The Lost Art of Critical Thinking

Excerpt from Robert S. Murray, “IT’S ALREADY INSIDE: Nurturing Your Innate Leadership for Business And Life Success” by Robert S. Murray (Robert Murray Consulting Ltd., 2012).

By Robert S. Murray

As a former C-Suite executive in a Fortune 100 company and someone who has a passion around training and development, I have started to notice something rather peculiar with employees who are new to the workplace in the last few years.

When I interview or work with Gen “Yers” or “New Millennials” who recently graduated from MBA programs, I’ve discovered that their general capability to think critically was significantly different than those who were older. This is starting to perplex me.

I recently shared my observation at a networking event with the CEO of a large nuclear research facility and he commented that he noticed the same phenomenon. He was seeing recently graduated Ph.D. students coming to work at his facility who had a limited ability to solve problems on their own. Now I was curious, so I started asking more business leaders and they all confirmed my observation. In fact, one said to me, “Unless these Millennials had access to technology and could Google the question, they could not use a manual problem-solving process.”

I am fortunate in that I get to lecture to a number of business schools in my area. I’ve talked with several professors, and they all say the curriculum (for the most part) has not changed in decades. The only thing that really has changed in the classroom at universities is that all students have some form of laptop or tablet in front of them for most of the class.

Then I started putting things together. I only needed to look at the childhood of my own children to discover that both my kids (now 19 and 22) have never known a world where there was not a computer in the house. They have never known a world where you could not get an answer to virtually any question by typing it onto a keyboard.

Compare that to childhoods before the age of Google where children had to use their imagination all through playtime and draw on both sides of their brains to solve problems. Playtime used to be with cardboard boxes, pots and pans, and whatever else could be found. Today, children have organized playtime that may be limited to watching a DVD or playing Xbox. All the thinking is done for them. And if there is a problem, one or more “helicopter parents” who are hovering nearby will drop in to solve the issue.

I test for critical thinking when I interview someone. I ask a question that has nothing to do with the role the candidate is applying for. Something along the lines of: “An Amtrak train leaves New York for Los Angeles. How many railroad ties will the train pass over on its journey?” I always get first a look of total confusion (they are probably thinking, “What a nut job!”). Next, they almost will always ask if they can use a computer to look it up. When I say, “No,” most are hopelessly lost. I will probe them with questions to get them going; however, most often, the question stumps them. Finally, they will give up and then ask what the answer is. I tell them, “I don’t know.” And, I was never looking for the answer. I just want to see what their process for solving the problem would have been.

Now, what does this have to do with our roles as trainers and developers in the education system or corporate world?

Curricula may be slow to adapt, but students have changed dramatically. They have mastered “conceptual” learning and have more than mastered the use of technology. What they have missed out on is “applied” learning.

As developers and trainers, we need to rethink our classroom delivery—especially concepts and theories, unless the student is challenged to apply the learning without having to rely on a laptop. We may even have to teach the process of solving a problem first.

I see it again in my own kids. If they get something new that requires some set up, they will rip apart the packaging and start to blindly put it together. Inevitably, something will not fit. They will get frustrated and scream out for me to help. I will ask them if they read the instructions. Always the answer will be, “No.” I will ask them to read the instructions and attempt the assembly again. They will get irritated and scream out, “Why can’t you help me?” I assure them that I am trying to help them by teaching them to do it themselves.

As educators, we will be faced with this type of situation over and over again in the workplace. Applied learning has never been more important, nay critical. If we are hosting a sales workshop, for example, most of the class needs to be filled with hands-on, real-life scenarios and not theory. Applied learning needs to become embedded into every aspect of education and training. Theory is no longer practical. Our job as educators needs to become one of facilitating thinking and problem-solving.

Excerpt fromRobert S. Murray, “IT’S ALREADY INSIDE: Nurturing Your Innate Leadership for Business and Life Success” by Robert S. Murray (Robert Murray Consulting Ltd., 2012).

Robert S. Murray is chairman of the GrowthPoint Group; a director on the board of Russell Brewing; an advisory board member of ElementFour; an associate professor on Strategy, Marketing, and Leadership at British Columbia Institute of Technology’s School of Business in Vancouver; a speaker on leadership and strategy in life and business; and author of “IT’S ALREADY INSIDE: Nurturing Your Innate Leadership for Business and Life Success.” For more information, visit

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