Critical thinking: Why our students need it and resources for teaching it

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If you believe in conspiracy theories, enjoy posting political links, or are an apologist for alternative medicine, you probably don’t want to be my Facebook friend. You see, I have a rather outspoken inner skeptic that feels compelled to fact-check anything that sounds outlandish or unlikely. I try to squelch it from time to time, for the sake of politeness and decorum, but it’s a relentless voice with nagging questions.

“Is that right? That doesn’t sound right.”

“There has to be a detail missing.”

“That’s not possible… is it?”

I often make the mistake of thinking that everyone else is just as eager for accurate information. It may come as a shock to my fellow skeptics out there, but replying with a link to the original study and an explanation of why the news article is reporting wrong information, or passing along a link to Science-Based Medicine or Snopes may well get you unfriended. (Ouch.)

Our education system, in all its forms, does a poor job of fostering critical thinking. This is a real problem, because we humans are inclined to embrace ideologies rather than information. There’s nothing more troublesome to society than warring ideologies—and there’s simply no way to find middle ground with anyone who can’t question theirs.

If you’ve ever felt like you were arguing with a brick wall, you were probably hitting one of these impenetrable ideologies I’ve been talking about.

Fortunately, the media serves as an excellent place to start teaching critical thinking. I don’t mean Fair vs. Balanced, right vs. left, Maddow vs. Beck: I mean any particular story with remarkable claims—or where someone is cast a villain. (Have you ever noticed that there is an overabundance of flat characters on the evening news? There are that many epic battles of good vs. evil, black vs. white, really?) Pick up the average newspaper and spend a little time fact-checking and questioning. If you’ve never done it before, you’ll be astounded at what you find.

Here’s one I chose at random from the Washington Post:

Blended families more common, but the 'step' in 'stepmom' still carries a stigma

Call them blended families, bonus families or para-kin. Just don't call them stepfamilies. The term -- seared into our consciousness through fairy tales and Disney movies -- is falling out of favor, even as the ranks of nontraditional families are expanding.

A new poll estimates that at least four in 10 Americans consider themselves part of a stepfamily, but a growing number reject that label, saying it carries a stigma.

Reading the article, you’d likely come away thinking the poll mentioned, which was done by the Pew Center, asked respondents about their feelings toward the term “stepfamily,” “stepmother,” or the like.

It did not. Yet the average reader is led to believe:

  1. Fewer people are using the words “stepdad” and “stepmom.”
  2. Many people think those words have a bad stigma to them.
  3. Most people think of wicked, Disneyfied characters when they hear the prefix “step-“.

In fact the “growing number” of Americans who are “rejecting that label” appears to be a handful of the folks interviewed who disliked the term, since none of the experts or studies mentioned in the article have actually undertaken a serious investigation into the matter. Is the number of people rejecting “step-something” actually growing? Do more adults today dislike it than when Cinderella debuted? Who knows.

It’s a little detail. But would you have gone to look for the information? (I wouldn’t have.) Or would you have come away thinking that the term was falling out of popularity, and this was a legitimate new trend? (I might have.)

And did the journalist prove anywhere—or offer any real evidence—that if the term is falling out of favor, the stigma came from fairy tales? No. All of this conjecture was meant just to make the story more interesting.

I’ll stop nitpicking now, I promise. (Imagine if this article were about politics!)

But this little exercise was, on the most superficial level, critical thinking. And I’ll wager that most adults don’t practice the skill regularly enough to be prepared to use it when it counts.

Signs of a missing skill

Last summer, a high school valedictorian speech made waves on social networks. Erica Goldson gave what appears to have been a rousing kick-in-the-gut speech at the culmination of her high school career:

…This is the dilemma I've faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination…

The media went (predictably) wild. Unschoolers everywhere cheered. Homeschoolers hailed her as a great thinker, gleefully reposting this triumph on Facebook walls everywhere. “This girl gets it,” one of my Facebook friends—who has no small grudge against public education—commented on the article.

Eager to read something from a bright young person, I clicked. About four paragraphs in, I shrugged and muttered, “Ten dollars says someone just discovered John Taylor Gatto for the first time.” (As I continued to read the speech, sure enough, up he pops.)

Now Gatto, at least, has some excellent points. (Heaven help us all when she finds Grace Llewellyn.) But parroting his ideology thought-for-thought, expression-for-expression doesn’t count as critical thinking or “getting it.” It’s a first and positive step—questioning why something is the way it is—but if it ends there, the “great thinker” has only swallowed a new ideology with minimal thought. I’m not quite ready to call that progress or enlightenment. Sorry.

Ms. Goldson later declares that there’s no such thing as critical thinking, only “thinking.” All I can say is that this entire example serves as a blaring neon sign that we need more of whatever-you-want-to-call-it in our schools.

Yet this troubling symptom—finding a semi-obscure radical writer and adopting his or her language all while admonishing others to “do your research” on the subject—is one I have seen in many places. And what’s so frustrating is that on one level, the anti-mainstream folks are correct: we do need to question the typical and the status quo. Where they go wrong is in embracing the ideology of a reactionary in response, rather than applying the same level of scrutiny to their new ideas.

You’ll see this in the anti-vaccine world, among the Holocaust deniers, in both the public education reformers and the defenders. You’ll see it in the whole language and phonics feuds (are they still battling?), the back-to-the-basics and progressive education theorists, and on both sides of every debatable issue.

You’ll see it within me, despite my inner skeptic.

Every radical or reactionary is right about something—often astoundingly, brilliantly so. (As my favorite college professor used to remind us, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then.) That’s why critical thinking is so important.

But critical thinking takes practice. And that practice needs to begin in our schools.

Building intellectual curiosity

Legendary magician and skeptic James Randi agrees. In his impassioned (and hilarious) TED talk, Randi blasts everything from psychics to homeopathy and encourages a return to the age of reason—starting in the classroom.

Randi’s not one to sit around idly complaining. His foundation has developed a critical training kit for classrooms, and one module “Do you have ESP?” is available as a free download. There are other resources available to teachers, as well. The Critical Thinking Community offers a host of articles on the subject, including tips and examples for “remodeling” lessons to promote critical thinking.

The lesson remodeling is particularly valuable. In some cases, the remodeling actually makes the lesson more engaging for students, like the example cited where the original lesson taught the mechanics of sentence construction by asking students to “think of three questions about pets.” (If you’re like me, you’re drawing a bit of a blank at that request.) The Critical Thinking Community suggests revising that task to think of three questions you might ask a pet seller to determine if a particular animal would be a good pet for you. (Now that is something I can easily do!) Meanwhile the students are still meeting the original learning objective—more easily, since the task isn’t as onerous—and they’re also learning to think critically on an age-appropriate subject.

Thinking critically for the future

In an educational era where most experts and parents alike agree we’re spending too much time on test preparation, critical thinking is a skill that falls by the wayside. Paradoxically, it’s high on the list of valued skills for knowledge workers. That’s because higher order thinking is essential to innovation, problem-solving, and just about every task that professionals face in the 21st century.

When it comes to open source software, critical thinking drives the movement to excellence. While the typical college student struggles mightily to review a peer's paper, on just about every open source project mailing list you'll see rigorous, critical feedback that would make any English professor cheer. "Nitpicking" literally occurs, in the form of looking for bugs in the code. Linus' Law encourages this, predicting that "with many eyes, all bugs are shallow."

My hope is that we’ll put our energy into making critical thinking a central and essential part of classroom pedagogy. Peer review—learning to gracefully give and accept feedback—is a skill that must be taught earlier, and teachers need to make sure that students master it. Questioning and thinking should be encouraged at every age, in every subject.

With a generation of strong critical thinkers, we won't just see improvements in the workplace. We'll see it in public policy and political discourse.

And just maybe, one day, it will be socially acceptable to analyze the accuracy of articles posted on Facebook.

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Rebecca Fernandez is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat, leading projects to help the company scale its open culture. She's an Open Organization Ambassador, contributed to The Open Organization book, and maintains the Open Decision Framework. She is interested in the intersection of open source principles and practices, and how they can transform organizations for the better.


Having worked in an IT program at a university for many years, I can tell you that students are lacking problem solving skills. I don't understand what has happened to students since I was in high school, but they just aren't learning this critical skill. It makes a huge difference when the students have to take programming. Many of them have already had some programming experience, but lack the ability to use simple structures to solve a problem. I have seen many students basically fail a second year bash scripting course after taking a full year of Java. That should almost never happen.

One thing I blame on the current problems is the "No Child Left Behind" program. While it is a noble sentiment, it has been enforced in such a way that it has become the program of the least common denominator. If a child can't keep up there is no point slowing down the rest of the class. In my elementary school and high school students were separated by ability. They all received the same amount of instruction, put tailored to meet their needs.

Good points, but I'm not really a fan of James Randi and self-proclaimed "Skeptics". In my opinion they exhibit exactly the same signs as an ideology or cult, in a way similar to mac evangelists with Steve Jobs, zealot atheists with Richard Dawkins and certain similar guardians of truth. Almost all of these people are intellectual poseurs whose greatest achievement will never be anything more than the paraphrasing of their icons. Of course these pseudo-religions provide answers for all questions, even for the most arcane. Creating new gods and worshiping false prophets can never be the goal for the mind of a truly free individual.

If people want to take the easy way out and have it harm their lives (like taking celebrity advice and not giving their children vaccines as a result) then fine. The problem is that a lot of the people you talk about vote in large numbers and can harm me in that way.

With the direction America is going I don't know if it's possible to reverse the trend of not teaching critical thinking skills more in the classroom. It seems that special interests set the agenda these days. It would take a major crisis for anything to change.

Really made me think now. It's true that student these days lack the 'Real' problem solving skills.

To cite Randi, the fellow who gushed over Emily Rosa and endorsed the most obviously fraudulent article ever published in JAMA shows exactly where your idea of critical thinking lies - crowd mentality among a self-selected group of fellow skeptics.

Where exactly is Emily Rosa these days? Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech? None of the above. She is what she was at the age of 9 - a somewhat dull kid who did not understand what was done in her name.

But Randi and a lot of skeptics got it wrong. They failed to analyze the data on the web site and the article - Hell they even failed to notice that there were two different reports of the number of successes in the same 280 trials.

So, just as you managed to know the source of the Valedictorian's speech - assuming that you are correct and she was parroting what he said, rather than just having reached the same conclusions on her own which led her to his work, you have done the same exact thing.

Wallace Sampson? Wasn't he involved with that old skeptic rag from 2 decades ago? I am surprised Science Based Medicine didn't have Stephen Barrett on the editorial board. Remember him? and yet he lent his name to the Rosa article. Now there's a great example of critical thinking.

As an investor in Red Hat and as someone who really things critical thinking is important - I feel really uncomfortable with your brand of it being associated with Red Hat in any way.

I think that was a bit harsh. I don't even know what you're referring to, and a quick Google isn't turning up anything negative about Emily Rosa or her JAMA article (neither of which I had ever heard of prior to your comment, by the way). I'm surmising that some folks didn't believe she actually wrote/conducted her study? Again, this is the first I have heard about her, period, so I'm feeling a bit attacked for something I didn't cite.

I'm also not following what you're referring to... Wallace Sampson?

Again, I think you're making some awfully big leaps here from my linking to an interesting TED talk and mentioning some interesting resources for learning to question, to the accusation that I'm somehow endorsing some giant group of skeptics who are apparently interconnected.

Critical thinking is a process for all of us. I most assuredly have blind spots that I haven't yet looked closely at, because we all have 'acquired wisdom' that we don't really question until the right moment arrives.

The valedictorian's speech, along with a cursory read of her blog and some other related things, is quite clearly the product of having Gatto and others pushed on her by the teacher she mentions. And that's fine--we all try on ideas, often with gusto--but it did surprise me to see so many fans of Gatto reading her work as if she'd done something new and exciting by parroting him. Is it possible she somehow came to the same set of ideas on her own, read his work, and could only thereafter put those ideas into his words and his expressions? I suppose. Seems unlikely to me, though.

In the end, people do make mistakes, even the most skeptical among us. Something causes someone to overlook what's questionable or perfectly obvious to many other people. Critical thinking is an imperfect process, because it involves people, and we come to the table with our own set of experiences and things we "know" are true. is a place where we can explore ideas, and challenge the ideas of others. I'd wager that Red Hat's stock price can weather a heated discussion just fine.

Well, as someone who wrote five articles on Emily's article and attempted to get the authors to explain their results, I quickly realized that many self-described skeptics were all too willing to accept their preconceptions - which is precisely my point. In short, most skeptics confuse nay-saying with reason.

"Skeptics" around the world still cite Rosa to support their unreasoned biases, even as they extol the virtues of reason. I think my broader point is that the link you provided and your reference to Randi are part of the irrationality I try to dispel.

The Randi challenge is hogwash. Always has been, always will be. The challenge amounts to nothing other than an effort to trick people into making statements that Randi then uses to create situations in which his "victims" will fail.

One component of the pseudo-science involved is the use of multiple testing trials while claiming alpha and beta values that only apply to single trials.

The general path is at least three tests before Randi would be forced to validate his victim's work. At least one successful trial before you even get to Randi and at least two trials for Randi.

In the end, even if you compelled Randi to pay the money, which is never going happen, what have you accomplished? The next skeptic just moves to the head of the line and says: "Randi was a fool - He's wrong, prove it to me." They would be right - Because the Randi challenge is pseudo-science which is precisely why referring to it in an article on critical thinking is so outrageous.

I think it is fair to say that invoking Randi's parlor tricks and steering readers toward illusory notions of scientific medical practices vs unscientific medical practices is disingenuous in an article on critical thinking.

Yes, if health care providers in the US, Canada and Great Britain were actually applying "scientific medicine" in their day to day activities it might be reasonable - but the reality is that most health care providers in these three countries are not implementing science based medicine practices at all in their day to day activities.

Primary caregivers don't tailor antibiotic prescriptions to lab verified results, they write tens of millions of prescriptions for broad spectrum antibiotics in the hope that they will kill off their patient's infections and keep their patients from coming back.

Some patients suffer unnecessary side effects as a result of allopaths prescribing drugs under conditions that were never replicated in prior clinical trials. In essence, they are experimenting on their patients. But I rarely see fellow skeptics toss out all allopathic medicine and ridicule allopaths even though most allopaths fail to practice in accordance with the results of clinical trials. A dual standard for which I see no justification.

These same uncritical skeptics tend to be all too quick to jump on misstatements by handfuls of alternative health providers and assume they have sufficient grounds to toss out entire categories of alternative health interventions because a few practitioners misspoke or practiced in ways that are inconsistent with accepted practices.

True critical thinkers don't pick favorites - they apply the same critical analysis to all their examples.

Wallace Sampson as best I can recollect, having chatted with him at the time, was a member of the editorial board of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine - a rightly discredited, fringe precursor to the journal you link to. SRAM gloried in disparaging everything and anything that those who leave their skepticism at the front step of mainstream allopathic medicine distrust.

Do I have to believe every crackpot alternative health provider's claims? No. But I also shouldn't fail to recognize when the virtues claimed by, and for, allopathic medicine are undeserved.

You could do a lot better in picking examples of critical thinking than comparing alternative and complementary health practices to "scientific medicine" and you most certainly ought not highlight Randi as an example of critical thinking.

You chose to write an article on critical thinking. You might have included a critique of the Randi Challenge and I'd have said "Bravo!". I think that opens you up to the observation that the article contains a lot of uncritical thinking that has been recycled by, and between, skeptics for more than two decades.

Thank you so much for taking the time to type that all out. It's disappointing to hear you've run up against dogmatic behavior with the folks mentioned.

I'd love to hear a bit more about this:
"The Randi challenge is hogwash. Always has been, always will be. The challenge amounts to nothing other than an effort to trick people into making statements that Randi then uses to create situations in which his "victims" will fail.

One component of the pseudo-science involved is the use of multiple testing trials while claiming alpha and beta values that only apply to single trials.

The general path is at least three tests before Randi would be forced to validate his victim's work. At least one successful trial before you even get to Randi and at least two trials for Randi."

(Feel free to point me to a link if it's been explained somewhere in detail already.)

Also if your articles on Emily Rosa are available online, I would much like to read them, because it sounds very interesting.

I absolutely agree that there is a problem with health care practitioners not following the evidence, which is why I think we need more folks like the Academic OB/Gyn, who really are willing to look into common and uncommon practices and encourage OBs and midwives to reconsider the way they do things. (For example his writings/video on delayed cord clamping is the most balanced, reasonable source I've seen on the subject, which is quite polarized everywhere else.)

However, for me the difficult with most conventional vs. alternative providers is that the former are (usually) willing to rethink what they're doing when evidence points to it being wrong. Or at the very least, will acknowledge that they are doing something that isn't ideal. The latter seems to have a general distrust of science and vague ideas about "chemicals" being harmful (without ever really considering that the divide between synthetic and natural isn't the same as the one between harmful and harmless--meningitis is natural, and the chemicals in the Hib vaccine are not, but most of us would not like to have the former, even if we reject the latter). There's a big belief in conspiracy theories, like the idea that vaccine-preventable diseases were going away before vaccines became available, and Big Pharma is just trying to make money off us.

"I think that opens you up to the observation that the article contains a lot of uncritical thinking that has been recycled by, and between, skeptics for more than two decades."

Agreed, I am certainly open to talking about that. I have certainly seen dismissal of alternative medicine where it's completely inappropriate--when it simply hasn't been tested at all.

But there's also a failure on the side of those who champion these things to realize that conventional medicine *does* use natural cures where they have been shown valuable--it's just that they will do things like try to isolate the valuable part of whatever plant is showing promise and ultimately use that (often a synthetic version) to create a more potent medicine. (Which most of the pro-alternative med folks I know will then promptly refuse to use. :)

I will be upfront and say that, because most of the people in my social circle have much faith in these things, I do tend to appreciate some of the nay-saying perhaps more than I should.

Stories like those described in this blog post are unfortunately not rare, and a general lack of education about the science behind vaccinations, and the substitution of alt-med treatments for proven treatment protocols in serious illnesses, really is a growing public health problem:

I have seen babies die or be injured during labor because their families don't have sufficient critical thinking skills to assess the pseudoscience that pushes them to reject all of modern medicine as harmful and arbitrary. I've seen a child get heart damage after having measles, when her parents were told that she could get autism from MMR, and that measles wasn't dangerous anyway.

When you mentioned a "journal" I pointed to, did you mean Science-Based Medicine? I hope you didn't think that my pointing people there means that I think it's a perfect source. But between the various doctors who review what the others are blogging--I have seen great ones like Harriet Hall really apply a critical eye to her colleagues posts--and the comments, which often push back on questionable points or point to things that contradict what was posted, I do think it's a great resource when you're looking for information on medical treatments.

And for what it's worth, I used the word "legendary" to describe Randi partly because he's memorable as a character to people, not because I can vouch for his skills as a magician or his impartiality as a skeptic. But the resources his foundation provided were pretty good, compared to what else is out there.

The current ideology is more about “how do I get people to follow” Critical Thinking slows down Ideological leaders. I question often inferred by many leaders, political, media, and managerial, is more about people following them, than going in the right direction. Current leader often believe they are right based on the fact that they are the leader. Whilst most of them are the leaders only because no one else wanted the job. If we developed more people who will think before they act, instead of act then suffer the consequence, then I believe we would start heading into a more successful future.


The rarest commodities on the planet are rational dialogue and self-doubt.

The articles I have written are, in general, indexed in Pubmed and available through links from there. The most thorough discussion was in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2003.

You will find extensive references to the hocus pocus involved in the Randi Challenge in the Therapeutic Touch group on yahoogroups unless the rabidly nay-saying listserve manager has deleted them.

In general my experience with self-described skeptics is that they would come in, wax on about how sloppy TT practitioners and researchers were, and when I suggested that they analyze the Rosa data for themselves they would tell me that they didn't need to understand statistics to know the article was right.

Over time, they would slowly soften their resistance, but not a one of them ever admitted that they were wrong to have cited Rosa as an example of good research. They would just disappear one day, never to be heard from again. And, of course, in their wake there were always new, unschooled skeptics, to take their place.

I rarely feel as certain as most of them did. I assume I will make a lot of mistakes.

I assume that people will indeed pass through many different stages as they try on different world views. I don't see that as inherently anti-scientific or inherently uncritical. I am also, as a health care practitioner, very much aware that yesterday's dogma often loses out to tomorrow's facts.

Only sustained ignorance and clear efforts to gloss over one's own errors and inconsistencies really offends me.

The Rosa article was scientific misconduct not sloppy statistical analysis. Randi fell for it because, like so many skeptics, he wanted to believe the conclusions and perhaps because he does not understand science and statistics. I have my doubts about that though...

I think Randi is really bright and I think he knows the Challenge is hogwash. Randi relies on the gullibility of uncritical people and statistical misrepresentation is no different than any other parlor trick he might employ. The shame is that so many people confuse his parlor tricks with critical thinking.

The long term editor of JAMA fell for the Rosa article because he wanted to believe it too. He lost his job in part because of the lax standards that allowed the article to be published. Since 1998 the standards for authorship across the biomedical literature have been tightened significantly, in part because of the TT article in JAMA and an equally infamous article on Chiropractic in the New England Journal of Medicine. Yeah, that editor lost his job too. One step forward for critical thinking.

Interestingly enough, JAMA has never withdrawn the article though they certainly aren't citing it as their proudest moment. As a result, new generations of True Believer skeptics continue to cite the article when they should be analyzing the data and rejecting the author's conclusions.

Now, if Randi was running around testing the claims of innocence and ignorance of the people who caused the 2008 economic collapse, I'd be backing him to the hilt. But on the truly important areas in which we might apply critical thinking, he seems unduly silent.

change it. Please see Sr Ken Robinson videos @TED, and you will have the root cause of this problem.
Change the way we instruct kids. Learn the to create, and not to be afraid of mistakes.
Changing Education Paradigms - (Ken Robinson)

Thank you for your article.


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