Education Opinion

In Defense of ‘Critical Thinking’ Programs

By Robert J. Sternberg — October 15, 1986 7 min read

In his recent Commentary, “Why ‘Critical Thinking’ Programs Won’t Work,” Mortimer J. Adler hangs thinking-skills programs in effigy (Sept. 17,1986). However, it is a straw man that hangs from his gallows. Mr. Adler does not cite any specific contemporary thinking-skills programs, which is not surprising, because none of those programs--or at least, none of the respectable ones--resembles the hypothetical program he describes.

Mr. Adler makes many fine and insightful points. All of these statements, however, are about teaching thinking skills in general, rather than about thinking-skills programs in particular. I have no trouble agreeing with and applauding many of his points about thinking skills: As he states, teaching students to think should be a prime objective of basic schooling. Unless students can be trained to think well, none of the other objectives of schooling in kindergarten through grade 12 can be achieved.

But where Mr. Adler goes wrong is in his characterization of the existing, but never named, thinking-skills programs. He likens them to his college logic course, which was supposed to teach, in an abstract way, the rules of thought. Mr. Adler found that there was little or no transfer from the logic course to other courses.

This lack of transfer is not surprising in abstract-logic courses, and were thinking-skills programs the “minuscule and oversimplified versions of the much more rigorous course in logic that [he] taught at the college level,” I would agree that the courses are hopeless. The programs would be too abstract. But I, and others, have reviewed a number of contemporary thinking- skills programs in several recent articles, and the bald fact is that they just do not resemble an abstract-logic course.

Mr. Adler’s essay misrepresents the nature and scope of high-quality thinking-skills programs. He states, for example, that such programs resemble a set of ''how to” devices. This characterization is true of those that teach to specific tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the Medical College Admissions Test. But these are programs for improving test scores, not for teaching thinking skills.

The two kinds of programs are not the same. Programs for teaching to tests are based solely on test content, without regard to the quality of that content or to the way in which thinking is taught.

Good thinking-skills programs, on the other hand, are based on philosophical or ·psychological theories of how people think, and instructional theories of how these ways of thinking can be introduced to students.

Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment, Bransford and Stein’s IDEAL Problem Solver, Lipman’s Philosophy for Children, and my own Intelligence Applied program are all based on theories of the mind and theories of instruction. They scarcely resemble courses that teach to tests, and they are certainly not how-to courses, except in the sense that they do teach children how to think.

Mr. Adler further states, also incorrectly, that the existing programs seek to teach thinking as an abstract skill divorced from content. This characterization may be true of abstract-logic courses taught at the college level, but it is not a fair representation of thinking-skills programs in the schools. Even the most “abstract” of these programs, Instrumental Enrichment, dictates that roughly 50 percent of teaching and learning time be devoted to bridging the abstract skills and concrete, real-world applications.

Philosophy for Children draws all of its contents from everyday life experiences of children depicted in novels. My own Intelligence Applied program draws content from language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and daily life. The authors of all such programs would agree that thinking cannot be taught divorced from content. Indeed, some psychologists and educators, such as Robert Glaser and Robert Swartz, argue that thinking skills must be taught through infusion into classroom activities.

I would argue that the optimal thinking-skills program involves a combination of a separate course and “infusion” into regular classroom activities.

When thinking skills are taught only through “infused” instruction, one or more of several difficulties are likely to arise:

• The teaching of thinking skills is not likely to be coordinated across different subject-matter areas, so students will not obtain an integrated set of skills that they are then able to apply to their academic and nonacademic work. As a result, certain thinking skills may be missed or underemphasized, whereas others may get more attention than they are due.

• There is a danger that attention to thinking skills may be crowded out by the regular classroom material. Teachers often feel under the gun to maximize test scores, and so may want to emphasize fact-based content rather than thinking skills. Given that teachers often believe they already have too much to teach, thinking skills may get a back seat, or no seat at all.

• Some teachers take to teaching thinking skills as readily as fish take to bicycles. They simply can’t or won’t teach for thinking. With a separate course, one can select as teachers those whose talents most lie in the direction of teaching thinking.

At the same time, teaching thinking skills only through a separate course can be equally ineffective.

First, there is a danger that students will perceive those skills as relevant only to the thinking-skills classroom. Transfer of the skills to studies outside that classroom may be left to chance.

Second, teaching and learning activities outside that classroom may actually undermine what is taught in the class. If students learn thinking skills in one class, but are encouraged to use rote memorization in others, they may actually become cynical about the applicability of what they learn in the thinking-skills class.

Finally, the instruction may be too brief and transitory. Thinking cannot be taught as a one-shot deal. It must be taught throughout the school curriculum and throughout the student’s school career.

Thinking-skills programs that work can vary considerably in the ways in which they are presented, but they tend to have certain elements in common:

• They emphasize the point that teaching is for transfer. Transfer is not left to chance: The thinking skills are taught in a number of subjects (whether through a separate course, infusion into normal instruction, or both); they are exemplified in both abstract and concrete programs; they are exemplified in both academic and everyday kinds of problems; and they are taught through multiple vehicles of instruction.

• The instruction is relevant to children’s lives. Learning in formal logic courses will not transfer if it is almost all abstract. Students must learn to use informal as well as formal logic, and to use their skills in their everyday existence.

• The program is appropriate for the students to whom it is administered. For example, Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment program works particularly well for average and below-average students at the junior- high-school level, whereas my Intelligence Applied program works best for average and above-average students at the high-school and college levels. In selecting programs, or creating their own, teachers and administrators themselves need to use all of the thinking skills that they expect to teach to the students.

• Good programs involve relatively prolonged exposure to the thinking-skills material. Such exposure will involve a minimum of one year, and preferably two years, of instruction. As the educator Arthur Costa has pointed out, there are no quick fixes in thinking-skills instruction, and we can’t expect a one-semester course to generate miracles.

• The better programs are sensitive to group and individual differences. The programs and the teachers alike need to take into account differences in learning styles and strategies, as well as differences in levels of intellectual capacity. Force-feeding one method of solving problems may work for some children, but inevitably will not work for others.

• Finally, all programs need to be taught by teachers who can think for themselves and who are capable of viewing themselves as learners as well as teachers. The didactic, authoritarian teaching style does not work well in teaching thinking. The role modeling to which the students will be exposed must encourage free and thoughtful responses to the instructional program.

If there is one fundamental flaw in Mr. Adler’s argument, it is that programs for teaching thinking represent an “ill-conceived . . . mania.”

As technology advances and the complexity of science and society increases, the importance of high-level thinking can only increase as well. Thinking-skills programs make explicit what has been implicit all along: that learning without thinking is mindless, whereas thinking without learning is empty.

Thinking and learning should always go together. In the past, the emphasis in our schools has been on learning. The creation and use of thinking-skills programs is an attempt to achieve balance. And such programs can work.