Teaching Critical Thinking: Strong vs. Weak
Recently I’ve been familiarizing myself with Richard Paul’s work on critical thinking and reviewing some of the scientific literature on it. After reading the recent Stanford Study I realized I needed to step up my game when it came to teaching critical thinking.
A definition seemed like a good place to start, and there are certainly plenty, but it turns out that there’s also an important distinction to be made right from the get go: critical thinking in the strong sense and critical thinking in the weak sense.
This distinction is a core part of Paul’s work and I would strongly recommend reading what he wrote on it (and on critical thinking in general) to get a better understanding, but here’s a TLDR version.
Critical thinking in a strong or weak sense is primarily a matter of disposition. Both types imply a knowledge of critical thinking skills and the ability to apply them. Weak sense critical thinkers tend to apply their critical thinking skills to their opponents only. These are the people who are quick to point out the logical fallacies or cognitive biases in others without ever looking for them in themselves. These are the people who apply their critical thinking skills selectively, and use them to support, rather than reconsider, their sacred cows. These are the people we inadvertently create when we give our students the tools without explaining why we should use them on ourselves most of all.
Strong sense critical thinkers, on the other hand, are probably what we would call good skeptics. They spend a lot of time and effort hunting for their own sacred cows and can question their own deeply-held beliefs. Paul also described strong sense thinkings as having the ability and willingness to steelman their opponents arguments (though he doesn’t use the term steelmanning). The strong sense also implies a “multilogical” approach where the thinker actively weighs their own point of view against their opponents to find out if their own position is actually weaker.
It seems obvious that teaching students in the strong sense would be better. However, it requires fostering a reflective critical disposition in the students that isn’t easy on any level, because “thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better” (Paul, R.) is really hard. Still, we can try.