From Classroom to Career:

TEACHING CREATIVE AND CRITICAL-THINKING SKILLS THROUGH STEM

04/23/2015
STEM
By Dorothy Powers Gorman

Colleges and companies want people who have it. Workers overestimate their competency in it. Employers lament that they do not have enough of it in their workforce. What is “it”? Critical and Creative Thinking.

Ask professionals to explain what “critical thinking” means, and their answers vary widely.

Let’s begin with an academic definition. Is there consensus among academics? 

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“To be sure, critical thinking seems to be all the rage in current academic pedagogy,” writes researcher Jennifer W. Mulnix in the 2010 paper, “Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking.” “Yet, my survey of the literature immediately revealed that what counts as critical thinking seems to vary widely.”

Mulnix then identifies several ways to define critical thinking, ranging from a disciplined reasoning skill applied to thinking, to the act of analyzing in a virtued, fair-minded manner.

Similarly, the business world has a variety of viewpoints when it comes to critical thinking skills. Three separate pieces from Forbes describe critical thinking in three different ways: the ability to ask the right questions; the ability to think clearly, rationally, reflectively, and independently; and “being able to think through situations to solve problems, make decisions and take appropriate action.

Still other definitions include originality and creativity, which seem to overlap with what many would consider creative thinking.

Missing the Mark

There is a reason critical thinking and creative thinking are discussed by educators and business leaders alike, and so many people seek to explain what these skills look like — whatever the definition, employers see these skills as important. Yet today’s students and workers do not measure up to employer demand for skills associated with these ways of thinking.

More than 90 percent of surveyed managers and executives considered critical thinking, creativity, and innovation to be vital to the growth of their organizations, according to a 2012 survey from the American Management Association. However, just under half of those surveyed rated their employees below average to average in critical thinking, and more than 60 percent rated employees below average to average in creativity and innovation, revealing the gap between what employers need and what employees have to offer.

In addition, data suggest that workers are unaware of the gap in their critical and creative thinking skillsets. In a 2013 survey of U.S. college students and hiring managers, 69 percent of students felt they were “very or completely prepared” to solve problems in the workplace, while fewer than half of the managers shared that feeling.

To meet demand for these skills, policymakers, educators, and business leaders must make critical and creative thinking a top priority in our schools and collaborate to improve student access to experiences that help them develop and build these skills.

Identifying Targets and Aiming High

What are the essential skills associated with critical and creative thinking, and how can a student learn both?

Dr. Anne Jones, senior vice president and chief programs officer at Project Lead The Way (PLTW), shares an example to illustrate each skill and how they work in concert in the professional world. “It helps to think of the experience of an emergency room (E.R.) doctor. An E.R. doctor uses critical thinking to analyze and pinpoint what is wrong with a patient. In some cases, the problem is one the physician has seen before and knows how to remedy. In unfamiliar cases, however, the doctor must use creative thinking to develop a solution.”

Critical thinking is about assessing and analyzing the facts to define a problem, and creative thinking is about exploring options to find a solution. Understanding both ways of thinking and learning how to apply them according to the situation at hand is critical to success in both the classroom and the workplace.

Finding a Solution in STEM

One solution to bringing critical and creative thinking to the classroom and filling the skills gap: implementation of K-12 problem-based science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs.

We must define STEM programs, as well. We mean hands-on, rigorous learning that integrates multiple disciplines. By this definition, students in a STEM classroom lead their own learning, find solutions to problems that reflect reality in all its complexity, and practice critical and creative thinking.

“STEM bridges the gap between the theoretical and the practical,” says Quinn Woodard, lead electrical engineer at Chevron and alumnus of PLTW’s STEM programs. “Students aren’t expected to take concepts from a book and regurgitate them back onto paper but to apply them to solve contemporary problems. The great thing about STEM education is the fact that many of the problems don’t have one solution. It challenges students to think outside the box.”

In addition, the collaborative environment of STEM classrooms helps students further expand their thinking and apply their skills in new situations. Through collaboration, students must discuss, clarify, justify, and evaluate their ideas, the way business professionals are required to do every day.

What does a STEM classroom look like in action? How could critical and creative thinking play out?

In a middle school classroom, for example, students may embark on a project to design and model a new playground. They begin by exploring playgrounds as an engineer might: conduct interviews and research with community experts on safety and equipment longevity; measure existing equipment and space to determine the best size and location for new equipment; review concepts such as speed, force, and potential and kinetic energy that take fun and safety into consideration; use industry-leading design software to create a virtual image of their designs; and construct and test a scaled model, which they may present to the elementary school students to get a real customer’s perspective and feedback.

Or, at the high school level, students could simply be asked to fill in the sentence: “It really bothers me when...” They define a real-world problem in need of a solution (critical thinking) and then solve that problem (both creative and critical thinking).

A high-quality STEM program helps students build those skills employers want and need — including creative and critical thinking.

Looking at the Big Picture

Teaching today’s students to be critical and creative thinkers through STEM opens students to new opportunities in college and career.

“The opportunities are endless for those with critical thinking skills,” Woodard says. “A person who possesses critical thinking skills is highly sought after in many industries. A few titles come to mind when I think of a critical thinker: influencer, innovator, manager, CEO — the sky is truly the limit.”

What’s more, focusing on STEM subjects gives students an additional leg up, as positions in STEM careers are some of the highest paying and hardest to fill, according to a 2014 research report from Brookings, entitled “Still Searching: Job Vacancies and STEM Skills.”

Thinking about the impact of a single student who becomes a valued contributor to a company or industry is encouraging. When we think about the potential impact of millions of students prepared with the right skills, the case to give students opportunities for critical and creative thinking through STEM becomes even more compelling.

Dorothy Powers Gorman is Chief Communications Officer at Project Lead The Way, the nation’s leading provider of K–12 STEM programs. Prior to joining PLTW, she was the lead and author on a series of World Economic Forum reports on manufacturing competitiveness and talent development for the manufacturing sector.
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