Critical thinking is one of those terms that gets thrown around a lot in education. Every teacher has heard it mentioned countless times at staff meetings and PD, being reminded of its revered status as one of the pinnacles of higher order thinking. It is associated with all subject areas and its practice is widespread in schools. It is something that teachers always try to help students develop, incorporating it whenever possible. A common good that will elevate the learning of all.
Most would agree that one of the primary goals of schooling is to enable students to think critically. No one really questions its value. Teachers understand the importance of students learning how to reason, make judgments and decisions, and problem solve. The ability to see both sides of issues, deduce and infer conclusions from available facts, and be open to new evidence that disconfirms ideas, are all worthwhile goals of education. They are important skills in preparing students for the future, ones that companies and professions demand. In the brave new world of free lancing and short-term contracts, critical thinking is highly regarded.
But can critical thinking be taught?
According to Daniel Willingham, decades of cognitive research suggest that it can’t really be taught. The problem is that people who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that is a skill, like riding a bike. Similar to other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it to any situation. Unfortunately, thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (domain knowledge). This helps to explain why students are able to think critically in one subject area, but not in another. The more domain knowledge they have, the more critically they will be able to think about that particular topic or idea. Critical thinking is dependent and contextual. It is not as transferable as we have been led to believe.
As Willingham says, ‘Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in – and even trained scientists can fail in.’
It makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking in an abstract way. To remind students to just think critically in general is pointless. Asking them to look at an issue from multiple viewpoints is all fine and well, but if they don’t have a lot of background knowledge on the issue, they can’t really think about it from multiple viewpoints. All you will get is surface level thinking. No insights or depth. The solution to this is more knowledge. A knowledge rich curriculum will improve the quality of critical thinking. It will allow students to engage with topics in a more meaningful way.
Critical thinking will rarely happen without factual content. Teachers need to stop assuming it is something that can occur in a void, removed from knowledge. Like much of education, critical thinking needs to move away from the generic to the specific.