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What is critical thinking and how do we teach it in schools?

A recent paper commissioned by the NSW Department of Education sheds light on the importance of critical thinking skills in the future, strategies to teach critical thinking and the kinds of programs that do and don’t work. It should come as no surprise that critical thinking skills have always been important, but as technologies such as AI, automation and algorithms become ubiquitous and affect both our agency and perception of ‘truth’, such skills will become absolutely necessary.

In How to Teach Critical Thinking, Dr Daniel Willingham begins with addressing the content knowledge versus skills debate surrounding critical thinking, a crude binary that ignores the necessity of both. Willington then gives a definition of what it is to think critically, arguing that it involves thinking in ways that are novel, self-directed and effective. He also provides another pithy definition of “thinking when others do not”.

“For example, if you want a long black at your local cafe, you would probably just order it and pay your three dollars. But you might notice that the shop charges 35 cents for hot water and 75 cents for an espresso shot added to any drink; you could order hot water and a shot instead. What makes this example interesting is that someone could think to try working the angles of a coffee shop menu whereas most people would not. It’s not the difficulty of thinking successfully, it’s deciding to think in the first place. Educators hope to instil this quality,” he writes.

While the earlier definitions are just as legitimate, there is something refreshingly democratic and creative about the above example. In this version of critical thinking, Willingham is encouraging us to think outside of the proverbial box, to question authority, to realise that our thoughts do have the potential to change realities.

One of the key points made in Willingham’s comprehensive paper is that programs that have endeavoured to teach critical thinking in isolation have generally been found wanting. This is due to the fact that thinking critically is different in every domain.

“What do these results tell us about the nature of critical thinking? They tell us something that we perhaps should have recognised with a bit of reflection. It is not useful to think of critical thinking skills, once acquired, as broadly applicable. Wanting students to be able to “analyse, synthesise and evaluate” information sounds like a reasonable goal. But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines,” Willingham writes.

“Literary criticism has its own internal logic, its norms for what constitutes good evidence and a valid argument. These norms differ from those found in mathematics, for example. And indeed, different domains – science and history, say – have different definitions of what it means to “know” something.”

Instead of trying to generalise critical thinking skills, Willingham recommends a domain-based approach.

“First, identify what is meant by critical thinking in each domain. Be specific. What tasks showing critical thinking should a high school graduate be able to do in mathematics, history, and other subjects? It is not useful to set a goal that students “think like historians,” or “learn the controversies surrounding historical events,” he contends.

Second, Willingham states that educators must identify the specific subject knowledge that the students must know. “It is not enough to know that a letter was written by an army sergeant to his wife just before the Battle of Romani. The student must know enough about the historical context to understand how this sourcing information ought to influence his or her interpretation of the letter.” The above crystallises why content knowledge and critical thinking skills are inextricable: skills require contexts.

Thirdly, critical thinking skills should be taught in a sequential fashion, building on prior skills and knowledge at every point. The final recommendation Willingham makes is the need for students to revisit critical thinking skills over their school lives.

“Studies show that even if content is learned quite well over the course of half of a school year, about half will be forgotten in three years (Pawl et al., 2012). That doesn’t mean there’s no value in exposing students to content just once; most students will forget much but they’ll remember something, and for some students, an interest may be kindled. But when considering skills we hope will stick with students for the long term, we should plan on at least three to five years of practice (Bahrick, 1984; Bahrick & Hall, 1991),” he writes.

Dr Daniel Willingham is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. His research interests are in the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education.

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