Critical Thinking in Professional Accounting Practice: Conceptions of Employers and Practitioners

Samantha Sin, Alan Jones, andZijian Wang

Introduction

Over the past three decades or so it has become commonplace to lament the failure of universities to equip accounting graduates with the attributes and skills or abilities required for professional accounting practice, particularly as the latter has had to adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing business environment. With the aid of academics, professional accounting bodies have developed lists of competencies, skills, and attributes considered necessary for successful accounting practice. Employers have on the whole endorsed these lists. In this way "critical thinking" has entered the lexicon of both accountants and their employers, and when employers are asked to rank a range of named competencies in order of importance, critical thinking or some roughly synonymous term is frequently ranked highly, often at the top or near the top of their list of desirables (see, for example, Albrecht and Sack 2000). Although practical obstacles, such as content-focused curricula, have emerged to the inclusion of critical thinking as a learning objective in tertiary-level accounting courses, the presence of these obstacles has not altered "the collective conclusion from the accounting profession that critical thinking skills are a prerequisite for a successful accounting career and that accounting educators should assist students in the development of these skills" (Young and Warren 2011, 859). However, a problem that has not yet been widely recognized may lie in the language used to survey accountants and their employers, who may not be comfortable or familiar with the abstract and technicalized pedagogical discourse, for instance, the use of the phrase "developing self-regulating critical reflective capacities for sustainable feedback," in which much skills talk is couched. Hence in this chapter we will focus on how practising accountants— often themselves employers or involved in recruitment—perceive and verbalize this apparent need when not influenced by, and perhaps confused by, the type of academic lexis typically presented to them in survey instruments. How is critical thinking conceptualized and how is it expressed in the language of the lifeworld?

It has been widely accepted since at least the 1980s that critical thinking is a key requirement for success in most practical and professional spheres, not just accounting. Indeed an ability to think critically has been recognized as one of the chief goals of tertiary education (Barnett 1997; Entwistle 1994). So it cannot be surprising that critical thinking skills have assumed a high profile in the literature on accounting education, where it is widely mooted that such skills are crucial for a successful transition from the classroom to the professional workplace. In the United States employers and professional bodies are nowadays at one on this (Accounting Education Change Commission 1990; Albrecht and Sack 2000; American Accounting Association 1986; American Institute of Certified Public Accountants 1999). In the late 1980s, the Big Eight accounting firms (as they then were) released an influential White Paper (Big Eight Accounting Firms 1989, 5), in which it was stated that "education for the accounting profession must produce graduates who have a broad array of skills and knowledge." The first of the essential skills to be mentioned in that document was an ability to use critical thinking and creative problem-solving techniques on unstructured problems in diverse and unfamiliar settings. In Australia and New Zealand the emphasis on soft skills, and on critical thinking skills in particular, is quite explicit in official documents of the professional accounting bodies. For instance (CPA Australia and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia 2012, 5):

The accounting profession needs graduates from diverse backgrounds with a range of competencies. It requires all graduates to have capacities for inquiry, abstract logical thinking and critical analysis, in addition to appropriate oral and written communication and interpersonal skills.

The development of critical thinking is the third of four main educational objectives identified in this document, which sets out the conditions of accreditation for accounting courses offered by tertiary institutions and indeed provides suggestions as to how this might be achieved (CPA Australia and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia 2012, 5):

3. Encourage innovation in teaching and learning with particular focus on integrating the development of critical thinking, ethical judgment and communication skills of graduates.(Emphasis in original)

It is generally accepted that this emphasis on critical thinking skills—and critical thinking-related skills—by the professional bodies reflects the demands of employers, and much recent research supports this point of view. We cite a few studies here. Jackson et al. (2006) report that employers expect graduates to possess higher-order skills such as critical thinking and analytical skills (our emphasis). Freeman et al. (2008, 13) report that "developing theoretical understanding and critical thinking capabilities amongst other desirable graduate attributes . . . will allow graduates to be productive in their professional employment." And, while the focus is often on new graduates and their need to have acquired such skills, critical thinking and problem solving have also been identified as prerequisites to promotion in public sector accounting (see the US Partnership for Public Service 2007). The outstanding question is how best to teach this skill—if indeed it is a single skill—in postsecondary accounting courses, and numerous suggestions have been advanced (Camp and Schnader 2010; Jones and Sin 2003; 2004; Kimmel 1995; Lucas 2008; Sin, Jones, and Petocz 2007; Tempone and Martin 2003). We will address this question further below but will first try to develop a more coherent approach to the slippery concept of critical thinking itself, regarded as a cognitive ability.

 
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