The Critical Thinking Paradox: an Unintended Consequence of the Race Towards AI

4 minute read

As we approach the golden age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, we find ourselves in a paradox: the more we race towards advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, the more we seem to be distancing ourselves from our ability to think critically and solve some of our most complex problems that can’t be solved by math and science alone.

We are in the 4th Industrial Revolution, the age of AI and Machine Learning, and there is no doubt of the benefits these will bring to human kind. AI is going to replace many of the tasks currently performed by humans. Think of the new self-serve kiosks at MacDonald’s and Panera Bread. But AI and Machine Learning will not be able to replace all human skills. In 2016, global leaders from the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified “the 10 skills you need to thrive in the 4th Industrial Revolution.” [1]

World Economic Forum’s list of human skills that will help us thrive in the age of AI:

1. Complex Problem Solving

2. Critical Thinking

3. Creativity

4. People Management

5. Coordinating w/ Others

6. Emotional Intelligence

7. Judgement & Decision-making

8. Service Orientation

9. Negotiation

10. Cognitive Flexibility

At the top of the list are critical thinking and complex problem solving. It would seem logical and sensible that our education systems should focus on teaching these human skills that are not likely to be replaced by AI. However, studies show that learning institutions have not evolved their pedagogy and andragogy to meet the increasing demand for higher order thinkers in this new age. Joseph Halpern, Professor of Computer Science at Cornell University and published author, hit the nail on the head: “Technology advancement has also increased the demands for more critical thinkers. There are more demands than ever to teach critical thinking skills in higher education institutions. Teaching students the skills to think critically without real-life applications is not that useful.” [2]

One of the best studies on the gaps in our education system comes from research conducted by Dr. Richard Paul, Dr. Linda Elder and Dr. Ted Bartell. They studied the faculty’s emphasis on critical thinking in instruction at 38 California public universities and 28 private universities. They conclusion was eye-opening: “Careful analysis of the interviews indicates that the central problem is that most faculty have not carefully thought through any concept of critical thinking, have no sense of intellectual standards they can put into words, and are, therefore, by any reasonable interpretation, in no position to foster critical thinking in their own students or to help them to foster it in their future students, except to inculcate into their students the same vague views that they have.” [3]

Since 2017, I have asked a small sample of several hundred college graduates whether their curriculum included the practical application of critical thinking and (human-centric) complex problem-solving skills. Their answers were nearly unanimous: none had taken any courses on the practical application of critical thinking and complex problem-solving, with one exception: those that had participated in Design Thinking programs at their universities (Princeton, Stanford). It is frustrating that, as world leaders ask for our education systems to produce higher order thinkers, mainstream academia has been slow to pivot and meet these demands.

The vast majority of students are no better prepared or more skilled to think more critically or solve complex, human-centric problems than I was when I entered the work force in 1983. My own critical thinking skills were strengthened because they are integral to a major part of my life’s work; teaching critical thinking and complex problem solving. If formal critical thinking and problem-solving skills are not developed by the time a student completes their formal education, their chances of developing those skills rapidly diminish as they slip into their professional routines.

Here then, is the Critical Thinking Paradox: The faster we run towards Artificial Intelligence and the computational power that it promises, the less we are relying on our own ability to think critically and solve complex problems. By not emphasizing these skills in our education system, we are sending our kids into the workforce with one hand tied behind their backs, condemning them to search for answers in their phones or their laptops. Pause a moment to consider the implications: the lack of critical thinking and complex problem solving skills is highly likely to be one of the main root causes of why we can’t seem to solve some of our society’s most challenging problems.

Rather than waiting for our education system to catch up, we should take up the challenge to close this education gap, especially those that have studied and are proficient in critical thinking and problem solving. Find ways to intervene; to make a difference, no matter how small. We should be teaching our children, our peers and protégés the critical thinking and complex problem solving skills they will need to thrive in the age of AI. This challenge is especially important for those that have the opportunity to teach at the lower grade levels.

Mary Halton, a science journalist and ideas editor at TED writes: “We need to give students an opportunity to grapple with questions that don’t necessarily have one correct answer. This is more realistic of the types of situations that they’re likely to face when they get outside the classroom. How can we encourage kids to think critically from an early age? Through an activity that every child is already an expert at — asking questions!” [4]

I close with this thought: Imagine for a moment a world where, each year, a cadre of young professionals entered the workforce with 12 or more years of education and experience on the practical application of critical thinking and complex problem-solving…what a different world this would be.

If you would like additional information on dramatically improving the effectiveness of your root cause analysis, visit us at:

[1] World Economic Forum (2016): “The Future of Jobs” report. Watch the video at:

[2] Halpern (1990) [3] Paul, Elder, Bartell (1997)

[4] Halton, 2019

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