What does critical thinking really mean?

Critical thinking is one of the 10 skills workers will need to land a job in the AI era, according to a report from the World Economic Forum. It's also one of the five soft skills recent grads need to succeed in the workplace, according to an employer survey by Bloomberg Next and Workday.

But what does critical thinking actually entail?

According to Davidson College President Carol Quillen, students think critically when they "ask good questions, diagram and visualize complicated problems, develop a strategy to approach a problem, pivot when it's not going anywhere and see the relationships among disparate ideas."

Quillen discussed the term and how to help students cultivate it with college leaders, academics, executives, and researchers at a recent higher ed forum organized by the American Enterprise Institute, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Arizona State University.

In-demand soft skills like communication, creativity, and critical thinking are often associated with a humanities education. But not every college can easily or affordably replicate key characteristics of a liberal arts education, like experiential learning or a supportive close-knit community, said Quillen. 

Related: 5 fresh ideas for career prep with liberal arts students

Instead, colleges and universities should focus on helping students build core, transferrable skills, said Quillen. "The key to scalability, I think, is to figure out what we are doing and not mystify it with ill-defined phrases," said Quillen.

The ability to cultivate transferrable skills, like critical thinking and creativity, is not limited to any one discipline, says Michael Hora, an assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

What matters is the way the subject is taught. Faculty can teach art history through lectures to passive students, and they can teach mechanical engineering in an engaging way that builds collaboration and critical thinking, says Hora.

What liberal arts does offer is an understanding of society's underlying social, political, and historical issues, he argues. Problem solving in a course about interracial dialogue will look different than solving problems in an engineering class—and that difference will be valuable in the rapidly changing workplace, he adds.

Colleges can also help students develop personal attributes that will make then invaluable in the workplace. "Habits of mind, intellectual humility, resolve and empathy," said Quillen, "these are things employers hope their employees will have. We have long claimed that we help our students cultivate these. Let's figure out how to do it in other contexts for more people" (Johnson, Davidson College press release, 4/5).


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