In today’s show, we’re focusing on critical thinking: What is it? Can you teach it? And if so, what curricula work best? After you listen, don’t forget to like, share, and leave us a review.
AJ: I thought we’d start by defining what we mean by “critical thinking,” but that’s not as easy as it sounds. Merriam-Webster doesn’t even offer a definition of it as a set term. The Oxford Languages online dictionary defines it as “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it as “careful thinking directed to a goal.” John Dewey defined what he called “reflective” or “critical thinking” in an educational context as “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.”
“Critical Thinking” article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/
[Note that this is from Daniel Willingham’s most recent article on this subject: found here.]
Willingham defines critical thinking as having 3 key components:
- your thinking is novel—that is, you aren’t simply drawing a conclusion from a memory of a previous situation;
- your thinking is self-directed—that is, you are not merely executing instructions given by someone else; and
- your thinking is effective—that is, you respect certain conventions that make thinking more likely to yield useful conclusions.
Willingham argues that critical thinking can be taught if you define it this way. For example, teach students to certain criteria for evaluating something, have them evaluate something by that criteria, and et voila! They do better than students who are taught general principles rather than evaluation criteria.
If this is interesting to you, I highly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value by William Poundstone, as well as counters against cognitive biases like the ideas in The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.
As usual, I’m here to present practical applications and precedent after homeschooling/parenting for so long. Basically, my anecdotes support the science that Courtney and AJ quoted. Critical (deep thought) is hard won and IMO only achieved when you get the student heavily invested in the subject matter. I want to do a quick dive into the very many Critical Thinking workbooks on the market.
In my opinion, Critical Thinking workbooks don’t do much besides raise test scores in most cases. They also teach kids how to “game the test” While test practice is helpful- especially for students at home who don’t get as much practice- it doesn’t take long for students to figure out shortcuts on the standardized tests. But, do standardized tests measure Critical Thinking? I don’t think so.