Curriculum Opinion

Getting Specific About Critical Thinking

By Daniel McMahon — September 27, 2011 4 min read

All disciplines have their technical vocabulary. A lay person might use “speed” and “velocity” to refer to the same thing, but a physicist would not; a commentator might use “myth” to refer to a falsehood, but a historian of religion uses that word quite differently; an observer might use “anarchism” interchangeably with “terrorism,” but a political scientist would not.

In addition to a technical vocabulary, all disciplines also have their own jargon and buzz words that often make those inside and outside the profession roll their eyes or throw up their hands. The further divorced from any real meaning the jargon gets, the more frustrating it becomes—Orwell calls this a “sheer cloudy vagueness.” While there are many contenders for the most egregious phrase in academic jargon I argue that “critical thinking” stands out.

Everyone supports the idea of teaching students to “think critically,” but I’ve met very few teachers and administrators (and even fewer people outside academia) who have a clear idea of what they want students to do when they engage in “critical thinking.” Usually the definition is tautological, such as “teach kids to reason” or help students acquire “higher order mental skills.” Some very fine educators will say, “We teach them to ask questions.” But asking questions or engaging students with the “Socratic method” is not the same thing as teaching critical thinking. Neither is getting students to define concepts such as “influence” or “control,” as I saw one school claim. That exercise may help students begin to reflect on their own opinions but it doesn’t train specific intellectual skills.

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews recently told me in an email exchange that teaching critical thinking “means my history teacher Mr. Ladendorff encourage[d] us to write essays that criticized the textbook. He is the guy who gave me the tools to be a contrarian columnist.” I am loathe to disagree with such a gifted education reporter as Mathews, but what Mr. Ladendorff gave him was not critical thinking skills but a license to, and encouragement to, question traditional authority. It’s an incredibly valuable gift, but much more of an attitude or outlook than a set of reasoning skills. I suspect that Mathews taught himself to “think critically” by beginning to consider point of view in the text, what was put in and left out and why, and what unacknowledged assumptions were being made and who benefitted from them.

More Than Memory

For my World Literature class, as opposed to generically emphasizing critical thinking I pick the texts and pedagogical strategies to target the exact skills I’m looking to improve: inferential skills, predictive-validity skills, observation and close-reading skills, and pattern-recognition skills. Memory and recognition, while remarkably important (and I do units on strengthening those skills, also), are too often the default skills being taught no matter the subject. Think of how many tests you took that relied heavily on memory and recognition and often little else.

A section I do to emphasize pattern recognition makes use of a series of flood stories: Noah’s Ark; Ovid’s Deucalion and Pyrrha and his Baucis and Philemon; and Richard Wright’s naturalistic “The Man Who Saw the Flood.” The questions I design move in three steps: 1) group everything we know about the stories by what is common to them; 2) start separating the stories by what distinguishes them; and 3) evaluate the stories by a specified criteria (for example, realism, destructiveness, moralism, and so on). We typically discover that flood stories in the mythological realm are about cleansing; they punish the evil and reward the good, and then allow for a new start. Wright’s story, however, emphasizes the filth of the flood. The deluge further imprisons the indentured farming family and, instead of creating conditions for a new start, it literally and figuratively buries the family. If students practice this process over and over—group by common elements, separate by distinctions, evaluate by acknowledged criteria—they will teach themselves a particular strategy for thinking.

To teach predictive validity I might engage in a close reading of a story or poem—phrase by phrase or line by line—and ask a series of questions after each line about the things that could happen next. Is it a surprise when in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory, one calm summer night,/Went home and put a bullet through his head”? Not if you’ve read carefully enough to notice that the narrator knows only the externals about Cory (the narrator says, “He was a gentleman from sole to crown”) and nothing of his inner life. Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” can be well taught by a reading of each question from Socrates to Meletus followed by journal entries on what Meletus’ answer is likely to be and why—and then checking those entries against what Meletus does say. Shiga Naoya’s brilliant story, “Han’s Crime,” about a juggler who kills his wife in front of 300 witnesses during a knife-throwing act begs to be read so that students predict what questions the judge will ask and what answers will be given by the various witnesses.

Teachers should, as always, be prepared to answer queries about what material will be presented in class, what kind of homework children will have, and what evaluation will be like. But they should also be prepared with answers about exactly what mental processes students will be working on, how they will work on those processes, and in what ways those processes will be evaluated. Let’s not say we’re teaching “critical thinking” without delineating exactly what that entails.


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