There have been concerns for years that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are in decline not only among students but also the general public. On the surface, this appears to be true. However, throughout human history, the average person was not much of a deep thinker but rather a doer. How much time can you spend on thinking for the sake of thinking when you are dealing with famine, war, and disease? This internal focus vs external focus is one of the differences between critical thinking and problem-solving.
There is no agreed-upon definition of critical thinking. This makes sense as any agreement would indicate a lack of critical thinking. In general, critical thinking is about questioning and testing the claims and statements made through external evidence as well as internal thought. Critical thinking is the ability to know what you don’t know and seek answers through finding information. To test and assert claims means taking time to develop them which is a lonely process many times
Thinking for the sake of thinking is a somewhat introverted process. There are few people who want to sit and ponder in the fast-paced 21st century. This is one reason why it appears that critical thinking is in decline. It’s not that people are incapable of thinking critical they would just rather not do it and seek a quick answer and or entertainment. Critical thinking is just too slow for many people.
Whenever I give my students any form of opened assignment that requires them to develop an argument I am usually shocked by the superficial nature of the work. Having thought about this I have come to the conclusion that the students lacked the mental energy to demonstrate the critical thought needed to write a paper or even to share their opinion about something a little deeper then facebook videos.
Problem-solving is about getting stuff done. When an obstacle is in the way a problem solver finds a way around. Problem-solving is focused often on tangible things and objects in a practical way. Therefore, problem-solving is more of an extroverted experience. It is common and easy to solve problems with friends gregariously. However, thinking critically is somewhat more difficult to do in groups and cannot move as fast as we want we discussing.
Due to the potential of working in groups and the fast pace that it can take, problem-solving skills are in better shape than critical thinking skills. This is because when people work in groups several superficial ideas can be combined to overcome a problem. This groupthink if you will allow for success even though the individual members are probably not the brightest.
Problem-solving has been the focus of mankind for most of their existence. Please keep in mind that for most of human history people could not even read and write. Instead, they were farmers and soldiers concern with food and protecting their civilization from invasion. These problems led to amazing discoveries for the sake of providing life and not for the sake of thinking for the sake of thinking or questioning for the sake of objection.
There is some overlap in critical thinking and problem-solving. Solutions to problems have to be critically evaluated. However, often a potential solution is voted good or bad by whether it works or not which requires observation and not in-depth thinking. The goal for problem-solving is always “does this solve the problem” or “does this solve the problem better”. These are important criteria but critical thinking involves much broader and deeper issues than just “does this work.” Critical thinking is on a quest for truth and satisfying curiosity. These are ideas that problem-solvers struggle to appreciate
The world is mostly focused on people who can solve problems and not necessarily on deep thinkers who can ponder complex ideas alone. As such, perhaps critical thinking was a fad that has ceased to be relevant as problem solvers do not see how critical thinking solves problems. Both forms of thought are needed and they do overlap yet most of the world simply wants to know what the answer is to their problem rather than to think deeply about why they have a problem in the first place.