What’s So Critical About Critical Thinking?

By David Lariviere

In the complex, globally connected world in which we live, the demands on students and workers are increasing rapidly. It’s not just numeracy and literacy skills that are vitally important to possess but the so-called 21st-century skills as well. From this group, many educators and employers see critical thinking as the most essential one to master.

That is what Lydia Liu, Senior Research Director of ETS’s Academic to Career Research Center, said was the consensus of more than 200 U.S. colleges and universities in an ETS survey. Other research, like a McKinsey Global Institute report published last year, echo similar calls for job candidates with higher cognitive skills, like critical thinking.

People with better critical thinking skills can analyze evidence better, can analyze situations better, and that helps them make better, more informed decisions.

~ Lydia Liu

“Critical thinking is such a universal skill. It impacts your academics, your workforce success, your personal relationships, and in general your life,” Liu said. “People with better critical thinking skills can analyze evidence better, can analyze situations better, and that helps them make better, more informed decisions.”

ETS Managing Research Scientist Katrina Roohr co-authored a paper with Liu and Lois Frankel on critical thinking. In it, ETS researchers and assessment experts defined it as consisting of two central aspects: analytic and synthetic skills. Analytic skills include evaluating evidence and its use and analyzing and evaluating arguments. Synthetic skills include developing valid or sound arguments and demonstrating and understanding the implications of information and argumentation.

The implications are enormous for the United States if it intends to stay competitive with rising powers such as China and India, according to Keith Mason, a New Jersey-based researcher who also teaches high school linguistics. “A lack of critical thinking jeopardizes everyone. If we are truly training our next generation to lead, they must be able to handle more complex concepts, create, collaborate, synthesize and evaluate. Spitting back basic information is not enough.”

The main question then becomes how do educators ingrain critical thinking skills into their students so they can satisfy the needs of employers? At the college level, Roohr said it’s a matter of understanding what the skill is and how to emphasize it in the classroom. “With a clear definition of critical thinking, institutions could develop strategies to help students improve their critical thinking skills through college instruction, experiences and resources outside of class.”

A lack of critical thinking jeopardizes everyone. If we are truly training our next generation to lead, they must be able to handle more complex concepts, create, collaborate, synthesize and evaluate. Spitting back basic information is not enough.

~ Keith Mason

Roohr added that “there needs to be a clearer and more systematic evaluation method” of measuring the critical thinking of students in the general ed curricula.

In terms of K–12, Mason said “lessons and units need to move beyond facts and skills which are two-dimensional.” Concept-based curriculum makes learning three-dimensional. “As I have told my language students many times, if they cannot produce vocabulary or a phrase from their memories, then they do not know it,” he explained.

Roohr agreed, saying that because of distractions from technology and social media, college students “may be less likely to focus on deep thinking required for developing critical thinking skills.”

The lack of critical thinking skills is not just a unique problem in the United States, Liu said, as China, Russia and India among others aren’t making much progress either.

The goals of the Academic to Career Research Center are “tightly aligned with ETS’s mission to help individuals around the globe learn and realize their potential,” Liu said. “In addition, given ETS has been a thought leader in assessing critical thinking, a natural next step would be to develop training materials to help individuals improve their critical thinking skills.”

Liu feels efforts to improve people’s critical thinking skills are feasible but require input from multiple stakeholders. “In order to reverse the trend that college students are not gaining much critical thinking skills, there needs to be a culture that grows within education that institutes programs and interventions that are empirically tested and data-driven.”