What is the value of a university education in a post COVID-19 world?: bringing critical thinking into focus

In this blog, I am publishing a piece of back-end work that is intended to contribute to a thought leadership piece for Oxford University Press. As these ideas are unlikely to become visible through my own voice, I thought I’d share them here. They are organised by the three questions asked in relation to how complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity can contribute to professional success for students. I chose to focus on critical thinking, as this is the area that I have to work hardest to support my students to develop.

Why is critical thinking important for future careers?

Critical thinking enables students to understand the key issues relating to a topic or task and to identify the context of these issues through engaging with credible and authoritative sources. It also enables them to focus their thinking and engage with the the problem set in a way that matters, is meaningful and rigourous. This skill set is valuable for future careers as it enables an employee to make valuable contributions to projects and tasks in a way that is targeted, efficient, informed and insightful.

In a time and motion study of ideas to practice, using critical thinking is the most efficient route to a meaningful and high-performing outcome. This may come through lateral thinking (connecting ideas in a novel way) or the strategic focusing of attention (knowing what to focus on, when and why). These attributes within the professional workplace are valuable for an organisation and tend to lead to higher paying work. Generally higher paying work links applied practice to organisational vision, goals and strategic outcomes.

Do you think the importance of this skill will increase in the aftermath of COVID-19?

 

The implications of COVID-19 for business include that organisations will need to innovate rapidly and pivot their business models and practices to respond to the potential of economic recession, the greater focusing upon a delivery of online services and a distributed remote workforce. For an employee, being able to recognise opportunities and respond to the risks brought about by these changing circumstances is essential. Given that critical thinking involves making lateral connections, this opens up the pathways for new ideas and innovations in practice to emerge from how an individual does their work to how teams can pivot and respond to new circumstances. Critical thinking also involves knowing where and how to find credible information and evidence. It can then be used to rapidly make sense of this information and evidence and transform it into meaningful insights that can be applied to challenging questions and problems. This supports the resilience of the employee to operate under rapidly changing circumstances.

In your view, how does teaching need to shift to address this skill and improve student confidence?

Teaching and learning within the higher education system is built upon a foundation of supporting students ability to conceptualise phenomena and apply knowledge. To do this, we develop students’ abilities to access, evaluate, synthesise and interpret credible and authoritative information and evidence. From this point, we mentor students on how to generate new insights, think creatively and apply their knowledge to discipline- specific questions and contexts. When students enter higher education, they commonly lack both the confidence and awareness of how to engage with phenomena in a conceptual or abstract way. They also require development in how they communicate their insights. Understanding and communication are the fundamental building blocks that we work with. Across disciplines, we take a scaffolded approach to develop both academic and professional skills that can be applied in the world beyond the university. The key issue however is to build both students’ and employers’ awareness that a university education does more than support the development of sector-specific skills. We need to communicate more effectively to our students that the greatest value universities offer to their professional prospects, other than credentialing, is an extension of their networks and the life-long skill of being able to think critically about the world and engage with professional and public life in an informed and open manner. What we are seeing in our public discourse is an increased polarisation of views and a limited ability to engage with diverse experiences and bring them into dialogue. This goes back to a fundamental need to support the development of understanding and communication, which, as I have suggested, is at the core of the higher education agenda. Consequently, where teaching needs to shift is in more clearly articulating this process for students and helping them to see the value of these skills and networks they are gaining within their professional context. Confidence comes from the ability to communicate ideas clearly and persuasively in a way that is meaningful and yields results. When students see that this is what they come out with from their education and understand its value to their professional careers, they will have a greater sense of their own worth and ability to contribute constructively in their professional life. Learning how to think critically is a key step in this process.

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