Critical Thinking

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Part 2)

This is part two of a rebuttal to this article. Part one can be found here.

One key issue I noted in Hendrick’s article is an odd disconnect from the way he is using the term critical thinking and the way it is used by people like Richard Paul, who has written more on critical thinking than just about anyone else. I’ve written about this before, but there’s an element of metacognition involved in critical thinking which is curiously missing in Hendricks’ article.

Aside from making non-analogous comparisons between critical thinking and “brain training” games, sports, and air-traffic controllers, he gives this example of “subject-specific critical-thinking skills”:

“For example, if a student of literature knows that Mary Shelley’s mother died shortly after Mary was born and that Shelley herself lost a number of children in infancy, that student’s appreciation of Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life from death, and the language used to describe it, is more enhanced than approaching the text without this knowledge.”

I would argue that this is not critical thinking. When it comes to analyzing art, it is important to look at the context from which it was created because that can provide you with an ability to understand the work that you could not otherwise have. However, there is a pitfall in this kind of thinking, it brings a lot of assumptions from the readers who try to create a convenient narrative to fit their interpretation into. It can also lead to intentionalism, the idea that the meaning of a piece of art is determined entirely by its creator’s intentions. This kind of thinking runs into a lot of problems very quickly.*

This is a ripe opportunity for your own cognitive biases to creep in. Confirmation, the mother of all biases, plays a huge role as you latch on to elements of Shelly’s life that match the narrative you are creating, and ignore anything that doesn’t fit your interpretation. There’s a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” or “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” trap as well. Just because Shelly experienced death in her own life does not automatically mean that she put that into Frankenstein. As it turns out, most people have lost loved ones. But most people haven’t written Frankenstein. Looking for specific elements in her life to match a narrative you have (or in this case, maybe the teacher has) presented is cherry-picking.

Critical thinking isn’t just looking at context, it is looking at your own assumptions about the context, looking for problems in your own thinking about it, looking for ways in which you might be reading something into it that isn’t there, looking for your own biases and underlying assumptions about how to interpret and analyze this kind of text in general. When this student learned about Shelly’s life, did she start by questioning her own reasoning about the importance of context, or just jump to a conclusion based on the apparent match between Shelly’s life and writing?

Hendricks has given an example of a skill in a specific subject, but where is the critical thinking here?

(I’ll address another of his examples in my next post. Unfortunately I am still in an extremely busy period at work and can’t write out my full rebuttal at once.)


*Imagine judging a pie competition and one of the pies tastes terrible. Its baker says, “Well, I intended for this pie to be the best one.” Are you going to judge it based on the baker’s intention, or focus on other criteria?

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

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