforce the five standards.

    • Invite them to BE CLEAR by asking for explanations and examples when they don’t understand something. Let children know it is okay to be confused and ask questions.
    • Urge kids to BE ACCURATE, to check to see if something is true by researching the facts.
    • Encourage children to BE RELEVANT by discussing other topics that are pertinent to the discussion or problem at hand. Help them stay on track by linking related and meaningful information to the question they are trying to answer or the topic they are learning about.
    • Support your child’s ability to BE LOGICAL. Help her see how things fit together. Question how she came to her conclusions and whether her assumptions are correct.
    • Set expectations that your child BE FAIR. Promote empathy in his thinking processes. Make sure he considers others when drawing conclusions.

    An excellent video to share with your K-6 aged child reviews these five standards in ways that children can understand. Once parents and children speak a common language about the standards of critical thinking, employ them throughout the year and especially during the summer months! Along with having fun, your child’s mind will learn to think critically about the world!


    Dear Dr Marylin,

    Thank you for your insights.
    I currently seek to establish a good model for critical engagement, with theological content, aimed at elementary children in a school in the UK.
    My encounter with your material resulted in noticing a presupposition that children can and do critically engage, but it seems there is a reduction of the number of intellectual standards to being 5 core standards.
    Please would you advise what others were considered at the time of or prior to the reduction and/or perhaps where I could get primary literature that would help me with research evidence for basing my research on these standards as opposed to others?

    Again, thank you for your work.

    I realise that much effort and thought from others has already gone into this field and as an MTh student I am new to the concept of 10year olds engaging effectively in critical thinking, particularly where theological issues are concerned.

    Thomas Halls
    Hertfordshire, UK

    +Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD

    That was a wonderful article, and it appears to parallel what we do at +Armis.
    Every institution of learning is “rooted” [wink] on a critical and logical thinking foundation, we have found that children as young as 8 years old can grasp the fundamental principles of critical thinking.
    We believe:
    ‘A’ students are those who know how to know and consistently apply it,
    ‘B’ students are those who know how to know but don’t regularly advance it,
    ‘C’ students often don’t know how to know but benefit greatly by their genuine interest in various academic subjects,
    ‘D’ students often don’t know how to know and have low interest in academic subjects,
    ‘F’ students often don’t care to know how to know,

    Which is why we have structured a critical thinking program targeted at ‘C’ and ‘D’ avg students to dramatically increase their academic performance.

    Here is our 5 step critical thinking process for Armis and how we relate it to grade school.

    1) Analysis and Assessment
    2) Planning
    3) Risk Assessment
    4) Action
    5) Reaction, Effect, and Experience

    1) Analysis and Assessment – before you play the game you should read the rules, the equivalent for school is reading the syllabus. Then familiarize yourself with the environment, for Armis that means knowing the game board and player pieces, for school that mean knowing your teacher, classmates, school building, and key faculty (Principal, Dean, Advisers)

    Now that you know what you are expected to do and where you are expected to perform the next step is to assess values so that you properly budget your efforts and resources.

    2) Planning – In Armis there are over a million ways to properly setup. so after a setup is formed you should map and manage offensive and defensive strategies; for school you do the same with respect to an offensive strategy, the defensive strategy is less academic and more social. However, if it can impact your academic performance in a meaningful way it must be factored into your planning.

    3) Risk Assessment – this is where you say “What if?”, not just “What if he does?”, but also “What if she doesn’t?” for the game it is weighing probabilities that a player will do, or not do, certain actions, for school it has more to do with what can happen if you don’t do as expected or planned. Not only on the macro level: ‘what if I don’t graduate’, but also on the micro level: ‘what if I don’t eat, sleep, or exercise’, ‘what if I skip a class or homework assignment’.

    4) Action – for Armis this is where you make your move, for school this is where you: participate in class, hand in homework, take a test, and/or submit a paper.

    5 Reaction, Effect, and Experience – for Armis it is as much how your opponent reacts (or lack of reaction) as much as what effect that specific move has on the rest of the game. For school it is about how the instructor and class respond to your class participation, the teacher’s feedback on a homework assignment or term paper, as well as your state ranking on a state exam. Everything counts, as such the information that make up 1 – 5 is considered an experience, each move you make is an experience relevant to the overall achievement of your goal.

    Keep up the great work, we will reach out to you at youtube in the near future, hopefully we could do some work together.

    Thanks, Syd, for sharing your model to increase kid’s critical thinking skills.