This post continues the exploration into whether critical thinking can be taught. While researching attempts to measure the return on investment of Federal training programs I found a study on trainable competencies by the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Making the Right Connections: Targeting the Best Competencies for Training (attached) provides insight for the question at hand by organizing professional competencies into six categories and assessing each category for the degree to which it can be trained. I've summarized each category and its degree of "trainability" in the table below.
The MSPB used the results of its Merit Principles Survey (conducted to understand federal employee beliefs about training) and a substantive literature review to categorize the six competency types. I find the results interesting for a few reasons, first and foremost being how closely they recall the debate on nature vs. nurture. The report makes a distinction between competencies that can be learned and those that rely on personal characteristics; this is very much an adaptive vs. innate delineation and conflicts with my interpretation of a competency. Webster's defines it simply as an ability or a skill. The Federal Acquisition Institute, which defines competencies for Acquisition professionals, goes a bit deeper with its definition: competencies are the measurable patterns of knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, and other characteristics that an individual needs to perform work roles or occupational functions.

We could plot these categories on a continuum from highly trainable to not trainable (if I had any design skills whatsoever I would do it) and the progression would probably look something like this:

Knowledge - Language - Reasoning - Social - Mental Style - Motivation

Knowledge as a highly trainable competency makes sense especially in the context of job-specific knowledge (let's ignore for now the question of whether knowledge relies on intelligence, an oft-contested point between the nature and nurture camps). The other five competencies are, as the MSPB report points out, more dependent on personal characteristics and talent and thus are moderately or less trainable. This implies that language, social, reasoning, motivation, and mental style have some innate proclivity and are less responsive to training interventions.

What does this tell us about Critical Thinking?

MSPB's report supplies an empirical lens to consider our question about whether critical thinking can be taught. If competencies are more or less trainable, then we only need to determine where critical thinking lies and then draw a conclusion as to its trainability. The most logical fit (is this a pun?) would be Reasoning, but critical thinking relies on more than logic and math. Mental Style seems a good fit given its emphasis on creativity and an ability to deal with complexity, but is Knowledge not a requirement for critical thought? Maybe not, given that surface structure was demonstrated in my last post as an inhibitor to critical thinking. But that would conflict with what we know about deep structure, which relies on extra-contextual knowledge. So where to put it on our continuum?

Unfortunately critical thinking doesn't fit neatly into one of the six MSPB categories. In my opinion, critical thinking requires elements of all six competencies, some highly trainable and others not. This would suggest that critical thinking can be taught, if we adopt this elemental focus. Teach someone a different way to think about a problem and this will promote reasoning. Provide feedback on a writing sample and language skills improve. Lead a person to a new source of information and knowledge will be cultivated. Introduce a learner to interpersonal constructs and new social skills will develop. Walk a class through a syllogistic exercise and watch new mental styles take hold.

Motivated to Learn

Motivation is admittedly more difficult to train, but I challenge whether it actually is a competency. If you read my original blog post then you might be familiar with my theory on learner motivation. Essentially, it states that motivation is an attribute that must be fostered through the training environment; without the motivation to learn, adults will not. So I agree that motivation cannot be trained and any such effort would be missing the point. But that does not mean that motivation should not be a goal of a complete training program.

The point is that motivation is the central element to critical thinking. A tough problem that requires critical thinking requires a real desire to solve it, to overcome doubt, frustration, and mental exertion along the way. Without an understanding of why the problem needs to be solved, there won't be any motivation to overcome the challenges and solve it even with all the knowledge in the world.

Make a Conclusion!

So its time to make a conclusion. Can critical thinking be taught? If we agree that all competencies are elements of critical thinking, and agree that these skills can be taught or fostered, then my conclusion would be a resounding yes...with one qualification. Teaching is not training, and training is not learning. A holistic training program provides the learner with the basic knowledge required to succeed, the context needed to apply deep structure, and the importance of the material necessary to foster motivation.

The holistic training program can provide the elements for critical thinking and foster the motivation necessary to overcome its inherent challenges. Critical thinking can be taught but it also must be fostered. I have understood this for some time, although not in the context of this critical thinking debate. I recognize that adults are responsible for their own learning, but have always believed that it is my job as a trainer to make them understand how important the learning is. With this understanding of importance, I find that learners will put forth the effort required to solve difficult challenges.

I'll explain some of the things I do to cultivate critical thought in my next post. Until then, I hope you are enjoying this holiday season!


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