Critical Thinking vs Content Knowledge

Having to choose either/or is a false dichotomy

Peter Ellerton Peter Ellerton Jan 15, 2020

Content knowledge is very valuable and is an essential part of the project of Teaching for Thinking. There is nothing about teaching thinking that minimises the importance of content. In this lesson we will try and better understand the relationship between content knowledge and thinking.

Previously, we looked at the concept of understanding and saw that this involved relational knowledge. To understand something is to know how the elements of the concept hang together, how they relate to one another in a logical or causal manner.

Understanding is certainly a type of knowledge. To understand something is to know something, but a lot of the content outlined in syllabi is more straightforward than understanding. A lot of knowledge is the kind of knowledge that can be expressed or recalled in a sentence.

We call this knowledge “propositional knowledge”. Examples of propositional knowledge include that the capital of Australia is Canberra, some frogs are green, humans are bipedal, force equals mass times acceleration, and Socrates was born before Plato.

Much assessment is designed for students to demonstrate their propositional knowledge. (We also test their understanding by asking questions about the relationship between things and by giving them problems that require a particular understanding to solve.) Propositional knowledge is also often used to structure textbooks, plans for units of work and lesson design.

The rigorous curriculum

People sometimes think that a rigorous curriculum must contain lots of content, but this is a very poor way to understand what rigorous means. Rigour is far better associated with thinking than it is with content.

In fact, the best way to dumb down the curriculum is to cram it full of content, for this leaves no room for intelligent thinking. The quality of a curriculum cannot be determined simply by the breath or depth of the content it contains, we must also pay attention to the types of thinking skills that it is intended to develop.

What we do with knowledge

All teachers are concerned with the knowledge development of their students. But I don’t know many teachers who are happy simply transmitting knowledge. One interesting definition of a good teacher is that they can take from all their discipline knowledge that which is developmentally appropriate to the students in front of them, logically and engagingly structure and sequence it, and test for understanding along the way. But this describes exactly the function of the textbook.

Teachers need to be more than textbooks.

Most teachers are also concerned with what students do with that knowledge. What students do with that knowledge is what makes them useful in any professional or vocational sense. If simply having access to knowledge was enough, then we’d just need to make sure that we had the information we needed handy. This could be done simply by accessing our phones. So simply having access to knowledge is not enough, we need to know what to do with it. But doing things with knowledge is one of the things we mean by thinking. So, the extent to which we value doing things with knowledge is the extent that we value thinking.

We can see here the value of content, for without content we would not be able to practice and improve our thinking skills. But it is not enough that we are simply engaged with content to ensure that our thinking skills develop.

Our thinking skills will not develop unless we pay explicit attention to them in the classroom. An important point to make here is that as we are concerned with what students do with that knowledge in the classroom, we are using, reinforcing and developing the knowledge itself.

This demonstrates nicely the ideas of the of the philosopher John Dewey, who considered thinking as the “method of intelligent learning”. In fact, a focus on thinking, that is, what we do with the knowledge, delivers better learning outcomes in terms of knowledge acquisition and deeper understanding.

So, we need to value content and we need to engage with content. But the best way to engage with content is cognitively. We need to pay attention to the type of thinking we’re doing as we engage with the content as we develop our understanding and use that understanding to solve problems.