Critical Thinking Skills Theory Of Leadership

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In 1597 Francis Bacon penned the now famous phrase ‘scientia potentia est’. These words have since been paraphrased into ‘knowledge is power’. Knowledge as perceived by some is a static concept. The essence of knowledge has been the subject of debate for millennia. Knowledge encompasses the collection of facts and information pertinent to a specific subject. Halpern (1996) suggests that knowledge is not static but rather dynamic as current knowledge builds on old knowledge, which in turn generates new knowledge. Knowledge has always been valued by society. A report produced by the U. S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Services (2008) indicated that the United States has more educated people than at any time in the past. In 1910 only 2.7% of the population over the age of 25 had a four-year degree. This number has increased every year with that number climbing to 29.6% in 2007. A college degree has become the currency of the job application process. Those without degrees need not apply. With so many educated people why do we still witness behaviors and thoughts that are ill-conceived, making one shake one's head in disbelief? ‘Although Americans today are more highly educated than ever before, they are not necessarily better educated’ (Tsui, 2002, p. 740). Mere education does not necessarily lead to better thinkers. Tsui (2002) differentiates between teaching students what to think (highly educated) and teaching them how to think (better educated). What appears to be lacking is the ability to take knowledge and transform it into uses that benefit not only the individual, but more importantly, society as a whole. In this sense, thinking then becomes the application of knowledge.

That we as humans think is often taken for granted. It is a process so natural that we fail to realize how it is accomplished. Much of what we think is based on rote and requires no special application of thinking. We apply knowledge when we do simple math or compose a grammatically correct sentence. Decisions are made in these examples but these actions happen almost without thought. This thinking is vastly different from understanding why we hold certain values. The ability to see beyond simple facts, to think at a more comprehensive level, is critical thinking. Paul (2005) suggested that ‘critical thinking is the art of thinking about thinking in an intellectually disciplined manner’ (p. 28). This definition goes beyond merely giving thought to something; it involves intentional consideration. The definition is elegant in its simplicity, but it may not capture the entire essence of critical thinking. Over the years there have been several theories dealing with critical thinking. Understanding critical thinking is essential since it touches many aspects of our lives, and many of these aspects are interrelated. Merging ideas from constructivism, education, and leadership within the theme of critical thinking will prove informative. Figure 1 shows the relationship of critical thinking to constructivism, education, and leadership. Education and leadership are encapsulated within the constructivist framework from a thinking frame of reference. Constructivism helps us understand how we develop as adults, how we learn in the educational system, and ultimately how we perform in leadership positions. Leadership is then built upon this knowledge base and experience as one integrates critical thinking with formal education within a constructivist development framework. Viewing these interrelationships through a critical thinking lens will help develop a more comprehensive perspective of critical thinking. By examining critical thinking within these constructs it is also hoped that we can move from a theoretical understanding to being able to operationalize critical thinking.

If critical thinking skills are not well-developed through the educational system, there are ramifications to our ability to make meaning in the workforce. If our ability to make meaning is limited by deficient critical thinking, it will have an impact on our ability to lead. Leaders without the full scope of leadership attributes (including higher cognitive processing) are less effective (Drath, 1990). Leadership mistakes can be costly and hard to overcome. The purpose of this paper will be to examine the implications on leadership of students graduating with deficient critical thinking skills. Deficient critical thinking skills are manifested by the inability to integrate multiple perspectives with a multiplicity of facts and determine the best course of action. The epistemology of critical thinking has taken a circuitous and sometimes disjointed path. From the varied perspectives, a usable general construct will be formed to guide the remainder of the paper. One aspect of the educational system is preparing students for the workforce and subsequently, leadership, which in turn drives the economy and positioning within the global marketplace. Understanding the relationship between critical thinking and education will help determine what changes, if any, need to be made to the current educational system that will allow the development of more effective leaders. There will be a discussion of the relationship between critical thinking and constructive adult development since the two are so closely linked that critical thinking skills may indeed determine the developmental stage from which one operates. Different approaches to teaching critical thinking in higher education will be examined for efficacy. The impact of critical thinking on leadership and the future needs of employers will also be considered. Lastly, the future challenges of the educational system will be addressed.

Overview of Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking?

If knowledge is possessing facts, and thinking is the application of knowledge, critical thinking, in the simplest of terms, becomes the application of knowledge in more complex ways. This simple statement belies the complexity of critical thinking as there are other aspects of critical thinking that go beyond the discerning of facts. Robert Ennis (1962) developed a foundational theory suggesting that ‘critical thinking is taken to be the correct assessing of statements’ (p. 83). His theory was based on skills as he developed a comprehensive list of twelve aspects of critical thinking. His critical thinking paradigm contains three skill-based aspects: logical, criterial, and pragmatic. This early definition is limiting as it does not fully consider the reflective or aporetic elements of later constructs. Paul (1984) later developed a skills-based dichotomous view of critical thinking and described the two components as weak sense critical thinking and strong sense critical thinking. In the weak sense, critical thinking skills are seen as extraneous to the person, which can serve as an adjunct to other learning. Strong sense critical thinking skills allow one to view their cognitive processes. These viewpoints frame the technicist perspective.

Technicists argue that skills form the basis for critical thinking with the emphasis on task accomplishment and effectiveness through purposeful and strategic performance (Papastephanou & Angeli, 2007). Rationalists oppose this viewpoint as they argue for logic and evidence forming the basis for critical thinking (Papastephanou & Angeli, 2007). As a rationalist, Siegel (1980) posits that critical thinking is inextricably conjoined to rationality. To him logic, empirical evidence, and principled thought guide the critical thinker. Halpern (1996) would agree with this assessment. For her, the word ‘critical’ implies an appraisal element in critical thinking, so that one judges the consequences of his or her thought process. Papastephanou and Angeli (2007) propose a contextually sensitive approach that lies between the rationalists and technicists in which the ‘aporetic urges the thinking subject to wonder not only about problematic situations but also about what is usually taken for granted, and to wander in alternative and as yet unexplored cognitive paths’ (p. 616). Burbules (1995) espouses a pedagogical approach which teaches students to think ‘differently’ by considering alternative perspectives and being open to the unexpected. He suggests a dialogical approach to knowledge aimed at producing new understanding where learners are allowed to construct personal meaning based on these alternative perspectives (Burbules, 1993).

Another dichotomous framework of critical thinking posits that there are generalists and specifists (Davies, 2006). Generalists hold that critical thinking is a universal skill, while specifists believe that in order to think critically one must possess deep knowledge of a subject area. McPeck (1990) argues that critical thinking must be domain specific and that there are sparse general thinking skills. To be a critical thinker, McPeck believes one must possess profound knowledge of a subject area. Only after mastery can one become a critical thinker, but critical thinking is then limited to the content mastered. Davies (2006) finds fault in the forced dichotomy of this framework and suggests an ‘infusion’ approach that utilizes concepts from both paradigms. Mason (2007) takes a completely different path, as he believes that critical thinking is driven by moral imperatives that lead to a more humane world. As moral values are introduced into the milieu of critical thinking, one is forced to be reflective through introspection.

Defining Critical Thinking

The goal of this paper is to discuss the implications on leadership of students graduating with deficient critical thinking skills. To develop a definitive parsimonious definition of critical thinking is beyond the scope of this paper given the range of viewpoints that exist. However, there are salient aspects of several definitions that will prove informative to the remainder of this paper. Facione (2006) extols the definition developed by the Delphi Method, which ‘understands critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based’ (p. 21). This comprehensive model is based on six core critical thinking skills and seven dispositions. The six core critical thinking skills are analysis, inference, interpretation, explanation, self-regulation, and evaluation. The seven critical thinking dispositions are inquisitive, systematic, judicious, truthseeking, analytical, open-minded, and confident in reasoning. Facione believes that linking these core thinking skills with the dispositions leads to critical thinking. Lipman (1988) believed that critical thinking needed to be enmeshed within the educational system. He thought education existed to transmit knowledge and to propagate wisdom as he defined critical thinking as ‘skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it (1) relies upon criteria, (2) is self-correcting, and (3) is sensitive to context’ (p. 39).

With this in mind, the focus of education should be shifting from teaching content to teaching students how to become critical thinkers. Given the complexity of and philosophical difference between content learning and critical thinking this will not be an easy task. Students will need to be challenged to articulate why they hold to certain beliefs through a process of self-reflection as they consider alternative positions. Halpern (1996) defined critical thinking as ‘the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome’ (p. 5). Mazer et al. (2007) said critical thinking is ‘the ability to construct meaning and articulate and evaluate arguments, as well as evaluate sources and support’ (p. 176). Ricketts and Rudd (2005) developed a model of critical thinking which posited that by combining a high critical thinking disposition with knowledge and high critical thinking skills the outcome is higher quality critical thinking. Rudd and his colleagues offered the following definition, ‘critical thinking is a reasoned, purposive, and introspective approach to solving problems or addressing questions, with incomplete evidence and information, and for which an incontrovertible solution is unlikely’ (Rudd et al., 2000, p. 5).

These varied theories give evidence of two issues when trying to define critical thinking. There is no universal definition of critical thinking, and many frameworks define critical thinking in terms of a model containing polar opposites (e.g. generalists versus specifists). Despite this, there are still common aspects that overlap some of the models that inform the development of a general construct. To think critically one must be able to process new information without undue influence from prior beliefs (Papastephanou & Angeli, 2007; West et al., 2008; Paul & Elder, 2001; Van Gelder, 2005). This requires the suspension of biases shaped by past experiences. Biases are an inherent part of our development. To suspend these biases seems to run counterintuitive to how we are programmed to think, requiring a repudiation of the past, making this a formidable undertaking. West et al. (2008) further offer that critical thinking is thinking logically when logic does not match prior beliefs. They capture the substance of critical thinking by referring to it as ‘non-egocentric processing’ (p. 938). Rudd (2007) offers a more concise definition years after his original definition appeared. He defines critical thinking as ‘reasoned, purposive, and reflective thinking used to make decisions, solve problems, and master concepts’ (p. 14).

The concept of critical thinking is too complex to be limited to a narrowly defined construct. Neither should it be viewed as situated in one extreme of dichotomous constructs. Thinking critically about critical thinking should allow one to process the dialectic nature of various constructs into a more integrative whole. The authors propose that salient elements of a general critical thinking construct should include skills, rationality, openness to alternative viewpoints, suspension of prior constructions, introspective reflection, and non-egocentric processing.

Constructivism and Critical Thinking

The path from infancy to productive member of society represents a different journey for each individual. Two people can experience the same inputs but construct different interpretations. The reason for the difference lies in how we make sense of our experiences and environment. How individuals make meaning has a profound effect on one's ability to think critically. This does not mean that individuals at lower levels of meaning-making do not think, or are not capable of making decisions; it means that when they do make decisions, their thought process is different. This information processing is neither good nor bad from a constructivist standpoint. ‘Our meanings are not so much something we have, as something we are’ (Kegan & Lahey, 1983, p. 202). There are no value judgments made based on how one constructs meaning. From the standpoint of the individual, their personal meaning-making is the only reality they know. It does, however, have implications for critical thinking and the quality of those decisions. If critical thinking has become such a valued commodity in today's chaotic world, one may need to consider the developmental stage of individuals as one looks for ways to enhance critical thinking (Barbuto, 2000).

Constructivism should be considered when examining education and leadership development, since developmental stages are directly tied to critical thinking abilities. The ability to think in new ways and arrange knowledge in new patterns lies at the heart of adult development. Adult development theory suggests that all people travel through different stages of development as they mature. The differentiation between stages lies in how people make meaning (construct) their reality. A person's meaning-making process serves as the constraint for personal development at any given stage making modification of one's construction paradigm necessarily evolutionary as ‘people use their mental powers to analyze and test ideas in their minds’ (Raskin, 2008, p. 6). This meaning-making process becomes more important than acquiring specific knowledge and skills (Lutz & Huitt, 2004). Puolimatka (2003) linked constructivism to critical thinking by asserting that ‘critical thinking is self-correcting, because it is subject to constant evaluation in the framework of objective criteria’ (p. 10). Similarly, non-egocentric processing calls for understanding the needs of the situation as it relates to others (society). When decisions are no longer driven by the desire to satisfy ego needs, one can consider the implications of any decision on others and incorporate other worldviews as one's personal viewpoint becomes one of many. To be able to examine information from this perspective requires one to have a worldview that allows for more complex meaning-making.

Kegan (1982) developed a well-known model of adult development based on constructivism. In his model people take an active role in organizing their experiences into meaning (Erikson, 2006) and can journey through six stages throughout their lives. The six stages are: incorporative-embedded in reflexes; impulsive-embedded in impulse and perception; imperial-embedded in enduring disposition, needs, interests, and wishes; interpersonal-embedded in mutuality and interpersonal concordance; institutional-embedded in personal autonomy and self-system identity; and interindividual-embedded in interpenetration of systems. Each successive stage calls for more evolved meaning-making. People advance through the stages as their worldviews change. ‘The essence of developmental movement is the shifting between what is perceived as subject (self) and what is perceived as object (other)’ (Drath, 1990, p. 486). Those at lower stages would tend to view the world from a very self-centered perspective (egocentric), making it highly improbable that they could consider the needs of others in their decision-making process, thus calling into question their ability to be effective critical thinkers.

Fisher et al. (1987) describe the same developmental requirement in their four-stage model of adult development. Mezirow's (2003) model of adult learning theory was labeled transformational learning and was rooted in metacognitive reasoning. ‘The goal of transformational learning is independent thinking’ (Merriam, 2004, p. 61). Independent thinking is the critical evaluation of information. Two core elements of transformational learning are critical reflection and rational/reflective discourse. Through the process of reflective discourse, the assumptions one holds must be critically assessed against new information. There is no sacredness to things taken for granted, even though these beliefs may form the foundation of our identity. To critically question what one believes can be an extremely difficult exercise. This model also presupposes one must be at an advanced developmental level to think critically. Put in adult development terms, one must be at a higher meaning-making stage to enact transformational learning.

McCauley et al. (2006) examined constructive development in relation to leadership as they developed a taxonomy of constructive development. Their model takes the work of Kegan (1982), Torbert (1987), and Kohlberg (1969), and overlays a three-stage schema. The three stages of development are dependent, independent, and inter-independent. Key characteristics of their model are: people actively construct ways of understanding and making sense of themselves; there are stages, or identifiable patterns of meaning-making shared by people; these stages unfold in specific unchangeable sequences; people do not regress to lower stages; each stage is more complex than the previous stage; movement from one stage to the next is driven by the limitations in the current stage of constructing meaning; and the stage one operates from influences what they can be aware of and notice. In the dependent stage individuals depend on others to construct reality. In the independent stage individuals understand themselves as an independent self-possessed entity. In the inter-independent stage the self is now understood as a mercurial entity capable of multiple forms in response to life's contingencies. Based on this model, it can be conjectured that individuals at the dependent stage are incapable of critical thinking because they are so self-centered it would be implausible for them to think beyond their ego needs. ‘One of the most important abilities a thinker can have is the ability to monitor and assess his or her own thinking while processing the thinking of others’ (Paul, 2005, p. 32). To process information in a non-egocentric way, one would necessarily have to reside in at least the independent stage.

Leadership and Critical Thinking

Leaders deal with complex problems that require complex solutions, thus leaders who can think critically will be more effective given these parameters. Unfortunately, most leaders operate from an egocentric world view and lack well-developed critical thinking skills (Rooke & Torbert, 2005). Drath (1990) found that many managers operate from Kegan's institutional stage thereby limiting their ability to form interdependent relationships. Fisher et al. (1987) also found in three studies of the developmental stages of managers that very few develop beyond the institutional stage. Leaders by virtue of their positions are assumed to possess special talents. However, it does not automatically follow that all leaders are critical thinkers. As the definition of leadership continues to evolve, the ‘great man’[sic] theories referenced in leadership literature have been replaced by more integrative theories and emerging frameworks. ‘Great man’ theories were based on the attributes associated with well known leaders. Newer theories focus on other concepts such as transformational leadership (Bass, 1996) servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977) authentic leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005) leadership from a sense-making perspective (Weick, 1995), holistic leadership (Quatro et al., 2007), and emotional leadership (Riggio & Lee, 2007). All of these theories have an ethical, moral, or reflective component that can be enhanced by critical thinking. The new demands of leadership require ethical behavior, the ability to work with diverse populations, and the ability to think from a systems perspective.

There is no shortage of stories involving ethical lapses by leaders in the news. Social learning theory suggests that individuals learn to become ethical by observing leaders who exhibit ethical behaviors (Brown et al., 2005). We can create more ethical leaders by instilling critical thinking in the leadership ranks. Brown et al. (2005) suggest that leaders must discern the norms in operation based on contextual clues, a skill that requires one to understand and interpret organizational and interpersonal dynamics. Servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1977) proposes that decisions that benefit only the leader serve no valid purpose. Leaders need to be seen as altruistic and creating just work environments (Brown et al., 2005), necessitating the ability to understand the needs of followers and society.

Due to the changing nature of the demographic make up of the workforce, leaders must be able to lead diverse groups of people, such as women, or ethnic and racial minorities, who may be underrepresented, to be most effective. However, there continues to be bias against members of these groups (Duehr & Bono, 2006; Greenhaus et al., 1990) as the white male is still viewed as the prototypical leader (Chung-Herrera & Lankau, 2005). This is important as diverse organizations make better decisions (Page, 2007) calling into question the old leadership paradigm. Leadership based on a homogeneous followership will no longer work. Since leaders tend to surround themselves with like-minded people (Giberson et al., 2005) it will require a different kind of thinking to break the cycle. Critical thinking can provide the means for moving beyond these self-imposed limitations.

Critical thinking from a leadership perspective entails the ability to think complexly. Senge (1990) discussed systems thinking that he referred to as the ‘fifth discipline’. Although he uses different language to define systems thinking, as he operationalizes systems thinking, the outcome is critical thinking, as leaders must be able to see the big picture and assemble all the new and disparate pieces of information into a meaningful whole. Organizations that will thrive in the future will have leaders that can discern ways to address the consequences of a changing workforce by imagining people in roles different than traditionally experienced. For instance, critical thinking leads to more accepting attitudes of women (Loo & Thorpe, 2005). One can then conjecture that higher critical thinking skills might also lead to more accepting views of other minorities as well.

Leadership in the global economy also dictates new competencies (Hoppe, 2007). The world now exists as a global market with lines of demarcation becoming fuzzy at best. The ability to understand the influences that culture plays in these types of interactions is key to long-term success in the global economy (Teagarden, 2007). Individuals would need to be at least at the independent level to be effective (McCauley et al., 2006). The consideration and acceptance of difference must happen outside the egocentric sphere of dependent stage leaders. Since it has already been posited that global leaders must operate from the independent stage (be able to consider the viewpoint of others), one could also postulate that effective global leadership requires critical thinking.

Leadership is not inert; it is a very dynamic endeavor. Leaders must remain relevant (Wyche, 2008) by overcoming the shortcomings associated with moving up the corporate ladder (Drath, 1990). Leaders must give credence to the emotional and mental aspects of leadership by spending time in introspection and making careful observation of the environment through such things as reflection and self-awareness. These represent new competencies for leaders. Wyche (2008) posits that this type of learning goes beyond the formal educational system and content based-knowledge. Organizations must recognize that leaders in different stages of their career possess different skills and have different critical thinking needs. Executive coaching, based on career development stage, has been found to increase critical thinking (Axelrod, 2005).

If employers want critical thinkers, and colleges and universities want to produce critical thinkers, but both agree the current wave of students is deficient in this area, ‘the question becomes who is responsible for imparting critical thinking?’ Employers overwhelmingly believe the responsibility is with the four-year colleges and universities (The Conference Board, 2006). Of those who responded, 68.4% thought it was the responsibility of four-year educational systems to equip the next generation of leaders with critical thinking skills. How has higher education performed to date given this mandate?

Education and Critical Thinking

In recent decades the idea of critical thinking has become ingrained in the educational system although the concept of educating students to think critically is not particularly new. As early as the 1930s Osborne (1934) stated that one of the major goals of education should be to develop ‘thought power’ in students. Siegel (1980) was more forceful in suggesting that ‘we ought to teach in accordance with the critical manner because, simply put, it would be immoral to teach in any other way’ (p. 13). Developing critical thinking in students remains one of the main goals of college education (Van Gelder, 2005). As bastions of knowledge, colleges and universities clearly understand the impetus to develop students with content specific knowledge. Furthermore, they understand the philosophical need to teach students to be independent thinkers capable of thinking complexly across different dimensions. Facione (2006) summed it up concisely when he stated ‘teach people to make good decisions and you equip them to improve their own futures’ (p. 1). Many institutions of higher learning have made intentional attempts at incorporating critical thinking into their curricula (Barnes, 2005; Elder, 2005; Tiwari et al., 2006). What has been uneven is the methodology, training, and administrative support, and concomitantly, the results of these programs.

Thinking as information processing has been at the core of thinking pedagogy since the inception of formal education (McGuiness, 1993). Teachers possessed a list of items students needed to know by the end of the class. Learning was short-term, based primarily on rote memorization and emphasis was on teaching content and expanding one's knowledge base. Given the traditional goals of teaching throughout history, the methods were not only appropriate, they were effective. To this end, students have been graduating with increasingly deep knowledge bases. To the extent the needs of society were congruent with deep content knowledge there was general acceptance of the output of the educational system. As we have developed into a knowledge society, with global, ethical, and moral problems unprecedented in their scope and nature, the goal of simply imparting knowledge may no longer serve society well. Luckily, much of the recent educational focus has shifted away from this ‘brain as processor’ model (McGuiness, 1993) to teaching general thinking skills.

The general consensus is that the educational system has not performed well in consistently producing critical thinkers (Barbuto, 2000; Burbach et al., 2004; del Bueno, 2005; Lizzio & Wilson, 2007; Paul, 2005; Pithers & Soden 2000). Paul (2005) offers three reasons for this discrepancy. He believes the majority of teachers do not understand the concept of critical thinking. One cannot effectively teach what one does not understand. He further posits that most teachers do not realize they operate from this deficit position. Lastly, he blames the continued use of traditional teaching techniques such as memorization and lectures. Evidence suggests that traditional formal classroom instruction rarely leads to critical thinking (Lizzio & Wilson, 2007). These methods fail to emotionally engage students and do not require them to examine their assumptions. Without this self-reflection aspect, it is difficult for students to develop critical thinking skills. There is an egocentric component that is necessary before students can move to a different meaning-making stage. Students must experience the limitations of an egocentric worldview before they can advance. If the educational system is not graduating critical thinkers there is a need for the re-evaluation of current curricula.

Current Critical Thinking Approaches in Education

Despite the previous findings suggesting that teachers as a whole are not equipped to teach critical thinking, there have been promising results from those who are teaching to a critical thinking model. These approaches can be viewed as non-traditional, incorporating the latest research. Learning Partnership Models link learning with self-authorship—the journey into self-discovery based on increasing intellect (Baxter Magolda, 2007). The idea of a cognitive apprenticeship based on processing, judgments, and sense-making, supplies students with access to experts in their daily roles, who in turn provide direct feedback to students about their performance (McGuiness, 1993). This situated learning also provides coaching and support to the neophyte in the early stages of their career development. Using peers as coaches in formal programs also leads to better critical thinking (Ladyshewsky, 2006). Others have echoed the need for reflection as a key component of teaching students critical thinking (Grossman, 2009; Lizzio & Wilson, 2007). Grossman (2009) identified four levels of reflection: content-based reflection, metacognitive reflection, self-authorship reflection, and transformative and intensive reflection. Content-based reflection considers experience relative to specific learning goals. Metacognitive reflection is knowing that one thinks, and applying the known to solve complex problems. Self-authorship understands how one is the self-author of one's thoughts and feelings. Transforming and intensive reflection is knowing why you think what you think. Lizzio and Wilson (2007) further expound on reflection by introducing three practices for the development of reflective thinking: challenge students to understand that they make meaning based on their internal assumptions, challenge students to understand that these assumptions must be continually evaluated, and have students take responsibility for their decisions based on their reflections. This then allows one to consider evidence from multiple perspectives in keeping with a critical thinking approach.

In a longitudinal study, higher order thinking skills led to enhanced critical thinking (Miri et al., 2007). ‘Higher order thinking can be conceptualized as non-algorithmic mode of thinking that often generates multiple solutions’ (p. 355). Teachers used cases that dealt with real world issues, open ended classroom discussions, and inquiry-based experiments. Likewise, nursing students provided a curriculum structured on problem-based learning theory utilizing context based knowledge with real world inputs demonstrated increased critical thinking compared to those who experienced traditional classroom lectures (Tiwari et al., 2006). Problem-based learning requires objective and critical analysis of all pertinent information and merges real life problems with content knowledge (Maudsley & Strivens, 2000; Hannon et al., 2004). This experiential learning enhances critical thinking, professional knowledge acquisition, problem solving, and life-long learning. This model places value on the student's previous knowledge and experience. Problem-based learning facilitates learning rather than directing learning. A similar approach suggests that courses with a community service component foster critical thinking (Beckman, 1997; Burbach et al., 2004). Work-based learning also utilizes experiential learning (Brodie & Irving, 2007). In this teaching model the application of learning theory guides critical reflection, which in turn leads to development of capability. Students must have, or develop, a disposition to understand when a particular skill is needed and the willingness to invoke the skill (Halpern, 1996). Active learning which includes journal writing, service learning projects, small group participation, case studies, and questioning in combination has also been found to lead to better critical thinking (Burbach et al., 2004).

Peters (2007) argues that these different approaches indicate the need for educators to be open to different kinds of thinking and styles of reasoning. He argues that cognitive development does not operate in a vacuum and therefore needs to recognize the historical and cultural ties to thinking. He uses the typology developed by Heidegger (1966) to illustrate his point. Heidegger sees kinds of thinking as: opinion, representing, reasoning, problem-solving, conceiving, practical judgment, the meaning of being, and post-meta-physical being. There are also styles of reasoning driven by ‘thought collectives’. These collectives develop uniform application of thought processes to define scientific facts. New members are normalized in the existing thought process. Only through new collectives can non-conforming thought processes thrive. It is in these discrepancies (between old and new collectives) that critical thinking and innovation thrives.

Students who were taught a course using dialogue as the heuristic for processing ideas in the classroom advanced the development of critical thinking (Mayo, 2002). Dialogue was found to elicit creative thinking in college students. Students were required to attribute anonymous statements to famous philosophers and explain their rationale in writing. In addition, each was required to orally defend their reasoning. Dialogue leads to conceptual understanding of frameworks and actively involves the student in the learning process (Burbules, 1993; Pithers & Soden, 2000). This teaching model is rooted in the social component of learning. Teachers need to be mindful that practice produces proficiency and that their role should be as participant rather than director to be most effective.

Still another approach suggests that the key to teaching critical thinking is teaching to the developmental stage of the student (Barbuto, 2000). The developmental stage should be assessed using Kegan's (1982) construct to determine the student's meaning-making worldview. Once this is known, the instructor can decide on the appropriate teaching methods based on the objectives of the instructor. The outcomes need to be evaluated continually and be used to guide future decisions. This approach recognizes that students are at different developmental stages, and as a result, cannot all be taught in the same manner.

Implications for Leaders in the Workforce

Organizations are continually seeking well-trained individuals that possess not only the technical skills to fulfill their roles, but more importantly, the thinking skills to be effective in a constantly changing environment. Managers who are simply good at a specific job will not meet the needs of tomorrow's workforce. A recent survey of over 400 companies in the United States by the Conference Board indicated that ‘the future U. S. workforce is here—and it is woefully ill-prepared for the demands of today's (and tomorrow's) workplace’ (The Conference Board, 2006, p. 9). The report details four areas that employers feel are most important for new entrants to the workforce to master. They are professionalism/work ethic, communication skills, teamwork/collaboration, and critical thinking skills. Respondents were also asked to list skills that were ‘very important’ to success for four-year graduates. Ninety-two percent of the respondents believed critical thinking was very important. Offsetting this belief were the respondents who expressed concerns that only 27.6% of four-year graduates come with excellent skills in this area. This leaves about three out of four students with perceived critical thinking deficits.

Del Bueno (2005) found that only 35% of registered nurse graduates were capable of critical thinking once in the work setting based on results from the Performance Based Development System (PBDS) assessment. The PBDS is a competency assessment used by hospitals to evaluate a nurse's ability to do their job by examining critical thinking, inter-personal relations, and technical skills. The PBDS has been shown to be a valid and reliable instrument for testing critical thinking (del Bueno, 1990). Nowhere is critical thinking more imperative than in the life and death world of nursing care. Without critical thinking patients can be mismanaged, leading to adverse outcomes. In the business setting, failure to think critically can result in missed opportunities, faulty decisions, inefficiencies, and ineffectiveness. As the pace of change and the complexity of problems in the business world become more compressed and convoluted, the failure to think critically has far-reaching implications that come with financial, social, and personal costs.

Never before has the need for good leaders in the workforce been more indispensable. The downfall of many organizations can be tied directly to faulty leadership (Carroll & Mui, 2008; Spreier et al., 2006). Is faulty leadership then tied to critical thinking deficits? Lord and Hall (2005) advanced a theory of leadership development that suggests that leaders' identities emerge from an egocentric emphasis to a collective emphasis as they progress from novice to intermediate to expert with qualitative differences in information processing at each level. They posit that leaders need to develop new thinking that goes beyond the acquiring of surface skills (knowledge). The theory proposes that skill domains such as task understanding, emotional development, social development, meta-cognitive processes, identity development, and value orientation are more developed in expert leaders. These more developed attributes correlate well with the qualities a critical thinker needs to possess. Leaders operating from less than an expert orientation may not possess the full complement of thinking skills necessary to effectively guide organizations, leading to poor decisions.

How leaders make decisions impacts the quality of their decisions. The process of thinking involves making sense of current issues in light of historical experiences. To avoid distortion in this process one needs to be able to think critically. It may be that we can only limit distortion given this parameter. Paul and Elder (2001) advanced a construct that explains how the mind processes information. Inert information is learned information that the thinker thinks they understand when in actuality they do not. This leads to activated ignorance, or the use of inert information to guide thinking. Because activated ignorance takes no special effort and is the apparent thing to do, it is easy for leaders to rely erroneously on this type of thinking. Without critical thinking and reflection one will naturally tend to use inert information. Critical thinkers can look past inert information to develop activated knowledge, which in turns helps develop more knowledge, and better decisions.

Future Challenges for the Educational System

According to the Conference Board report (2006), the educational system needs to do a better job of producing critical thinkers. There are several obstacles to instituting critical thinking in colleges and universities that have become deeply entrenched in the academic system. To change the outcomes, it will be necessary to change how the educational system views the process of ‘teaching’ students and the desired outputs. Critical thinking should become part of most classes, not a stand-alone class. By limiting critical thinking instruction to a specific class, students may have a difficult time operationalizing this type of thinking across all areas of their lives. Mazer et al. (2007) found that teachers who were provided with specific training in critical thinking were better able to transfer this knowledge in the classroom. There can no longer be solutions based upon making changes within the existing system; the entire paradigm itself must be evaluated and subject to change.

To redesign the current system will also require double loop learning (Argyris, 1976). Double-loop learning is the ability to consider alternative frameworks, as opposed to merely changes within a framework. Change agents must look beyond the constraints of the current system and develop new paradigms from which to operate. The traditional educational model is built upon knowledge acquisition. In the process of imparting knowledge is the educational system focusing on complicated thinking as opposed to complex thinking? Complicated thinking implies making thinking harder. Thinking harder does not necessarily result in thinking more complexly. Senge (1990) refers to detail complexity and dynamic complexity. Detail complexity (complicated thinking) involves thinking through many variables. Dynamic complexity involves the subtle effects of the relationship between cause and effect. It also encompasses a time aspect where effects may not be readily discernable. The dynamics of organizational life make for very complicated situations, calling for increasingly complex thinking.

Standardized professional testing is an example of a very traditional approach to assessing competency in certain professions. Credentialing based on a static knowledge base is counterproductive to producing leaders with good critical thinking skills (English, 2006). English (2006) suggests that professional credentialing that relies on static knowledge bases create narrow thinking students who perform to the ‘test’. Professional testing should be based on dynamic knowledge which takes into account the requirements of the environment. ‘The function of a university based graduate preparation program is not to reproduce the status quo but to advance the field’ (p. 468). Without changing how success is defined for graduates, it will be virtually impossible to change the output.

This calls into the question the essence and goals of education at the highest levels. Historically, the highest degree afforded is the PhD—the doctor of philosophy. As initially introduced, the PhD was bestowed on those individuals who were capable of philosophically discoursing on a certain subject area in a deep and thoughtful manner. These individuals were masters of thinking. A philosopher is one who offers profound viewpoints through the application of wisdom. Wisdom is the application of judgment, discernment, and insight. These are all elements of critical thinking. The degrees of today too often seem based on deep knowledge of content but may be lacking in teaching students to philosophize (Miri et al., 2007). Perhaps a return to genesis of the thinking that guided the development of the PhD would benefit the educational system.

Many schools have developed programmatic approaches to teaching critical thinking. To be successful in the future, these programs will require a shift in mindset of the teachers (Barnes, 2005). The system needs to move away from the traditional model of knowledge transfer to imbuing students with the ability to think critically. Barnes (2005) believes that for teachers to be effective they will need support from administration. He goes on to say that successful programs have been built upon three important elements: a critical thinking champion, cross-discipline penetration, and the means to measure success beyond the classroom. This entails the willingness to adopt a completely new paradigm for establishing curricula in the school setting.

Implicit in programs to increase critical thinking among its students is the assumption that teachers possess the ability to teach critical thinking. To a large extent teachers do not understand critical thinking well enough to teach it to others (Paul, 2005). This should come as no surprise, since this is the group that was indoctrinated in the traditional approach to instruction. These teachers were inculcated with teaching and learning from the old content-based paradigms. Some of these approaches actually have negative relationships to critical thinking (Tsui, 1999). Changes in teacher preparation will not come easily or without additional problems (Dickerson, 2005; Vick, 2006). Schools will need to provide ongoing training for its instructional staff. This professional development should have as its focus critical thinking (Elder, 2005). Schools will need to develop critical thinking cultures that form social networks of support.


The information reviewed sheds light on the need to be more intentional in developing critical thinkers. The onus to develop critical thinking leaders rests with higher education. There are five recommendations for higher education that result from this critical thinking overview. Education needs to redefine their ultimate goal so that critical thinking becomes a component of this newly defined success. This represents a move away from purely content-based instruction and more importantly, represents a philosophical shift. Critical thinking needs to move from being a ‘program’ to being part of the culture. Formalizing training for teachers and creating specific classroom expectations will help to develop this culture where critical thinking becomes embedded within the fabric of the teaching community. Curricula would need to be revised to include critical thinking. Schools should adequately equip and prepare instructors to teach critical thinking (Tsui, 2002), and make sure they understand the concepts and foundational basis of critical thinking (Browne & Meuti, 1999). This will require initial and ongoing developmental opportunities. Schools will need to develop infrastructure to support the new paradigm. This may require new people in new roles and new roles altogether. Support must come from the top and permeate the entire organization. This necessitates more than a paper statement of support: it requires the allocation of resources to meet the new challenge. Administration should establish clear and elevating goals for schools engaged in critical thinking curricula that speak to how schools will know if they are successful. This will require collaboration with the employer community as employers want individuals who can be effective, regardless of their test scores. Once established, these goals should be monitored and assessed continuously (Peach et al., 2007), making programmatic corrections as necessary. Lastly, reward those teachers who perform well. Create an environment that embraces critical thinking as a core value, where individuals strive to become more rounded teachers by incorporating critical skills teaching approaches. By integrating the suggested changes, the educational system will begin to consistently produce students capable of entering the workforce with material critical thinking skills.

Future Research

The ability to think critically will become more necessary in the future. History has taught us that the world around us only increases in complexity with each passing year. There will never be a return to the ‘easy (less complicated) life’ we perceive to have existed in the past. Being able to create thinking relationships in a meaningful way will bring significant value, calling for continued research into different aspects of critical thinking.

Teaching critical thinking to kindergarten through age-12 students is ripe for investigation. Are the techniques used for higher education transferable to lower grades? Does critical thinking look different for children and pre-adolescents (Cuypers & Haji, 2006) compared to college students? For that matter, can individuals at different stages of development think critically? Certainly, as one changes the definition of critical thinking, individuals at lower developmental levels can think critically. Perhaps, the answer is much more complex and has to do more with how critical thinking manifests itself in different developmental stages. Lastly, critical thinking has been examined from the narrow perspective of the individual. Could it be that we have reached a time in our history, given the complexity of issues, that true critical thinking cannot take place within one individual? It has been suggested that we may need to revise our image of leadership as belonging to individuals and move to thinking of leadership as something we do together (Hoppe, 2007). Perhaps the same logic applies to critical thinking. In the future might we define critical thinking as a collective phenomenon that is the synergistic product of a group of people?


Critical thinking as a concept has far reaching implications. Critical thinking encompasses the application of knowledge after careful and measured examination of all information and view points, to make decisions that are non-egocentric in nature. Constructive adult development helps frame critical thinking within meaning-making. It can be postulated that the ability to make meaning in more complex ways is directly related to one's developmental stage. At higher levels of meaning-making, leaders become more effective. When leaders are more effective, organizations perform better. Although higher education has been tasked with producing critical thinkers, the results have been unsatisfactory to date. The repercussions are students entering the workforce with deficient critical thinking skills. This in turn, has a direct impact on the ability to remain competitive in a global marketplace. Higher education needs to realize their current system is not fostering critical thinking. Changing to a critical thinking model will be a prodigious, but necessary, undertaking.

Critical Thinking - A Critical skill for effective leaders

All throughout our life, our inheritance has been a series of preconceived notions. These are so ingrained within our subconscious that we easily make assumptions and ironically we don't even realize that we are making them! We simply take some acquired knowledge as facts. Don't rely on the mistakes of the past. Sharpen your own skills of effective Critical Thinking and utilize those skills in everything you do. As a result, you will increase your ability to make quick and accurate personal and professional decisions that will lead to your ultimate success.

Critical Thinking is synonymous with skills necessary to become a master of leadership. With the affluence of information that is easily accessible and the gig's of information's that are available to us that has never been available before, being thorough in validating the information's has become exponentially vital to your success.

What is Critical Thinking?

Even though thinking creatively is often associated with thinking critically and vice versa, I would for the purpose of this article, make a distinction between the two.

  • The ability to think critically is our ability to verify assumptions with some tangible and verifiable facts and therefore not taking our or someone else's assumptions at face value. There is an old saying about the word "assume" and the phonetic spelling of the word (ass-u-me). Truer words were never spoken.

  • As for creative thinking, relates more to the concept of expanding our ideas. There are numerous definitions for critical and creative thinking; a simple Google search will verify that assumption. Critical thinking has over 10 million links on Google with creative thinking showing over 11 million.

It's purpose?

In Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield book, Developing Creative Thinkers (1987), the process of critical thinking is defined as having four distinct purposes:

  1. Identifying and challenging assumptions
  2. Creating contextual awareness
  3. Identifying alternatives
  4. Developing reflective skepticism

Why is it so important?

To coin a phrase, "Critical Thinking is Critical." ; Making decisions based upon erroneous, partially false or incomplete information not only drastically increases the risk of failure it actually guarantees it!

Once we understand all of the variables that do and could affect your decisions, we are in a much better position to make the right decisions because we have concrete evidence on which these decisions can be based. Only with using your critical thinking abilities can we truly understand just what those variables are and as a result we can use them toward our success.

P.S. A well-known psychological test for measuring your critical thinking ability is the Watson-Glaser Critical Appraisal.

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