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Teaching for critical thinking
WHAT IS IT?
HOW TO TEACH IT?
A wide interest, and the multiplication of initiatives
Initiatives on the teaching and assessment of 21st century skills originate in
the widely-held belief shared by several interested groups teachers, educational researchers, policy makers, politicians, employers that the current century will demand a very different set of skills and
competencies from people in order for them to function effectively at
work, as citizens and in their leisure time (e.g. Dede, 2007; Kalantzis and
Initiatives such as the Partnership for 21st skills (www.21stcenturyskills.org)
and the Cisco/Intel/Microsoft assessment and teaching of 21st century skills
project (www.atc21s.org) also point to the importance currently attached to
this area not only by researchers, practitioners and policy makers but also
the private sector. Supporters and advocates of the 21st century skills
movement argue for the need for reforms in schools and education to
respond to the social and economic needs of students and society in the 21st
century. (Ananiadou & Claro, 2009)
There is a widespread acceptance of the idea that critical thinking should be an
important dimension of science education. Thus, for example, the National Science
Education Standards (1996) has as one of its goals the promotion of science as inquiry.
Included in this goal are numerous items which focus on critical thinking, for example
“identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of
alternative explanations (p. 23); “analysis of firsthand events and phenomena a well as
critical analysis of secondary sources; testing reliability of knowledge they have
generated” (p.33); and “the critical abilities of analyzing an argument by reviewing
current scientific understanding, weighing the evidence, and examining the logic so as
to decide which explanation and models are best. (Bailin 2002)
No consensus about what is CT, how to teach
it, whether it can be learnt
• Resnick 1987
Inevitably, we hear the question: Is there really anything new about schools'
trying to teach higher order skills? Haven't schools always hoped to teach
students to think critically, to reason, to solve problems, to interpret, to
refine ideas and to apply them in creative ways?
Nevertheless, we seem to agree that students do not adequately learn these
higher order abilities. Perhaps the fact that our schools have been less than
successful at meeting these goals means that we have simply given up the
old truths in education. Perhaps if we went back to old- fashioned courses
and old-fashioned methods, the problem of teaching higher order skills
would be solved without further special attention.
Or, more pessimistically, perhaps we should conclude that decades of trying
unsuccessfully to teach higher order skills in school show that such goals
are not reachable; perhaps higher order abilities develop elsewhere than in
school, and it would be wisest for schools to concentrate on the “basics,”
letting higher order abilities emerge later or under other auspices.
virtually everyone would agree that a primary, yet insufficiently
met, goal of schooling is to enable students to think critically. In
layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of
an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your
ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed
by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available
facts, solving problems, and so forth.
Then too, there are specific types of critical thinking that are
characteristic of different subject matter: That’s what we mean
when we refer to “thinking like a scientist” or “thinking like a
This proper and commonsensical goal has very often been
translated into calls to teach “critical thinking skills” and “higherorder thinking skills”—and into generic calls for teaching students
to make better judgments, reason more logically, and so forth.
After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little
improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question:
Can critical thinking actually be taught?
Decades of cognitive research point to a dis- appointing answer:
People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed
that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other
skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation.
Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that
sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the
content of thought (that is, domain knowledge).
Teaching for critical thinking
WHAT IS IT?
HOW TO TEACH IT?
The first difficulties arise with the very
question of what is meant by the term
“higher order skills.” Many candidate
definitions are available.
Philosophers promote critical thinking
and logical reasoning
skills, developmental psychologists point
to metacognition, and cognitive scientists
study cognitive strategies and heuristics.
Educators advocate training in study skills
and problem solving.
How should we make sense of these
many labels? Do critical
thinking, metacognition, cognitive
strategies, and study skills refer to the
same kinds of capabilities? And how are
they related to the problem-solving
mathematicians, scientists, and engineers
try to teach their students? (Resnick
Higher order thinking
• Higher order thinking is nonalgorithmic. That is, the path of action is not fully
specified in advance.
• Higher order thinking tends to be complex. The total path is not “visible”
(mentally speaking) from any single vantage point.
• Higher order thinking often yields multiple solutions, each with costs and
benefits, rather than unique solutions.
• Higher order thinking involves nuanced judgment and interpretation.
• Higher order thinking involves the application of multiple criteria, which
sometimes conflict with one another.
• Higher order thinking often involves uncertainty. Not everything that bears on
the task at hand is known.
• Higher order thinking involves self-regulation of the thinking process. We do
not recognize higher order thinking in an individual when someone else “calls
the plays” at every step.
• Higher order thinking involves imposing meaning, finding structure in
• Higher order thinking is effortful. There is considerable mental work involved
in the kinds of elaborations and judgments required. (Resnick 1987 p. 7)
Critical thinking can be defined at minima, as
the faculty of parting wheat from chaff, of
distinguishing good arguments from bad
ones (because they are ill-formed) and
identifying beliefs that can be given away
(because they are not justified).
In search for consensus…
We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment
which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as
explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or
contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential
as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a
powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous
with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human
phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, wellinformed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in
evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making
judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex
matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection
of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as
precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit.
Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It
combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which
consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and
democratic society. (Facione 1990)
Socrate’s elenchus as in Plato’s
Thomas of Aquinas
Descartes: Rules for the
direction of the mind
CT = Good thinking (in
general/within a discipline)
Thinking that complies to norms
(logical norms & methods to follow)
Francis Bacon: The
advancement of learning
Robert Boyle: Sceptical Chymist
Definitions of critical thinking emerging from the philosophical tradition include
“the propensity and skill to engage in an activity with reflective skepticism”
(McPeck, 1981, p. 8);
“reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or
do” (Ennis, 1985, p. 45);
“skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it 1) relies
upon criteria, 2) is self-correcting, and 3) is sensitive to context” (Lipman, 1988, p.
“purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in
interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the
evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or conceptual considerations
upon which that judgment is based” (Facione, 1990, p. 3);
“disciplined, self-directed thinking that exemplifies the perfections of thinking
appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thought” (Paul, 1992, p. 9);
thinking that is goal-directed and purposive, “thinking aimed at forming a
judgment,” where the thinking itself meets standards of adequacy and accuracy
(Bailin et al., 1999b, p. 287); and
“judging in a reflective way what to do or what to believe” (Facione, 2000, p. 61).
• Research on reasoning, and its
• Research on judgment
• Research on decision-making
• Research on problem-solving
CT = skills & dispositions for
- thinking, thinking about thinking
- in general or within a certain domain
+ why thinking is hard
• Research on meta-cognition
• Research on expertise
• Research on strategies
cognitive scientists do not study critical thinking much, at least not as a
topic in its own right. This is partly because the topic is too broad and
open-ended to be captured by the cognitive scientist’s tightly focuses
techniques. Partly, it is also because critical thinking in general is a
neglected topic, despite its importance and broad relevance.
Nevertheless, cognitive scientists have some contributions to make.
They have developed some very general insights into how we think and
how we learn, and these can be carried over to critical thinking. They
also have studied many phenomena that are particular aspects or
dimensions of critical thinking. (van Gelder 2005)
humans are not naturally critical. Indeed, like ballet, critical thinking is
a highly contrived activity. Running is natural; nightclub dancing is less
so; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of
painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution did not intend us to
walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle might have
said, we were not designed to be at all that critical either. Evolution
foes not waste effort making things better than they need to be, and
homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive, while
competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out. (van
the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of
three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem
solving. I say that critical thinking is a subset of these because we think in these ways
all the time, but only sometimes in a critical way. Deciding to read this article, for
example, is not critical thinking. But carefully weighing the evidence it presents in
order to decide whether or not to believe what it says is. Critical reasoning, decision
making, and problem solving—which, for brevity’s sake, I will refer to as critical
thinking—have three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction. Critical
thinking is effective in that it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of
an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from
passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on.
Critical thinking is novel in that you don’t simply remember a solution or situation
that is similar enough to guide you. For example, solving a complex but familiar
physics problem by applying a multi-step algorithm isn’t critical thinking because you
are really drawing on memory to solve the problem. But devising a new algorithm is
critical thinking. Critical thinking is self-directed in that the thinker must be calling
the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher
were prompting each step he took. (Willingham 2007)
Teaching for critical thinking
WHAT IS IT?
HOW TO TEACH IT?
«Dreams, the position of the stars, the lines of the hand, may be
regarded as valuable signs, and the fall of cards as an inevitable
omen, while natural events of the most crucial significance go
disregarded. Beliefs in portents of various kinds, now mere nook and
cranny superstitions, were once universal. A long discipline of exact
science was required for their conquest. » (Dewey, 1910, p. 21)
« The whole object of intellectual education is formation of logical
disposition » (Dewey, 1910, p. 57).
Ways of teaching CT
• formal teaching, e.g. working on some
form of brain gym, such as chess
• theoretical instruction, i.e. by learning
• situated cognition, from the extreme of
denying general critical thinking skills to
the idea of acquiring critical thinking
skills through engaging in domainspecific activities
• practice, e.g. applying the skills to
several domains, that vary
• evolutionary psychology, i.e.
consolidating skills we are naturally
• Stand alone: domaingeneral, content-free
• Integrated: domainspecific, content-rich
• Mixed: domains + generalization
• DeBono’s CoRT
• Productive Thinking Program – both based on planning
and meta-cognitive skills
• reading and studying from texts
• improvement of general intelligence, roblem-solving
techniques, memory strategies, informal
• Lipman’s Harry Stottlemeyer - activities for enhancing
argumentation skills and logics
some programs focus largely on identifying and correctly variety of practice and
labeling reasoning fallacies; others concentrate more on developing skills of
argumentation in extended discourse, without extensive formal analysis.
An important debate in the field exactly parallels psychologists' discussions of
whether general cognitive skills or specific knowledge is most central to intellectual
competence. (Renick 1987)
Most informal logic philosophers believe that general reasoning capacity can be
shaped and that it transcends specific knowledge domains (e.g., Ennis, 1980, 1985).
In an even stronger claim, Paul (1982, in press) argues that we should seek to develop
in students a broadly rational personality rather than any set of technical reasoning
This view usually, but not always, supports calls for independent critical thinking
However, a competing view, most strongly stated by McPeck (1981), argues that no
general reasoning skill is possible and that all instruction in thinking should be
situated in particular disciplines.
• Lilienfeld, Lohr and Morier (2001) have underlined the
importance of introducing specific teachings of science and
pseudo-science in the cursus of psychological studies, where
• Reif et al 1974 for physics; the work of Frederick Reif is
extensive and he has dedicated as much attention to physics
as to cognitive science and developing thinking skills in
• EMB shares many common aims and tools with the idea of
teaching and learning to think critically, including the aim of
developing a critical appraisal of evidence and ideas received
from tradition and authority.
While teaching critical thinking in one discipline, one can
• provide explicit instruction about rules and promote the use
of metacognitive attitudes towards learning:
• anchor instruction on concrete cases, and propose
variations (same inner structure, different superficial
content), so as to favor flexibility
• do not bound instruction to implicit learning, but explicit
both acquired knowledge and its contexts of application
• explicit the processes that have produced knowledge
acquisition, difficulties, strategies, that is: explicitly use and
train metacognitive skills.
Limits of teaching CT
CT & other higher skills teaching programs
Thinking and problem-solving programs within the academic disciplines seem to
meet their internal goals and perhaps even boost performance more generally.
It seems possible to raise reading competence by a variety of methods, ranging
from study skill training through the reciprocal teaching methods of Brown and
Palincsar to the discussions of philosophical texts in Lipman's program.
On the other hand, general improvements in problem-solving, rhetoric, or other
general thinking abilities have rarely been demonstrated, perhaps because few
evaluators have included convincing assessments of these abilities in their
The problem with evaluations
• Willingham 2007
How well do these programs work? Many researchers have tried to answer that
question, but their studies tend to have methodological problems. Four
limitations of these studies are especially typical, and they make any effects
1) students are evaluated just once after the program, so it’s not known whether
any observed effects are enduring;
2) there is not a control group, leaving it unclear whether gains are due to the
thinking program, to other aspects of schooling, or to experiences outside the
3) the control group does not have a comparison intervention, so any positive
effects found may be due, for example, to the teacher’s enthusiasm for
something new, not the program itself; and
4) there is no measure of whether or not students can transfer their new thinking
ability to materials that differ from those used in the program. In addition, only a
small fraction of the studies have undergone peer review (meaning that they
have been impartially evaluated by independent experts).
Difficulties with teaching CT
CT & The problem with content
1. content knowledge boosts performances, e.g. because it affects texts
comprehension or because it helps recasting problems in more solvable
2. the application of general procedures to specific knowledge might require
adjustments, or even just raise the problem of understanding that that certain
3. specific knowledge might trigger specific naïve ideas, biases and heuristics that
hinder a good solution to the problem
4. Even metacognitive skills are not as general as they might seem: even
metacognitive skills are enhanced by domain knowledge, and domain knowledge
favors the skilled use of metacognitive capacities within the perimeter
CT & The problem of transfer and generalization
students can learn metacognitive strategies that help them look past the surface
structure of a problem and identify its deep structure, thereby get- ting them a step
closer to figuring out a solution. Essentially the same thing can happen with scientific
thinking. Students can learn certain metacognitive strategies that will cue them to
think scientifically. But, as with problem solving, the metacognitive strategies only tell
the students what they should do—they do not provide the knowledge that students
need to actually do it. The good news is that within a content area like
science, students have more context cues to help them figure out which
metacognitive strategy to use, and teachers have a clearer idea of what domain
knowledge they must teach to enable students to do what the strategy calls for.
CT & The modular mind
Over the decades, educators have espoused a recurring belief that certain school
subject matters “discipline the mind” and therefore should be taught not so
much for their inherent value as for their efficacy in facilitating other learning.
Latin was defended for many years in these terms; mathematics and logic are
often so defended today. Most recently, computer programming has been
proposed as a way to develop general problem-solving and reasoning abilities
(e.g., Papert, 1980).
The view that we can expect strong transfer from learning in one area to
improvements across the board has never been well supported empirically.
Tooby & Cosmides 1997: Modularims in the framework of the evolved mind
"General intelligence" -- a hypothetical faculty composed of simple reasoning
circuits that are few in number, content-independent, and general purpose -- was
thought to be the engine that generates solutions to reasoning problems. The
flexibility of human reasoning -- that is, our ability to solve many different kinds
of problems -- was thought to be evidence for the generality of the circuits that
An evolutionary perspective suggests otherwise (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992).
Biological machines are calibrated to the environments in which they
evolved, and they embody information about the stably recurring properties of
these ancestral worlds.
is also content-independent. It can be applied indiscriminately to medical
diagnosis, card games, hunting success, or any other subject matter. It contains
no domain-specific knowledge, so it cannot support inferences that would apply
to mate choice, for example, but not to hunting. (That is the price of contentindependence.)
Evolved problem-solvers, however, are equipped with crib sheets:
they come to a problem already "knowing" a lot about it.
Without these privileged hypotheses -- about
faces, objects, physical causality, other minds, word meanings, and
so on -- a developing child could learn very little about its
This suggests that many evolved computational mechanisms will be
domain-specific: they will be activated in some domains but not
others. Some of these will embody rational methods, but others
will have special purpose inference procedures that respond not to
logical form but to content-types -- procedures that work well
within the stable ecological structure of a particular domain, even
though they might lead to false or contradictory inferences if they
were activated outside of that domain.
The more crib sheets a system has, the more problems it can solve.
A brain equipped with a multiplicity of specialized inference
engines will be able to generate sophisticated behavior that is
sensitively tuned to its environment.
This discipline-embedded approach has several advantages.
First, it provides a natural knowledge base and environment in which to practice and
develop higher order skills. As we have shown earlier, cognitive research has
established the very important role of knowledge in reasoning and thinking. One
cannot reason in the abstract; one must reason about something.
Second, embedding higher order skill training within school disciplines provides
criteria for what constitutes good thinking and reasoning within the disciplinary
tradition. Each discipline has characteristic ways of reasoning, and a complete higher
order education would seek to expose students to all of these. Reasoning and problem
solving in the physical sciences, for example, are shaped by particular combinations of
inductive and deductive reasoning, by appeal to mathematical tests, and by an
extensive body of agreed upon fact for which new theories must account.
Finally, teaching higher order skills within the disciplines will ensure that something
worthwhile will have been learned even if wide transfer proves unattainable. This
point is profoundly important. It amounts to saying that no special, separate brief for
teaching higher order skills need be made. Rather, it proposes that if a subject matter
is worth teaching in school it is worth teaching at a high level—to everyone.
Apparent de-correlation between CT and
• science education
• the diffusion of scientific literacy has not defeated pseudo-scientific
beliefs by and large (see Gallup Poll, Pew Survey, …)
• the study of science, at least as science is taught today, does not make the
difference in terms of pseudo-scientific beliefs
How then are we to reconcile having the most scientifically trained society
in history with the persistence of irrationality? Why do we not see a
significant drop of irrationality corresponding to the significant increase in
the levels of general science education in the last fifty years? (Ede 2000)
THE NOBEL DISEASE
Pierre Curie, physics (Eusapia Palladino)
Ivar Giaever, physics (global warming denier)
Louis J. Ignarro, physiology or medicine (Herbalife Niteworks)
Brian Josephson, physics (psi)
Philipp Lenard, physics (Nazi ideology)
Luc Montagnier, medicine (autism)
Kary Mullis, chemistry (supports astrology, denies anthropogenic
climate change, denies HIV causes AIDS)
Linus Pauling, chemistry (vitamin C)
Charles Richet, physiology (ectoplasm/mediums/telepathy)
William Shockley, physics (race & IQ)
John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, physics (president Society
for Psychical Research)
Nikolaas Tinbergen, physiology or medicine (autism)
James Watson, physiology or medicine (race & IQ)
Teaching for critical thinking
WHAT IS IT?
HOW TO TEACH IT?
Further difficulties with teaching CT
CT & The problem with motivation
Some have stressed the idea that the mastery of intellectual resources is still
insufficient for critical thinking, in the absence of a commitment of rational inquiry
and the habits of mind that apparently go with it.
Edward Glaser (1941) has defined the mastery of critical thinking in terms of:
a. an attitude, that is: being disposed to consider problems reflexively;
b. a form of knowledge, that is: knowing the principles of investigation and good
c. a skill, that is: being able to apply the principles.
A worldview: Irrational minds, with intuitions that cannot be trusted
Only two possible escapes can save us from the organized mayhem of
our dark potentialities-the side of human nature that has given us
crusades, witch hunts, enslavements, and holocausts. Moral decency
provides one necessary ingredient, but not nearly enough. The
second foundation must come from the rational side of our mentality.
For, unless we rigorously use human reason . . . we will lose out to the
frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, uncompromising
“true” belief, and the apparent resulting inevitability of mob action . .
. Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalismand is therefore one of the keys to human social and civic decency.
… Imagine a juror in the trial of a defendant accused of murdering a child. The
juror listens to the prosecution’s case, which is accompanied by grisly
photos, testimony from a detective who becomes visibly shaken when
describing the crime scene, and audible sobs from the victim’s family.
Then, roiled by emotions ranging from grief to outrage, she is called upon to do
something remarkable: listen to the defense just as receptively as she did to the
To do her job well, she will need more than good reasoning skills and the sturdy
skepticism that is appropriate when listening to dueling lawyers. She will also
need a certain set of values that will motivate her to do the difficult things
necessary to reach an honest verdict. (Gabennesh 2006)
CT is not a skill, but a domain-specific
aptitude and attitude
– CT requires domain knowledge
– CT depends on values and a worldview
– CT is hardly trasferred from one domain
& context to another
Thinking is hard to teach, even within a
discipline (e.g. science)