Coaching And Critical Thinking: The Links

An article written with Dr Roy van den Brink-Budgen, Director at if…then ltd.

This article is about Critical Thinking and Coaching. As PocketConfidant AI strives to build a technology to help individuals and organizations develop self-reflective skills, it seemed important for us to look at existing research and hear from a subject-matter expert to identify specific existing links between Critical Thinking and Coaching. Before reading, if you wonder how we define Coaching, you can refer to this article on What Is Coaching?, or this one on Can A Bot Be A Coach?.

Research links from Dr Roy van den Brink-Budgen

Critical Thinking Defined

Though there are various definitions of critical thinking, they all include a focus on evaluation and reasoning. A recent example illustrates this: critical thinking is ‘a way of approaching and solving problems based on convincing, logical and rational arguments, which involve verifying, evaluating and choosing the right response for a given task and reasoned rejection of the alternative possibilities’ (Ticusan and Elena, 2015). The verbs used in this definition – approaching, solving, verifying, evaluating, choosing – emphasize that critical thinking is an active process, a process that uses skills to generate and evaluate possibilities, to reason for one thing rather than another based on careful judgement, and so on. Harvey Siegel expressed it very well: ‘A critical thinker…is one who is appropriately moved by reasons’ (p. 23, emphasis in original).

Coaching, Metacognition & Critical Thinking

In a nutshell, critical thinking can be described as ‘the activity of looking at the possible meaning and significance of claims’ (van den Brink-Budgen, p.1). It is this process of looking for and at significance that fits so well with the coaching method, with the latter’s emphasis on asking questions, considering possible answers, asking (and looking) for clarification, considering alternative approaches, adding in further information (and looking at how this affects significance), and seeking to produce a well-reasoned decision. This relationship between coaching and critical thinking can be looked at in more detail, both from a theoretical and from a practical perspective.

Better Questions Rooted in Real World Experiences

In the first place, this relationship can be seen in terms of metacognition or ‘thinking about one’s thinking’. There are many studies that show the centrality of the importance of metacognition in high-level critical thinking. Some of these studies make a distinction between what is called ‘metacognitive knowledge’ and what is called ‘metacognitive regulation’ (for example, Brown, Flavell, and Davidson and Sternberg). Metacognitive knowledge includes knowledge of oneself as a thinker, of the characteristics of the task to be considered, and of the sort of strategies needed to achieve effective performance. Metacognitive regulation refers to the actual strategies applied to control cognitive processes, such as planning on how to deal with a task, monitoring understanding of it, and evaluating progress in dealing with the task. These two aspects of metacognition fit well with the coaching method, since this method uses both the coachee’s knowledge of themselves and the task to be considered, as well as using their initial plan on how to deal with an issue and needing the coachee to be part of the development towards clearer comprehension, through questioning and evaluation. The link between metacognition and critical thinking can be stressed by focusing on the evaluation of strategies in dealing with questions, issues, and problems. ‘Evaluating strategies involves the examination and correction of one’s cognitive processes. These include evaluating one’s reasoning, goals and conclusions as well as making revisions when necessary. In sum, a critical thinker is one who is in charge of his thinking processes, while metacognitive strategies enable such control to take place.’ (Ku and Ho, p. 252) The strong relationship between coaching, metacognition, and critical thinking can be seen from the above discussion.

The Link Between Coaching and Critical Thinking

The literature on effective teaching of critical thinking can also be used to support the case that there is a strong link between coaching and critical thinking. If we see coaching as a dialogue, then this fits well with the research on how critical thinking is best taught with students. A meta-analysis of 684 research studies on the effectiveness of various methods of teaching showed that dialogue was the method that achieved the best results in the development of critical thinking (Abrami et al). In the classroom, this would be dialogue of various forms (teacher-students, students-students, and the many variations of these), but the strongest effect was found between teacher and students, a dyad which has some of the characteristics of the coach-coachee relationship. In each case, there is a process that involves questions that are designed to help with clarification of possibilities and to consider the significance of claims (such as evidence). This process leads to a consideration of answers together with possible (reasoned) justifications for them. A further feature of the meta-analysis of Abrami et al is that critical thinking developed more successfully when the dialogue was concerned with authentic (what they also called ‘anchored’) material. In other words, critical thinking develops better when the learner is dealing with real-world material. Coaching might raise hypothetical points (‘what might happen if…?’) but they remain rooted in authentic contexts and situations. In these two ways (dialogue and authentic material), we can see that coaching fits with the evidence on the optimum way by which critical thinking skills can be developed. (Of course, this improved critical thinking then feeds into the coachee’s productive metacognition which in turn refines their critical thinking, with the process continuing forward.)

Reframing Questions For Bigger, Better Outcomes

Coaching also fits well with another aspect of critical thinking: the application of critical thinking to decision-making. A classic study of decision-making in business is that of Hammond et al. They detail various examples of poor decision-making (such as using confirming evidence, framing, anchoring, and sunk cost) and provide ways of dealing with (or avoiding) these problems. As they say, ‘Always view a problem from different perspectives. Try using alternative starting point and approaches rather than sticking with the first line of thought that occurs to you.’ They give the example of the importance of ‘framing’: ‘The first step in making a decision is to frame the question. It’s also one of the most dangerous steps. The way a problem is framed profoundly influences the choices you make’. One can see that the interactive dialogic form of coaching (in the PocketConfidant model) fits here very well, given that the coaching is designed to help the coachee to reframe questions in ways that can open up possibilities. This fit is given further support by Kahneman et al’s stress on the value for companies of ‘carefully formulated questions to guide them as they collect information about a case, make intermediate judgments, and formulate a final decision.’

Solution-focused Coaching, Critical Thinking & Leadership Skills

A specific application of a coaching method to develop critical thinking in developing leadership in a company has been described in a paper by Catchings. Though it was a small-scale study, the evidence supported the value of using coaching in companies to develop their staff’s critical thinking: ‘These findings support the value and use of coaching and critical thinking skill development in management/leadership development programs, or any program focused on personal and/or professional development’. Amongst other points made in this study (and others) is the value of the emphasis placed on a solution-focused perspective rather than one which is problem-focused. Grant’s paper on solution-focused coaching details the content of this approach: ‘…the focus would be in delineating preferred outcomes, articulating potential solutions and specific strategies that might be useful in the goal striving process, and in doing so highlighting the client’s personal strengths and resources and how these can be utilised in the goal attainment process.’

Questioning Through Authentic Dialogue

This analysis of the inter-relationship of coaching and the development (and reinforcement) of critical thinking is summed up well by Hatcher when he says ‘Critical thinking involves the honest evaluation of alternatives’. We can see how coaching and critical thinking fit together via the emphasis on questioning through dialogue, by dialogue on material and issues that are authentic to the coachee, by the tapping into and continued development of metacognition, and by the contribution to improving decision-making at all levels.

Improving Critical Thinking & Coaching with Technology

At PocketConfidant AI, we focus on a technological approach that can provide individuals, whether they are students, employees, managers, staff, citizens or patients, with a solution to help develop critical life skills. We believe that Coaching is a great approach, that when delivered correctly – with neutrality, objectivity, benevolence and perseverance – can lead to great outcomes. We believe that we can build a technology that will be truly good for people, and help us address the challenges of today’s world such as stress, education for all, empowerment, self-confidence, and creativity.

To conclude this article, we extend a warm thank you to Dr Roy van den Brink-Budgen for having produced this thorough and well-framed analysis.

We and Roy would love to hear your comments and questions, so do not hesitate to contact us by email, or via Facebook, Twitter, Linked in, Medium or Quora.

References of the research

  • Abrami P et al, ‘Strategies for Teaching Students to Think Critically: A Meta-Analysis’, Review of Educational Research, Vol 85, 2, pp.275-314, 2015.
  • van den Brink-Budgen R, ‘Critical Thinking for Students’, How To Books, 2010 .
  • Brown A, ‘Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms’ in F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987.
  • van den Brink-Budgen R, ‘Critical Thinking for Students’, How To Books, 2010 .
  • Abrami P et al, ‘Strategies for Teaching Students to Think Critically: A Meta-Analysis’, Review of Educational Research, Vol 85, 2, pp.275-314, 2015.
  • Catchings G, ‘A Practical Coaching Method for Critical Thinking Skill and Leadership Development (C/CTSLD)’, Management and Organizational Studies, Vol 2, 4, 2015, pp. 42-53.
  • Davidson J and Sternberg R, ‘Smart problem solving: How metacognition helps’ in Hacker D.J., Dunlosky J., Graesser A.C. (Eds.), Metacognition in educational theory and practice (pp. 47–68). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 1998
  • Flavell J, ‘Speculations about the nature and development of metacognition’ in F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, Motivation and Understanding (pp. 21-29). Hillside, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987.
  • Grant A, ‘Teaching and conceptualising solution-focused coaching’, The Coaching Psychologist, Vol 7, 2, December 2011.
  • Hammond J et al, ‘The Hidden Traps in Decision-Making’, Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 1998.
  • Htacher D, ‘The Role of Personal Values in Argument Evaluation’, OSSA Conference Archive Paper 42, May 2003.
  • Kahneman D et al, ‘Noise: How to overcome the high, hidden cost of inconsistent decision making’, Harvard Business Review, 2016.
  • Ku, K and Ho I, ‘Metacognitive strategies that enhance critical thinking’, Metacognition and Learning, Vol 5, Issue 3, 2010, pp. 251-267.
  • Siegel H, ‘Educating Reason: Rationality, Critical Thinking and Education’, Routledge, 1988.
  • Ticusan M and Elena H (2015), ‘Critical Thinking in Development of Creativity’, International Conference of Scientific Papers, AFASES, Brasov.