Friday, February 7, 2020

How to Teach Critical Thinking

This week’s article summary is Scientific Research On How to Teach Critical Thinking Contradicts Education Trends and is a follow up to last week’s summary.

The gist of the article is that while schools today strive to develop critical thinking skills and habits in their students, the reality is that these skills are best learned when grounded in content. In other words, teaching critical-thinking in a generic way (for example in a class called Executive Function Skills and Habits) is much less effective than teaching critical thinking skills in specific disciplines like math, science, or English.

When I taught 8th grade history, I was always surprised when students during a test would ask me how many points a question was worth on a 20 point section with 4 questions. In an 8th grade math class 20 divided by 4 was laughably easy, yet my students couldn’t transfer basic division to my history class.

The article below explains why.

‘Content and context’ is everything—including in our working memory. My students were focused on the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire or the characteristics of Renaissance Florence. They just didn’t have the space in their working memory to recognize a simple math problem. (The 8th grade math teacher had similar experiences with these same students’ struggles with reading and understanding word problems. “Joe, they can’t read,”  he would bemoan.)

The article below stresses the importance of using content knowledge in pushing kids to use Bloom’s high-thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. In order to be critical thinkers, students need to have a knowledge base about what to think critically about. The content of my history class was appropriate for cause and effect critical thinking but clearly not for real-life applications of basic math.

The lesson for me as an educator is the need to constantly remind students what type of thinking we are asking them to do. It will be more understandable and hence learnable for kids if they know why this type of thinking is needed within the context of the specific content being studied.



Critical thinking is all the rage in education. Schools brag that they teach it on their websites and in open houses to impress parents. Some argue that critical thinking should be the primary purpose of education and one of the most important skills to have in the 21st century, with advanced machines and algorithms replacing manual and repetitive labor.

But a review of the scientific research on how to teach critical thinking concludes that teaching generic critical thinking skills, such as logical reasoning, might be a big waste of time.

Critical thinking exercises and games haven’t produced long-lasting improvements for students. And the research shows that it’s very difficult for students to apply critical thinking skills learned in one subject to another, even between different fields of science.

“Wanting students to be able to ‘analyze, synthesize and evaluate’ information sounds like a reasonable goal,” writes Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.”

Willingham’s review of the research concludes that scientists are united in their belief that content knowledge is crucial to effective critical thinking. And he argues that the best approach is to explicitly teach very specific small skills of analysis for each subject. For example, in history, students need to interpret documents in light of their sources, seek corroboration and put them in their historical context. That kind of analysis isn’t relevant in science, where the source of a document isn’t as important as following the scientific method.
In one experiment described by Willingham, people read a passage about how rebels successfully attacked a dictator hiding in a fortress (they dispersed the forces to avoid collateral damage and then converged at the point of attack). Immediately afterwards, they were asked how to destroy a malignant tumor using a ray that could cause a lot of collateral damage to healthy tissue. The solution was identical to that of the military attack but the subjects in the experiment didn’t see the analogy. In a follow-up experiment, people were told that the military story might help them solve the cancer problem and almost everyone solved it. “Using the analogy was not hard; the problem was thinking to use it in the first place,” Willingham explained.
In math, students often get derailed when a word problem is slightly different from a step-by-step model that they’ve studied. A research-tested strategy is to label the sub-steps of the solution with the goal they serve. That way students can understand why they’re using each step and what it’s accomplishing.
But the bigger problem is that critical thinking varies so much. “Critical thinking is needed when playing chess, designing a product, or planning strategy for a field hockey match,” Willingham wrote. “But there are no routine, reusable solutions for these problems.”
And this is where content knowledge becomes important. In order to compare and contrast, the brain has to hold ideas in working memory, which can easily be overloaded. The more familiar a student is with a particular topic, the easier it is for the student to hold those ideas in his working memory and really think. Willingham uses chess as a good example. Once a student has a played a lot of chess, then he has many board positions memorized in his brain and can sort through which one is better in each particular circumstance.

Willingham’s ideas are similar to those of Natalie Wexler, who makes an impassioned argument that schools should return to a content-rich curriculum in her recent book, The Knowledge Gap.

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