Consensus is rare in education, but if there’s broad agreement on anything pertaining to schooling, it’s on the need for students to develop critical thinking ability. But that’s where the consensus ends. Some perceive critical thinking as a content-neutral, generic skill that can be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract. Others insist that critical thinking can’t be taught at all, and that it’s a function of content mastery: The architect can think critically and solve problems in architecture; the master gardener can think critically about horticulture. Neither has a well-developed critical thinking muscle that is of any use in solving the other’s problems. Wading into the debate is Dan Willingham, the peerless University of Virginia cognitive scientist, with a brisk and readable new paper commissioned by the New South Wales (Australia) Department of Education. It should go right to the top of every educator’s summer reading list.

Willingham offers what he calls a “commonsensical view” of critical thinking. “You are thinking critically if (1) your thinking is novel—that is, you aren’t simply drawing a conclusion from a memory of a previous situation and (2) your thinking is self-directed—that is, you are not merely executing instructions given by someone else and (3) your thinking is effective—that is, you respect certain conventions that make thinking more likely to yield useful conclusions.” Those conventions might include things like considering both sides of an issue and not allowing emotion to cloud reason.

There is evidence that critical thinking can be taught, and Willingham cites several examples in fields as disparate as psychology and naval warfare. But when you teach students to evaluate an argument in a newspaper editorial, he notes, the hope is that they will learn to evaluate arguments generally. “This aspect of critical thinking is called transfer,” Willingham says, and here things get murky and the evidence mixed. “For educators, one fact ought to be salient. We are not even sure the general skills exist, but we are quite sure there is no proven way to teach them directly,” he writes. “In contrast, we have a pretty good idea of how to teach students the more specific critical thinking skills. I suggest we do so.”

He offers practical steps—not simple or facile ones—that start with identifying specifically what is meant by critical thinking in each subject area or domain. “It is not useful to set a goal that students ‘think like historians,’” he notes, deftly dispensing with the oft-repeated education homily. “If students are to read as historians do, they need to learn specific skills like interpreting documents in light of their sources, corroborating them, and putting them in historical context.” Crucially, those are not the same suite of skills that allow someone to “think like a scientist.” Domain knowledge is a driver of thinking skills so it’s essential to identify the specific content that students must know. Of course, that’s a minefield that most of us prefer to avoid (and surely one of the reasons we prefer to elevate “thinking skills” over specific content in the first place). “But not choosing is still making a choice,” Willingham sagely points out. “It is choosing not to plan, and to let random forces determine what students learn.” Likewise, we need to establish the sequence in which skills are taught and knowledge introduced. “We interpret new information in light of what we already know. The right preparation makes new learning easier,” Willingham observes. Finally, time must be allocated to revisit key skills across a number of years. This revisiting “should be assured and planned.”

So it’s not true that critical thinking can’t be taught, but neither is it the case that we can dispense with hard decisions about what to teach, or to dismiss the need for deep domain knowledge. “Experimental evidence shows that an expert does not think as well outside her area of expertise, even in a closely related domain.” Willingham explains. “She is still better than a novice, but her skills do not transfer completely.”

In sum, Willingham dispenses with the idea that critical thinking can’t be taught, but this brisk yet comprehensive paper offers no comfort to those searching for shortcuts and workarounds, a critical thinking Northwest Passage to get us quickly to the destination. “The way the mind works, shallow is what you get first. Deep, critical thinking is hard-won,” Willingham concludes. “Patience will be a key ingredient in any program that succeeds.”

SOURCE: Daniel T. Willingham, “How to Teach Critical Thinking,” New South Wales Department of Education (2019).

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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