Critical Thinking-Can it be taught?

Not without subject knowledge 

An OECD report (see link below) says that one good example of a compound skill that relies heavily on both cognitive and personality components is critical thinking. It represents an ability to reflect on information interpret it in a new context and find solutions to novel problems based on existing knowledge. It encompasses cognitive capacities to use the rules of logic and cost benefit analysis, think strategically, and apply rules to new situations to solve problems. However, critical thinking also incorporates aspects of what it labels the Big Five dimension of openness to experience, such as independence  (autonomy) and unconventionality, which represent the driving factors behind the use of cognitive skills for purposes of critical inquiry.’

It continues ‘There is a consensus that critical thinking is an increasingly important skill that should be cultivated in formal education. The ability to act independently and reflect critically upon a given reality is especially important in the fast-changing environment we live in. The role of educational systems is thus increasingly seen as one helping children become lifelong learners, individuals who are autonomous and adaptable, able to critically reflect and understand the evolving reality. A critical stance is also seen as an increasingly relevant skill in a world with more and more misinformation, the unexamined acceptance of which can lead to dangerous consequences for both society and individuals.’

Critical thinking is reckoned by some to include the component skills of analysing arguments, making inferences using inductive or deductive reasoning, judging or evaluating, and making decisions or solving problems.

So critical thinking is good. But,  to think critically you need a sound knowledge base. The more we know,  the more we can think, and think critically. And the more we know, the more we can reflect on what we know and therefore make the connections and linkages that are a prerequisite for critical thinking.

Uncritical thinking, on the other hand , looks a bit  like rote learning , and  simple regurgitation of facts. This is the start of an on -going debate about whether critical thinking can be taught as a standalone subject or not. Is critical thinking a generic skill to be taught? The short answer is that you need sufficient knowledge of a particular domain before you can think critically about it, so it is important that you build your knowledge across the curriculum and in specific domains before you can think critically. You should be encouraged to think critically in every subject you are studying. Your critical thinking is only as good as the mastery of your subject.

The  American education historian Diane Ravitch argued that “we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them (ie students)  that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.”

According to Daniel Willingham, decades of cognitive research suggest that  critical thinking  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 he says . The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought ( in other words,  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, he claims.

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.’

But research from Pearson, says that while background knowledge is absolutely necessary  it is not a sufficient condition for enabling critical thought within a given subject.  It found in its literature review that  ‘Critical thinking involves both cognitive skills and dispositions. These dispositions, which can be seen as attitudes or habits of mind, include open and fair-mindedness, inquisitiveness, flexibility, a propensity to seek reason, a desire to be well informed, and a respect for and willingness to entertain diverse viewpoints.’ So, there are both general- and domain-specific aspects of critical thinking. Critical thinking is more than recalling learned information.  Based on this, Pearson says that  critical thinking assessments should ‘use ill-structured problems that require students to go beyond recalling or restating learned information and also require students to manipulate the information in new or novel contexts.’  It concludes that in theory all people can be taught to think critically. Instructors are urged to provide explicit instruction in critical thinking, to teach how to transfer to new contexts.’ So this seems to reinforce the OECD view that critical thinking requires ‘both cognitive and personality components’  and yes teachers can help (see above)

Critical Thinking: A Literature Review- Research Report, Pearson 2011

Link to Report

OECD Report

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