Rethinking 'critical thinking'

“Critical thinking” courses “promise better grades and higher test scores,” notes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. But they work only “as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators.”

Mathews quotes Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia.

Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations.

Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject–facts, concepts and trends–before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.

“The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge),” Willingham says.

My daughter’s high school bowed to the fad by renaming ninth-grade English “Critical Thinking.” It was just good old English I.

Via Core Knowledge, which is all about knowing stuff and then thinking about it.

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  1. It seems meaningless unless they start by teaching basic formal/symbolic logic. I would expect that to fit in better with a math course.

  2. greeneyeshade says:

    Judith “Miss Manners” Martin put this in a nutshell years ago: “Facts are a necessary framework for supporting thought.”

  3. Bill Leonard says:

    I think Miss Manners has it right. Unless/until you actually know something about a subject, critical thinking about it is simply not possible.


  4. Brandyjane says:

    I teach at a classical school, and we’ve known this for years. Our youngest students focus on memorizing facts. We make it fun for them through use of song, chant, sound-offs, etc., but we do require a lot of rote memorization of items like math facts, poems, science definitions, people and events in history, Latin vocabulary, etc. I know that’s out of fashion at a lot of schools, but our kids really aren’t bored by it. Visitors always comment on how joyful our kids are.

    We teach them formal logic in seventh and eighth grade, and that’s where we really begin focusing on critical thinking. Of course we encourage our younger kids to think critically, but many of them simply are not developmentally ready and don’t have the background knowledge to do so yet. We’re not going to punish them for that!

  5. There *are* certain teachable skills that contribute to critical thinking. Ones that come to mind are:

    1)Formal logic
    2)Elements of probability and statistics
    3)Ability to read and understand complex documents
    4)Rhetoric (specifically, debate with cross-examination)
    5)Inductive reasoning/scientific method–best learned through lab science courses

    But I don’t think this kind of rigorous program is what advocates of “critical thinking” classes typically have in mind.

    Regarding the role of memorization in thinking, see my post here. Also, a couple of days ago there was a letter in the WSJ quoting Linus Paulinmg about the importance of having facts memorized if you want to be able to think creatively.

  6. Robert Wright says:

    Content or thinking? What should be taught?

    To employ a little bit of critical thinking, I’d say this is an either/or fallacy.

  7. re: robert’s comment above. . .I agree it’s an either/or fallacy (and I expect Jay Mathews would too). In the article I emphasized that one must teach critical thinking in the context of factual content knowledge about the domain.

    A couple of people have mentioned teaching logic (on this and other blogs). the problem is that what the kids learn doesn’t transfer very well until they have a great deal of experience with logic problems. that is, they don’t recognize the fallacies outside of class that they are adept at spotting in class.