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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education


We Need To Teach Our Students How To Think

by Bryan Greetham 03rd September 2019

Bryan Greetham on why it's important that universities teach their students 'higher-order' thinking skills

Most of us would no doubt agree that if there is one thing that university education should teach all students it is how to think. Nevertheless, universities around the world have always struggled to do this well. We have all been inducted into education systems that often emphasise the importance of teaching students what to think, not how to think. Teachers are appointed on the grounds that they are authorities in their subjects: the gold standard in knowledge. So it is natural to assume that their primary obligation is simply to pass on this knowledge.

However, overwhelming evidence from the Confederation of British Industry, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, UNESCO and the World Bank reveals that employers around the world are reporting that they are struggling to find graduates who have the skills they need, while they are being inundated by applications from graduates, who lack the right thinking skills. The sort of skills they lack, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s report of 2012, are the ‘higher level creative skills’: the abilities to think creatively and conceptually, and to make good decisions.

To cope with this problem, it is estimated that up to 75% of medium to large sized organisations and 95% of FTSE top 100 companies are now using psychometric tests during the recruitment process, rather than relying on a conventional degree to choose the right candidates to interview. They report that a degree is no longer a good indicator of someone who has the right thinking skills. In 2012 the law firm Herbert Smith announced that applicants for their training contracts would be tested on their reasoning skills. Those who succeed will then be trained how to think.

Of course, universities can claim that they teach students critical thinking, which frees them from blind acceptance of authority. Yet, on its own, this will create not one new idea. It simply works with what it is given. We assume that all we have to do to reveal the right answers and certainties that lie within is to think critically and chip away those things obscuring them: the inconsistencies in our reasoning, irrelevant arguments and unsupported assumptions.

In contrast, genuine thinking – smart thinking – starts with the epistemological assumption that right answers are designed, not found. It is all about generating new ideas, creating new concepts, designing solutions to problems, producing new insights, assessing risk and coming to your own decision. What we know is shaped by the act of knowing. It is not out there just waiting to be discovered.
Genuine thinking – smart thinking – starts with the epistemological assumption that right answers are designed, not found.

A perfect example is Einstein, who, in 1905, wrote four ground-breaking papers that went beyond orthodox thinking and revolutionised modern physics. Yet he did no experiments of his own and discovered nothing new. He knew no more than anybody else. All he did was think differently. He challenged established concepts, like absolute space and time, created new, revolutionary concepts, like relativity, and forged unexpected connections between ideas, like mass and energy, producing insights that were to transform our thinking. This is smart thinking.

Jacob Bronowski, who worked with John von Neumann, the creator of game theory, once suggested to von Neumann, during a taxi ride in London, that chess is a good example of a game. Von Neumann responded, ‘No, no ... chess is not a game. Chess is a well-defined form of computation.’ And this is what critical and logical thinking is: it is not so much thinking, but a form of computation. If you work according to the rules and follow the right procedure, you will arrive at the right answer.

Compare that with genuine, smart thinking. In this there is a dynamic component. To say that you are thinking means that you are actively processing ideas, whereas acquiring knowledge or thinking logically can be done passively, almost as if the thinking part of you is not there. Otto Frisch, who worked with the Nobel prize winning physicist Niels Bohr, explained that Bohr never trusted a purely logical argument: ‘“No, no,” he would say, “You are not thinking; you are just being logical.”’ Thinking means going beyond what you know, or what you can show logically, to discover something new.

Our students are similarly trapped within a type of thinking that amounts to little more than a form of computation, while we neglect their abilities to think creatively, solve problems and generate new ideas and concepts. The World Bank found that the skills graduates lack, which make them ‘unemployable’, according to employers around the world, are the ‘higher-order thinking skills’. It is time to heed their call to refocus our teaching away from the ‘lower-order thinking skills, such as remembering and understanding, toward higher-order skills, such as analyzing and solving ... problems, as well as creativity.’
Featured image credit: Photo by Benjamin Davis. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.