Critical thinking practices and education resources

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.


About the author

Rebecca Fernandez - 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.