Can critical thinking actually be taught?

Monday, February 27th, 2017

Can critical thinking actually be taught?

Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.


  1. Wilbur Hassenfus says:

    It’s always been hard for me to imagine how anybody who was very good at critical thinking could fall for the pastor’s notion that you can teach people to think critically. They taught us critical thinking in school. Stuff like “Nixon was really bad. You should vote for Democrats, because you’re young and JFK.”

    But then I’m no good at it myself.

  2. Ross says:

    It never occurred to me tothink that this skill was strictly binary — “either you have it or you don’t,” period. Interesting. I wudda thunk that, like many things pertaining to intelligence, it appeared across a spectrum.

    Probably I am just not looking at it from multiple perspectives.

  3. Harper's Notes says:

    “Know your IQ” is not actually one of the Delphic maxims, but it’s probably a good idea anyway. It’s just a number to most and doesn’t really sink in. It needs to be paired with some kind of practice that provides a lot of regular fast feedback to thinking-mistakes, like tournament chess. Of the characteristics of people who did well at the Good Judgment Project (mostly geopolitical forecasting) it turned out one of the better indicators was tournament chess play. Like weather forecasters (who also did well at the GJP), chess players get constantly reminded they’re not as smart as they’d like to think, which seems to be the most important aspect of critical thinking — self-critiquing.

  4. Watcher says:

    Intelligence is a funny thing. Story goes that Einstein received a large check as part of some honour, and used it as a bookmark before returning the book to the library. Happily the library found it and returned it.

    Maybe he didn’t think it was important, or maybe he was far too intelligent in other areas to remember what the hell he had done with the check.

  5. Harper's Notes says:

    About Einstein using the check as a bookmark, the topic of hyperfocus seems poorly researched at this time. Seems important. The Wikipedia entry is mostly about ADHD and autism purported associations. The discussion over in creativity research, associated with ‘flow’, never seemed satisfactorily rigorous for me.

  6. Wan Wei Lin says:

    If critical thinking requires the ability to synthesize multiple viewpoints and issues then the pre-requisite is personal experiences and knowledge database that comes with a lifetime. So in effect we are trying to get the young to think like they have a lifetime of experience. I think I see the problem. That and some people are just not wired to think critically.

  7. Kirk says:

    Intelligence is poorly defined. We test for a range of skills, and call that intelligence, but the problem is that the people who do really well on those tests are often complete dunderheads at life in general outside of those skills tested for.

    I would submit that we probably don’t know what the hell we’re doing in this regard, and might perhaps want to rethink the approaches we take in these matters. Raw problem-solving intelligence has a range of expression; a person can be an absolute genius at abstract spatial relationships, and solving puzzles–While simultaneously being a complete idiot when it comes to dealing with other people.

    Some of this stuff is learnable, but… Dear God, the stuff that isn’t just cannot be taught to some people. I had a couple of guys working for me over the years I was in the Army who were exquisitely intelligent and able to score incredibly high on the tests, yet who were utter fools when it came to managing other people. They would do stuff that would just boggle the mind, and when they got called on it, or it blew up in their faces, I would have to walk them through what they’d done, step-by-bloody-step. And, they wouldn’t get it, continuing to repeat the whole sorry sequence of errors repetitively, no matter what I tried to do to counter this flaw in their personalities. Root cause? Utter lack of empathy for others, and an inability to process how their actions and behavior would be interpreted by others.

    Likewise, I had guys who were brilliant at management and leadership, yet dumb as posts when it came to doing anything else, like solve problems on the ground or try to do semi-complex admin work.

    I’m convinced that we have a very poor definition of just what constitutes intelligence, and what we test for is an inadequate simulacrum for the skills and capabilities we need. The whole thing is a very poorly understood, and entirely nebulous concept, one which stands out in my mind the way obscenity did for Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart–”I know it when I see it…”.

    And, I’ve seen an awful lot of people who scored very high on traditional IQ tests, yet who were dumb as posts about just about everything other than that narrow range of subjects.

    Critical thinking is precisely the same; it’s poorly defined, badly taught in most cases, and again, it’s something that fits that dictum of Stewart’s…

  8. Alrenous says:

    Saying “Look at it from multiple perspectives” is meaningless unless you already know what it means. Like saying, “Oh, just take the curl” to someone familiar with neither the grad operator nor cross products. You have to know what a perspective is exactly, and how to change yours. At least you can google ‘curl operator’ and, in time, learn what it is. Google ‘perspective’ and you get a bunch of fluffy virtue-signallers.

    It would seem one of the folk lacking critical thinking is the supposed expert, who ironically can’t look at the subject from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know it well.

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