Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking for Parrots

Not actual parrots, I’m referring to humans who repeat words over and over without actually knowing what they mean. Specifically the phrase “critical thinking.”

This is a very popular buzzphrase in education. So popular that I constantly see it used by people who have no idea how to actually practice it, yet insist that we teach it to students.

At my previous school there was a daily meeting within my department. One teacher in particular would frequently talk about “critical thinking” in regard to her students. However, she would also spend the meetings talking about how great reiki was despite a complete lack of evidence for it. (And acupuncture, astrology, paleo and alkaline diets, crystals, and and endless amounts of other woo.) She once flat out told me that sea salt wasn’t made of sodium chloride (Seriously. NaCl = salt) because it was “different” and “special.”

You know what? If you’re not even using it in your own life, don’t bother teaching it to students. You’re probably doing it wrong and contaminating their educations with false beliefs about what critical thinking actually is.

It’s not just about “questioning everything,” and the endlessly repeated motto “don’t teach children what to think, teach them how to think” misses the fact that teaching someone “how to think” can be indoctrination instead of education. I hear this parroted by educators, administrators, politicians, and parents, without an actual critical look at what they are saying.

Instead of “what” to think or “how” to think, there is another choice: why to think? It’s not just that we know things about the world, but that knowledge comes from somewhere. Why we know things is often more valuable than the things themselves. Why science works is important. Knowing what the scientific method is can be helpful, and how to use it better still, but actually being able to evaluate why it exists, and why it is the way that it is, that is the greatest type of knowledge a teacher can foster.

Teach me what to think and I’ll take it or leave it.
Teach me how to think and I’ll still approach things my own way.
Teach me why to think and I’ll commit my life to it.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. May 24, 2015 at 8:45 pm —

    Well, what DID she think that sea salt is made of? Pixie grins and fairy dust?
    I’d have loved to ask her to be specific about /1/ precisely what she thought it was made of, and /2/ precisely how she had found that out.

    • May 24, 2015 at 9:01 pm —

      The conversation went approximately as follows (someone had brought some kind of “sea salt chocolate” to the meeting as a snack):

      Me: I don’t understand what the obsession with sea salt is these days. It’s still just sodium chloride.
      Her: No it isn’t. It’s different.
      Me: It is salt. Salt is sodium chloride, NaCl. That is literally what salt is.
      Her: No it’s not, sea salt is different. It’s special. It’s got all kinds of special minerals in it.
      Me: …

      (Bear in mind that this was accompanied by a whole host of other pseudoscientific beliefs, and she was one of the highest paid teachers at my school.)

      • May 27, 2015 at 3:50 pm —

        Well, it is true that sea salt has other minerals (and non-minerals) as well. It’s mostly NaCl, though.

        There are some salts of iodine, which I know is necessary, and in high enough concentrations that people who are allergic to iodine have to avoid it. I assume there’s potassium, which is necessary, too. Not sure about the rest.

        • May 27, 2015 at 10:07 pm —

          Yes, that is certainly true, which is why I never claimed that salt didn’t have other minerals, just that it was made of sodium chloride, which it is, and she said flat out that it wasn’t. Her argument later focused on the mystical properties of sea salt, balancing your energy, strengthening your immune system, detoxing, etc. To her, sea salt was magic, yet she thought it didn’t contain NaCl, perhaps because that sounded like a “chemical” and “chemicals” are bad. This was just one example of the problem with the “critical thinking” buzzword. She supposedly teaches critical thinking to her students, but will not challenge her own beliefs, even about something so clear as this. I remember learning about salt in 6th grade, it’s one of the really basic chemistry facts we expect our children to learn, like H2O = water.

          I’m a bit disappointed that the comments on my post are focused more on salt than on the fact that teachers who don’t use critical thinking are teaching “critical thinking,” but whatever, let’s talk about salt.

          Sea salt is either refined or unrefined, the unrefined stuff has trace (emphasis on trace) amounts of things like magnesium, calcium, sulphates, potassium, and random sediment. The specific salt in question (in that chocolate) was refined, which reduced/eliminated the trace amounts of those minerals.

          You mentioned iodine, but that is fortified salt. We add things like iodine, anti-caking agents, iron, and sometimes fluoride to mass produced table salt for specific health or usage benefits. Iodine in particular is very important, because a deficiency can cause certain cognitive impairments. This is preventable by iodizing salt, and potassium iodide is the most common compound used, though I think sodium iodide is also common. While iodizing salt has proven health benefits (preventing a known and common deficiency), no health benefits from “sea salt” versus other kinds of salt has been shown, as far as I know.

          The real irony is that just about all salt we eat is sea salt, because they all came from things that were seas at one point. Salt mines are just what remains of saltwater that dried up long ago and were buried in the ground through millions of years of geologic processes.

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