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Relentless Questioning Paves a Deeper Path

Albert Einstein, shown in 1931 at the Mount Wilson Observatory headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., is considered one of the greatest
Albert Einstein, shown in 1931 at the Mount Wilson Observatory headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., is considered one of the greatest "critical thinkers." (Associated Press)
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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

Jessica Mattson said she hears a lot about "critical thinking" from her English teachers at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. To the 18-year-old senior, the term refers to the skill of "reading deeper into what is written."

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It means more to Walter Johnson history teacher Nathan Schwartz. When Schwartz teaches about the rise of the samurai in Japan, he works with students not simply to memorize facts related to it but also to understand why it happened by employing the thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, application and reflection.

But at the University of Virginia, Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor, has a different view of critical thinking skills:

"There is no such thing."

Critical thinking.

The phrase has become a mantra among educators from pre-kindergarten through graduate school who call it a central learning goal, as well as among industry leaders who say they are worried that U.S. schools are not producing enough critical thinkers to meet the needs of the 21st-century economy.

Institutes, foundations, councils and centers are devoted to thinking about critical thinking. Conferences are held on it, papers are written and books are published. Standardized tests are given to assess it, and educational programs are sold with a proposed path to the promised critical-thinking land.

Yet there is no agreed-upon definition of what critical thinking is or how it can be developed.

"It's like [former Supreme Court justice] Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: You know it when you see it," said Robert J. Sternberg, dean of Tufts University's School of Arts and Sciences and a leading researcher on thinking styles and higher mental functions.

"One of the problems with the term 'critical thinking' is that it is a catchall term for a million different things," Schwartz said.

It might, in fact, be easier to say what critical thinking is not. It is not simply being critical or asking a lot of questions, or being analytical or logical. There is more involved, as is suggested by the phrase's Greek roots: "kriticos," or discerning judgment, and "kriterion," or standards.

According to the educational nonprofit group Foundation for Critical Thinking, a practiced critical thinker will:

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