Improving critical thinking

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.

Today, Paul Bruno tweeted out a link to a summary of a new meta-analysis of whether college enhances critical thinking (paper available here $).

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.


11 thoughts on “Improving critical thinking

  1. David says:

    Once upon a time in the field of history we called “critical thinking” “historical thinking”, that is, one must review and understand the specific historical tradition an author is utilizing to analyze/understand his/her work. In other words, if one reads Eric Hobsbawm, knowing he had more of a Marxist understanding of history helps to unlock much of what he says and the conclusions he reaches. Doesn’t make him less of an historian, but it is important to see where he was going with his research.

    Nowadays, “critical thinking” is somehow linked to “21st Century Skills”–I suppose because of all the baloney on the internet–alongside “creativity, collaboration and communication.” But, as is true of all of these skills, they cannot be taught in a content-free environment. Back to Hobsbawm, unless one understands what Marxism is, knowing that he was a Marxist will not mean very much.

  2. Pity about math education, with its “Right or wrong” and “This how we do it” attitudes. There are many proofs of the theorem of Pythagoras, but where are the comparisons? It is a long way in before reaching any qualitative comparisons of anything. They go on about “critical thinking” and “metacognition” but it is really towards the development of problem solving skills, a very different thing.

  3. Roger Curtis says:

    If I were asked, for example, to consider whether or not Nuclear Fusion was a good idea, I would be helped if there was a given list of criteria to construct an answer. That, to my mind, is what critical thinking is all about. I suspect most people, unless otherwise directed, believe it involves finding fault with something.

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  6. The thing that bugs me about discussions about “critical thinking skills” is that the phrase can be used in two very distinct senses.

    1. Critical thinking means thinking that is critical in the everyday sense of criticizing — to think in a way that brings criticism to bear on something. You make an assertion and I, being convinced that it is not true, or perhaps just for the sake of argument, or to test its validity, start producing argumentation against it. In this sense “critical thinking about X” means to criticize X and “critical thinkin skills” are the skills you need in order to be effective in criticizing things (for example, sarcasm, fluent ad hominem, stereotyping, name-calling, identifying logical errors, rhetorical devices, personal jabs, and the ability to focus on where faults lie rather than on where an idea might display merit.)

    2. It means a certain class of thinking skills that are “critical” in the sense of being essential, indispensible, pivotal, fundamental and central. For example, logic. Mental acuity. Abstract reasoning. Empathy. Clarity. Judgement regarding where analogies are valid and where they break down. Insight. Depth of understanding. Creative thought. Avoidance of common misconceptions. And so on.

    It might be obvious that #1 is a subvariety of #2. (I do not mean all my examples to be negative, but evidently as I wrote I had a momentary pause the critical thinking skill of imagination.)

    What bugs me is that I rarely hear such discussions begin with a clear definition, and when the terms of discussion do get laid out they are always in terms of #2. And yet, almost all exemplars suggest the person has #1 in mind. This often happens in the social sciences, for example. “Critical thinking” in the study of Western History, seems to be about constructing narratives that criticize and undermine what we have come to understand as the heritage of the western world. Thinking that does not adequately criticize, or even heap scorn upon, the legacy of Western civilization is diminished, and understood to be “uncritical”. (Even if it happens to be well-supported with robust scholarship.)

    I think we have done future generations a great disfavour by conflating #1 and #2.

    I shouldn’t say “we” because I think, unlike many similar cases of “social agenda” memes, this particular error was deliberately incubated and fostered by an academic movement which very much had in mind to cast Western civilization (and in particular, Capitalist Western civilization) in a negative light. That is the very purpose for which the general discipline we know as “Critical Theory” arose, developed by the Frankfurt school
    I find many discussions about critical thinking bleed into the domain of “Critical Theory” to the point you can’t really tell which is being discussed.

    In a way my comment is an elongated version of Roger’s above

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