The art of critical thinking in business management should be taught from a young age – Association of MBAs (2023)

In uncertain times if we want our young people to be effective problem solvers and enjoy successful careers in the business world of tomorrow, we need to equip them with the skills and tools they need today, says Paul Oginsky

The British anthropologist and science writer Roger Lewin once said: ‘Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.’And he was right.

For all the talk in recent years about the need to create a more flexible education system that caters for all young people and not just those who are more academically gifted, the fact is we still have a traditional system that follows a set curriculum and adheres to set tasks, rewarding those pupils who have an aptitude for this way of learning. But, of course, not everyone does.

The American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences states that people are not born with all the intelligence they will ever have and outlines the different types of intelligence we may possess. However, our education system has such a narrow view of what intelligence is it means that many young people are not being encouraged to reach their full potential. Not only that but now we all carry a mobile phone or computer in our pockets, enabling us to have instant access to information, it is also totally outdated.

I once sat at the back of a classroom observing a teacher prepare his pupils for an upcoming exam. The teacher said: ‘Read pages 1 to 12 and all of chapter 7 and with any luck there will be no shocks or surprises in the exam’.

I thought, ‘that may be excellent preparation for the exam, but the real world is full of nothing but shock and surprises’. It also made me question what the education system is preparing young people to do.

One size does not fit all

So, when it comes to learning, one size most certainly does not fit all. Business leaders and organisations have been clamouring for decades for more skills-based learning to sit alongside traditional qualifications, so that young people – our future business leaders – can hit the ground running when they enter the workplace. And ‘critical thinking’ is at the heart of this. However, critical thinking has long been perceived in certain quarters as a ‘soft’ topic and one that is chosen by students who aren’t very good at traditional subjects. It’s a lazy assumption and it’s certainly not borne out in the business world.

From team management and strategy and planning, to dealing with customers and clients, the ability to assess situations wholly and make key decisions is an important skill and one that needs to be harnessed from an early age if it is to become second nature later in life – in business management.

What is critical thinking? Critical thinking is all about questioning and analysing, rather than simply accepting what you hear or read. It enables you to identify different points of view, put together arguments, as well as evaluate the arguments made by others. It also involves being self-critical otherwise decisions can be taken without considering your assumptions, wishes and fears. So, from a business perspective, it enables you to see the full picture before deciding what to do next. That’s why we should be building into all aspects of the education system – from nursery right through to mature student level.

There is evidence to back this up. In 2017, Dr Nadia Siddiqui from the School of Education at Durham University led a Nuffield Foundation study into the impact of the Philosophy for Children programme, in which she uncovered data on the benefits that critical thinking skills brought to more than 2,500 pupils, aged nine to 12, in 42 primary schools across the UK.

Critical thinking and problem solving

The ability to think critically and problem solve are also transferable skillswhich mean they are useful in many different situations, whether it is filtering out fakery from the truth, especially on busy social media feeds, or at school, or in the workplace.

There are wider implications, too. More than half of the world’s population is now under the age of 30, so the importance of youth participation when it comes to tackling our most pressing challenges, such as climate change, conflict, and poverty, is clear to see.

As an international community we are at a crucial juncture in terms of support for young people. According to figures from the Youth Charity YMCA, funding for youth centres in England and Wales has been cut by nearly £1bn over the past decade, while youth clubs are still waiting to receive the £500m promised by the UK government through its Youth Investment Fund.

This was announced in 2019 and came with a pledge to help build 60 new youth centres across the country, refurbish 360 existing youth facilities, and provide more than 100 mobile facilities, as well as support the provision and co-ordination of services for young people. All of which is commendable, however the focus is on buildings rather the most important element – skilled people to work in them.

Despite the funding challenges, youth organisations continue to provide crucial services such as care, support, social events and help with education, and tailor various programmes around what young people need to excel later in life. The outcome is a boost in their sense of self-worth, offering them a chance to form friendships, gain new skills, and grow their confidence, as well as learn how not to conform to peer or social pressures. All of this enables critical thinking to occur – critical thinking can only come when people are exposed to a variety of methods of knowledge digestion.

A collaborative approach

A collaborative approach between youth organisations, businesses and educational organisations is the way forward – and will have a lasting impact which individuals take with them when they step into the workplace for the very first time and are exposed to the problems, we businesspeople know all too well.

Whilst educational settings teach vital knowledge, collaborations between other organisations can expose young people to different scenarios, equipping them with the right skills to be able to problem solve. Problem solving is all about usinglogicand imagination to make sense of a situation and to come up with an intelligent solution. In other words, it’s about identifying a problem, collecting information about the cause of that problem, weighing up possible solutions and then selecting the best option before planning and implementing it.

Critical thinkers are good problem solvers and usually express themselves well because they can think clearly and methodically about any issue put in front of them. This is hugely beneficial when it comes to decision making because it allows them to filter out anything superfluous and focus on what is important, which means they are more likely to make the correct decision.

All successful business leaders will possess these skills – which can help prevent costly mistakes – because without them they would be unable to do a good job. Whatever business you are in, whether you work in law and finance, education, or the health sector, critical thinking has a crucial role to play, and in some cases, it can even be lifesaving.

You only have to look at what is happening in Russia where the state has an iron grip on what information its citizens are able to access, to see the ramifications of making decisions and forming opinions based on an incomplete picture or false information.

The pressures and demands being placed on the shoulders of young people today have perhaps never been greater, whether it’s the pressure to do well in exams given the huge cost of university fees or the impact of social media on everything from mental health to body image, which is why it is so important they possess the skills needed to navigate a world that has changed beyond all recognition in the space of a single generation.

Not only that, but in these uncertain times if we want our young people to be effective problem solvers and to go on and enjoy happy, productive and successful careers in the business world of tomorrow, whatever shape that may take, then we need to equip them with the skills and tools they need today. And if we can do that then as a society all of us, young and old, will reap the benefits.

The art of critical thinking in business management should be taught from a young age – Association of MBAs (1)

PaulObinsky is CEO at youth services group Vibe, who consistentlypromotes the benefits of criticalthinking to peopleunder the age of 30.

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