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Developing Critical Thinking Skills

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DCUBS hosted a critical thinking workshop on February 21st on campus for students who wished to develop their skills in this area. As critical thinking is a competency required in management consulting and is listed in my PDP as an area of development I registered to take part.

Donna McNamara provided the workshop, she is a current research student in DCU. The following is an overview of what was covered within the workshop:

  • Ideas about Critical Thinking
  • Critical Thinking: The Basics
  • The Critical Thinking Process
  • Critical Reading & Writing
  • Workshop Exercises

The objective of covering the aforementioned topics is to enable us to develop the required skills to allow us to demonstrate competence in our academic writing techniques, including but not limited to, developing a logical argument and how to appropriately reference the material used. We were also shown how to reflect on ideas and how to engage creatively with our own ideas to analyse problems and effectively communicate our analysis.

From a personal perspective, everyday life requires us to make a number of decisions, granted, most of them are small and inconsequential, however, some are bigger and can be life-determining. Much of our thinking is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or even prejudiced. Our thought process and the quality of the decisions we make affect our quality of life. Critical thinking allows us to improve our decision-making ability as it forces us to make conscious and deliberate choices.

Critical thinking skills are a mix of higher and lower order skills with Bloom's taxonomy (Westbrook, 2014), a well-known classification of learning, one we have discussed within class. It is used to define the cognitive thinking skills required within a curriculum. Critical thinking requires lower order skills to generate information and higher order thinking to guide behaviour. To make an informed decision one should go through the six levels of cognitive thinking as defined by Bloom: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Westbrook, 2014). Major decisions that are made without going through this process may not be ideal and can produce unsatisfactory results.

Critical thinking skills are essential to success at university, particularly at postgraduate level. 'Critical thinking' and 'critical analysis' are familiar terms, as they are consistently used by academics within the requirements for assignments. Critical thinking requires logic, in addition to, the broader intellectual characteristics such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness.

It is an important part of the problem-solving process and when used correctly leads to more effective and better decisions.

Critical thinking is a core competency within the management consulting field, particularly when problem-solving. While problem-solving, you review the data that you sliced, diced, and otherwise processed to develop a set of solutions, one or more of which will ultimately become the recommended course of action that you present to your clients. Because of this, you want to open the net as wide as possible at the beginning of the problem-solving process hauling in as many possibilities as you can. (Nelson and Economy, 2008). As management consultants, our clients will be drowning in a sea of data, they will need help analysing it to accomplish their objectives. They hire consultants to fix their problems. Critical thinking will help me to: analyse the relevant information and interpret vast quantities of data into real, actionable solutions and subsequently present my findings.

In a recent article, Jeff Kavanaugh, a senior partner at Infosys, one of the world's largest consulting and technology firms and an adjunct Professor at The University of Texas reported that critical thinking skills are lacking in young consultants. Many have lost promotions or their consulting careers as a result. "Up until the last couple of years, I'd say that 97 percent of the hundreds, if not thousands, of college students who I've interviewed and hired are missing these skills" (Bolander and Kavanaugh, 2016). He blames the education system for this failure, "they were never taught critical thinking skills in high school or college" (Bolander and Kavanaugh, 2016).

In a seminal study on critical thinking in education, Edward Glaser defined critical thinking as "The ability to think critically, involves three things: (1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods" (Glaser, 1941; cited in Walters 1994).

A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987, defined critical thinking as "the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generalised by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief or action [or argument]" (Scriven & Paul ,2003 ).

At university, the act of being critical involves the making of judgements and evaluations. To make accurate judgements we need to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, we also need to be able to evaluate the validity of information and theory, to assess their usefulness or application in particular situations. Within the university context, critical thinking is defined in terms of abilities or skills such as selection, evaluation, analysis, reflection, questioning, inference and judgement (Tapper 2004).

The ability to think critically is regarded as a valued outcome of third level education and also has value outside the education system, as employers seek graduate employees who are able to transfer their critical thinking skills within the workplace (Tapper 2004). Elander et al. (2006) believe that critical thinking skills are not merely transferable to other areas of our lives, they are also personally transformative, by encouraging us to move from passive recipients of knowledge to active, participants in society.

Critical thinking requires skill and a critical thinking disposition (Ennis, 1996). "Thinking dispositions are ongoing tendencies that guide intellectual behaviour. They can be good or bad - productive or counterproductive" (Tishman, Jay, and Perkins, 1993). Individuals with critical thinking dispositions believe their own thoughts to be right and true (Ennis, 1987). They undertake detailed research, put forward alternative thoughts, take decisions regarding other people's thoughts by thinking from their perspective (Ennis, 2011). These are accepted as critical thinking dispositions (Ennis, 1996).

Good thinking dispositions describe productive intellectual behaviour. They can be characterised as consisting of seven broad but key intellectual tendencies (Perkins, Jay, & Tishman,1993)

  1. The disposition to be broad and adventurous
  2. The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity
  3. The disposition to clarify and seek understanding
  4. The disposition to be planful and strategic
  5. The disposition to be intellectually careful
  6. The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons
  7. The disposition be metacognive

Good thinking should include all of the above dispositions used appropriately at different times depending on the situation.

According to Shari Tishman (2012), good thinking is a combination of both critical and creative thinking skills. In addition, our values, habits and motivations help to determine whether or not good thinking skills are employed when needed. The important thing is that thinking dispositions can be taught and learned. However, Tishman (2012) explains why dispositions cannot be taught through the transmission model. You cannot rote learn critical thinking. It is a process that requires individuals to actively examine claims, to scrutinise support, and to weigh up data.

Successful organisations are dependent upon active critical thinkers to develop, produce and disseminate their goods and services. Management consultants are often tasked with creating change within the organisations they work for, and as such need to learn, exhibit and teach critical thinking skills to their clients and the employees within their client companies.

The modern business environment is complex and there is increasing pressure and uncertainty, in addition to, conflicting ideas and opinions that create challenges. Understanding the critical thinking process helps us to address the right problems, identify the risks and make better decisions.

Critical thinking requires us to:

  • Gather and organise relevant information
  • Interpret data, to examine evidence and to evaluate arguments
  • Understand the importance of prioritisation
  • Recognise any unstated assumptions
  • Recognise the existence (or non- existence) of logical relationships
  • Test our conclusions for generalisations
  • Draw warranted conclusions
  • Clearly and accurately communicate our findings through the correct use of language

Critical thinking has both professional and personal benefits. The following is a brief overview of the professional benefits.

Critical thinking leads to effective leadership, especially within management roles, when it is used correctly situations are perceived appropriately, thus enabling balanced judgment. Looking at situations appropriately provides an opportunity to assess all the available information and to weigh up all the possible solutions before arriving at a final decision. By its nature critical thinking requires critical analysis, which encourages managers to combine research and knowledge. Critical thinkers are better problem solvers and a better decision makers.

As a result of attending this event and reflecting on the experience gained by both attending and reflecting, I will endeavour to consistently engage in metacognition. I believe this is an important skill and is essential within management consultancy.

By taking the time to think about my own thinking I will gain an understanding about my own motivations, biases, mistakes and desires and this should enable me to be strategic about moving forward in all aspects of my life, personal and professional.

To do this I will:

  • Reflect upon my actions, thoughts and plans
  • Practice constant evaluation
  • Be adaptable and ready to change based upon new input and reflection
  • Learn from my mistakes and victories
  • Recognise my own emotions and their effect on my thoughts and actions

When faced with a problem or an issue, the ability to make the right decision is fundamental to the task. Critical thinking helps us to understand the positives and negatives of all possible outcomes and to evaluate them in relation to our goals and objectives. Critical thinking is a skill that can help us make constructive choices through discovery, analysis and questioning and also generate new ideas. The application of the critical thinking allows us to come to a reasoned conclusion with a full understanding of its consequences. It also assures that all the relevant hypotheses are considered, avoiding the inferences of personal biases or conflicts.

References

Ennis, R. H. (1996). Critical thinking dispositions: Their nature and assessability. Informal Logic, 18  (2&3), 165-182.

Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In J. Baron & R. Sternberg (Eds.),Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice. New York: W.H. Freeman. 9-26.

Elander, J., Harrington, K., Norton, L., Robinson, H. and Reddy, P. (2006). 'Complex skills and academic writing: a review of evidence about the types of learning required to meet core assessment criteria'. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 31/1: 71-90

Tapper, J. (2004). 'Student perceptions of how critical thinking is embedded in a degree program'. Higher Education Research and Development, 23/2: 199-222.

Scriven, M and Paul, R. (2003). Defining critical thinking: a statement prepared for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction. (accessed 04/03/2017) www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/410.


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