Critical Thinking

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Part 4)

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

I’d like to move on now to my next point (don’t worry, I’m nearly finished with this series), that Hendrick appears to misunderstand what schools’ purpose is. He says:

Since the early 1980s, however, schools have become ever more captivated by the idea that students must learn a set of generalized thinking skills to flourish in the contemporary world — and especially in the contemporary job market. Variously called “21st-century learning skills” or “critical thinking,” the aim is to equip students with a set of general problem-solving approaches that can be applied to any given domain; these are lauded by business leaders as an essential set of dispositions for the 21st century. Naturally, we want children and graduates to have a set of all-purpose cognitive tools with which to navigate their way through the world. It’s a shame, then, that we’ve failed to apply any critical thinking to the question of whether any such thing can be taught.

To address his final point briefly: we have applied critical thinking to this question and produced a great deal of research on the very subject. As this is the topic of my next post, I won’t delve into it further here.

Now, if I take his criticism as valid, we shouldn’t have schools at all. In the history of education, schools have been a lot of different things and held a multitude of various purposes. What we have currently (in much of the world, at least) is a system of public education based on giving children the general set of skills that we think they will probably need to have in their lives and would benefit society by most people having. However, unlike “real life” our schools are divided into isolated subjects which are mostly taught in abstracted ways (there are few jobs that require one to write a “standard five paragraph essay” or solve a page of math problems by writing out long division). The goal is that these skills will be able to transfer to real-life situations outside of school.

They mostly don’t. Hendrick is right that there is a transfer problem (which I will discuss later as well) but wrong in assuming that “critical thinking” is a subject-specific topic. Yet, if we were to follow his suggestion and teach critical thinking exclusively as a subject-specific skill, we are virtually guaranteeing that it wouldn’t be able to transfer to other domains. By extension, Hendrick’s argument that we shouldn’t teach such generalized thinking skills implies that all the efforts of mainstream schooling are wasted and it would be more prudent to purely educate people in the specific subject they will work in (much like in the past).

It turns out, that’s not a good way to make a well-informed citizenry for a democracy to work properly. We need people to have generalized skills and diverse knowledge. The more subject-specific we go, the less transferability there is, and the problem of “what to teach” multiplies tremendously. Without the generalized skills (of which, as it turns out, there are plenty, and they can transfer) we have an immeasurable amount of very specific skills we would need to choose from, knowing that each would only apply to a very narrow kind of experiences.

Hendrick’s own examples suffer from this problem. A literature or physics student who only learns how to think critically in their specific subject will still encounter other things in life. Lacking the critical thinking disposition (except in a very narrow field) doesn’t do a whole lot of good when real life turns out to be much more complex and intermeshed than any single subject. As for whether a disposition can be taught, I’ll bring up the research in my next post.

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

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