Is the exponential growth in accounting software destroying critical thinking by Danielle McWall

Is the exponential growth in accounting software destroying critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the new generation?
by Danielle McWall
This concern is not new…seventeen years ago, TIME magazine produced a cover article; How to Build a Student for the 21st Century. The article focused on whether an entire generation “will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad, or speak a language other than [their own]”.
These concerns are now exacerbated by the exponential growth in technology and digital tools and the worry is that this removes the thought process and human intelligence necessary for problem solving in a VUCA1 world.
December 18, 2006 TIME Magazine cover
Critical thinking is considered one of four key 21st century skills, the others being communication, collaboration, and creativity.2 To prosper in the 21st century, students need more than knowledge, they need the ability to collaborate, communicate and problem-solve3 plus the ability to connect. Mazzola-Randles (2020) identified connectedness as the fifth 21st Century skill and it includes, “consideration of digital wellbeing and digital identity, contribution in a digital environment, commitment to learning, curating and supporting digital content and building communities,”4 these qualities are viewed as essential for students to become successful in the 4th industrial revolution.

Generation Z or “Zoomers” is the common term used for twenty somethings born in the late 1990s / early 2000s. Young accounting professionals from this group are most likely to be those currently seeking employment within professional firms, so it’s useful to get an idea of where their strengths and weaknesses lie, albeit in a very generalised manner and ironically antagonising the Zoomer individualistic philosophy.

Generation Z are perceived as being familiar with the use of digital technology and social media form a very young age, and having grown up with it, they are not afraid to use it. Many of them would be skilled at coding and software utilisation.

Comparing them to the previous Generation “Y” or “Millennials,” they are considered to be technologically advanced, better multi-taskers and quicker to communicate, however being born into a recessionary period they do tend to be less optimistic, more independent and value job security, yet lacking the collaborative skills that Generation Y tend to possess.

Many companies have created and adapted their office culture to ensure that Millennials felt secure, supported and able to thrive and now they need to look at Generation Z recruitment.

Generation Z having witnessed the economic winners and losers that recessions bring, value money and security more than the previous generation and while they also want to make a difference and are socially aware, they value their paycheque more than the Millennial. Generation Z have a fear of missing out (FOMO)5 exacerbated through technological advancements and encouraged via social networking channels and video gaming. FOMO is evident in the business and financial investment market, which could lead to greater risks being taken through uninformed decisions being made quickly as a result of FOMO, but it could also lead to greater gains.

The good news is that Generation Z are resourceful and are the first generation to have data and information at their fingertips with the ability to source immediate answers to all their questions, so where is the problem? The problem is that software isn’t destroying their critical thinking skills but rather the critical thinking skills have not been fully developed in Generation Z.

Teacher teaching students math on a tablet
Professor Patricia Greenfield, UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles identifies that learners have changed as a result of their exposure to technology from an early age.6 If you recall your early classroom experience and compare it to early years education now, the experience for the learner now revolves around individual skills development and promoting human intelligence through the use of artificial intelligence. This promotion of Human Computer Interaction if done well, should develop the critical thinking skills we expect of our 21st Century students and employees.

Many Zoomers will not have had this kind of early years educational experience and as a result there is a skills development gap due to early years educational establishments taking some time to embrace learning for the 21st Century as advocated by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, further and higher education was beginning to embrace this changed learner and adapt their learning and teaching pedagogy, to ensure that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are at the forefront of skills development for the 21st Century student. In many ways the Pandemic accelerated this pedagogical change. In their research on accounting education during Covid-19, Sangster, Stoner and Flood (2020) found that there was a realignment of learning and teaching strategies away from the traditional formats.7

With the move towards online learning and virtual assessments, the focus had to move away from “how much do you know?” to “how well can you apply what you know?” Assessment during the Pandemic became more authentic, and to enable the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, this has to remain the case for educational establishments.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools that provide learners with bespoke answers to assignments, essay mills and contract cheating platforms all provide the current generation with easy access to assessment solutions without the need for much if any problem-solving. This easy access to answers is what the current generation are used to, and it will not change. The learning environment has to embrace this and change how they educate – through innovation and authentic assessment design, which cannot be solved without using the critical thinking and problem-solving skills the business community and the accounting profession desire. Designing assessment that improves a learner’s observation, analysis, communication, inference and problem-solving skills will improve the student’s critical thinking skills. Educators should embrace AI tools such as simulation tools, to give the learner the freedom to fail and learn from their mistakes, coupled with learning strategies such as self and peer reflection and metacognition8 (thinking about your own thinking) will further develop a learner’s critical-thinking skills.

Office workers at a table
From an employer’s perspective, Generation Z are independent and competitive and want to be mentored and get instant feedback and advancement, rather than be assessed on an annual basis. They prefer coaching to supervision and will challenge the traditional approaches to work. Employers need to be open and ready for Generation Z and should embrace their innovation and the ease with which they will use technology and digital platforms to find solutions to problems. The challenge will be coaching them on the robustness of their decision-making processes and mentoring them to ensure they are more discerning about their judgements. Workplaces will have to become more nurturing and supportive to bring out the best in their Generation Z employee and that cultural improvement should help everyone in today’s diversified and inclusive workplaces.

Looking forward, the OECD’s The Future of Education and Skills, Education 2030 paper9 identifies more global uncertainty facing today’s young person who will have to solve environmental, social and economic problems that have not yet been anticipated, using technology that has yet to be invented. They could even be the inventors of that technology.

“They will need to develop curiosity, imagination, resilience and self-regulation; they will need to respect and appreciate the ideas, perspectives and values of others; and they will need to cope with failure and rejection, and to move forward in the face of adversity.

Their motivation will be more than getting a good job and a high income; they will also need to care about the well-being of their friends and families, their communities and the planet.”

So welcome aboard Generation Alpha!

“They will need to develop curiosity, imagination, resilience and self-regulation”
  1. VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Berinato, Scott. (2014). A framework for understanding VUCA. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2014.
  2. Partnership for 21st Century Skills (
  3. World Economic Forum. (2018). The Future of Jobs Report 2018 (pp. 1 – 133). Switzerland: World Economic Forum.
  4. Mazzola, Colette. (2020). To what extent does education prepare students for the 21st century to become self-regulated, future-proofed students, using networked, technological environments. 10.13140/RG.2.2.18400.10246.
  5. Patrick J. McGinnis (US Venture Capitalist and Author) coined the term FOMO first noted in The Harbus, the magazine of Harvard Business School (2004).
  6. Wolpert, Stuart. (2009). Is technology producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis? UCLA Newsroom. January 27, 2009. Is technology producing a decline in critical thinking and analysis? | UCLA
  7. Alan Sangster , Greg Stoner & Barbara Flood (2020): Insights into accounting education in a COVID-19 world, Accounting Education, DOI: 10.1080/09639284.2020.1808487
  8. Flavell, John. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: a new area of pyschologoical inquiry. Am Psychol Journal, Volume 34, pp. 906-911.
  9. OECD. (2018). The Future of Education and Skills, Education 2030.
Danielle McWall headshot
Danielle McWall


Senior Lecturer in Accounting. Head of Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics at Ulster University Business School. Chair of CPA Academic Advisory Board