Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Critical Thinking

I’ve been working on revamping the curriculum for my program for the last year. In talking with various law enforcement and other public sector agencies, the resounding request is for new employees to have a thorough grounding in critical thinking skills. My informal survey of agencies, colleagues and friends found that across many sectors there is shortage of people with the ability to make decisions. Employees sometimes can’t recognize the causation of the situation in front of them, much less determine an appropriate course of action.

You’ve seen new workers struggle with seemingly simple tasks. What seems to be increasing though is the inability of these employees to be able to analyze the problem and develop a solution. In part, this may be do to the preponderance of electronic devices that provide immediate feedback whenever the user commits an error. Employees accustomed to such immediate feedback loops may be at a loss in situations where those loops don’t exist.

Community colleges are especially interested in addressing this problem as most associate degree programs are geared towards producing qualified entry-level workers. Community colleges are very engaged with local employers to insure students are receiving the appropriate course work and skills training. Insuring critical thinking skills are developed through the program is challenging.

There are basically two types of faculty at the community college level; academics and practitioners. Academics usually have masters or doctorates in education and tend to pepper their conversations with words like “pedagogy” or “taxonomy”. Practitioners also possess masters or doctorates but their majors tend in a specific field of expertise. Practitioners tend to use words such as “certification” or “credentialing”. A meeting between these two different types of faculty ends up being a mind-numbing argument as to who has a better grasp on the problem.

Academics, at the community college level, see critical thinking skills as more abstract and need to be taught separately from other courses. Practitioners on the other hand see critical thinking as byproduct of immersion in hard sciences and analytical course work. I agree with the later which is why I’m considered more of a practitioner than an academic (a badge I wear with honor).

Having a student take a “critical thinking” course does not develop a thorough grounding in how to analyze a problem and develop a solution. For my program, fitting a full year of chemistry, accounting or statistical analysis is challenging due to the number of pre-requisite courses required for many of these higher level courses.

I’m going to try a unique approach, have students in my program take courses in geographic information systems (GIS). Often GIS courses are associated with computer aided design (CAD). The courses I’ve developed with a GIS expert instead immerse the student in applications of data modeling in a public policy way. What does an increase in the homicide rate look like on a map? What data points fed the information being displayed and what factors might shift those numbers?
By using GIS, I feel the students will get practical skills in understanding this very powerful tool. It will help them understand problems and convey those problems to others using easy to under maps. Students will at the same time understand how to analyze data and make forecasts based on that data. I believe this can be achieved in a two year degree program without a heavy pre-requisite workload.

The other day I ran into a GIS expert who had an intriguing idea, train mid-level and senior leaders in the public sector about Six Sigma concepts. Six Sigma seeks to identify and remove the causes of defects and errors in manufacturing and business processes. At first glance, it doesn’t appear Six Sigma, which was created in the private sector, would have much application in the public sector. However, we think we can demonstrate how public sector leaders could use a combination of GIS data and Six Sigma problems to address public policy issues. But this isn’t something that can be taught in a few workshops. Entry level workers need to have a good grounding in analytical thinking. They need to have an appreciation for GIS and other relational databases. Mid-level and senior leaders need to understand not only the power of relational databases but how to use the information with Six Sigma principals to effectively address public policy issues.

No comments: