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2010 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 15, No. 3
June 2010

Focusing on a Core Supervisory Skill
Helping Workers Develop their Critical Thinking Skills

Because every family is unique and the challenges they face can be so complex, decision making in child welfare is often profoundly difficult. Structured Decision Making tools and other protocols can promote accuracy and consistency, but they don’t actually make things any easier. We will always need front line child welfare staff who can approach situations with an open mind, analyze complex information within its context, and respond creatively.

Fortunately, supervisors have many opportunities to foster critical thinking:

Hiring. Use realistic case scenarios that provide insight into people’s thought and decision making processes as part of interviews with all job applicants. Consider this sample question from NC's Recruitment and Retention Project (Dickinson, et al., 2007): Assume you are a child welfare worker. You are making a home visit. You knock repeatedly on the door, but no one responds. Inside you hear a baby crying. What do you do?

Ongoing assessment and development. Use case staffings, regular one-on-one conferences, role plays, trips into the field with workers (shadowing), child and family team meetings, and other contacts with workers to assess and nurture critical thinking.

Self-reflection is a key element of critical thinking—seize opportunities before, during, and after contact with families to encourage workers to reflect on issues of self triggered by their work. Use multiple perspectives and explanations to explore and challenge the worker’s thinking about the family (Dill & Bogo, 2007).

Know your stuff. To find and develop people who think critically, you must know what you’re looking for. The profile at right provides some of the characteristics found in critical thinkers. To learn more about this topic, go to <>.

Profile of a Critical Thinker
  • Uses information skillfully and impartially
  • Organizes thoughts and articulates them concisely and coherently
  • Suspends judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision
  • Attempts to anticipate the probable consequences of alternate actions before choosing among them
  • Has a sense of the value and cost of information, knows how to seek information, and does so when it makes sense
  • Applies problem-solving techniques appropriately in domains other than those in which they were learned
  • Listens carefully to other people’s ideas
  • Recognizes that most real-world problems have more than one possible solution and that those solutions may differ in numerous respects and may be difficult to compare in terms of a single figure of merit
  • Looks for unusual approaches to complex problems
  • Can respect differing viewpoints without distortion, exaggeration, or characterization
  • Is aware of the fact that one’s understanding is always limited
  • Recognizes the fallibility of one’s own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions, and the danger of differentially weighting evidence according to personal preferences
  • Can strip a verbal argument of irrelevancies and phrase it in terms of its essentials
  • Understands the differences among conclusions, assumptions and hypotheses
  • Habitually questions one’s own view and attempts to understand both the assumptions that are critical to those views and implications of the views

Source: Nickerson, 1987

References for this and other articles in this issue