The Decline in Competency – And What Can be Done About It

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Educator Robert Maynard Hutchins, an early 1900’s educator, once said: “The objective of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.” Hutchins is correct in what he is saying except for one aspect. Education is meant to prepare young people to educate themselves, and to have basic competency skills. Yet it does not actually do so.

What is competence? Generally speaking, competence is defined as a person’s ability to adjust to different situations and evaluate what they’re doing. Competence requires critical thinking and common sense, two areas that have declined significantly for the average person.

In a 2004 piece titled “The State of Critical Thinking Today,” Richard Paul examined a study of randomly selected teachers and staff from 38 public colleges and 28 private colleges in California, including Stanford University and UCLA. Their study shows that while 89% of teachers thought the primary objective of instruction was teaching critical thinking, only 19% could explain what critical thinking is and only 9% clearly taught critical thinking in a typical class day.

Richard Paul’s study is important because it shows that teachers care about critical thinking but don’t know how to foster critical thinking in the classroom.  Unfortunately, the classroom is where students are meant to learn skills-not just facts, but skills. To teach skills, critical thinking must be a priority, and taught properly by teachers otherwise the whole goal of school is not achieved. This study shows that it isn’t taught properly; our teachers don’t understand critical thinking. That is a major flaw, and it means that people don’t have proper critical thinking skills. 

Common sense is the other part of the competency equation. In a 2011 Psychology Today article titled “Common Sense Is Neither Common nor Sense, How Often is Common Sense Correct?” by Jim Taylor,  tells us there isn’t clear judgment going around, otherwise things like smoking, buying things you can’t afford, and unhealthy eating would essentially be non-existent, so common sense is clearly not common. In the piece, Taylor notes that while he cannot speak on behalf of the past, he can speak on how things are now, where our idea of common sense is non-existent. 

While there is no proof common sense is decreasing, it certainly shows that common sense can be almost completely ruled out, as it doesn’t really exist among most people today

So, if competency is broken from a lack of critical thinking and common sense, what can be done to fix it? The issue with diminishing competency is really related to a lack of  critical thinking. Therefore, the real focus needs to be on what can be done  to  improve critical thinking in people, especially in primary school and higher education. The best way to do this is to understand that teachers cannot teach critical thinking as they are now as there are several other factors in play. 

On the teaching front, there is something that should be addressed, however. Teachers should, as part of their teacher preparation program, take a class – or two – on critical thinking on being a critical thinker themselves and on teaching others how to think critically.

Another thing to consider is to make preschool free or even required. Pre-school has many toys, games, and activities that improve basic critical thinking skills. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s an improvement. In Three ways high-quality preschool can improve the health of children.”  Valerie Strauss discusses how preschool improves a child’s health. One way this is the case is in cognitive function, and evaluative abilities. The combination of those two things is what critical thinking is. 

What this does is introduce a level of critical thinking at an early age that will help the child in the future and foster their abilities better, and therefore improve their competency.

The easiest thing the public can do though is acknowledge what is happening. By doing that, people can work on their critical thinking skills and teach each other  proper critical thinking skills. If this becomes a well known issue, it is more likely that the government will come in and intervene. The more that is known about the issue, the more that can be done to improve it. There is a massive list of things that can be done if  the general public were aware.  That’s why this article is even being written.

We need to improve our levels of competency otherwise there will be no progress to improve more people’s lives. This effectively means critical thinking skills must be improved, as it’s the clear primary factor towards competency. Especially with fewer and fewer jobs involving  physical labor ,the more people who are competent and therefore can adapt, the better. With this maybe Robert Maynard Hutchin’s dream will become a reality.