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.

9 comments on “Can “Generic” Critical Thinking Be Taught?
  • I completely agree and find that people like to think that just because they received or are receiving a ‘liberal arts’ education, that they are somehow gaining critical thinking skills automatically that others lack. This to me couldn’t be further from the truth. I think that as with any academic institution one’s critical thinking skills are developed by means of a really great and inspiring teacher. I feel that if a subject is taught correctly, one’s critical thinking skills will develop as a result of being inspired to develop. A good example is history which is all too often taught by means of linear dates and events, rather than by focusing on the actual individuals who made history. Whether it is history English, or math, all subjects should be taught in such a way that they inspire the student to think critically.

  • Very interesting post.

    I had my primary education in China, and came to the US for high school, college and graduate school.

    I have to say that the US education system does a better job in letting students to think.

    In China, a lot of my learning were based on memorization, and getting the facts straight. In the US, at least I had the opportunity to work on term papers, research on my own, and come up with my own opinions on things. Is this critical thinking? I’m not so sure, but it’s better than what I had in China.

    While I was attending Cal Berkeley, one thing I really appreciated was the opportunity to be exposed to different kind of thinking and framework. For example, taking computer science courses expose me to one type of solving problem (abstraction, automation, etc.). Taking sociology class showed me how to think about problems from a sociological perspective. Similarly, anthropology, psychology and other disciplines have their own framework and unique ways to look at things.

    For me, this is the most valuable thing I learned in college. I learn to look at the world and analyze events/situations from multiple dimensions, as opposed to a narrow perspective. Is this critical thinking? Again, I’m not sure. But, I did become a more independent thinker, and less likely being swayed by media and external pressures.

  • Of course ‘general’ critical thinking can be taught. But for it to be effective, it has to be specific.

    I like Edward De Bono’s work.

    Less rigorous I like to walk myself through different people’s viewpoints and value systems in a group. This allows me to not only learn to analyze things differently (I do some good investigation when i don’t understand how someone thinks about something) it also enables me to connect with more people through empathy.

    Critical thinking cannot be divorced from the people doing the critical (or not-so-critical) thinking).

  • Interesting topic, but I have to ask the big question: So what?

    What are you writing this post for? That’s all 🙂 I’m not trying to be rude, just lessen my confusion as to what your ultimate point is here.

  • I think the case method is the clearest example I know of in the U.S. education system for teaching you how to think, and I’d also say it’s pretty effective.

  • Interesting post. Masters programs generally do a decent job of this–at least from my experience–as do most top notch law programs.

    I know from personal experience that some of the smartest and most critical thinking individuals I’ve ever met have been through high school and college debate (both the public policy and Lincoln-douglas varieties). Most also seem to think this experience makes law school and grad school easy by comparison.

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