Another look at critical thinking.

Rethinking critical thinking.  

One common accusation levelled at those who promote a knowledge rich curriculum is that there is an insufficient focus on allowing students the space to think for themselves and the opportunity to develop as critical thinkers. In truth the argument for a knowledge rich curriculum is primarily a focus on content. How teachers and students engage with the curriculum is often dealt with separately. Here we want to take up that challenge and investigate intellectual autonomy and critical thought as crucial aims of a liberal education. After all what good is it teaching the best of what has been thought and said if students don’t have the abilities to engage properly with the content?

To do this successfully we have to be more precise with how we define our aims than we have been in the past. Educators largely agree that students should leave school with the ability to ‘think for themselves’. However what this translates to in practice is unclear. Does thinking for oneself mean adding to our existing knowledge with novel theories or is it the more modest ability of being able to individually assess the facts that you learn in class?

This lack of clarity has not hindered fierce arguments about how best to help students think independently. Progressive educators claim that it is achievable through teaching critical thinking as a skill. More traditional approaches argue that thinking for oneself is only possible with a wide range of subject knowledge and is not a skill that can be taught from a general perspective. These arguments are often backed up with reference to studies from cognitive science that show the advantage of having background knowledge.

The problems with teaching critical thinking skills have been well documented. Students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, can miss out on the general knowledge that they won’t gain elsewhere. On top of this it is not clear from the latest evidence that any skills gained in critical thinking courses transfer to other disciplines. However we should recognise that traditional approaches risk ignoring something vital about education. While it is necessary for students to gain a wide amount of knowledge they also need to be able to apply and use that knowledge independently. We still need to take seriously the goals of the progressive educator and ask how we can achieve them through a knowledge rich curriculum.

We want to add to the debate by showing that there has been insufficient focus on what it means for students to gain intellectual autonomy. If we can be clearer on what sort of thing we are aiming at by teaching students to be critical we can make more sensible suggestions to teachers. By providing a justification and a succinct definition of autonomy and critical thinking our hope is to show that a subject based approach, that also values some more general skills, is the path forward. Even if at this point in time we have not developed the best methods of teaching and testing critical thinking it is important that we are not overly pessimistic about our aims.

There is an enormous amount of literature on critical thinking as a topic. In order to navigate our way through we will be examining a conception of critical thinking found in two current American philosophers of education, they are Harvey Siegel and Robert Ennis.Both of these thinkers provide clear definitions of critical thinking that differ from the usual approach of higher order thinking skills. They see critical thinking as a form of ideal reasoning that will help us come to robust conclusions.

The justification for autonomy and rationality.

The goal of intellectual autonomy has always been at the heart of liberal education. We want to allow students the freedom to choose what to believe. There is a close link between rationality and autonomy. A requirement for freedom is the ability to judge for oneself the strength of your beliefs. This means deciding if the reasons you have for holding a belief are plausible or weak. Someone who is unable to assess reasons adequately is unable to come to their own conclusions.

On Siegel’s view there is a moral imperative to teach students to be rational. Every person has the right to determine their own beliefs. By teaching them to be rational we are respecting them as human beings rather than inducting students into an existing set of beliefs. Of course this thought has to be tempered by pointing out that we have to do a certain amount of instruction for students to become rational. As will be made apparent this is not a licence for students to ignore learning factual knowledge.

Rationality is also of instrumental value because it helps provide us with beliefs that are more likely to be true. We are less likely to accept falsehoods because we will be aware of the fallibility of our beliefs and question evidence more thoroughly. The utility of this should be clear in a number of contexts both academic and outside of the classroom.

What is critical thinking?

If we agree that aiming at students gaining rationality is sufficiently motivated the question becomes how do we arrive at our goal? As we have seen the most popular answer is through teaching critical thinking. As far as definitions go Ennis writes that critical thinking is “reasonable and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do” and Siegel argues that “critical thinking involves bringing to bear all matters relevant to the rationality of belief and action”. We need to say something about the nature of rationality and reasons. Although there is a huge philosophical and psychological literature on rationality one thing we can say is that in general we base our beliefs on principles.

The idea of principles is key to critical thinking, in Siegel’s words “critical thinking is principled thinking”. Thinking critically is assessing the reason one has for any belief in light of relevant principles that are appropriate to that judgement. Siegel explains this idea with an example of a teacher punishing his student. If a student is held after class for throwing bits of papers in class then that action counts as the teachers reason for holding the student back. For this to be a good reason it must be established by a principle, such as “all behaviour that disturbs the class results in the student being held back”. If another student disrupts the class and is not held back then the teacher is disregarding the principle. In this instance he is not acting rationally. There could be some mitigating circumstance which allows that second child not to be held back but that would have to be then justified by another principle. Due to the attention paid to principles critical thinking must be impartial, consistent and non-arbitrary.

The above example is very simplistic, there are a number of different laws and rules that govern different types of reasoning. In order to teach students to be rational we need to teach them to use principles in a large number of different areas. Principles and standards that apply in one context may not apply in another, this leads us on to the question of whether critical thinking is a general notion or subject specific?

 General or subject specific?

Advocates of critical thinking often claim that the content of what students learn is irrelevant so long as they are approaching problems in the correct way. Confusion about critical thinking can often come about because people ignore the fact that judgments differ in different areas. There are principles that apply only to some subjects and not others.

In most cases we find that subject specific principles are just as important as general skills for critical thinking. Take a question in history about the validity of a source. The criteria for judging the source may be based on facts such as who created it and for what purpose. This set of criteria may be useful in history but won’t get us very far when judging the validity of a scientific experiment. It is often the case that a completely different set of standards are employed in different subjects.

Saying this there is still a place for more general reasoning. Examples of general reasoning would be informal logic or statistics both of which can be applied in a number of different subjects. For instance almost all essay writing subjects require students to make arguments and therefore general rules that relate to validity will transfer. While there may be a different criteria for making judgements in history or English the rules of what makes an argument valid remain constant.

What does a focus on critical thinking mean for schools?

Now things begin to get more challenging since we have to consider what will work in practice. This means taking into account research and cognitive science. We may find that there are a number of barriers to achieving our aims and much more work has to be done.

There are a number of different approaches we can take to teach for rationality. We have established that any curriculum that doesn’t prioritise a subject based approach is inadequate. Therefore we are left with either what Ennis calls a ‘mixed approach” where a separate course is taught alongside traditional subjects or an ‘embedded approach’ where critical thinking is taught through traditional subjects.

The first focus should be on improving critical thought within subjects, this involves making sure we are clear on the methods that experts employ within each field. A focus on thinking critically does not mean we should use generic terms within each subject that ignore the standards imposed by the subject. Even so we should appreciate that focusing on method and judgment is different from a focus on knowledge. Some subjects do this better than others already, for instance in maths students are often asked to show their reasoning to achieve full marks. But at times this element is ignored, particularly in the humanities where students can be tested on making enough points per paragraph and not crafting an argument.

The really difficult question is how we teach the more general principles behind critical thinking in a subject based curriculum. According to Ennis we have two options here immersion or infusion. Immersion is introducing critical principles without drawing students attention to them whereas infusion is making them explicit.

The mixed approach is the other alternative, here a separate course would be developed to teach reasoning, informal logic and perhaps statistics. This may be a rather unpopular solution but could solve some of the problems of the embedded approach. For instance we would worry less about explicitly including general critical thinking skills in traditional subjects.

There are obviously some issues here one being expediency, implementing a new course would take resources not only to develop but also in training teachers. Another problem is the lack of evidence that these sorts of courses have had a positive effect in the past. More empirical work needs to be done to know whether this approach is fruitful and that is unlikely to happen first in the UK. Further if such a course were to be introduced it should probably not be part of primary education were some of the issues discussed are more difficult and it may take away from time spent learning foundational knowledge.

Problems with critical thinking

One of the most outspoken critics of critical thinking courses is the psychologist Daniel T. Willingham. It is worth noting however that he does not deny that critical thinking is a valid aim of education, instead he argues against it taking the place of traditional subjects for a number of reasons. Given the popularity of his work it is worth examining his criticisms and seeing what problems they cause for the approaches we have outlined above.

His most famous criticism of teaching for critical thinking is that it is difficult to transfer higher order thinking skills from one domain to another. A student may learn a logical rule in one context and be totally unable to apply it in another.

We have already touched on this problem but there are a few more things we can say. Firstly this is not a problem for subject specific principles since the point is to learn to think critically within that subject. Secondly as Ennis points out the notion of domain is often not clear when used by psychologists. We class science as a domain however within science there are so many different specialisations, biochemistry, astrophysics, neurology etc. More work needs to be done to understand transfer between discipline. Lastly one important part of critical thinking should be its application to students lives. If we introduce a course that is more general but helps with everyday critical thinking (understanding what statistics in newspaper reports mean or weighing up evidence more intelligently) then even without transfer to other areas this could be deemed a success.

Willingham is also critical of metacognitive strategies that involve explicitly drawing students attentions to logical problems. He argues that this approach leads to a lack of knowledge, he writes  “metacognitive strategies only tell the students what they should do—they do not provide the knowledge that students need to actually do it”. This may lead us to be critical of approaches that spend a lot of time trying to make processes explicit such as the infusion approach.

For many what really counts is deep knowledge in an area and teaching critical thought is not time well spent. Ennis makes the point knowledge is not itself sufficient for good thinking. Sometimes someone who is experienced with lots of knowledge is stuck in their ways and doesn’t attempt new ways of thinking about a problem. What we should take away from Willingham’s critique is that knowledge is a necessary condition for critical thought, we cannot do without it. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t also aim at critical thinking in the ways we have outlined above.


The work of cognitive psychologists show that there is a long way to go before we know how to adequately introduce a critical thinking course. However this should not mean that we jettison rationality as a crucial aim of education. We have to keep on working to make sure that within our knowledge rich curriculum we focus on helping students come to grips with the standards that govern subjects. If there is any take away from thinking about these issues it should be that a focus on giving students the ability to weigh up and assess reasons within topics should be valued just as highly as making sure that they have broad knowledge in any field. These two should also be seen as goals that are easy to marry and not as separate schools of thought.



Robert H. Ennis on critical thinking abilities and dispositions and how critical thinking can be incorporated.

Willingham – on the difficulties of teaching critical thinking.