Can “Generic” Critical Thinking Be Taught?

James Fallows has been blogging this past week about criticisms the Chinese education system doesn't teach critical and/or creative thinking. He posted this interesting letter on the teachability of critical thinking:

There are two related debates going back many decades now:

(1) Is critical thinking a "generic" or domain-independent skill?
(2) Can critical thinking be taught as subject or skill in its own right?

People who answer no to the first question also tend to answer no to the second as well. 

However these positions are definitely in the minority in the community of experts in this area. 

To me, questions (1) and (2) are scarcely worth debating any more.  The existence of generic skills can be proven simply by pointing to examples.  The teachability of critical thinking can be proven by teaching it successfully.  I devoted about half a dozen years of my academic career to working on methods for effective and affordable teaching of critical thinking.  We were able to reliably generate substantial gains over one semester.  Ergo, critical thinking can be taught.  Case closed.  [For more detail, we have a meta-analysis of hundreds of empirical studies in this area.]

What is true is that standard approaches inculcating critical thinking skills (such as putting people through a college degree, even a liberal arts degree) make disappointingly little difference, and attempts to directly teach critical thinking also usually make little difference. 

But there's a very simple explanation for this.  Critical thinking is a skill, and like any complex skill, it takes a very large amount of deliberate practice to make any significant (in the sense of substantial, not "statistically significant") difference.  Our educational system has never been prepared to, or indeed able to, invest the kind of resources needed.

The writer argues yes, you can teach critical thinking as a skill in its own right. I would be interested in seeing the specific exercises and lessons one uses.

In America, this supposedly happens in our vast and unique liberal arts college system. There's the old cliche "a liberal arts education teaches you how to think." Well, it sounds good: It's not about filling your head with facts, it's about the thinking habits that get developed…or something….somehow. Occasionally I ask people, "What do you mean 'teaches you how to think'?" and I'm met with blank stares. It is one of these lines about education that sounds wonderful in the abstract but lacks concreteness, making it impossible to evaluate whether it is actually happening. The writer above notes that even liberal arts programs that do specifically try to impart critical thinking skills often fail.

Bottom Line: Critical thinking can probably be taught independent of other skills, but it is not being done in U.S. colleges in a way that creates meaningful difference (in this specific area) from its Chinese counterparts.

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