Can critical thinking be taught?

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In this article by John Sweller, he argues that critical thinking is unteachable:

“Cognitive load theory assumes that, for example, critical thinking is biologically primary and so unteachable. We all are able to think critically if we have sufficient knowledge stored in long-term memory in the area of interest.

A car mechanic can think critically about repairing a car. I, and I dare say most of you reading cannot. Teaching us critical thinking strategies instead of car mechanics is likely to be useless.”

Sweller is referring to forms of teaching critical thinking that, “place a heavy emphasis on learning new problem solving or thinking strategies.”

This is not a claim unique to cognitive load theory researchers. Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist from the U.S. has made similar claims:

“Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really.”

We can learn heuristics such as, ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives,’ but if we do not know what these multiple perspective are then we cannot do so. We might add that if we do know what they are then we are probably looking at the issue from multiple perspectives already.

However, it is important to note that both Sweller and Willingham are referring to critical thinking as a general purpose skill in a similar way to how the Australian Curriculum describes it as a ‘general capability’.

If we re-examine the Sweller quote, it is clear that he believes car mechanics can think critically about repairing cars and that this is not an innate ability because others do not possess it. So they must have learnt something.

What have they learnt? They have learnt ‘sufficient knowledge’ about cars and this knowledge can, in principle, be taught.

So it is possible to learn critical thinking, it’s just that you learn it within a specific domain.

I would go further. My view is that there is a trade-off similar to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: The more widely applicable the knowledge, the less useful it is and the more useful the knowledge, the less widely applicable it is.

This is not a universal, it is lumpy, with some kinds of knowledge unlocking more doors than others. For instance, the ability to rearrange linear equations in mathematics has a very wide range of applications in secondary school, both within mathematics and in other fields like physics. This lumpiness can help guide curriculum decisions.

So no, you cannot really learn a general skill of critical thinking. To the extent that one exists, the majority of us probably develop it without instruction. But you can learnt a lot about the world that will help you think more critically about it.


20 thoughts on “Can critical thinking be taught?

  1. Janita Cunnington says:

    Very neatly put. My one reservation is that I think kids could — and should — be taught to recognise logical flaws and bias in their own and others’ reasoning.

    • The basis of CT is surely scepticism (something denigrated these days if its the ‘wrong’ scepticism), but allied to that would be, as you say, understanding of logical flaws. If students could operationalise understanding of question begging, affirming the consequent, confusiong of correlation and causation and common biases, such as recency and anchoring we would be achieving some good.

    • Knowledge of logical fallacies is similar to the example I gave about linear equations. It’s useful knowledge that is disproportionately applicable to a range of situations. However, identifying a fallacy is still insufficient. Someone might use fallacious reasoning and be right but someone else might use correct reasoning and be wrong. To determine this, you need domain specific knowledge.

  2. ijstock says:

    I though you were coming to a ‘sensible’ conclusion on this – and then you veered at the end. I have been teaching critical thinking successfully for years, to both adults and teenagers. By successfully, I mean both exam results and perhaps more importantly, student feedback. And perhaps even more than that, the boost that quite a lot of students reported in their other subjects. What you cannot do, as you say, is teach it in a vacuum. It is necessary to have factual material to practise on. Conventionally, material is drawn from across the subject spectrum, but it is specific for each task in hand. This is what Gove failed to understand when he refused to sanction the A level in the U.K. But that aside it is still just as possible to teach CT theoretically as it is to teach car mechanics theoretically. It just means the students have less chance to apply and practise the skills, but it does *not* mean they can’t be understood. In my experience, even “flagging up” an issue such as vested interest, or discussing the concept of logical argument is sufficient to alert students to things that they may have unconsciously been aware of before, but which they had not brought inro sufficient focus to be able actively to use.

    • ‘Critical thinking’ is a vague term. What do you actually teach; what outcome measures do you use and how do you parameterise this? What concepts constitute CT in which capability can be measured and how do you measure this?

      • ijstock says:

        The basic elements of CT as it was taught for exam in the UK were: understanding/analysing the logic of arguments; assessing the plausibility and credibility of evidence; understanding logical flaws and fallacies; basic principles; dilemma resolution. The subject more widely can consider aspect of philosophy and psychology in terms of how and why people use the arguments they do, and the pitfalls that that can involve.

      • ijstock says:

        To answer your other questions: you don’t. Why would you need to? We are looking at critical skills here, the purpose of which is to evaluate logic, use of evidence and construction of well-supported cases. It is not even about what is “right” and what isn’t. Perhaps the best analogy is the processes in a court of law. The benefit of this approach is that it helps people to evaluate the arguments with which they are presented, and which they construct themselves. It supports the development of their own logical faculties and also helps them understand the limits to what human thought can reasonably know. Exam grades were awarded on the basis of sound analysis of sources provided; the correct identification eg. through multiple choice of elements of argument, and a well-constructed critique. It was a devil of a subject to mark for that reason. But why on earth do you think that such things need to be measured? Not all knowledge is like that.

    • Janita Cunnington says:

      My worry is that “critical thinking” as understood in schools consists largely of “vested interest” alerts, which too easily degenerates into ad hominem argument — discrediting the point because of who said it rather than what was said.

  3. luqmanmichel says:

    Critical thinking appears to be impossible for a majority of people including most professors on LinkedIn.
    I have written many articles on LinkedIn and made many comments in this site as to why many kids cannot read in English but are able to read in Malay and Romanised Mandarin.
    However, only a few who speak and write in one language are able to understand and accept what I say.
    A majority keep writing that more children are unable to read in English as time passes by but are unwilling to accept the real reasons for children being unable to read. Critical thinking?
    To most people a thing does not exist if they do not know about it.

  4. John Sweller’s argument seems to be:

    If someone is taught car mechanics then they will be able to think critically about car mechanics. Therefore, if someone is not taught about car mechanics, they will not be able to think critically about car mechanics.

    Its formal structure is:

    If A then B. Therefore, if not A then not B.

    This is a logical fallacy, improper transposition.

    Further down in the article is what seems to be another bad argument, this time coming from Greg.

    Car mechanics have learnt ‘sufficient knowledge’ about cars [to think critically about car mechanics] and this knowledge can, in principle, be taught. So it is possible to learn critical thinking, it’s just that you learn it within a specific domain.

    The argument is trying to show that critical thinking can be taught only within a specific domain. But what it shows (at most) is that critical thinking can be learnt within a specific domain. That is irrelevant to whether it can only be learnt within a specific domain.

    The fallacy is a confusion of sufficient and necessary conditions. Its formal structure is:

    X if Y. Therefore, X only if Y.

    Being able to recognise fallacious reasoning is, I think, a “general purpose skill” which can and should be taught both within specific domains and also using everyday examples that are not domain specific. It is part of what it taught in the subject known as “Critical Thinking”. There may be good arguments against teaching Critical Thinking, but the ones given in this blog do not do the job.

    • No, the reason why Sweller and I do not think general purpose skills of this kind can be taught is due to the lack of evidence that they can be taught. The arguments you have highlighted above are part of an explanation of why this is the case i.e. in order to apply any kind of critical thinking strategy, you need sufficient domain knowledge.

      • You seem to say that since there is a lack of evidence that Critical Thinking skills can be taught successfully that it follows that they can’t be taught successfully.

        This is another well-known fallacy, the Argument from Ignorance. Its form is: We haven’t proved that X, therefore not X.

        What you need is evidence that attempts to teach Critical Thinking skills were carried out with proper rigour and they failed to produce improvements in those skills.

      • There have been plenty of attempts to teach critical thinking skills. Here’s a study that shows that students’ critical thinking increases by about the same amount as they go through college, regardless as to whether they have taken a critical thinking course or not:

        I would add that you appear to be attempting to apply deductive logic here. Science uses inductive logic because you cannot deductively prove a negative. For instance, I cannot prove Bigfoot does not exist or that homeopathy never works. However, I can inductively infer these things from an absence of evidence. Perhaps you only covered deductive logic on your critical thinking course.

  5. ijstock says:

    Teaching Critical Thinking makes explicit things that people may already be doing as a result of general thinking processes. There is not much in the subject that comes as a complete surprise to students – but what they have often not had is it made explicit, named and explained before. They seem to find this useful, not least because they can then identify these things more easily when they encounter them. They can also deploy them more effectively in their own thinking. It makes logical thinking easier. My experience is that these things do eventually embed and become semi-automatic, and the effect is a general sharpening of the thought process. There is also the fact that thinking about thinking exposes the difficulties, pitfalls and limitations of that process, and makes students both more cautious about over-claiming, and generally more reflective in their approach. It may not always be possible to identify specific, measurable benefits, but all my experience suggests they do exist. It is also worth considering the effect of teaching CT to young offenders. I met someone who had done this, and claimed that they found it liberating in terms of resisting malign peer pressure etc. I also wonder what the effect of the British population being more generally equipped in this effect would have been on the Brexit problem. The level of general thinking and debate was woeful.

  6. Pingback: Questions, fallacies and the nature of domain knowledge – Filling the pail

  7. Greg: Deductive logic makes up only a small part of any course in Critical Thinking. I was applying it because it was applicable to the first argument you gave,

    Studies that test whether Critical Thinking courses improve CT skills have to make certain assumptions. (The same applies of course to the evaluation of any other courses). How much teaching of CT would be needed? What sort of content would the course contain? How much training do the teachers have? And so on.

    I’d like to see a study of a course where students had done CT for one hour per week over two or three years. That would be interesting.

    One thing we know about CT is that it is best taught with a visual dimension — that is, arguments should be diagrammed.

  8. Thanks for referring me to the study by Huber and Kuncel. It is a good analysis. It casts some doubt on the value of CT courses at US college level, as compared with other possible interventions in reading and maths.

    But it can also be read as showing how little we know about these issues. The authors had to rely on evidence from college nursing courses as the best indicator of whether CT interventions produce lasting gains in CT skills. As far as I know, the best study showing that CT interventions do improve CT skills is Abrami 2008. Huber and Kuncel comment on this:

    “Although Abrami et al. (2008) found an average effect size of 0.34 for critical thinking interventions, the nursing data suggest that such interventions may ultimately have little incremental impact above and beyond the gains that naturally occur over the span of college.”

    They use very qualified language. The data “suggest that such interventions may ultimately have little incremental impact”. This is not a strong claim, and rightly so. We really don’t know very much in this field.

    The Abrami reference is:

    Abrami, P.C., Bernard, E.B., Wade, A., Surkes, R.T., and Zhang, D., ‘(2008), Instructional Interventions
    Affecting Critical Thinking Skills and Dispositions: A Stage 1 Meta-­‐Analysis’, Review of Educational
    Research, 78, 4, 1102-­‐1134.

  9. Abrami and his colleagues have a more recent study.

    Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Waddington, D., Wade, A., & Persson, T. (2015). Strategies for teaching students to think critically: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85(2), 275-314


    Critical thinking (CT) is purposeful, self-regulatory judgment that results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanations of the considerations on which that judgment is based. This article summarizes the available empirical evidence on the impact of instruction on the development and enhancement of critical thinking skills and dispositions and student achievement. The review includes 341 effects sizes drawn from quasi- or true-experimental studies that used standardized measures of CT as outcome variables. The weighted random effects mean effect size (g+) was 0.30 (p < .001). The collection was heterogeneous (p < .001). Results demonstrate that there are effective strategies for teaching CT skills, both generic and content specific, and CT dispositions, at all educational levels and across all disciplinary areas. Notably, the opportunity for dialogue, the exposure of students to authentic or situated problems and examples, and mentoring had positive effects on CT skills.

  10. Here’s a recent study on the visual element in Critical Thinking.

    Improving analytical reasoning and argument understanding: a quasi-experimental field study of argument visualization

    Simon Cullen, Judith Fan, Eva van der Brugge and Adam Elga.

    Science of Learning (2018) 3:21 ; doi:10.1038/s41539-018-0038-5

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