Critical Thoughts on Teaching Critical Thinking

Over at The Learning Scientists, Althea Need Kaminske asks if we can teach critical thinking.

Reasonably enough, she argues that it depends on our definition of “critical thinking.”

Let’s consider two different kinds:

Type I Critical Thinking: Within Disciplines

Type II Critical Thinking: Across Disciplines

Kaminske’s answer goes like this:

Teaching critical thinking within disciplines (type I) is hard, but can be done.

Teaching critical thinking across disciplines (type II) is really hard, and can sort of be done.

Type I: Critical Thinking Within Disciplines

When we learn a lot about any particular subject, our increased knowledge of that subject allows us to think critically about it. Especially if we practice thinking critically.

So, for example, I’ve spent most of my life acting in, directing, and studying plays. I can (and do) think critically about the theater quite often.

I can tell you why the set worked, but the costumes didn’t. I can explain why this actor’s performance suited the first act of the play but not the second. I can opine that the director’s background (she does musicals more often than plays) has shaped her interpretation of this distinctly un-musical script.

Important warning:

This expertise takes quite a long time and explicit practice to develop. In a famous foundational study from 1981, Chi et al. found that graduate students (!) in physics thought more like undergrads than like professors.

That is: after years of high-level physics study, they still weren’t proficient at seeing below the surface features of a problem to its deep structures. They hadn’t yet mastered critical thinking in their discipline.

They still needed more practice.

Type II: Critical Thinking Across Disciplines

Important warning #2: the critical thinking skills I developed in the theater almost certainly don’t apply in other disciplines.

My theater skill/knowledge certainly won’t help me categorize physics problems.

They won’t help me — in Kaminske’s example — draw expert judgments about different types and qualities of beer. (I’d need LOTS MORE beer expertise to do so. Care to join me?)

Here’s a test you might try: watch 10 minutes of a rugby match. If you — like me — don’t know nothin’ about rugby, you’re unlikely to have much insight into the game you saw.

Why? Because we need LOTS of specific knowledge about and experience in rugby to have critical rugby insights. Our ability to think critically about lesson plans doesn’t help here.

For instance, Kaminske teaches a course on Statistics and Research Methods. For the course, her students have to do a literature review, and write it up as a persuasive essay. All of her students have taken a college course on persuasive writing:

This writing course focuses on writing essays and constructing persuasive arguments. I know that my students know how to do this. I also know that they have no idea how to transfer those skills to my class.

That is: demonstrated critical thinking in one kind of analytical college writing doesn’t transfer to another discipline. She has to teach them explicitly how to do so.

To be clear: Kaminske holds out some hope about about cross-disciplinary critical thinking. Quoting research by van Gelder, she argues that some strategies — such as visualization — promote critical thinking skills in many disciplines.

And yet, that hope is tempered with caution. As a cognitive psychologist with an interest in science fiction movies, she has critical insights into the Matrix, and similar shows.

However, my ability to think critically about cognitive psychology in these movies/shows does not necessarily mean I can think critically about the cinematography or directing. …

Or that I can think critically about any number of things outside of my very specific areas of training and experiences. My critical thinking is very good in a specific domains and less good outside of that domain.

Classroom Implications

Teachers have a finite number of hours that we can spend helping our students think. We should choose the most effective strategies to get that job done.

When we want students to think critically, we can help them do so in two ways.

First: we can teach them more information and skills within a particular topic.

If I want my students to think critically about poetry, they should read a lot of poems, and learn a lot about authors and genres and analytical strategies.

Second: we can give them many opportunities to engage in critical work.

The more time they spend comparing poems, or figures of speech, or genres of love poetry, the more skilled they will become at the critical thinking necessary to do so.

We might wish that cross-disciplinary critical thinking strategies (our type II) existed. Perhaps some — like visualization — do help.

Given what we know about type II critical thinking, however, our most effective strategy will be to focus on type I.

A Final, Sheepish Confession

Honestly, I wish this conclusion weren’t true. I wish we could teach a general critical thinking skill that would apply to all realms of cognitive activity.

I really like how that sounds.

But, scholars starting with Daniel Willingham (back in Why Don’t Students Like School?) have shown that we need lots o’ disciplinary knowledge, and lots o’ specific practice.

I think I serve my students — and my readers — best by acknowledging that frank truth.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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