In the 4IR era, Professional Accountants must develop critical thinking

South African Institute of Professional Accountants
16 September 2019

As traditional accounting functions become automated, accountants will focus more on business advisory services. The South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA) has identified critical thinking as one of the most important skills future-ready Professional Accountants must possess.

Says the Institute’s Professor Rashied Small, Executive: Education and Training: “Although they already apply critical thinking in their work, practitioners must upgrade this competency to cope with the high-level strategic problems they will face in the near future”.

Award-winning research
Dr Alet Terblanche of UNISA, whose PhD thesis was one of the winning papers in SAIPA’s 2019 Accounting and Tax Thesis Competition, has developed a conceptual framework specifically to facilitate teaching critical thinking.

Titled Developing Critical Thinking in Auditing Students Through Technology-based Educational Interventions: a Conceptual Framework, the study provides a number of important insights for accounting educators and their students. Her proposed framework can be applied in schools, universities or any professional training environment.

According to Terblanche, accounting education still focuses largely on delivering technical knowledge. “Although technical competence still remains relevant, much more emphasis needs to be placed on the skills required to meet the needs of the 21st century workforce, which include critical thinking,” she writes.

What is critical thinking?
Terblanche describes critical thinking as a higher-order capability that is supported by specific cognitive skills and a well-defined set of dispositions, that is, habitual thought processes.

The cognitive skills comprise the abilities to analyse and interpret data, make appropriate inferences from it, evaluate its meaning, effectively explain its implications, and self-regulate personal biases and assumptions. The dispositions are inclinations towards seeking truth, open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, thinking systematically, having confidence in one’s own reasoning abilities, and judging matters maturely. Each of these qualities can be fostered by setting up the right learning environment.

Teaching critical thinking
Terblanche’s work identifies constructivism as the optimal approach for teaching critical thinking. This learning theory favours students actively solving problems over rote learning. The main learning tools are case studies, problem-based learning and simulations of real-world problems.

SAIPA’s own Project Achiever programme, designed by Professor Small, implements a constructivism-style model. The course prepares participants for the Institute’s Professional Evaluation (PE), an entrance exam all prospective members must pass before being admitted and awarded the designation of Professional Accountant (SA).

“Apart from the ability to apply their previous learnings to real-world scenarios, we strive to impart vital soft skills to attendees, including critical thinking, in an interactive environment,” says Professor Small. He attributes this focus to the fact that Professional Evaluation results and top achiever spots are typically dominated by Project Achiever graduates.

The importance of research
In addition, the Institute is busy implementing a continuous professional development (CPD) strategy that gives greater weight to enhance soft skills, like critical thinking.

“As we reengineer the Institute’s training programmes to prepare our members for an advisory-focused future, good research will be vital in informing our tactics,” says Professor Small. “It is, for this reason, we awarded Dr Terblanche’s outstanding work and will continue to support research in the accounting and tax domains.”