Have we reached peak “critical thinking” articles yet? In the weeks after the US election it seemed almost every (respectable) online media outlet had some story - written by an “educationalist” (or some other academic) - about critical thinking and its place in education. The spike has come in lock-step with news about so-called "fake-news" in this so-called "post-truth" era while grenades are being hurled from either side of the politicised-media divide.
On November 23rd “The Conversation” asked “What is critical thinking? And do universities really teach it?” A week earlier National Public Radio (npr) titled a report “From Hate Speech to Fake News: the content crisis facing Mark Zuckerberg”. They ran this the same day as an article titled “Students have dismaying inability to tell fake news from real, study finds.” That was a report on a Stanford University study. One wonders who the control group was (hint: there couldn't possibly be one). This is hardly a new phenomena - it is no more than a specific instance of the general problem of: in a world where children are taught to trust authority how do those same children discern true from false without being told? In other words: which authority should they trust?
This, in crystalline form, is the problem. Indoctrinated with the idea that one should trust their elders and betters students raised on a diet of authorities who tell them what is true (parents, teachers, media) when the traditional authorities turn out not to be trustworthy, to what new authorities do they turn?
This is the wrong question as Karl Popper explained. We should not be looking for authorities to tell us the truth. That is not what the quest for truth and knowledge amounts to. No - the real question is:
How can we detect and eliminate error?
That is Popper's critical method (what "critical thinking" amounts to) and it is almost universally unappreciated, ignored and, where it's not ignored: misunderstood.
Since those npr articles bemoaning the not-new observation that some news sites are hard to trust and people might lack the tools to discern true from false, the articles on so-called "critical thinking" have kept coming. All of them have one thing in common: they fail to clarify what they mean by critical thinking. I'm yet to see one that mentions, at all, "Popper" or "Critical Rationalism". Some are quite explicit that defining terms is the whole problem and yet also declare "it is, in the end, unimportant to define what we mean by critical thinking." This and statements like it, are frustrating reads for anyone interested in actual "critical thinking" as an important general skill for any human being to possess and as it has been understood for decades and more by people actually interested in critical thinking (and not just the broad, nebulous project of "education"). It’s a simple idea: critical thinking skills allow one to sift the true from the false, the useful from the useless; the valuable from the worthless. It consists of methods of categorising into what works and what fails to work. It was largely explained by Karl Popper in his corpus of work decades ago (building on the work of some of the ancient Greeks and early scientists and some others) and broadly referred to as “critical rationalism”. That epistemology explains under what conditions one can evaluate propositions as either provisionally true or demonstrably false. So there is a long, wise tradition that contains genuine knowledge about how knowledge works and the centrality of "criticism" to the whole project. People have known this as much as experts have understood germ theory or the laws explaining gravity. But just because most people are ignorant about it does not make it any less true. We must remember: most people are still ignorant about Darwin's Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection: but their ignorance does not make it less true.
There is no third option between "true and false". This is the law of the excluded middle. And this is the beauty of critical rationalism: it rests upon a simple logical truth. If something is successfully criticised - it is refuted. It is, simply, the method of criticism. That's critical thinking.
And that is how I will come to define critical thinking. It must be about criticism.
So, for my part, I have been attempting to explain the simplicity of critical thinking for some years now. Yes, some so-called "educationalists" are coming late to this whole area - but this should be no surprise. There are few, if any, engaged in the study of "education" who have any deep appreciation of what learning actually is (follow for my video which provides a sketch answer to this question following Popper) and so are not really interested in critical thinking. To understand that either my own website here or my video here can explain that.
I do this because I genuinely think that these are not difficult concepts. Sure they can lead to amazingly complex places - but just because an idea is deep does not mean it must be "hard to define". So because academics won't define it, let me:
Critical Thinking (noun): thinking aimed at producing criticisms.
That's really all there is to it. Criticism is how we sift the true from the false. It is called "critical" thinking because it's about being critical. And being critical means producing criticisms. And applying those criticisms to ideas and works and other notions.
If the criticisms are valid; the claim being made is false or less worthy than (hopefully) some other competing claim.
If the claim being made survives every attempt at criticism; we take the claim as provisionally true so long as it’s also useful to our purposes.
Again, it really is as simple as that. There's no need for obfuscating or using big words or providing long lists of educational buzz words.
But yes, of course, one can get very very deep with this philosophy and there truly is an ocean of material to explore. But to “define” critical thinking is not difficult. To understand just how important it is, is likewise not hard to appreciate. It is absolutely crucial for learning: it's the cornerstone - and the more critical one is in their approach to ideas, the faster, better and deeper they learn.
The articles recently have attempted to obfuscate the entire concept of critical thinking for reasons that allude me (but I will attempt to provide some possible answers in a moment). Let’s begin with one of those articles above - possibly my favourite:
November 2016, “The Conversation” by an Academic whose title is “Associate Professor of Higher Education”. Let me, in the words of Darth Vader on his visit to the Death Star in Return of the Jedi and "dispense with the pleasantries". One would expect one who possesses such a lofty title to know much about learning and therefore - the critical method. The article is titled "What is critical thining and do universities really teach it?" and again we have high hopes for uncovering what so many regard as an elusive concept. The author begins well enough asking: "But what is critical thinking? If we do not have a clear idea of what it is, we can’t teach it."
And I could not agree more! And then:
"It is hard to define things like critical thinking: the concept is far too abstract."
It's not hard. I did it. In 7 words. And the concept is not "far too abstract" at all. But let us keep in view the first, valid, claim: If we do not have a clear idea of what it is, we can't teach it. Right. Now moving further on in the article after the author offers us nothing clear about what critical thinking might be, he writes:
"But perhaps a definition of it is, in the end, unimportant. The important thing is that it does need to be taught, and we need to ensure graduates emerge from university being good at it."
But the author has said themselves: if they do not have a clear idea (some would say this is what a definition amounts to!) then it cannot be taught. I am not surprised the author is, apparently, satisfied with this contradiction in claims. They do not know what critical thinking is, deny it can be defined and (this is almost like a mathematical proof) therefore cannot apply it to their own writing. I feel a little sorry for a person who applies their life, ostensibly to the pursuit of expertise in "education" (and one would think "learning") and not know what "critical thinking" is or know how central it is to that business. But worse: I feel more for the students. We need to clarify this. Simplify this. And help people who want to learn: learn it.
This lack of shared understanding - culturally - but especially institutionally among universities and even secondary and primary educators is a scandal. They should know what learning is. They should know what "critical thinking" is. That they reject notions like Popper's epistemology as being absolutely central to this whole project is a huge problem. (There is a worse problem: coercion in education and I write about that here.)
Now that article, bad as it was, has been outdone. And together all of these articles have propelled me to write this piece in response. So let me get to the grand-daddy of poorly thought out articles on critical thinking. The title of that article is "Why schools should not teach general critical-thinking skills." Now yes, it's true I argue schools should teach students what they want. But given a coercive system, one must then ask: what is it we value? The choice really is as stark as this: indoctinate students or provide them with knowledge (tools/skills) to think for themselves. Now the article is right about a number of things: not least of which is that silly so-called "brain training" exercises that many schools now use (because: neuroscience!) are supposed to provide "exericse" for the "brain" to help it "think critically". No, that's very wrong headed. I agree. But the lesson is not: stop trying to help young people think critically. The lesson is: figure out what critical thinking actually is and help student who want to learn it, learn it!
So this article takes things to an even higher level of misconception, confusion and misdirection. It, just as the previous article, argues that both critical thinking does not exist and that, despite this we should not learn what it is. So they both deny the thing is real or worth defning and then, for good measure, just in case they were wrong the first time: if anyone suggests it's a specific thing, let’s not try to learn what it is.
If one were in a conspiratorial frame of mind one could just think that education, increasingly dogmatic and partisan in its way of providing a narrow perspective on all issues (especially political) would have an interest in denying the facility of “critical thinking skills” and specifically denying that such a thing even exists (so don’t even bother looking).
So let me offer my first tentative explanation for why universities and other educational institutions speak much about how they promise to provide their charges with “critical thinking skills” while at the same time denying such broad skills could be useful and how such skills are too difficult to define: Could it be because it is in the interest of those who promulgate dogma and it can protect those who promulgate dogma to deny the usefulness of critical thinking?
Critical thinking skills are THE most important tool in the anti-dogma tool box. Logically prior to scientific reasoning, mathematical skill or even philosophical knowledge - critical thinking skills are THE way in which we sift all true from false ideas. They are the means by which we learn when coupled with our human creativity.
Another related possibility: This new war on critical thinking from some sectors (like some university academics and others) is becoming more brazen. In some cases it seems to be an attempt to demarcate territory: we are the guardians of teaching, learning and education, (the implicit this thesis goes). But why should it concern those who are ostensibly engaged in teaching and education to deny the deep usefulness of a critical attitude? Precisely because a critical attitude - the aim of “critical thinking” is how learning proceeds. Period. It is possible for people (students!) to learn how to learn all on their own. And, of course, if people genuinely take this on board this is a terrible threat to institutionalised learning in an age of such free access to high quality information. Yes, of course, learned people are useful to those doing some learning - no one denies this except, it would seem - some academics who might realise that their own highly specialised "knowledge" in some areas is, well, rather useless. But if one wants to learn something really, genuinely useful, like chemistry or history, say, a chemistry professor or history major is going to be one of the best resources possible. Some of the time, anyway. But someone who is - say a “Professor of Literacy Education” (genuine title) may indeed find that students interested in becoming expert in that field need do little more than spend an afternoon or two on Google and Wikipedia and the odd journal before they discover what, if anything, is worth learning about the field.
Why else might there be this (unwarranted) criticism of (actual) critical thinking? Because critical thinking - general, broad based, critical thinking skills - are the very means by which entrenched dogma come under attack and are subverted and shown false or lacking. Mere science is not enough. It’s important, - essential perhaps - but it is far from sufficient (there is no shortage of scientists who are also, on the weekends, young earth creationists for example). Reading some philosophy is not enough. Nor is doing maths, collecting data and understanding trends. These things are not enough to be a genuinely critical thinker. The deeper skill of figuring out “what is wrong with this claim?” across any domain whatsoever is a threat to anyone who thinks the answer must be “there is nothing possibly wrong with this.” That has been the response of priests and rabbis in the past and mullahs and evangelists of the present. It is also, scandalously, an implicit claim of too many in academia.
Let us return once more to "Why schools should not teach general critical thinking skills." It was published in “aeon” magazine and authored by Carl Hendrick (head of learning and research at Wellington College in Berkshire. He is also an English teacher completing a PhD in English education at King’s College London we are told.)
Hendrick asks: “Should critical thinking be taught as a general skill at school?”. There is no evidence in the article that Mr. Hendrick has ever come to grips with what “critical thinking” is which is my constant refrain in articles of this type. He tends to deny it really exists. It would be interesting to know if he has read anything by Karl Popper and, if so, why he is so dismissive of an entire philosophy about the critical attitude.
Hendrick writes, “Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of their curriculum is meaningless and ineffective.” But no one is proposing that the critical thinking is not to be applied to anything! I propose, below - it should be applied to education itself. And yes: by the students! But Hendrick quotes another “educationalist” Daniel Wellingham who writes “There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.” And so there we have it! A denial of the basic epistemology that underpins how learning works.
The deeper the skill the broader its techniques will apply to diverse situations. If one knows how epistemology (the production of knowledge; learning) actually works as Karl Popper explains then one has a powerful toolbox of techniques (knowledge) about how to criticise claims no matter the domain. Is the person claiming that their claim has never been and could not possibly be subject to criticism? That’s a dubious claim! Has the person considered how the claim might possibly be false? No? That’s a criticism. And that is the general technique: how can we determine if this claim is possibly false? To claim that questions like this simply aren’t possible because the “educationalist” has never gotten to grips whatever with what “critical thinking” might be because they heard people define it out of existence - but this is no reason for the rest of us to throw the baby out as well. Just because "educationalists" are now skeptical of "critical thinking" to the point they are no longer critical of their own thinking or writing does not mean we need to follow their lead into relativism and nihilism. Let us keep in view: there's truth here to be discovered.
Hendrick goes on, “Instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject.” Again, no one has ever suggested that one comes at the expense of the other. We can do two things at once. But one of the examples Hendrick uses simply underscores the misconception. He writes, “A physics student investigating why two planes behave differently in flight might know how to ‘think critically’ through the scientific method but, without solid knowledge of contingent factors such as outside air temperature and a bank of previous case studies to draw upon, the student will struggle to know which hypothesis to focus on and which variables to discount.” This difficult to parse passage seems to be saying that physics students need knowledge about physics to make progress. It also suggests (wrongly!) that science proceeds by looking at the past. That a student ostensibly doing an experiment needs to first draw upon "a bank of previous case studies". Of course no one denies some knowledge of physics is useful in making progress in physics! But the whole point of science - and this can be learned in school - is that we want, when doing science, to make progress beyond that "bank of previous case studies". Yes - even students! The subject specific technique of: simply build a model and do repeated experiments is a critical "subject-specific" technique. The plane that flies worse after repeated trials is disqualified from being the best. The investigation as to why must provide a general explanation WHY one plane is better than another. That is both a subject specific and a general requirement for claims in science (and broadly): what is the explanation? If there is no explanation - one has not really learned anything. Absent a good explanation - that is a criticism. If an experiment is done comparing two planes and plane 1 is definitely better at flying than plane 2 but one has no clue why one is not really doing science. One is going through a process that looks like science in form only - but science is not just about predicting the outcome of experiments. It's about explaining the evidence. Who would want to get in a plane that the engineer had no better reason of attributing magical forces to keeping it aloft rather than Newton's Laws in the form of the Bernoulli effect? And again, appreciating that is not part of the corpus of scientific knowledge but rather the general set of skills called the "critical method" in epistemology. And anyone can learn that! Subject specific critical thinking in science allows us to use an *experiment* to criticise ideas and how to properly design experiments is a whole subject in itself. But the general idea: that we need to ask the question "What is wrong with this and why?" is not subject specific. But, simple though it is, it is so very rarely ever applied. To anything. Ever. Not by teachers and students in schools. But it should be! It is true intellectual self defence against nonsense and dogma.
Articles on critical thinking we have seen - and if one does a Google search one will quickly find - they are absolutely riddled with misconception: this has now reached the point where one might conceivably be concerned that the very term “critical thinking” is so mired in confusion that it could be unsalvageable. I want to push back against this before the battle is lost completely. But obfuscation on this point brings to mind a wonderful piece by Professor Richard Dawkins when writing about the Sokal Hoax (itself an application of "critical thinking" techniques to postmodern literary nonsense). “Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content." The original piece can be found here. So it is in education as much as in those areas of postmodern philosophy Dawkins was criticising: writers do not cultivate a clear literary style. They say things are difficult to define and perhaps not possible to. And why? It disguises a lack of content. It disguises a lack of clarity on their part about what they are supposed to be experts in: learning.
Critical thinking teaches us to ask: “where are the mistakes?” and "can I explain why this is false?” and to claim “I have a better idea!” and “this is the best explanation and here is why”. It is logically prior to knowledge in any other subject area: science, maths, history, philosophy. Education theory. So much of what passes for “knowledge” in many many domains rests upon one or more dogma, according to some. In reality there can be no dogma (i.e: propositions that must be held immune from criticism). And yet, in many places there are implicit dogmas (religion is simply the rare case where so many knowledge claims consist of explicit dogmas). Implicit dogmas especially plague many social sciences - and most especially education theory. Explicitly, educators speak about how the “bucket theory of mind” (for example) is not true. But the implicit dogma is: it’s true. And this is why we have coercive education with fixed curricula. It assumes that the knowledge written down in school (and university) syllabi can be transmitted faithfully by the technique of classroom setting, lectures and seminars. For this reason, school has changed little over the centuries. Sure, chalkboards are now electronic smart-boards and slates are now ipads - but students are still in classes at certain times of the day doing, almost always, what the teacher requests (sure more often there are games and hands on activities and building - but this is an incremental improvement - not a revolution). And they do what they do because the system requires it of them. It’s often legislated what is to be understood. This is not a system for fostering critical and creative thinking. It’s a system which seeks to indoctrinate. It is impolitic to say this - but most students understand this. Most critical thinkers recognise this.
Educators need to recognise this implicit dogma. It’s really there. The education system is a machine for indoctrination. So of course people in that system baulk at the idea of genuinely critical thinking in their students (though they shouldn't! They should bravely seek to change it from the inside - however slowly this happens!). But they baulk because that’s what they’ve been taught their whole lives: do not think for yourself. Learn what you are told to learn. Memorise. Solve this puzzle. Jump through this hoop. Earn high marks. Now you are qualified to pass on that understanding to those younger than you - the importance of learning what you are told to learn. Memorising. Solving puzzles. Jumping through hoops and earning high marks to earn a qualification and be successful so you can pass on your wisdom to younger people about how to be successful by learning what you are told to learn. Memorising and solving puzzles by jumping through hoops…(and so it goes).
Critical thinking skills reject almost all of that viscious cycle of learning what people before you were taught uncritically. Instead critical thinking teaches students to question at every single turn. Does this mean people won't learn if they are questioning everything constantly? No - the opposite - they learn. Better. To effectively criticise, one must learn deeply about what it is that’s being crititiced in the long run. But one is genuinely allowed to say: this is boring and useless for me. And be quite right about that.
Within that system, mandated and policed by government agencies, a teacher may ask: what scope to I have to genuinely help students think critically about all this? One can be honest about it all: how the system is set up. It is to “meet standards” and “achieve outcomes”. One can tell students: if you think critically about the standards and outcomes because you’ve come to understand them so well you find flaw with them, in all but the rarest of cases the system will not reward you for uncovering the problems. It will punish you. That is simply how an “education system” mandated by the state must work. It must be an indoctrination engine. So you can learn to “game the system” if you want to “succeed” by the lights of the culture in which you are raised (and there is nothing wrong with this if this is what you want to do).
But - and this is the central key to teaching critical thinking in a coercive environment - a student can understand all of that about the system while still questioning it and everything they learn within that system. But they need help from the rare souls who are willing to show how flawed and provisional all the knowledge learned in school (and university) truly is.
We need critical thinkers: people not taken in uncritically by leaders either religious, political or enamoured by the importance of their own area of expertise. We need people who share values not because they are indoctrinated with certain ideals but because critical thinkers naturally cohere on the truth! Critical thinkers naturally arrive at the same conclusions because there is an underlying objective reality to be discovered. It must be the case that if people are openly, honestly pursuing truth that they will find it. Because the truth exists. Both science and religion agree on this fundamental point and are correct about it: The truth exists. Take that seriously. Now all we need to do is be critical thinkers and we’ll each find that same truth together.