“Critical Thinking”–The most abused phrase in education

All disciplines have their technical vocabulary. A lay person might use “speed” and “velocity” to refer to the same thing but a physicist would not; a commentator might use “myth” to refer to a falsehood but a historian of religion uses that word quite differently; an observer might use “anarchism” interchangeably with “terrorism” but a political scientist would not.

In addition to a technical vocabulary, all disciplines, too, have their own jargon and buzz words that often make those inside and outside the profession roll their eyes or throw up their hands. The further divorced from any real meaning the jargon gets, the more frustrating it becomes—Orwell calls this a “sheer cloudy vagueness.” (Orwell points out that “fascism” or “fascist” eventually came to mean “something disagreeable,” far from its original meaning.) While there are many contenders for the most egregious phrase in academic jargon I’d say that “critical thinking” stands out.

Everyone supports teaching students to “think critically,” (except the political plank of the Texas Republican Party which–I’m serious–specifically said that higher order thinking skills [known by the acronym HOTS {good grief!}] should NOT be taught by schools. The “good news” for them is that hardly anybody is doing it anyway and certainly no “system” or “school district” is doing it–only individual teachers are–and they are few and far between). I’ve met very few teachers and administrators (and even fewer people outside academia) who have a clear idea of what they want students to do when they engage in “critical thinking.” Usually the definition is tautological, such as “teach kids to reason” or help students acquire “higher order mental skills.” Some very fine educators will say “We teach them to ask questions.” But asking questions or engaging students with the “Socratic method” is not the same thing as teaching critical thinking. Neither is getting students to define concepts such as “influence” or “control” as I saw one school claim. That exercise may help students begin to reflect on their own opinions but it doesn’t train specific intellectual skills.

Washington Post reporter and columnist Jay Mathews has observed that teaching critical thinking “means my history teacher Mr. Ladendorff encourage[ed] us to write essays that criticized the textbook. He is the guy who gave me the tools to be a contrarian columnist.” I am loath to disagree with such a gifted educational reporter as Mathews but what Mr. Ladendorff gave Mathews was not critical thinking skills but a license to, and encouragement to, question traditional authority—an incredibly valuable gift—but much more of an attitude or outlook than a set of reasoning skills. I suspect that Mathews taught himself to “think critically” by beginning to consider point of view in the text, what was put in and what left out and why, what unacknowledged assumptions were being made and who benefitted from them.

I know the exact skills I’m looking to improve: inferential skills, predictive validity skills, observation and close reading skills, pattern recognition skills, and I know the texts I want to use to teach those skills. Memory and recognition (think how many tests you took that required these particular skills) while important, are too often the default skills being taught no matter the subject matter.

For pattern recognition I may teach a series of flood stories: Noah’s Ark; Deucalion and Pyrrha; Baucis and Philemon; Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Saw the Flood.” The questions I design move in three steps: 1) group everything we know about the stories by what is common to them; 2) start separating the stories by what distinguishes them; and 3) evaluate the stories by some criteria that you acknowledge (rank in order of realism, rank in order of destructiveness, rank in order of teaching a moral, and so on with all the attendant reasons why). If students do this over and over again they will teach themselves a way to think.

To teach predictive validity I might engage in a close reading of a story or poem—phrase by phrase or line by line—and ask a series of questions after each line about the things that could happen next. Is it a surprise when “Richard Cory, one calm summer night,/Went home and put a bullet through his head”? Not if you’ve read carefully to notice that the narrator knows only the externals about Cory (the narrator says “he was always quietly arrayed” and “He was a gentleman from sole to crown”—not even using the physical representations “head to foot” that we non-poets would use; he “glitters”–a surface reflection and on and on) and nothing of his inner life.

For each teacher in your child’s life you should ask, in addition to what material is being presented and what kind of homework your child will have, exactly what mental processes will they be working on, how will they work on those processes, and will they be evaluated on them? Let’s not let anyone say they’re teach “critical thinking” without finding out exactly what that entails.


1 Comment

Filed under books and learning, close reading, critical thinking, definitions, definitions of intelligence, education, inferential skills, pedagogy, teaching, Uncategorized

One response to ““Critical Thinking”–The most abused phrase in education

  1. Jeffrey Benson

    Thanks for this! I’m talking about CT skills in the music classroom with my music ed. majors next week!

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