There is a widespread acceptance of the idea that critical thinking is a valuable asset and that it should be part of the curriculum at various levels of education.
This idea goes back at least to John Dewey’s idea of teaching for reflexive thought, that is, of a certain form of critical, reflexive thinking as the very objective of education.
Education to or for critical thinking entertains a special relationship with science education. In fact, science, and in particular the experimental method, implements the different operations of reflexive thinking, systematically. It thus represents for Dewey the model of education, to be applied to any discipline and subject matter since primary school.
Nonetheless, at today's date, there’s no consensus about how to teach it, whether it can be learnt, and even about what is it.
There are at least three main approaches to critical thinking: 1. philosophical, normative 2. cognitive psychology, descriptive 3. educational, pragmatic. The philosophical approach includes norms for spotting fallacies in arguments, an ideal view of the critical thinker and the setting of standards of good thinking. It focuses on reasoning, informal logic, and argumentation. The psychological approach has tended to focus on how people really think, namely on how experts think in their domain, and whether experts in different domains share skills and procedures that can be considered as general requirements for thinking critically. Skills and procedures are especially important in this view and definitions of critical thinking include lists of skills and procedures implemented by “good thinkers”. The educational approach deals with problems of transferability and generalizability: should critical thinking be taught as a general set of skills or procedures or norms, as embedded into a specific discipline, or both? Are there disciplines susceptible of indirectly training critical thinking? How can an expertise in critical thinking be developed?
A report published in 1987 (Resnick 1987) expresses skeptical views about the possibility of teaching thinking through content-free lessons, and suggests abandoning the idea that general thinking skills can be taught as such. 20 years later, the same considerations are expressed by Daniel Willingham, in a review dedicated to teaching to think (Willingham, 2007). Programs for teaching critical thinking achieve at most their internal goals - students learn to solve the kind of problems they encounter in the program - but evidence is lacking that they extend this skill to other problems.
It is suggested that thinking critically is not a general skill that can be learnt once and for all, but is strongly connected with domain knowledge.
Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). (Willingham 2007)
Thinking critically thus requires to become experts not just at thinking (Van Gelder, 2005), but at thinking in a certain domain.
Several considerations (among which the fact that scientific educated people can still embrace pseudo-scientific views, and the so called "Nobel disease") also counter the optimistic view that science literacy and education automatically favor thinking critically in a variety of domains.
Other considerations then come into play that are seldom taken into account in the debate about critical thinking. The first one concerns the motivational side of critical thinking. The second, two natural, complementary dispositions: the disposition to trust and take information from others, and the disposition to exert resistance and epistemic vigilance.
It is possible that taking them into account will open new perspectives on critical thinking.
For revising the lesson:
- Pasquinelli, E. (2013). La pensée critique : entre discipline formatrice, enseignement disciplinaire et méthode éducative. Quels apport de la part des sciences de la cognition ? In : A. Firode, J.-F. Goubet, H. Vincent, (éds.) (2013). Les disciplines de la pensée. Artois : Artois Presses Université.
- Pasquinelli (2014). Du labo à la classe. Science et apprentissage. Paris: Le Pommier. (Chap. 6)
- Readings: Learning