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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

Teachers can't make their students think critically (but that's ok)

I'm going to make a confession. I've spent close to twenty years teaching critical thinking to high school students even though all the research suggests that you can't teach critical thinking.

Despite decades of critical thinking courses and programs, teachers are still just as worried about students ability to think rationally than ever before.

How many of their brightest students are obsessed with conspiracy theories? Or believe in ghosts? Or swear blind that their mother's sister's uncle is psychic. 

According to American cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, critical thinking is not a skill.

We think of skills as a set of tools that we learn and use. Driving a car is a skill. Once we've learned to drive one car, we can drive most other cars. 

However, when we think critically, we often focus on the surface structure of the situation, rather on the underlying problem. We think about the car and not the act of driving.

If we teach a student to question sources of information using social media as an example they may very well learn that they can't trust everything they read on social media.

But they won't automatically question the sources they are presented with in newspapers, on television, in conversation, or in books.

We've all met that person who can ace a test on the difference between correlation and causation but still believe that they got a good grade because they were wearing their lucky socks.

Perhaps critical thinking is like healthy eating.

I know exactly what I should be eating and how I should be exercising but you're still far more likely to find me eating hot jam donuts than broccoli.

So how do we turn students into natural critical thinkers?

Willingham's solution: Place critical thinking in every classroom. Not as an individual course but as a part of every lesson.

"Thinking critically should be taught in the context of subject matter...People do not spontaneously examine assumptions that underlie their thinking, try to consider all sides of an issue, question what they know, etc. These things must be modeled for students, and students must be given opportunities to practice—preferably in the context of normal classroom activity."

Instead of telling students that they have to question sources of information using a few abstract examples, teachers need to apply critical thinking across multiple subjects and multiple classes.

That's why The Bad Science Show has never really been about teaching critical thinking, it's about turning students into critical thinkers. For example, the show doesn't just teach students what the placebo effect is, it demonstrates how it applies to student's local chemists as well as faith healers in the the jungles of Brazil.

The goal of the show is to get students taking their science lessons out of the classroom and bringing it into the playground, the home, the supermarket and the internet.

But I'm not giving up the hot jam donuts.

Koslowski, B. (1996). Theory and Evidence: The Development of Scientific Reasoning, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Willingham, D (2007). “Critical Thinking: Why is it so hard to teach,” AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS, 9-15.


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