Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?

Cartoon_CTCritical 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.

2 thoughts on “Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?

  1. Also important to note the distinction between primary and secondary knowledge. We do come equipped biologically to solve problems (this bit is primary and cannot be taught), so if we want to foster ‘problem solving’ in our students it makes sense to refine these skills by teaching secondary knowledge. I imagine if we view problem solving as a piece of ‘critical thinking’, a similar argument may apply.


  2. I think this is one of those false dichotomy sort of issues….can it or can’t it.

    I would assume that a typical critical thinking skill might be analysis. Clearly one can only analyse information therefore analysis itself per se is not possible. I assume that this is the sort of thing you are talking about.

    If we aks the question…..are there any tools/ideas/techniques that can be used generally when we analyse information then the answer is probably yes. categorisation, exemplification and comparison are for me appropriate examples.

    Can one categorise in a maths problem without a knowledge of the maths concepts/facts involved, clearly not. The more knowledge you have the better is likely to be your categorisation. The more you know about psychology, the better may be your analysis of a motivation situation.

    It seems reasonable to say that you cannot thinking critically in a vacuum, but then I do not know anyone who has every tried to practise critical thinking skills “in a void”. If you have examples please let me know and i will go look. Teachers simply cannot practise critical thinking without some content to focus on, I can’t see that it is possible.

    One can practise the formation of syllogisms as a tool of critical thinking surely. One can practise using facts/information from any discipline and the quality of use of the tool will improve surely. It is also the case that greater knowledge will help.

    Arguing the one cannot ppractise critical thinking is a void seems a no brainer. Arguing that one cannot teach methods and approaches seems daft. In the end it makes no difference, we all need information/knowledge to think about.

    Dan Willingham is very pedantic when he makes statements like this in my experience.

    ‘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.’

    Dan Willingham seems to say in this quote that just because you learn to think crtically doesn’t mean that you can automatically apply to other areas where you are knowledge deficient. This does not mean that you cannot transfer the skills to areas in which you are knowledge rich.

    An interesting post. Tahnk you


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