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Are critical thinking skills taught the ‘right way’ in schools?

Critical thinking
Content knowledge is essential for critical thinking. Source: Shutterstock

Critical thinking skills are highly valuable and applicable across all areas of life, more so now when technological advancements are changing how we live and work. But as the demand for schools to teach critical thinking skills soars, the question arises as to how exactly educators can successfully develop these traits among students.

In a paper commissioned by the New South Wales Department of Education, Daniel T. Willingham, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, said: “Some believe that critical thinking can be taught as a generic skill independently from subject content, while others contend that content mastery is pivotal to the development of thinking capabilities.”

However, Willingham concludes in his review of scientific research that scientists are united in their belief that content knowledge is crucial to effective critical thinking. 

Avoid a cut-and-paste approach when teaching critical thinking

Critical thinking

Willingham said it’s not useful to think of critical thinking skills, once acquired, as broadly applicable. Source: Shutterstock

While many can agree on the benefits and importance of critical thinking skills, what exactly does ‘critical thinking’ mean?

Willingham illustrated: “You are thinking critically if (1) your thinking is novel – that is, you aren’t simply drawing a conclusion from a memory of a previous situation and (2) your thinking is self-directed – that is, you are not merely executing instructions given by someone else and (3) your thinking is effective – that is, you respect certain conventions that make thinking more likely to yield useful conclusions.” 

He said programmes in school meant to teach general critical thinking skills have had limited success, arguing: “It is not useful to think of critical thinking skills, once acquired, as broadly applicable. Wanting students to be able to ‘analyse, synthesise and evaluate’ information sounds like a reasonable goal. But analysis, synthesis and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.” 

While there are principles that carry across domains of study, not everyone successfully applies these broadly applicable principles in a new situation.

Content knowledge is essential for critical thinking

Critical thinking varies widely, depending on the tasks at hand. This means there aren’t always routine or reusable solutions to problems. Because of this, content knowledge becomes essential to critical thinking.

Willingham said research shows that it’s difficult to evaluate an author’s claim if a person lacks background knowledge in the subject. “If you lack background knowledge about the topic, ample evidence from the last 40 years indicates you will not comprehend the author’s claims in the first place,” he said. 

He recommends a four-step process to develop a programme to teach critical thinking: 

  • Identify a list of critical thinking skills for each subject domain
  • Identify subject matter content for each domain
  • Plan the sequence in which knowledge and skills should be taught
  • Plan which knowledge and skills should be revisited across years.

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