A number of people have pointed me towards an article about study on the teaching of critical thinking. The study took place at North Carolina State University and the subjects were undergraduates students.
The test subject were given pre-tests on their knowledge of science and belief in pseudoscience, pseudo-history or pseudo-archaeology. These areas basically encompasses those ideas popular in best-sellers of the 1970s such as that Atlantis really existed or Stonehenge was built by aliens.
Students in the experimental condition were then taught a humanities course in, “Frauds and Mysteries in History”. There were two texts to support the course. The first was a ‘positivist’ text which seems to have dissected fraudulent claims on the basis of evidence and plausibility. The second text was groovier, with a, “post-modern approach to understanding interests in the past in popular culture and the ways people connect with the past in the present.”
The students who participated in the course saw a decrease in their beliefs both in those ideas that had been studied as part of the course as well as in similar ideas. This is taken to suggest that the course taught them critical thinking skills.
I am quite happy to accept that a course like this might have an impact. Far from teaching critical thinking as a set of skills such as “think about why the author might be making this claim”, it teaches relevant content. This is precisely the mechanism by which an increased knowledge of the world leads to better critical thinking; we can reason by analogy. We can say, “this reminds of that idea about Atlantis that we debunked in history class.” This is one key advantage of studying standard subject disciplines in depth.
However, there are a number of pretty fundamental caveats.
Firstly, the students were low in dodgy beliefs to start with. So these are students who are already well along the path of critical thinking. Further, this was not a randomised controlled trial. There were three groups of students. The first group had opted to study psychology. They were the control group and did not receive the humanities course. The two experimental groups both volunteered for the humanities course and one of these groups consisted of many more science students. The three groups differed in other ways such as their gender profile. So we can’t be sure whether any effect was actually due to the different make-up of the groups.
Finally, we have demonstrated only near transfer here. Students can apply what they have learnt about one pseudo-archaeological claim and apply it to another. I think this is worth having and I don’t expect much more from education. That’s why students have to learn so much stuff to be able to function as educated citizens. However, claims about critical thinking tends to be more general than this. We have no evidence, for instance, that this kind of training might make students more sceptical about political claims or the claims of those opposed to vaccination.