Education Commentary

Why ‘Critical Thinking’ Programs Won’t Work

By Mortimer J. Adler — September 17, 1986 6 min read

American education in the 20th century has been full of buzz words. They represent voguish panaceas that, originating locally, develop into nationwide manias. Sweeping the country for a short time, they die away leaving no memorable results.

The most recent and most ill-conceived is the mania to develop programs of instruction in critical thinking, using manuals and other ''how-to” devices, as if thinking could be taught in and of itself as an abstract skill.

There can be no question whatsoever that developing in the minds of our students the ability to think--critically at least, if not also creatively--should be a prime objective of basic schooling. Unless students can be trained to think critically, none of the other objectives of basic schooling in kindergarten through grade 12 can be achieved. They cannot develop skill in the language arts, in the operations of mathematics, and in the procedures of scientific investigation. Their understanding of important ideas and issues cannot be increased and deepened.

What is misconceived is not the objective itself, but rather the means for achieving it. It is characteristic of current educational thinking that, once an objective of schooling comes to the fore and receives national recognition, the means proposed for achieving it consist in setting up specially devised programs for the purpose.

In some cases that may be the right thing to do. But with regard to thinking, it is completely wrong. I would almost go so far as to say that, in the case of critical thinking, devising a special program to produce the desired result is a chimerical effort. It cannot be done. Let me explain why it is impossible.

There is no such thing as thinking in and of itself. All the thinking any of us do is thinking about one subject matter or another, or it is the thinking we do in the process of performing other acts of the mind.

We cannot learn to read and write very well, or speak and listen well, without learning how to do all these things thoughtfully. To be a thoughtless reader (that is, to read without thinking as one reads) may result in pleasure or help one to go to sleep, but it cannot result in the growth of knowledge understood or in an increase of understanding itself.

The same holds true for the performance of mathematical operations and engagement in scientific investigation. These things cannot be done without thinking, or, if done thoughtlessly, the educational result will be nil.

Good schooling should involve a great deal of discussion, interchanges of questions and answers between teacher and student and between students with one another. Such discussion, if it is to be educationally profitable for all concerned, must involve them in thinking. It certainly should not be as thoughtless as cocktail-party chitchat, or like the unthinking exchange of opinions or prejudices in ordinary bull sessions.

Those engaged in educationally profitable discussion will be engaged in agreeing or disagreeing, arguing when they disagree, and giving reasons for disagreements. They will be making and defending generalizations, or challenging generalizations made by others. They will be judging by weighing evidence pro and con, or by examining the validity of reasons for making one claim or another concerning what is true or false, more or less probable. They will be asking and answering questions about the consistency or inconsistency of things asserted or denied, about their presuppositions and their implications, and about the inferences involved therein.

All this is obviously critical thinking on the part of those engaged in discussing, as well as those engaged in reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, proving, testing, observing, measuring, and trying to draw conclusions from what has been found by observation and measurement.

All of the words just used are participles of verbs that signify acts of the mind in thinking. These acts can be performed either poorly or well. They are performed well only by those who have acquired skill in performing them, skill that in each case is possessed as a good habit of performance.

How are such intellectual habits of skill developed? Exactly in the same way that all bodily habits of skill are developed: by coaching, not by didactic instruction using textbooks that state the rules to be followed.

Many years ago, when I was a young instructor at Columbia University and at the University of Chicago, I taught courses in logic, using textbooks that stated the laws of thought, the rules to be followed in making inferences and judging them, and in avoiding fallacies. To my surprise and chagrin, I discovered that students who were able to get high marks in a logic course did not turn out to be students who, as a result of that, showed themselves able to think critically in their other courses. Nor were they students who showed an ability to read and discuss thoughtfully the difficult books assigned in seminars conducted.

Logic was a required freshman course in most colleges at the beginning of this century. It no longer is required in most colleges, for the very reason that I discovered when I taught it years ago. It does not produce students who can think well in all their other courses.

The programs in critical thinking now being advocated from coast to coast are minuscule and oversimplified versions of the much more rigorous course in logic that I taught at the college level. And they will be just as ineffective in producing students who can think critically in all the learning or studying they do in other courses. Nor will they train teachers how to think critically. That training should have been accomplished by the education they received before they started to teach.

Another indication of the same point can be drawn from what happens in the training of lawyers and physicians. How do our law and medical schools train future practitioners in these professions to think the way lawyers and physicians should be able to think? By giving them instruction in critical thinking? No, but rather by demanding that they learn how to think about legal and medical matters in all courses taught in these professional schools and, after that, in hospital internships and in law offices.

The method of instruction throughout is that of coaching, with student performances corrected when they are poorly done and with insistence that the right way of performing be done over and over again until the requisite skill becomes a firm and stable habit of operation.

The misconception that underlies the now widely prevalent educational vogue is that thinking is a skill that can be acquired in isolation from all the other skills that enable us to use our minds effectively, in the performance of which we are involved in judging, reasoning, problem-solving, arguing, and defending or rejecting conclusions.

Since that is not the case, we should not be developing programs in critical thinking to achieve the educational objective about which we all agree. Instead, we should try to be sure that students are coached in thinking in every course that is taught--taught, one hopes, by teachers who know how to think. Such coaching will, of course, pay attention to the laws or rules of thought that are taught in courses on formal logic, but it will not be regarded as effective coaching simply because students can recite the logical lessons they have learned.

In short, if all teaching required students to think about what is being taught, that by itself would suffice. Teaching that fails to do this is nothing but indoctrination. Learning that does not involve thinking is nothing but the memorization of facts not understood, resulting in the formation of mere opinions, not the possession of genuine knowledge and understanding.

The ultimate objective of the educational reforms that colleagues and I have set forth in The Paideia Proposal is.to turn out thoughtful citizens and learners--persons able to think well and critically in every thing they do. The soundness of the Paideia program for achieving that objective is manifested by its recognition of the fact that no program of instruction in critical thinking is required for this purpose

A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1986 edition of Education Week