“We need an education system that produces experts and to do that we need an education system that is focused on critical thinking skills and not on the current one that requires you to remember what you have read…..We need experts, not average thinkers. “
So said Professor Johann Kinghorn of Stellenbosch University at the Botswana Innovation Hub Industrial Revolution Public Lecture. I was salivating when I heard this. It was even more powerful coming on the back of my recent employment of a marketing graduate. She wasn’t exactly fresh-faced as she had had a few years of ‘internships’ under her belt. However, when she was given a blank work canvas to paint what I hoped would be a marketing masterpiece, it fell dramatically short of expectation. Instead of a cohesive, innovative strategy, I received random mundane proposals ... promotional T-shirts, company re-launches for any and all clients, a sponsored event... none of which made any sense. I pointed out to her that the starting place for marketing is thinking about and answering questions such as; ‘Who do we want to market to?’, ‘who are our customers?’,’ what do we want to market?’, what are the best options to do this?’, ‘how will we articulate who we are?’, ‘what do we do and where do we sit relative to our competitors?’ They are all difficult and complex questions!
Contrarily it’s very easy to produce a bunch of disparate marketing activities...branded polo shirts for staff, launching the company at a glitzy party, hiring dinner tables for clients at events... but how do we convince ourselves that that is the best way of properly promoting? That’s hard. A few decades ago it might have been acceptable to approach marketing from a traditional standpoint which included such things as cold-call emails and trade show stands but If the aim of marketing is to get customers to know, like and trust us – how can we make this happen? The saying that marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department comes to mind!
If the responses of this graduate is what our tertiary education produces, then we are in dire straits and the good professor is right in propounding the need for changing-it-up and developing critical thinking skills in our education system.
The adjective ‘critical’ comes from the Greek word ‘kritikos’, meaning ‘capable of judging’; it therefore implies conscious, deliberate rationale and reasoning. Given this etymological derivation, forensic analysis is a necessary step in the process of critical – ultimately – judgmental inquiry. The latter sums up the aim of an education in such thinking. There was none of this in my new employee’s thought process.
Critical thinking is one of the pillars of higher education and if you consider what we currently face in the world – climate change, political corruption, economic inequality and corporate surveillance – it requires people who can solve problems using their analytical minds and skills to resolve these difficult and complex situations. Today most businesses are faced with mounting competitive challenges from home and abroad; more compliance and regulation, new financial pressures as well as new technologies...it’s all so much more complex that critical thinking skills are not only necessary for students’ personal growth but also, post graduation, the survival of business and indeed civilisation.
This is not only applicable to marketing. Every function in business needs critical thinking. Take for example HR. Don’t tell me that the best way to find talented and skilful individuals is simply to advertise - the challenge of attracting talent into your business is highly complex and needs critical thought. Ditto for strategic thinking and all other business functions.
Critical thinking can’t be taught in isolation. They must be developed in conjunction with expert knowledge for it to be worth anything. And whilst certain critical thinking skills may be transferable, subject knowledge is not and that is the reason courses are not interchangeable with each other because they are about specific disciplines. Thus, learning to think critically about politics is different from learning to think critically about physics. It is simply not true that developing expertise in physics will also make you an astute political thinker.
So, here’s the thing...in the absence of universities preparing students for business life and critical thinking, the role that we need to take as organisations in developing employees for analytical and pragmatic approaches to problem solving needs urgent and imperative action.
In my own companies I admit to finding it hard to walk the talk. Flippantly I hear myself saying to the new marketing hire “I don’t care if you spend the whole week doing nothing but thinking...bring me that one good idea”. In such instances I know how hard it is to not frown over and fret about at such ‘inactivity’ as is associated with critical thinking... pondering... mulling over... weighing up...! But it’s important that organisations (myself included) encourage an environment which acknowledges the need for critically thought through processes – pondering crucial questions and potential solutions before jumping to a conclusion.
Don’t be thinking this is a new fad appearing in job descriptions. Critical thinking isn’t a new phenomenon at all. According to the Wall Street Journal, mentions of “critical thinking” in job advertisements have at least doubled since 2009. And the analytical and scientific approach to life was a cornerstone of ancient Greek philosophy and advancement – hence ‘kritikos’.
Employers like me want to hire graduates with adept critical thinking skills to solve problems and connect the dots on complex issues. Otherwise I may as well do it myself!