Critical Thinking

May 25th, 2010 by Sergio de Biasi

In this text, I would like to address what I think is one of the main issues in education : that of the role of critical independent thinking.

My position on this matter is that nurturing critical thinking is not a nice additional feature provided by a good educational system, it’s not some nice spice that you add to the main meal of knowledge, it is not an afterthought that can be retrofitted into a pedagogical proposal. No, overly not so. Incentivating and assisting students in developing critical thinking *is* in fact the meat of education, it’s all the rest that are side dishes.

Critical thinking and independent judgement can’t of course be developed in a vacuum, so students do need to study and acquire knowledge to be able to exercise it usefully; the attitude of “question everything” doesn’t go very far if not matched by hard work and an earnest desire to actually understand. On the other hand, I hold that the random memorization of encyclopedic agglomerates of arbitrary facts, much worse than being inefficient and of very narrow applicability to any real problems, actually *harms* – even prevents! – any solid understanding of the topics at hand. When the student gives up requiring that whatever he’s being compelled to regurgitate makes any sense, all is lost.

The damage caused from such a stance when teaching cannot in my opinion be overstated. It slices at the very core of what education should be trying to achieve. If one doesn’t believe that critical thinking can be brought about in the case of most students, one actually believes that such students can’t be taught. Forcing them to recite formulas mindlessly is *not* the solution, and is *not* the best that can be done under the circumstances. This will force any student in the opposite direction of what he should be going – which is getting to the point where he actually has an informed structured independent opinion on the topics being taught.

In fact, I would say that in such – unfortunately ubiquitous – cases what is lost is more than the pedagogical cause. It’s also a psychological and even moral cause that is lost, that is being mishandled here. Requiring students under threats to dutifully repeat and argue for positions which they don’t fully understand and which they may – at their present level of understanding – not even agree with is not only a disservice to their academic growth, it’s a violence to their intellectual honesty and to their character. They are actually being taught and urged to be dishonest, and this is precisely the easily observable result achieved again and again.

Additionally, presenting as facts ideas which are most of the time at best consensually accepted guesses at what the truth might be is not only intellectually disingenuous – it’s an outright lie. Unfortunately, this is the stance that many in teaching roles assume, for a variety of reasons, which range from concerns about asserting their authority, doubts about the very possibility of eliciting critical judgement in most students, and last but not least because it’s just easier and more comfortable to pretend to ourselves and others that we are unerring masters of the truth, specially when we are put in a position of power where we can bluntly overrule criticism.

In summary, not only for pedagogical but also for psychological and even moral reasons, I believe it is essential to encourage and respect the exercise of independent critical judgment. I believe it is important never to present any fact, method or idea as a mystical truth which is being magically revealed and which does not admit questioning. On the contrary, I want as much as possible to discourage blind acceptance of anything I say. In my opinion, blind acceptance is probably one of the most damaging and pervasive obstacles to true understanding of any subject. I want to introduce topics in a way that feels natural and logical to students, and I strive to provide them with solid, believable, consistent reasons to accept what I say as true or at least reasonable instead of merely requiring them to do so based on my authority and my power to punish them through grading for not doing so. I want students to realize that there are in general many different ways to solve most problems, and that any particular method I teach them is just one possibility which was conceived in a particular moment in time by real and fallible people, and which might not even be the best one. And my ultimate purpose is absolutely *not* that they will be able to repeat verbatim what *I* think is true, but that with my help they will get to a point where they have been able to develop their own informed working self-reliant opinion about the subjects at hand.

2 Responses to “Critical Thinking”

  1. Caroline says:

    In some ways, I think that this may also be a cultural thing. In many Asian cultures, students are not allowed to question a teacher. They accept what the teacher tells them, blindly because it IS the teacher who is telling them this and the teacher IS infallible. This comes out when in the “real world” or graduate school, they become very hard workers, high achievers, but lack skills to come up with innovative ideas and question others’ ideas.

    In recent years, there have been many initiatives to support a trend of learning through inquiry. In Science, the FOSS program was developed at the primary level and the CPO program was developed for the secondary level science courses. In Math, the SIMMS program was developed for the secondary level integrated Algebra and Geometry courses. While these programs are great and promote learning through inquiry (i.e. students make an observation, come up with a prediction, test their theory, and apply it to something else), many students lack these skills because they do not possess a solid foundation of the basics.

    It is important for students to acquire these basic skills, which are often learned by repetition, memorization, and regurgitation. For example, students should memorize the multiplication tables and know how to do mental math involving basic arithmetic calculations. Students must also memorize how to spell words and their meanings in order to read and write more complex materials. After acquiring these basic skills can students apply them to more complex ways of thinking, known as Critical Thinking (or “Out of the Box” thinking.)

    Bloom’s Taxonomy touches upon the importance of critical thinking. The ultimate display of critical thinking is when students are able to create something based on prior knowledge. The bottom of the pyramid in Bloom’s Taxonomy talks about recalling knowledge verbatim (such as a multiple choice test where people have to memorize facts), then comes understanding (restating the question in your own words), applying that knowledge to solve problems, analyzing something (identifying components and use of logic to weigh choices), synthesizing it (weighing the choices to come up with new ideas), and finally going on and creating something that requires supporting decisions and understanding of values. It is an educator’s goal to ask questions addressing the top of the pyramid where students have to create something based on knowledge gained.

    Unfortunately, standardized testing is limited to multiple choice questions that require recalling information. Some attempt has been done to address higher order thinking in presenting a “Picture Prompt” where students have to analyze a picture and write what they feel. Oftentimes, this portion of the test is not answered by students because they don’t have the necessary skills to analyze and synthesize their thoughts into words. This stands true for students from various socioeconomic statuses, which shows that “poverty” is not a factor. It is very important to introduce critical thinking to students at a young age. If students learn how to think in certain ways, it becomes a habit of mind. It is our goal as educators to encourage good habits of mind.

    • Yes, definitely. As I argue vehemently in the text, critical thinking is not just the decorative cherry at the top, it’s actually the purpose of the whole thing. Having people memorize stuff as an objetive in itself is worse than useless; it’s confusing, mind-numbing, and teaches them – drives them into! – all the wrong intellectual attitudes. Basic semi-automatic skills must be introduced and drilled carefully within the context of supporting and leading to higher-order thought, otherwise we’ll be teaching people how to change the tires of a car or forcing them to mindlessly and uselessly wash one twice a day without ever helping them develop the ability to drive.

      Thanks for the comments!


Leave a Reply