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How to Teach Critical Thinking

 

“Critical thinking” is all the rage in education these days.  Educators, parents, and politicians are all gushing about how important critical thinking is to children’s future success.  Every new curriculum (especially Common Core) makes bold claims (usually unjustified) about how much it promotes “critical thinking.”  Every school mission statement I’ve read says at least something about critical thinking.

I agree, critical thinking is very important to becoming one’s own person and expressing oneself in a coherent manner.  It’s also critical (see what I did there?) to success in a variety of professional and prestigious fields.

Too bad the public schools don’t actually teach critical thinking.

Critical thinking begins with observation.  To reach a good conclusion, you must have the facts.  A critical thinker can discern the relevant from the irrelevant, and the credible from the incredible.  A critical thinker can extrapolate generalizations from a set of data.  A critical thinker examines evidence to find cause and effect.  The whole point of critical thinking is to reach logical conclusions based on evidence.

Public schools don’t teach this.  (Not to knock individual teachers; I know lots of great public school teachers who are doing their best to teach children to think for themselves.)

Don’t believe me?  Here are a few examples:

1.  At a children’s science museum, I saw an exhibit about the controversy surrounding whether or not to grow human organs in pigs for transplanting into humans.  Pretty weighty stuff.  This was also being presented to kids who barely understand things like the systems of the human body and DNA.  The exhibit had about two paragraphs worth of information.  The interactive part was for kids to pretend to be the state governor, and record a speech about their position on this controversial topic.

Basically, quick, kid, come up with an opinion on this controversial topic that 5 minutes ago you didn’t even know existed and tell everyone about it!

2.  While teaching fourth grade, I stayed after school one day to help with the school newspaper.  A student was writing an article about man-made global warming.  As part of her evidence, she used an isolated instance of colder than usual temperatures in such-and-such place.  As evidence for global warming.  I tried to help her realize that an instance of weather being colder isn’t exactly evidence for the Earth getting warmer, but her teacher had told her that the Earth is getting warmer, so that was that.

This kid couldn’t even tell me the difference between climate and weather.

3.  Then there’s this assignment.  Sixth grade students were told to select two amendments from the Bill of Rights that are outdated, and write two new ones.  Students were to write an essay explaining their choices.  There was no background on the origins of the Bill of Rights or why they are important.  Just axe two and replace them with something more “relevant.”

That word “relevant” is telling.  The teacher has decided that the Bill of Rights is irrelevant, and is making the students agree with him or her by not giving them an option to keep all 10 amendments.

Conclusion: These students are not learning critical thinking.  They have a minimal understanding of the topic, and are told to form an opinion in the absence of information.  What they end up doing is adopting the opinions and biases of their teachers without actually thinking about any of it.  All they are learning is to be critical of anything that contradicts what their teacher said.

Critical thinking does not begin with the controversial topics.  It starts with the basics: the foundation.  It’s the result of logical thinking.

1.  My math curriculum with my Kindergarten students began with addition.  I would give them a problem like “2+0,” and let them tell me the answer.  Then I flipped it around, and asked them “0+2.”  Naturally, they gave me the same answer.  “What?” I asked them, acting all incredulous.  “How is it the same answer?  It’s a different problem!”  I let them explain to me that, since the numbers being added are the same, the answer is the same.  In short, they figured out the commutative property.  5 year old kids did that.

2.  More recently, in science we’ve been talking about animals.  We examined pictures of the parts of an insect.  We counted the legs of several different kinds and concluded that, just like our science chart said, all insects have 6 legs.  “What about spiders?” one kid asked.

“Well, how many legs does a spider have?” I asked back.

“8 legs.”

“Well, if an insect has 6 legs, and a spider has 8 legs, then…” I trailed off.

“A spider isn’t an insect.”  I didn’t tell them that.  They figured it out for themselves.

3.  As a second grade teacher, I saw my students make even greater leaps of logic.  Grammar was my especial favorite.

My students were working on prepositional phrases.  They already knew adjectives and adverbs, and were working on identifying whether a given prepositional phrase was an adjective or adverb phrase.  To figure it out, students labeled parts of speech and diagrammed the sentence.  For example: The girl in the blue dress is smiling.  “In the blue dress” is an adjective phrase, because it is modifying “girl” by answering the question “which?”  (Why, yes, my second graders could articulate all this for me!)

My students had an epiphany when I gave them a sentence like this: The farmer milked the cow in the barn.

Some students interpreted “in the barn” as an adjective phrase, telling “which cow.”  Some students interpreted “in the barn” as an adverb phrase, telling where the farmer milked the cow.  They insisted I tell them who was right.

Then, they had an epiphany.  A prepositional phrase can be an adjective phrase or an adverb phrase, depending on where it was in the sentence.  I can not express how proud I was of my students at that moment.

If you want to teach critical thinking, don’t give kids the answers.  Give them the facts.  Let them figure out the answers.  Then, when they get to the controversial topics, they’ll have something intelligent to contribute.

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7 Comments

  1. Got totally immersed in the well written article and accurate information. A helpful article for everyone. Great to see such knowledgable articles on your blog.

  2. Mikey Gee says:

    Erin,

    My long held though rarely expressed impression is that critical thinking is the subject/value in which you and I have the most agreement. It is the secret, shared language which has allowed our two very different worlds to agree, disagree and agree to disagree. I’d probably overstep even the radical pendulum swing in favor of critical thinking and say it is half the purpose of all education. In addition to that I’d say that critical thinking ought to always lead knowledge, the other half of education.

    I have been prejudiced to believe that criticism of Common Core standards is more political than content and though I won’t delve any deeper than you did in your post. It is enough to say that as an educator primarily interested in critical thinking I find the Common Core standards (in English Language Arts in particular) to be exemplary in supporting critical thinking.

    My love for critical thinking will lead me to argue against some of your counter examples but I agree with your primary thesis: critical thinking is not being taught very well. There are structural features of contemporary society which make this inevitable or even intentional but your examples do not necessarily reveal this problem.

    Your three positive examples show some of the key features of critical thinking: start with something the students know, show the students something related with features they do not know, set student talk to explain what they can know about the second something based on what they know of the first something.

    You are correct (or at least I agree) that the three negative examples are imperfect instances of teaching critical thinking, lacking the context of “something the students know.” However, this does not mean they are poor teaching tools for critical thinking. You know that teaching some times is done in chunks and certain teaching points are emphasized. The three negative examples can serve critical thinking because of their requirements that students develop expression and justification skills. Students cannot jump directly from the simple discovery shown in your positive examples to think critically about the complex issues developed in your negative examples. It is educationally appropriate to have lessons where despite a lack of deep understanding of the context students would practice expression and justification skills just like it is educationally appropriate to have lessons where the focus is only on gaining context/knowledge of a subject without (yet) expressing or justifying critical analysis of the subject.

    I am going to stop unless my comment be longer than your post (when we largely agree) but for further reading on the subject I would strongly recommend C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man.” Which is Lewis’ criticism of critical thinking in education at the express expense of imagination. It is an analysis of the short comings and danger of critical thinking which could only be made by a great lover of critical thinking.

    • I’m definitely interested in “The Abolition of Man.” I’ve been fascinated by everything I’ve read by C.S. Lewis so far!

      Certainly students would not be able to leap straight from critical thinking about insects to global warming. Rather, what I was trying to illustrate is that, if you don’t start with the basics, students will not magically demonstrate critical thinking when they are older and on to more advanced topics. If they can’t draw a logical conclusion about a math problem, how are they supposed to come up with an intelligent opinion about controversial scientific and political topics?

      I only touched on it in my post, but I’d like to point out that concerns about a teacher’s subjectivity are very serious. A teacher has no right to straight up tell students that the Bill of Rights is obsolete.

      As for Common Core, I haven’t done that much research on it, but I strongly dislike the way it is being forced on parents and teachers.

      • Mikey Gee says:

        I’d consider “Abolition” Lewis’ best philosophical work though it is hardly casual reading.

        I agree with you about teacher subjectivity but do not know any way to address it… especially if you don’t like ideas being forced on parents and teachers.

        As for Common Core, I certainly recognize the arguments against centralized (federal) standards but the ELA standards seem like a step by step process in how to teach students to read and write like me. My only criticism with the actual content of the ELA standards is that they might be a too “big picture” for a generation of teachers trained in the minutia of teaching points mandated by CA standards.

  3. aekohli says:

    Thanks for that article. I have a batch of piano students who cannot answer differently worded questions and correlate different topic in music and piano playing and have realised they lack logical skills. I’ve just posted a blog about it and how the parents and i have dealt with it and am seeing results. I think it’s not only the educational system, it’s also the parenting, because i see children with the same educational system, bright and on the button and thinking quick. Teachers do need to change, but parents too can do a lot, when the education system is not effective – we have 50 students per class on an average here in India, so school teachers struggle

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