What It Means To Teach Critical Thinking In Schools
by Terry Heick
Preface: This is a transcription of an interview I had recently where I spoke about critical thinking–which is why it reads like someone talking rather than someone writing. I say ‘transcription’ in ‘irony quotes’ because I went back and revised it for clarity and, in places, emphasis.
Also, note that whether or not we can teach someone to think critically and whether or not we can teach it in ‘school’ are two very different questions; at some point, I’ll talk about the former to supplement the brief reflection on the latter below.
Every now and then, I hear someone wonder (out loud or in writing) about whether or not we can teach critical thinking in schools.
I think that’s an odd thing to wonder about–or at least a curious way to frame that as a topic.
But almost immediately I’m reminded of education’s continued infatuation with being both ‘research-based’ and with measuring things.
Of course, measuring of some kind is necessary. There are very few professional fields where metrics don’t exist and there isn’t some kind of evaluation and accountability. Depending on your perspective, there is always some kind of standard to be measured against. There is some sort of clear and objective expectation.
And when that is not being met, it leaves that lets anyone in control know that changes need to be made adjustments need to be made, whether you’re talking about a company’s revenue, whether you’re talking about the success of a design, or an automotive technology or anything like that we need data we need to understand.
But critical thinking resists this sort of resist the sort of mechanisms that that the classrooms are accustomed to. And the classrooms depend on which is, for example, lesson unit design.
Basic assessment patterns. Data reporting, learning feedback, grading systems, the number of students in the classroom.
The length (number of minutes per day, number of days per year, etc.) of each class.
Even the nature of the academic standards themselves.
All of these things necessitate that critical thinking swim upstream.
Of course, each of these could be angled or adjusted to accommodate critical thinking, but the nature of critical thinking makes even this effort difficult. Critical thinking inherently reaches beyond all of those things. It is inherently disruptive. It requires an approach to pedagogy that can be can be unsettling and problematic. And compared to ‘normal learning,’ it can certainly feel like ‘not learning.’
Critical thinking is precise but not always entirely clear. It’s slow and opaque. It’s stopping and starting and retreating and pushing forward again. It’s inquiry and it’s trying to understand and it’s humility. It’s re-wording thoughts and refining theories and it’s improving questions and it’s returning to old questions and looking at our underlying assumptions and seeing which are true and which are not and who gets to decide these truths.
Critical thinking reaches beyond a classroom very quickly.
Critical thinking requires us to be acutely aware of the limits of our normal modes of thinking and suspicious of everything we believe because it knows that without intentional effort and adjustment for all the things we either know badly or don’t know at all, we are at risk of being wrong. And the scale of being wrong is becoming unfathomably large.
It’s true that uncertainty and patience in thinking and delay in judgment and discursiveness and recursion don’t pair well with education as it is. Refining–or even being aware of–one’s own reality-testing mechanisms is not required to ‘do well in school’ but can be devastating if not ‘done well’ while we live.
Critical thinking might be better thought of as a mindset than a skill, as I’ve written about before. (See Critical Thinking Is First A Mindset.)
It’s a willingness and an insistence.
It’s looking at the whole thing and then its parts and then back to the whole thing again, seeing context. And these are things that aren’t very natural and a standards-based, highly academic classroom.
So, whether or not we can measure or teach critical thinking in ‘school,’ I think is an odd thing to consider. It’s like wondering if we can teach art or if we can we teach people how to belong or believe or move. These are very human things absolutely essential to the human experience. Rational, clear, critical thinking has to be somewhere near the core of a life well-lived.
Whether you can teach it or promote it or support it or enhance it or supplement or extend it (as a skill) may not be the best way to frame our thinking. If schools–as they are–don’t promote critical thinking and the transfer of useful knowledge to improve the well-being of children and the communities they live in and depend on, then that school is designed to serve itself, not children.
If we ‘can’t teach’ critical thinking, then that might be where we start a collective inquiry into ‘what’ we are and what we’re hoping to accomplish. That reality might illuminate some of the architectural flaws in our systems of teaching and learning. Can we ‘teach’ creativity? Empathy? Mindset? Is ‘teach’ the right word or is it simply the case that these are talents that can be revealed (if they exist) but not created (if they don’t)? Surely, we can all agree that these concepts can be taught if literary symbolism or philosophy or design can be taught (and it’s clear that they can).
Put another way, if the way we do things can’t facilitate the growth of careful, rational, critical thinking in people who will need to bring this kind of thinking to bear on our biggest challenges and opportunities as a human species, I would say that’s a problem not with the evasiveness, but with the underlying assumptions and designs of formal, western education.
If we want to even begin to explore re-shaping the future of learning, we might make sure that correcting our deficit in critical thinking was central to that kind of effort. Propaganda, misinformation, extremism,
Can we teach critical thinking in schools? Of course we can.
Do we make gestures toward that kind of effort now? It seems clear that we do.
Are schools designed to teach children to think? Is this what school is meant to ‘do’?
The answer here also seems clear.