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Critical thinking across contexts

1. Introduction

“commitment, energy, self-motivation, self-management, reliability, co-operation, flexibility and adaptability, analytic ability, logical argument and ability to summarize key issues” (Harvey and Green, 1994 cited in Holmes, 2002: 137)

The above list of soft, core, generic or transferable skills are the kinds of attributes that over the last 25 years have been identified as desirable for graduates to posses. Reflecting on the increasing emphasis on employability within UK policy literature on higher education, this paper will examine the positioning of ‘critical thinking’ as a transferable skill.  Drawing on a number of debates within higher education and media literacy, the possibilities for transference across contexts will be examined. In other words, are there subject-specific meanings and uses of critical thinking that cannot be transferred or instrumentally directed within employment contexts?

2. Employability

As Philip Brown, Anthony Hesketh and Sara Williams (2003: 109) argue, employability policy discourse is “dominated by employer and government concerns about the supply of graduates”. They suggest that a major weakness of this ‘consensus position’ of government and employers is that it “presents employability as a technical problem of ensuring that labour market entrants have the skill sets that match the requirements of employers” (Brown et al., 2003: 116).  Increasingly this approach has extended into higher education. For instance, key skills and employability attributes are central in course validation procedures and linked to learning outcomes. Reflecting on these changing priorities and responsibilities, Kevin Robins and Frank Webster (1999: 193) suggest the reclassification of UK universities in 1992 was, a “sign of changes in the conception and conduct of universities throughout higher education”. They go to state that, “prominent in the change has been a heightened involvement of politicians and industrialists to ensure that universities address more adequately their priorities and problems” (Robins and Webster, 1999: 193).

In terms of priorities, the focus has been on ensuring that graduates posses a set of certain competences that make them employable. As Len Holmes (2002: 135) notes, “the currently dominant understanding of the relationship between higher education and the occupational order is framed in terms of the notion of ‘transferable skills’”. For example, the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (from June 2009 part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) ‘Higher Education at Work’ (2008: 6) report highlights that, “employers particularly value broad ‘employability’ skills, such as communication, motivation, independence, analysis, confidence and problem solving”.  This paper will address how these transferable skills emerge in subject-specific contexts and take problem solving or critical thinking (often used interchangeably, see Newman, 2007) as the particular focus.

Whilst only number 35 out of 60 on Smyth County Industry Council’s (2007) list of top 60 soft skills, critical thinking is often held up as demonstrating that a graduate has the ‘cutting edge’ and will be able to come into an organization and shake things up with ‘innovative’ ideas. In this light, critical thinking is a broad way of approaching a problem or an issue. In terms of transferring ‘critical thinking’ from higher education to a work context, there are however subject-specific notions of criticism to be mindful of. In relation to this, Holmes (2002: 141) has argued for importance of attending to the social contexts across which transference takes place and states that, even if it were possible to “demonstrate that the meanings were stable within each arena [graduate work and higher education], itself a dubious proposition, there is no evidence that there is stability of meaning between them”. Crucially then, this paper seeks to explore the specificity of ‘critical thinking’ across contexts.

3. Subject-specific critical thinking

In relation to media education and literacy[1], a tension has emerged between critical thinking in relation to employment and in relation to citizenship. At the core of this debate is how a set of skills or competences developed in one domain comes into practice within a different domain. For example, Mine Gencel Bel and Mutlu Binark (2009: 97) in their discussion of ‘critical pedagogy’ highlight that “critical pedagogy is definitely not a job preparation, or even critical consciousness raising activity; it is about imagining different futures for citizens, and developing hope in dark times”. This perspective reveals a tension over ‘critical thinking’. In one sense, there is a competence or skill that is subject-specific and refers to a particular body of knowledge and analytical and interpretative framework (namely critical thinking and citizenship). On the other hand, it is the same competence or skill that is directed towards generic work-based contexts. Robins and Webster’s (1999: 198) account of the operationalisation of critical thinking is instructive for further unpacking how ‘critical thinking’ is deployed in employability discourse and the tensions of cross context application.

Robins and Webster (1999: 198) argue that, “‘critical thinking’ is ‘operationalised’ as a practical ‘competence’” which:

“[…] might allow the more effective delivery of babies (while the organisation of welfare services is out of bounds), or might reflect on how best to maximise corporate interests (but will not open wider questions about business behaviour), or may consider novel solutions to managing estates (but will not query the need for estates to be managed), or might encourage better ways of handling tourists (but will not countenance the thought that perhaps tourism should be abandoned).”

If we take critical thinking as a ‘top 60 soft skill’, what about the other potential issues and debates not being explored that are indicated above? Within each of these examples, there is a subject-specific element that is being marginalized in favour of more generic approaches concerned with effectiveness. On the face of it, it may seem that questions around ‘effective delivery’ and ‘handling tourists’ are subject-specific, but as Robins and Webster (1999: 198) go on to state, “we suspect it is difficult to find any degree programme in the country that does not profess to develop ‘critical thought’”. Identifying more ‘effective delivery’ and so on may be seen as the result of critical thinking, but for Robins and Webster this is not saying much given the ambiguity of the term. Moreover, Robins and Webster see it as a ‘destabilising concept’ that is limited to pre-established goals. In this sense, what appear to be subject-specific concerns around ‘effective delivery’ and ‘handling tourists’ are instead operationalised competences.

Here we can see that in becoming transferable, the ‘critical’ part of ‘critical thinking’ is reduced to a competence that a student can do, rather than being a close interrogation of specific issues.  Michel Foucault’s (1988: 154) account of criticism is insightful here. For Foucault, criticism is:

“not a matter of saying that things are not right as they are. It is a matter of pointing out on what kinds of assumptions, what kinds of familiar, unchallenged, unconsidered modes of thought, the practices that we accept rest…. Criticism is a matter of flushing out that thought and trying to change it: to show that things are not as self-evident as one believed, to see what is accepted as self-evident will no longer be accepted as such”.

Foucault’s distinction seems to be at the core of the distinction between generic and transferable critical thinking and subject-specific critical thinking. The former is able to identify how things work and could be changed, but in ‘cutting-edge’ ways bound to operationalisation. In contrast, the latter approach is concerned with a more thoroughgoing engagement with the specific challenges of an issue. For Robins and Webster (1999), the emphasis on transferable skills is at the expense of knowledge of a particular subject. With the subject-specific, we may be able to move develop and refine the assertion that ‘things are not right – we need change’. This means identifying assumptions and self-evidences, and questioning the nature and boundaries of permissible change and the different agencies defining this.

Returning to media education, we can see this as the issue that Bel and Binark (2009) point to; the critical thinking part of media education cannot be reduced to job training given the express wider concerns. The point here is not to necessarily emphasize the analytical endeavors and critical perspectives that Media Studies fosters, but to stress the potential subject-specific incompatibilities around the transference of ‘critical thinking’.

4. Reclaiming the critical

In this final section, I want to explore how the ‘critical’ may be reclaimed and brought into dialogue with the broader employment context. Following the above, I would stress that care must be taken in transferring competences and interpretations across contexts. In turn, I want to consider the transference of subject-specific critical thinking into employment contexts. Rather than emphasizing transferable skills, how could subject-specific criticisms be applied within employment contexts?

This reversal is largely speculative, but engages with Foucault’s suggestion to question assumptions, modes of thoughts, and practices. The immediate limitation would be with regard to the connections between the degree-subject studied and how this correlated with the employment context. For a number of vocational fields however, this could be a provocative approach to explore. Returning to the earlier media education example, Bel and Binark point to a distinction between critical thinking in relation to job preparation and in relation to citizenship. This reverse formulation would not seek to distance the two, but to instead bring them into dialogue. In other words, what would the critical thinking connected with citizenship and imagining different futures have to offer for exploring employment contexts and job preparation? Rather than ring-fencing employment and job preparation as instrumentally derived, there are opportunities for exploring these areas in subject-specific critical ways.

I am going to draw this possibility out in relation to media studies/production, but hope some prompts and possible applications emerge in other fields. If we take the transferable and employability-discourse based understanding of critical thinking, the kinds of competences and perspectives relevant to media production could include making better television programmes, newspapers, digital games, and so on. This would be analogous with Robins and Webster’s observations on Midwifery, Business Administration, Estate Management and Tourism Studies. In turn, a number of commentators have offered critical analyses that engage with issues in the kind of substantive way that the transferable skills approach neglects. For example, Gillian Ursell (2000) explores television production apparatus as vampire (ingesting youngsters at low prices from a large pool provided by the education system); Angela McRobbie (2002) argues that questions of ethics and morality within creative industries popular literature are ‘uncool’ and ‘old economy’; and Chris Gibson (2003) addresses the tensions of low pay, poor conditions and uncertainty for the ‘chance to make it’ (see also Gill, 2002; Sennett, 2006). In pursuing these points, Helen Kennedy highlights the importance of concepts of ‘emotional and affective labour’, and argues that “greater understanding of production will make it possible to develop effective strategies for intervening in these processes” (2009: 194). These articles foreground the kinds of subject-specific critical perspectives that students could use as a resource to understand and make sense of the employment contexts which they are entering. These perspectives might not be transferable, but within specific employment contexts they point to and articulate the forms of critical thinking through which graduates may be able to explore and question the assumptions, modes of thoughts, and practices they will encounter daily.


Bel, M.G., Binark, M. (2009) ‘A critical evaluation of media literacy in Turkey and suggestions for developing critical media literacy for democratic social transformation and citizenship’, pp. 93-108 in M. Leaning (Ed.) Issues in Information and Media Literacy: Criticism, History and Policy. Santa Rosa: Informing Science Press.

Brown, P., Hesketh, A.,Williams. S. (2003) ‘Employability in a knowledge-driven economy’, Journal of Education and Work, 16(2): 107-126.

Gibson, C. (2003) ‘Cultures at work: why ‘culture’ matters in research on the ‘cultural’ industries’, Social & Cultural Geography, 4(2): 201-215.

Gill, R. (2002) ‘Cool, creative and egalitarian? Exploring gender in project-based new media work in Europe’, Information, Communication and Society, 5(1): 70-89.

Holmes, L. (2002) ‘Reframing the skills agenda in higher education: graduate identity and the double warrant’, pp.135-152 in Preston, D.S. (Ed.) The University of Crisis. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Kennedy, H. (2009) ‘Going the extra mile: emotional and commercial imperatives in new media work’, Convergence, 15(2): 177-196.

Kozolanka, K. (2009) ‘The politics of media literacy and the struggle for democratic citizenship and media: lessons from Ontario, Canada’, pp. 71-91 in M. Leaning(Ed.) Issues in Information and Media Literacy: Criticism, History and Policy. Santa Rosa: Informing Science Press.

McRobbie, A. (2002) ‘Clubs to companies: notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up creative worlds’, Cultural Studies, 16(4): 516-532.

Newman, S. (2007) ‘Soft skills surgery’. Downloaded on 3 September 2009 from

Robins, K., Webster, F. (1999) Times of the Technoculture. London: Routledge.

Sennett, R. (2006) The Culture of New Capitalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Smyth County Industry Council (2007) ‘Workforce Profile: the top sixty soft skills at work’. Downloaded 8 October 2009 from

Ursell, G. (2000) ‘Television production: issues of exploitation, commodification and subjectivity in UK television labour markets’, Media, Culture & Society, 22: 805-825.


[1] Media education is the process through which individuals acquire a body of knowledge or set of skills that constitutes media literacy.

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