The Thinking Behind Critical Thinking Courses

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008; 6:10 AM

Looking for a way to improve your mind and make some money? Check out the latest "critical thinking" courses. Many come up on a Google search. Many promise better grades and higher test scores. Without much effort, you can create your own course and tap into this hot topic.

The only thing is, it turns out such programs don't work very well, except as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators. A remarkable article by Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist outlines the reasons. Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations.

Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject--facts, concepts and trends--before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.

"The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge)," Willingham says. "Thus, if you remind a student to 'look at an issue from multiple perspectives' often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn't know much about an issue, he can't think about it from multiple perspectives."

Willingham is a kind and patient scholar who occasionally emails me when I stray too far from reality in my columns on learning. Now, with his upcoming book "Why Don't Students Like School? -- A cognitive scientist answers questions about how your mind works and what it means for the classroom," everyone can get a dose of his clear prose and practical wisdom.

Our quick-fix embrace of critical thinking shows how susceptible we are to nostrums that don't make much sense. Even I, alleged foe of press-agentry, have occasionally tossed those two words into a sentence just to look fashionable. I will try to do that less often, knowing that it will disappoint Professor Willingham after he has gone to so much trouble to explain why this is bad.

It is small comfort, but I am not alone in my sloppiness. Willingham notes that the National Center on Education and the Economy, the American Diploma Project and the Aspen Institute have all called for more instruction in critical thinking, without explaining how difficult this is to do well.

The College Board revamped the SAT in part to assess students' critical thinking, and the ACT offers a critical thinking test for college students, even though any such test will only show how students think critically about whatever is being tested. A good critical thinker in physics will be unable to apply those same skills in biology if she doesn't know much about that subject.

The celebrated 1983 report "A Nation At Risk" by the National Commission on Excellence in Education was referring to critical thinking when it decried the lack of "'higher-order' intellectual skills" in 17 year olds. That led to much hand-wringing. By 1990, Willingham says, "most states had initiatives designed to encourage educators to teach critical thinking, and one of the most widely used programs, Tactics for Thinking, sold 70,000 teacher guides."

Researchers have tried to assess the benefits of these programs, without much success. "The evidence shows that such programs primarily improve students' thinking with the sort of problems they practiced in the program--not with other types of problems," Willingham says. "More generally, it's doubtful that a program that effectively teaches students to think critically in a variety of situations will ever be developed."

Critical thinking programs seem very sophisticated. Some go on for three years, with one or two lessons a week. Evaluations of their success, Willingham notes, suffer from having no peer review, being very short-term, having no control groups, using improperly constructed control groups or making no effort to see if the students being evaluated can transfer their new abilities to materials that differ from those in the program.

Willingham, like any good educator, still hopes for enlightenment even in his slowest students, like me. He provides tips for teachers who want to give critical thinking instruction a try: avoid expensive special programs, teach critical thinking only after students have absorbed sufficient content and don't reserve such lessons just for advanced students.

Willingham's own work is, in my view, a triumph of critical thinking because he knows his content so well. His new book is full of surprises. Did you know, for instance, that the mind is not designed for thinking? His analysis should be a lesson for both the young and us not-so-young. We need to do our homework and remember that no matter how brilliant we think we are, we can be useful critics only after we master the facts.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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