Creating Critical Thinkers In A Society Of Test Takers

Not long ago, a Kindergarten teacher outlined the day that a typical kindergartener would have. She explained that her students spend about two and a half hours per day on math. The kids have twenty minutes of recess time, twenty minutes for lunch, and no nap. Then, they’re typically sent home with homework. “Tests are critical for the success of the district,” she said. “And children who come to kindergarten with out going to preschool first, are just unprepared.”

… Wow, that’s a lot to take in for a five-year-old.

As adults, we expect the next generation to be better than us. We expect them to question more, to think differently, to be more imaginative. We expect them to be the next Apple, the next Netflix, or the next Amazon. Yet, we are cutting back on the time that they are allowed to be curious kids in return for better test scores. More black and white, right or wrong do-ers. These are the same “kids” that are entering our workforce. And they’ll continue to as more and more Baby Boomers retire.

So how do we get people to think critically in a society that is building test takers?

Let’s imagine you have a teenager that wanted to go to a party. What’s your typical response? What questions would you ask?

  • “Who else is going to be there?”
  • “Will there be alcohol?”
  • “When will you be home?”
  • “Who’s driving?”


Why don’t we, instead, build a critical thinker?
  • “Do you feel like this party would be safe? Why or why not?”
  • “Let’s brainstorm ideas on what you will do if you get into an uncomfortable situation.”
  • “What would you consider an uncomfortable situation?”
  • “Tell me your transportation plan and what time is fair to expect you home.”

Do you see a difference in the two sets of questions? The first set allows the other person to be as brief as possible. And to parents, there are definitely right and wrong answers. The second set requires the person to think through the situation, brainstorm possible solutions, and provide more detail.

Now we know that behavior change works the same way, whether you’re a child, teenager, a new millennial joining the workforce, or even someone of a more tenured generation.

So let’s flip this to the workplace.

As leaders, we need to help our team members grow. We need to encourage creativity and collaboration; to ask the questions that others wouldn’t think to ask. We need them to be critical thinkers. Yet, still, we make judgments about them based on whether or not they have the right answers. It’s not black and white anymore. It’s not right or wrong. We live in a world of gray.

What if instead of providing your team all the answers, you just asked more questions?
  • “How could you do that differently next time, or what would you improve?”
  • “What led you to make this decision? What would happen if you took a different route?”
  • “Who or what else does this affect? Who else should be involved?”
  • “What have you tried so far? What has/hasn’t worked? Why do you think that is?”
  • “How can I help you accomplish your goal?”

While the situation in your own home is a little different than the situation at work, you are accomplishing the same thing. You’re allowing the other person to not just think outside of the box but forget the box altogether. The answers may not be the same answers that would normally live inside the box. They’re entirely new. That is the gray area we must be more comfortable in.

You’re filling their leadership toolkit with ideas to help them think through similar problems without your help the next time. Just like raising kids, your goal as a leader is to create a better version of those you lead; one that may not need you as much in the future. One that can think critically, beyond the problem, and find the best possible solution.

By building critical thinkers, you’re creating a self-sufficient workforce. You’re teaching people to think in the gray; to think beyond you. All you have to do is ask the right questions.

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