Critical Thinking

Why Schools Should Teach Critical Thinking (Final)

This is part five (the end) of a rebuttal to this article. Part one can be found here.

There are just two more points I need to address in Hendrick’s article before I am done with my rebuttal. I know, all two of you readers have been waiting with bated breath to see what I’d write next.

In my first post in this series, I mentioned that the very existence of the skeptical movement disproves Hendrick’s arguments that skills cannot transfer and that critical thinking (and dispositions in general) cannot be taught. I’ll elaborate with an anecdote.

The first time I was ever introduced to critical thinking in any real way, it was in a subject-specific situation — exactly what Hendrick thinks is the best way. I did learn to think critically about that subject very well, but just that subject. Years passed and I continued to believe a whole lot of nonsense because the only kind of critical thinking I knew how to do only came up when I was thinking about that subject. As Hendrick rightly argues, cognitive skills do not easily transfer.

Then, I downloaded a skeptical podcast, never having heard of the skeptic movement before. The podcast talked about a variety of different claims, involving: physics, history, biology, religion, chemistry, marketing, conspiracies, medicine, environmentalism, paranormality, and the supernatural. Each episode dealt with a really different subject, but the one common thread running throughout was that the host was applying critical thinking to all of them. The same critical thinking.

No matter what the claim was, or the specific subject, it could be analyzed using the same set of skills. There were underlying principles at play, such as “before investigating how something happened, first establish that it happened,” and “look for the original source of the information to see if it is reliable” and “consider multiple explanations before jumping to conclusions.” These, and many more, are general critical thinking skills that can be applied to any subject.

As I learned more about the skeptical movement, I discovered a diverse multitude of people who were applying (or trying to apply, because we can never escape our cognitive biases) these general critical thinking skills to a huge variety of situations and subjects. I saw that people without a background in astronomy could debunk UFO claims, non-biologists could dismantle intelligent design, and people who’d never cracked open a philosophy textbook could pick apart dogmatic arguments. They could do this because they had a set of generalized critical thinking skills. The same logical fallacy could exist in any domain, and one doesn’t need to be an expert in that domain to recognize it, one could be an expert in critical thinking instead.

Hendrick asserts that critical thinking is not a skill, by quoting Daniel Willingham:

critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.

If they are right, the skeptical movement really couldn’t exist. First, because its aims (at promoting “critical thinking”) would be self-contradictory. Second, because all the skeptics who do apply critical thinking to a wide variety of topics could not exist.

If this assertion is correct, and “critical thinking” is not a skill and cannot be taught:


The one thing that Hendrick gets right is that transfer is hard. Pretty much all educational research supports this. I was going to cite a bunch of articles here, but I realized that I may as well just point to the entire body of educational studies. This is a much bigger problem than the topic at hand, and it would probably need a serious reworking of the entire educational system to address (but that’s out of the question, because we clearly don’t want evidence-based policies).

The real problem that Hendrick failed to address is that teaching critical thinking is really, really hard. Instead of giving up after repeatedly telling students to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives”  and concluding that teaching general critical thinking skills is impossible (as Willingham says), perhaps we should try looking at the ones who actually succeed at it and look for ways to overcome the problem of cognitive biases.

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

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