Writing is the Gateway to Critical Thinking
Critical thinking and problem solving are life’s most valued skills. Have them, and you’re well on your way to a successful, well-paying career. Unfortunately, most people don’t. The corporate world agrees. 100% of employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers list critical thinking and problem solving as essential skills; only 57% rate recent college graduates as proficient critical thinkers and problem solvers.¹
I believe these employers are wrong about recent college graduates – they are actually far worse. At McKinsey, I had the privilege of interviewing more than 100 top-performing students, from MIT and Stanford undergrads to Harvard, Sloan, and Booth MBAs. In the interviews, I presented them with a business case to test their critical thinking and problem solving. The pass rate was 25% (at best). In other words, only between 2 and 5 in 100 students at the world’s top schools met the bar.
I spent years contemplating why top students at top schools failed at seemingly straightforward critical thinking and problem solving tasks. I spent years reflecting on my work with clients. Finally, I realized what my consulting role really was – translating what employees were thinking into something executives could understand. Finally, I understood why top students at top schools failed the interviews – the rote learning they spent their lives mastering makes it difficult to deal with ambiguity. Everything pointed in one direction, a direction I foreshadowed in this post’s title but haven’t typed until now: writing.
Anticlimactic? Confused? It’s okay. Most people I speak with incorrectly equate writing with grammar. Why? Because our education system fails to teach what writing really is – writing is structured thinking.
Once we understand writing as structured thinking, we understand why writing is required for critical thinking and problem solving. Without writing, it’s impossible to dissect and structure a problem. It’s impossible to identify and close information gaps. It’s impossible to synthesize information within and across sources. It’s impossible to combine your understanding of sources, data, and analysis with your thoughts. It’s impossible to communicate your thoughts with others. Without writing, you cannot think clearly; you cannot be understood.
Writing along with algebra are what I call Gateway Skills. These two skills predict life outcomes, such as earning a living wage, more than any other in education.² ³ Why? It’s because they are generalizable and transferable to any subject and topic. They are precursors to the Life Skills of critical thinking and problem solving.
Unfortunately, 3 in 4 K-12 students struggle with one or both Gateway Skills.⁴ Again, the results are actually far worse. These standardized tests mostly test knowledge, not generalizable and transferable skills. The tests are built for rote learning – memorization and repetition. For writing, the tests often focus on mechanics (e.g., grammar, topic sentences), not for synthesizing within and across sources. For algebra, the tests often focus on solving pre-defined equations, not asking the student to read, interpret, and create the equations before solving.
No wonder people struggle with critical thinking and problem solving – our education system largely ignores or is ineffective at teaching Gateway Skills. When I speak with district administrators, writing is rarely a priority. Reading and math are on standardized tests. Writing as structured thinking is not. Algebra as problem solving is not. Critical thinking and problem solving are heralded as hallmarks of a liberal arts education, but K-12 and higher education institutions don’t focus on these skills. We expect students to magically acquire these skills themselves.
Where we go from here
We need to focus on generalizable and transferable skills. After all, most knowledge students learn in school goes unused in their lives. For example, 3 in 4 college graduates end up in a career unrelated to their major.⁵ Students, very reasonably, dislike learning about things they’re uninterested in or don’t understand the value of. Rote learning – memorization and repetition – should not be the primary focus. Students don’t retain infrequently applied knowledge, nor does rote learning build generalizable and transferable skills they can apply elsewhere.
Now, how do we build generalizable and transferable Gateway and Life Skills? We need to start by revamping standardized testing. If tests don’t change, instruction won’t change. Eliminating standardized testing won’t do it. Testing generates incentives – teaching to the test. Incentives are good when the right ones are in place. We need to test for Writing to Learn skills, the ability to synthesize information across sources and clearly communicate and support one’s thoughts. We need to test problem solving by using word-based scenarios that require a student to truly understand the numbers and operations. If the tests evaluate critical thinking and problem solving, our education system will naturally gravitate to focusing on teaching the Gateway Skills (writing and algebra) required for critical thinking and problem solving.
Why don’t we test for Gateway and Life Skills today? It’s for two lousy reasons: fear and money. The fear is that students won’t perform well. Students struggle with tests of rote learning, so people believe students will fail at more complex tasks. I believe this premise is false (although they may struggle with more complex tasks at first). Building Gateway and Life Skills creates independent thinkers who truly understand and apply concepts across any subject or topic. Money-wise, testing rote learning through multiple choice is cheaper. Testing Gateway and Life Skills requires skilled graders. However, adding $25-50 in standardized test costs per student per year to improve outcomes is minuscule compared to the nearly $13,000 we spend per K-12 student per year⁶ to generate poor outcomes.
What you should do
Talk to your school leadership if you have kids or are a student. Get involved with your city’s school board. Advocate for Writing to Learn to be a central part of the curriculum. Be willing to accept seeming defeat in the short term (lower test scores) for long term gains (higher test scores and better life outcomes). Shoot me a note. The Prompt team and I are here for all of this. Our mission is to make people better writers.
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National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2019). (rep.). Job Outlook 2019. Retrieved from naceweb.org.
Berman, I. 2009. Supporting adolescent literacy achievement. Issue Brief, 1-15.
Murnane, R. J., Willette, J. B., & Levy, F. (1995) The Growing Importance of Cognitive Skills in Wage Determination. The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 77, No.2, 251-266.
NAEP Report Cards - Home. (2011). The Nation's Report Card. Nationsreportcard.gov.
Abel, J. R., & Deitz, R. (2014). Agglomeration and Job Matching Among College Graduates. Federal Reserve Bank of New York Staff Reports, no. 587.
Bureau, U. S. C. (2020, May 11). Spending Per Pupil Increased for Sixth Consecutive Year. The United States Census Bureau. www.census.gov.