Improving critical thinkingPosted: October 21, 2015
A few months back, I jumped into a discussion of this article in The Conversation about teaching critical thinking skills. If you read it and then read the comments it is worth noting two things.
Firstly, there is a certain irony that a professor of critical thinking who has written an expository article will not provide evidence for specific claims and insists that he is not there to educate me.
Secondly, it is evident that I am thinking critically about the article. Did I apply some stepwise ‘analysis’ or ‘evaluation’ procedure in order to do this? No. What I read conflicted with what I (thought I) knew and so I responded. I suspect that this happens automatically; we are hard-wired to compare new information with old. In fact this is a tenet of constructivist learning theory. If I am right then it is not something we need to be taught how to do. Instead, we need to build a body of knowledge to compare new information with.
The study found that it does but that this comes just as much from studying regular subjects as from specific critical thinking courses. And standard courses double-up; you learn literature and develop critical thinking by studying a literature course. There is no extra gain in studying critical thinking and you also don’t learn any literature. From the highlights:
“Students are learning critical-thinking skills, but adding instruction focused on critical thinking specifically doesn’t work. Students in programs that stress critical thinking still saw their critical-thinking skills improve, but the improvements did not surpass those of students in other programs.”
So, case closed?
Maybe not. I think the error here is when critical thinking courses assume that because a word such as ‘analysis’ is used in different contexts then this means that the actual thinking in these contexts is very similar and so a general skill of analysis exists which can be trained. This seems at odds with the evidence.
However, certain powerful kinds of knowledge could indeed aid critical thinking. Most critical thinking courses teach logical fallacies and give examples. Such examples can be used by students to then compare with statements that they meet in the future – this is a useful enhancement of the knowledge base.
It might also be useful to give specific examples of faulty scientific thinking such as the rationale behind alternative medicines like homeopathy. If a student is later presented with the notion of magnetic pain relief, for instance, she might recognise some similarities.
And perhaps a little history of pyramid investment schemes would be helpful. In fact, the great hope of history is that we can learn from it and avoid repeating failures.
Ultimately, however, it is knowledge of deeper principles that we need. I have no time for homeopathy because I understand that it is scientifically absurd.