From national politicians to our high school acquaintances on Facebook, many of the people we encounter every day spread fake news stories, pseudoscience, or the latest scam without batting an eye. The ability to determine whether or not this information is false is called critical thinking — and it’s in high demand in today’s workforce.
Unfortunately, it’s also in short supply.
This past May, MindEdge Learning tested the critical thinking skills of more than 1,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 31. While 59 percent of the participants were confident of their critical thinking skills, 52 percent of participants failed the test.
“The large gap between confidence and performance suggests that for many young professionals, critical thinking and digital literacy represent a potentially serious problem,” says Frank Connolly, director of communications and research at MindEdge. “What’s so serious is that a lot of these young people don’t know what they don’t know. They lack basic awareness about their own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps that’s because, as digital natives who’ve pretty much grown up online, they have supreme confidence in their own online skills. But that confidence is, at least in this instance, badly misplaced. And if these young people don’t realize they’ve got a problem with critical thinking and digital literacy, how are they ever going to fix it?”
Identifying the Source
First, let’s make something clear: Not everything on the internet is true. There’s a lot of fake information out there, and a lot of bots and people dedicated to spreading it. In fact, a recent study shows that 38 percent of statistics are simply made up on the spot.
The previous statistic was made up on the spot by the writer of this article, but you may have been ready to believe it. Fake information is easy to propagate, and a workforce that lacks the ability to distinguish real information from false information could signify a serious problem for corporate America — especially if the problem isn’t limited to young professionals who are still developing in their careers.
“We don’t know if older people have these same problems with identifying false online content; it’s possible that older folks would fare just as poorly on our quiz,” Connolly notes. “But it’s also possible that young people, who’ve grown up in an era when information is instantly available, have less patience with the process of gathering information, are less inclined to think of looking at multiple sources, and are generally less skeptical by nature because of how they’ve grown up. That’s a question we intend to pursue in our future research.”
As a capitalist society, we have a tendency to push young people into the workforce so that they can produce and contribute. Because of this, many business programs are cutting out non-business classes from the curriculum, such as literature, philosophy, and art — classes that have generally been understood to teach critical thinking skills.
“On the question of whether colleges and universities need to maintain liberal arts requirements to foster critical thinking: It would be nice, but it’s probably not necessary,” Connolly says. “Critical thinking can be taught broadly as an academic discipline, but if we’re talking about critical thinking as it applies to online content, that’s a narrower issue. It’s really a set of habits: be skeptical, ask questions, use multiple sources, double-check everything. Colleges and universities definitely need to be emphasizing those skills and those habits, whether in liberal arts courses or other types of courses.”
Self-Analysis Is Hard
If you can’t think critically, you can’t properly analyze your own behavior or the behavior of others. It’s no surprise, then, that survey respondents were woefully overconfident of not only their own soft skills, but also those of their peers, with 75 percent of respondents saying that their peers were equally as well-trained in terms of critical thinking and other skills.
“On one level, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of people seem overly confident of their critical thinking skills,” Connolly says. “But regardless of the specific numbers, it’s obviously a widespread problem, and it’s potentially more serious because so many people don’t even realize they have a problem. Increasing self-awareness among young people is obviously important, but it’s just as important that employers be aware of this issue, too, and be prepared to invest in training their new employees in critical thinking skills.”
Even if the nation’s education system vowed to tackle this problem tomorrow, the results would take years to show. It’s up to businesses to offer training in the soft skills they want their employees to have. The good news: 87 percent of the participants in MindEdge’s study said soft skills can be taught, which means most young workers would be open to just such training.
“If businesses are truly concerned about their employees’ critical thinking skills, they should consider investing in training that focuses specifically on critical thinking and digital literacy,” Connolly says. “We think that young employees would be receptive to that, and that the investment would pay off for both employers and employees.”