The Myth that critical thinking can't be taught

It's very hard to teach something if you don't know what it is

Peter Ellerton Mar 2, 2020

There is a steady beat of assertions that critical thinking can’t, or shouldn't, be taught. My colleagues and I are putting together a paper to answer these claims in detail, but broadly speaking these revolve around quite limited ideas of what critical thinking is (you need it to play chess?) and some quite odd inferences from similarly limited definitions and examples of critical thinking to the claim that it can’t be taught.

The data on this is very clear. Not only can critical thinking be taught; it is being taught successfully in a number of programs in Australia and around the world. What’s more, students who learn to think well do better on subject-based exams and standardised tests than those who do not.

But why would we think otherwise? There are a few key reasons for this, centred around conceptual mistakes.

Conceptual misunderstandings about critical thinking

One mistake is that research into teaching critical thinking often focuses only on short-term exposure to a limited range of thinking skills or concepts. When students are then tested and no real change is seen in their behaviour, the very long bow is drawn that critical thinking teaching doesn’t work. This is often found in narrow psychological approaches to research in critical thinking.

Another mistake is thinking that what works in learning content based knowledge works for learning to think well. John Sweller’s work in cognitive load theory (CLT), for example, shows how important modelling problem solving is to student success.

But the erroneous assumptions of CLT include first that good thinking is made explicit and modelled by teachers with the appropriate pedagogical expertise. This is in fact not the case as the language and schematic understanding of teaching for thinking is seldom well-articulated.

A second assumption is that critical thinking is “biologically primary [meaning it is a fixed mental capability] and so unteachable”. This again mistakes critical thinking for intelligence or some other general, diffuse skill that is too broadly distributed or unitised by our brains to be educationally targeted. Teaching thinking is far more like coaching than instruction, and while you cannot coach for any significant increase in intelligence, the same is not true for critical thinking.

Is critical thinking a general skill?

The claim that critical thinking is not a general skill, which I hear a lot, is fine. I’m not sure who is claiming that it is. Critical thinking is far more than a skill. It is a complex set of dispositions, knowledge and virtues that is built up with pedagogical care over time. It cannot be activated and transferable in minutes as if it was some pavlovian reflex.

You could say that it is transferable between contexts once the critical thinker has mastered a number of key concepts and has developed an appreciation about what is valuable in inquiry. But transferable does not mean the same thing as a general skill.

The Australian Curriculum has General Capabilities for a number of key areas, including critical and creative thinking. In their view

...capability encompasses knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions.

The claim that critical thinking can't be taught often comes from areas of research in which these pedagogical concerns are not well addressed. Much of the material we provide on this project is intended to develop the understanding and resources needed to teach people to think well.