Podcast - The rise of thinking skills in higher education and the workplace

The rise of thinking skills in higher education and the workplace

26 Apr 2021 (20:07)

Download this podcast (mp4, 18.2mb)
Both employers and higher education institutions are placing an increasing importance on thinking skills as part of their selection processes. But what do we mean by thinking skills, why are they so important, and how can individuals improve them? In this podcast we talk to Lars Strannegård, President of the Stockholm School of Economics and James Westley, Group Leader at Cambridge Consultants.

We discuss how the modern world is characterised by an overwhelming availability of rapidly changing information, and how thinking skills help us navigate this. We also talk about how these skills will be essential for new jobs in a future where many existing roles will be taken over by machines.

Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing offer a range of tests to support selection and recruitment for universities, governments and employers around the world. 

You can also find this episode on Apple Podcasts.

Podcast transcript

Alana: [00:00:09.19] Hello and welcome to the Cambridge Assessment podcast. My name's Alana Walden, and I'm here to introduce an episode on Thinking Skills. We look at what they are and how they're important in higher education and in the workplace. In this episode Paul Crump from Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing speaks of two fantastic guests Lars Strannegård, President of the Stockholm School of Economics and James Westley, Group Leader at Cambridge Consultants.

Paul: [00:00:38.47] Well, hello, everyone, and thank you for joining this Cambridge assessment podcast today. My name is Paul Crump and I'm Assessment Group Manager here at Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing. And as part of this role, I work on the production of thinking skills assessments in a number of different forms. And today I'm joined by two guests, Lars Strannegård, who is president of the Stockholm School of Economics, or SSE, in Sweden. SSE is one of Europe's leading business schools. And I also have with me James Westley, who's a group leader at Cambridge Consultants in the U.K. Cambridge Consultants is a leading product development and technology consultancy firm. Hi there, Lars.

Lars: [00:01:20.95] Hi there.

Paul: [00:01:22.72] Thanks for joining us. And hi, James.

James: [00:01:24.88] Hello.

Paul: [00:01:26.11] Today we'll be talking about thinking skills, what they are, how they're important in higher education and the workplace and whether they're becoming more important. As far as the workplace is concerned, a 20/20 report by the World Economic Forum called The Future of Jobs predicted that the pace of technology adoption by companies will transform tasks, jobs and skills by 2025 so that upskilling and reskilling of workers will be essential. The WEF surveyed a wide range of companies and found that critical thinking and problem solving skills are perceived as increasingly important in the workplace. By 2025, the report predicts, the top five most sought after skills will be analytical thinking and innovation. Active learning and learning strategies, complex problem solving, critical thinking and analysis and creativity, originality and initiative in education, universities and higher education institutions are also reflecting the growing importance of higher order thinking skills, both in their admissions processes and the ways in which students at all on course with increasing emphasis on reflective and critical learning practices. So there seems to be general consensus that thinking skills are important and will continue to grow in importance in the coming years. But what exactly do we mean by thinking skills? Well, definitions vary and depend very much on context, but there seems to be general agreement that they involve at least these things, the analysis and processing of data.

Paul: [00:03:17.52] And the understanding of how it's structured. The evaluation and synthesis of information in various formats, and thirdly, creativity, the ability to think through problems and create innovative solutions. Where individuals are concerned, these kinds of soft skills are notoriously hard to prove, and here at Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing, we categorise thinking skills into two main areas for the purposes of assessment. Firstly, critical thinking, which is essentially the evaluation of arguments, how they're structured, what conclusions they reach, and how any flaws in their reasoning, any assumptions that underpin them, and what the impact of additional evidence might be on an argument. Secondly, problem solving, numerical and spatial reasoning that may involve finding the procedure to solve a problem where none is readily or obviously apparent. Identifying similar patterns in data. Or selecting relevant details from a swimming pool of information. So that's a brief explanation of how we define thinking skills here at Cambridge Assessment, but it would be interesting to hear how these skills translate into the real world. Lars, if I could come to you first, in your experience, do students arrive at university with the ability to think critically and problem solve?

Lars: [00:04:59.21] Well, some do, and our job is basically to to try to single out those who we think would really benefit from an education at SSE, so we consider the thinking skills and having abilities such as the ones you're describing to be increasingly important. So, yes, we do see it and we're looking for it more and more. I'd say

Paul: [00:05:24.89] Thanks. And why do you think these kind of skills are important in higher education today?

Lars: [00:05:30.93] Well, I think it's mostly because the world that we live in now has really changed a lot. Things like digitalisation and online learning with robots and machine learning, artificial intelligence, et cetera, really creates a new sort of needs, a new competence, needs of individuals in the future so that we have machines coming in. And, you know, we will cognitively be outsmarted by machines tragically. But that is going to happen. And also when we have all these things like climate change and I'd say also disciplinary convergence where where so many disciplines come together. So if you are studying at a business school and you graduate from there, you also have to be able to interact with people who know, you know, bioscience or or big data, etc.. So since disciplines are coming together, you really have to develop your way of thinking. So what we have done is really to try to sort of reformulate what what our entire educational institution is all about. So first of all, said, that's alright to this day and age when when machines and digitalisation is taking over so much and the and the very essence of so many jobs is changing, we sort of went back and say that the role of education is basically about emancipation. You have to free yourself and prepare our students for a world that's really unknown.

Lars: [00:07:02.93] So we have said that we want students who graduate that are, as we say, free and curious and at ease in an uncertain world. And for sure, the world that we're living in is increasingly uncertain. The Covid pandemic really showed that from from one week to the next, basically, so many things had to change. So what we've said is that we want to prepare our students for this world. And therefore we've taken the word and the acronym of free to guide what we want to teach our students and free stands for. So the F stands for fact and science based mindset. And that's incredibly important to to go to the facts, really study hard and really be aware of what type of knowledge that sort of counts as knowledge. Because in this world of fake news and alternative facts and Cambridge Analytica eating its way into our minds, actual facts and science become increasingly important. But on top of that, we have added the R, which is reflective and self-aware. And being reflective is actually some kind of vaccination against knowledge becoming obsolete. Where you reflect, is this really relevant? Who is trying to influence me? Who am I, what role in my playing, etc.? It's becoming increasingly important.

Lars: [00:08:26.39] So that's the art. And then the E stands for empathetic and culturally literate and empathetic. Being empathetic is something that the machines will never have, I believe at least will beat us humans. And so being human and being empathetic, having the ability to put yourself into somebody else's clothes is something that will be of tremendous importance in the future. And you can actually practice that and train it through through increasing your cultural literacy, exposing yourself to to different types of inputs that you're not really used to. And then the final E in free stands for entrepreneurial and responsible. It's basically entrepreneurial does not mean that everyone's got to be a Start-Up Queen or king, but it's actually all about creativity and trying to solve problems in new creative ways and being responsible for the actions that you've taken. So with this concept of free, it really shows that analytical thinking, critical thinking, combine that with creativity and reflectivity being empathetic, etc. is something that it's needed and in, you know, being in being human. And it's also a way to sort of do the division of labour between humans and machines, basically. So I think that's how we see the future, basically.

Paul: [00:09:50.18] That's fascinating. Thank you. Thank you very much for sharing that. How have your students responded to the way that. This approach that you've taken.

Lars: [00:10:01.72] Well, you know, they are they are interested in developing themselves as human as humans, they are more and more searching for for for meaningfulness and purpose. And, of course, on top of that, getting a decent job. And I believe that having a free mindset is sort of a prerequisite for getting a qualified job or doing something meaningful with your professional life. So actually, not doing these things would set you off on a career track that would bring you to a halt quite early in your career. So they I think they realise that we try to speak about the capabilities and competencies as very important and they accept it and they like it. And it's also more fun.

Paul: [00:10:47.70] Yeah, absolutely, yeah, yeah, thanks Lars. James, Lars talks a lot there about sort of preparation for the workplace and the pace of technology and the way in which, you know, jobs are going to change in the future. From your perspective, uh, how does someone with strong thinking skills perform better in the workplace?

James: [00:11:09.90] Hmm. Well, the list the list is long, I'm sure in the engineering and design professions. One generally has to be quite good at understanding the core of somebody or some things problem and then taking that and creating some solutions and then deciding which is best and then delivering that solution as part of a team. And from what I've seen, having strong thinking skills can be tremendously useful throughout this whole engineering design process. And I think the specifically the areas that I'm aware of, the most impactful are the ability to cast aside assumptions and challenge the status quo when innovating to be autonomous. So be being confident in the decision making process and thus having autonomy in your decisions. And I think more subtly and I think laws actually touched on this, is the ability to reflect on one's own bias and consider the biases of others and therefore being more conscientious person and somebody who's better at working in a team of people in the workplace.

Paul: [00:12:19.33] Interesting, thank you. And I believe you also deal with kind of hiring new graduates, managing new graduates, and how easy or difficult is it to identify whether people have these sorts of skills from application letters, from CVS and qualifications and so on?

James: [00:12:39.07] I actually find this really, really hard. You know, like I can establish if a candidate has most of the right qualities and competencies from their CV, such as the things you might imagine so, you know, their academic performance or, you know, their interest in engineering and outside of their studies and things like that. But I find it really hard to find a strong correlation with thinking skills or Problem-Solving and the things that we're talking about today. And the really odd thing about this for me is, you know, how is it possible for somebody with, you know, top grades at school and, you know, distinctions in higher education and all the work experience, you know, anybody could ever want to leave all of that without strong thinking skills. But, you know, it happens.

Paul: [00:13:26.11] Yes. Yes. Thanks for that, James. And Lars, going back to what you were saying about how you build in your your free acronym into the learning programme SSE. And is it a challenge to make sure that higher education institutions still have time to teach all of the content, all of the knowledge that they have to teach alongside these sorts of higher order skills, which you say

Lars: [00:13:56.17] I say you at the core of a higher education institution, you still have to have your core subjects. Yeah. Otherwise you don't you will never be fact based. You will never be science based. But I do think there are ample opportunities of actually sort of filling the gaps in between the courses, sort of make the educational experience more knowledge intensive. So, for instance, exposing students to things that they're not used to like, you know, art art programmes and guest lecturers and different types of workshops, et cetera, et cetera, and make that sort of part of either the curriculum or the extra curriculum. And I do it's actually a matter of culture that the students do understand that this is something that will be valued by by the job market, too. So if if they start understanding that these are the requirements of the future, then it's also up to them to a great extent to to actually expose themselves to to worlds that they are not really used to. And I think that's a that's a key learning and not really be afraid of things that they're not used to to be to be better at handling insecurities and or sorry or uncertainties, perhaps.

Paul: [00:15:19.00] James, I could bring you in on that from a workplace perspective. Why are these skills more important now than they used to be?

James: [00:15:25.36] Oh, that's a really interesting question. I think part of the reason could be sort of the availability of information combined with the rate of change of information. So 20 years ago, having a deep knowledge about something in the workplace used to be value in itself. You know, an example could be 20 years ago if I was an expert in writing a neural network in Python or in a C++, then, you know, that would that would have been a durable advantage as somebody in the workplace. Whereas today I could probably find out how to do that, you know, on the Internet, within a you know, within a few hours. Yeah. So I think that type of type of advantage has been eroded as information and knowledge has become more commodified and deep knowledge that you own becomes outdated quickly as things change quickly. And I do I do believe that having a solid knowledge base is important, but I think it's today far more valuable to be able to use strong thinking skills, to be able to understand the core of a problem and then gather the relevant and the up to date data and important, more importantly, validating that data to then solve the problem.

Paul: [00:16:40.65] Yeah, no, that's really interesting and I think the point that you make there, that core knowledge is still important, that I don't think any of us would argue that knowledge is not important and that a good mastery of the kind of the content of what it is that you do is vital, but you need these other skills on top of that, in addition to that as well. Last, from an education perspective, what's changed, do you think?

Lars: [00:17:06.09] I think James has really put his finger on it because it's it's exactly the the amount of information, the pool of information, as you said, in a pool of opportunities that you that there's so much out there. And it's it's really overwhelming. So you really have to be better at navigating and sort of muddling through all this. And then when you combine that with the rise of of machine learning and robots, you really have to practice your human skills. And it's something that we've sort of taken for granted before. But now it's really coming up as a core competence to use all the aspects of being human. That's it's something that the machines cannot do. And it becomes increasingly important because these all things that James are talking about are being taken over by others. So that's why they become important, I think.

Paul: [00:18:00.59] Thanks. One final question for you both. This is really around the learnability of these thinking skills. How easy or difficult is it, do you think, for someone with poor thinking skills to improve them? Is that any different from learning any other skill, do you think? Lars maybe first on that one,

Lars: [00:18:23.61] I was just thinking, it's like tennis. You know, you have to practice a really I think it's it's something that is absolutely possible to, you know, to do you do exercise. And if you expose yourself to it all the time and I think it's something incredibly valuable to expose your self to things that you are not used to or have not seen before, because it's sort of it forces you to open your mind and it forces you to think in new ways.

Paul: [00:18:55.20] And James, from your perspective,

James: [00:18:57.45] Largely agree with everything Lars just said, I think I'll add to that that going into that process and recognising that you have a gap that you want to fill and then and then becoming aware of the opportunities in your day to day to practice, you know, being conscious of I'm trying to solve a problem now and then trying to deliberately go through those steps and, you know, slowly having that become part of the way that you think you know, I think that's really important as well.

Paul: [00:19:27.12] Well, thank you both very much indeed for joining me today. We're almost out of time, but if you'd like to learn more about Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing and our thinking skills assessment, you can do so by visiting admissions testing dot org. Thanks very much for listening.

Alana: [00:19:45.67] Thank you for listening to the Cambridge Assessment podcast, you can find more of our podcasts on our website, just search podcast gallery, or you can find us some Apple podcasts or YouTube. Oh.

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