Don’t be an idiot.

Calella de Palafrugell

Thinking critically to solve complex problems.

When I was 16, I took a philosophy class with the most unorthodox high school teacher I would ever have. Forget that it was a summer course in Spain, or that this particular teacher, Joe, would all but abandon us in remote fishing villages with little more than a map and the name of our destination. The most unorthodox, and ultimately impactful, thing Joe would do came down to a presentation on asceticism. My group did little to no work and as a result, our presentation was weak and embarrassing. When we were done, Joe paused, and then said simply, “When you present something, you have to think.” And that was it.

Yesterday, the Toronto Star posted a piece titled “Young grads need to brush up on 3 Rs, employers say.” Ostensibly, executives were recently surveyed about the skills they look for in entry-level employees. What they found was unsurprising: reading, writing, and arithmetic (not reduce, recycle, reuse, in this particular instance). These three Rs are considered the foundation of all skills-oriented education (does it not bug anyone else that it is really an R, a W, and an A?).

The article goes on to talk about the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario’s plans to test incoming and outgoing college and university students in these areas to “show quite simply whether students have these skills or not.” Personally, I’m less interested in HEQCO’s plans and more interested in what this says about our grads, our schools, and our employers. For one, I find reporting on these kinds of things – survey results, the entry-level job market, pedagogy – dubious at best (but that’s a topic for another post). And secondly, I can’t imagine there is a single student in any Canadian college or university that would jump at the chance to take another two surveys (again, best left for another post).

As a teacher, curriculum developer, and a student myself, what I find interesting about this article is the “soft skills” that employers are reportedly looking for: communicating, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork. I’ve made a career (and a graduate certificate program) on my ability to communicate, and I don’t see this being an issue for any of my students when they go off to look for work. Teamwork is something I have greatly improved on and still have a long way to go on. But those other two, problem-solving and critical thinking, they complex me every day as a teacher, a student, a parent, and a human being.

How do you become a skilled problem-solver? How do you hone your critical thinking skills? Google will make a lot of suggestions that all seem to boil down to “be a smart person” (or “don’t be an idiot” at the very least). I try to teach my students in the Professional Writing program to plan out their work before they begin. If you write out a document plan, you do your thinking-work before you start writing. This is a very different approach than what they are used to, one where you aren’t trying to hit word limits or assignment requirements but communicate real, thoughtful ideas. I see a more thoughtful approach to their work as a result, but I don’t know if it is enough.

The reality is, if you want to be a skilled critical thinker (and have it actually mean something, not just as a cover-letter buzzword), you have to make decisions. Wrong ones. And a lot of them. You have to push aside the fear that you’ll screw up, think things through, and pursue your ideas with conviction. But in order to do that, you need an environment that is supportive and encouraging. I try to create that for my students and I think many employers do, too. But where’s the line? How, as a new employee in the workforce, do you pursue your ideas fearlessly without crossing lines or getting fired? And how, as an employer, do you offer an environment that is supportive and makes room for creativity without putting your employees and your business at risk? Well, I think that brings us back to our other two skills – communication and teamwork. Think critically, vocalize and pursue your ideas, make mistakes, but do so as part of a team that communicates openly. But first, read the article in the Toronto Star and let me know what you think.

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