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Why Thinking Skills Have Disappeared in the Last 50 Years

It seems that for the last 5 or more years, anytime you pick up a training magazine, HR journal or even general publication like USA Today, you’re going to find an article about the “skills gap.” In fact, a recent Google Scholar search revealed that there were 118,000 articles written with “skills gap” in the title between 2012 and 2016 alone!

Young college graduates lament that they are unable to find positions. Companies lament that they are unable to find people with “entry level skills.”  What has caused this sudden lack of capability?  Well, frankly, it’s not sudden. It has been building for decades. And all our learning institutions are to blame.

The Scranton Bubble

Back in the 1960’s something called the “Scranton bubble test” was debuted. It was revolutionary! It was going to make educator’s lives a lot easier. No more tedious grading of papers and individual answers. Simply have the learners fill out a “bubble form” (think your SATs) and feed the form in to the machine to find out the learner’s score. What could be more efficient? Yes, it was efficient administratively. But it started the fall of thinking skills. Now, every question or problem could be reduced to one right answer. Elementary education began to constrict people’s abilities to “think bigger.”

Higher Ed – Lower Standards

A few decades later, Higher Ed contributed to the downfall of thinking skills. College and graduate school used to be the time and place for more philosophical thinking. It wasn’t as important to arrive at an answer as it was to contemplate all the possible answers. Professors almost always had a Ph.D. (a degree in philosophy) and pushed learners to think more deeply about topics and to extrapolate their thoughts to the world at large. Thanks to the recession of the early 1990’s, higher ed needed to find more bodies to pay tuition. Entry requirements were lowered. As enrollment rose, professors with lower levels of education were hired to teach. Since the learners had been looking for “one right answer” for a few decades at this point, the learner’s capacity to think broadly was diminished. This confluence of factors contributed to the standards of higher education to be lowered. (A college in our area recently announced that the SAT scores of this year’s freshmen were the lowest the college had ever seen.)

Corporate Training

Beginning in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s two things influenced corporate education: A severe reduction in staffing and budgets (which resulted in a reduction of offerings), and eLearning. eLearning, much like the Scranton bubble, was going to make educating workers much more efficient. Create the learning once and it was done. It could be delivered to hundreds, nay thousands, of people. It eliminated bringing people together (although we all know that people learn best when they work collaboratively with others), having to hire and train facilitators, having to set up facilities and arrange travel, etc. It efficiently reached many, many more people and you were sure of the “quality” because each person got the exact same training. The problem with eLearning is that it leads people down one path. There is a linear delivery of information. And at the end there is usually a multiple-choice, knowledge check (similar to a bubble test).  Not until very recently, with the introduction of gaming / branching and simulations has eLearning allowed the learner to put him / her self in to the learning process. eLearning was nothing more than a colorful, pre-recorded lecture.

These are very high-level looks at the factors that have contributed to a demise of thinking skills in the U.S. I am sure you can think of counter-points and arguments to each of them (and I would encourage you to do so! because then you’ll be applying critical thought to the content), but generally speaking, the “cause” goes back many decades and each misstep has contributed to a generation that does not think critically, looks for one right answer, believes there is only one right answer and is happy to have found it, when they do. Mission accomplished