Wanted: More U.S. College Grads With Critical Thinking Skills

Those employing college graduates have been concerned about the ability of alumni to apply critical thinking skills to make them promotable beyond requirements for entry-level positions.
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Four diverse groups are calling for the U.S. educational system to assure the public that college graduates have acquired critical thinking skills. These groups want graduates to be much better at analyzing, evaluating and creating information-based viewpoints, sometimes called "fact-based decision making."

Who is complaining?

Primary and secondary educators: They are concerned about the straitjacket that state and federal regulations, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, have placed upon the educational system. These governmental programs have forced teachers to educate students to become test takers, memorizing facts, while eliminating arts courses that can be steppingstones to develop better critical thinking skills. However, 45 states are adopting the Common Core State Standards Program that has critical thinking as one of its pillars. Starting in 2014, more than 45 million students will be involved with this program.

  • College faculty and administrators: During their undergraduate years, students are not developing communication and analytical skills needed for their professional or personal lives, or building face-to-face networks with faculty and other adult professionals (as opposed to social media activities behind a computer), or joining clubs outside the classroom. The facts that they are spending less individual study time, only about one hour daily, and not being required to submit written assignments, are well documented. (A study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book, Academically Adrift, and the lead article in Time magazine, "Class of 2025," Oct. 6, 2013).

  • Employers: Those employing college graduates have been concerned about the ability of alumni to apply critical thinking skills to make them promotable beyond requirements for entry-level positions. For example, these persons may be good accountants, but they lack higher-level critical thinking skills often needed for promotion. The refrain from employers, e.g., Bill Gates when at Microsoft, is that they have openings because they can't hire enough candidates with inquisitive and problem solving skills. Some college graduates are frustrated because they find themselves lacking the background to become promotable.

  • Citizens concerned with building a civil society: At election time, the importance of applied critical thinking becomes more apparent. Many voters are swayed by political spin slogans instead of thoughtful analysis of the issues. A friend even encountered a person with an advanced degree who made a choice by switching off the audio on the TV during primary debates, then voting for the candidates who had the most appealing body language.

    What needs to be done?

    I think that the current key to graduating students with higher-level critical thinking skills lies with collegiate institutions. The K through 12 Common Core State Standards Program is ready for field implementation in 2014. What I suggest cuts across the needs for all undergraduate collegiate education and some pockets of graduate education.

    First, collegiate faculty and administrators need to recognize, as Arum and Roksa note in their book: "The collegiate experience emphasizes sociability and encourages students to have fun -- to do all the things they have not had a chance to do before or after they enter 'the real world' of the labor market."

    Second, parents, employers and graduate schools are becoming aware of the deficits large groups of graduates have, especially in relation to the ability to think critically. Those in higher education are beginning openly to address the problems. (Example: RIT's creating of a chair in applied critical thinking.)

    Third, the culture described above has been growing for several decades, and it will change slowly. But we must take steps now when higher education is at a disruption point. Indeed, President Obama's recent announcement of programs aimed at the spiraling cost of higher education has many merits because it indirectly offers support for more critical thinking. His concerns are valid, but we must not press for cookie cutter outcomes from our universities. We need college students who are robustly exposed to broader education and higher levels of critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences, art and culture, math and science, as well as their specific field of interest. These three steps must be ones on which to begin changes in faculty evaluation processes, administration support and building faculty-student engagement levels to assist students to acquire higher-level analytical skills. In the words of a 1940's RIT educational objective, "To prepare students to earn a living and to live a life."

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