Can critical thinking be taught?

Critical thinking definition from the APA Delphi Expert Consensus

Yes, critical thinking can and should be taught.  (See our Resources section for teaching and learning tools)

The idea that somehow critical thinking is unteachable has been disproven by decades of research.  But there are always some who initially believe otherwise.  There is no question  that each of us is born with a greater or lesser natural capacity.  As with anything, some of us can sing better or swim further than others, but that does not mean that singing or swimming cannot be taught.  It only means that one person’s highest potential is different than another’s.

Those who claim that humans cannot develop their critical thinking skills and habits of mind because they are “either born with critical thinking or not” are wrong.  The objective data disconfirm that hypothesis.  In fact, there is ample research, going back decades and across multiple academic subjects and professional disciplines, documenting that critical thinking can be learned, taught, and measured.

Is there a formula for success?

  • Teaching FOR critical thinking is not the same as teaching ABOUT critical thinking. 
  • Teaching FOR critical thinking can be achieved at every educational level and with every academic or professional subject matter. 

The three things to be sure to do are:

  1. Consistently engage the learner’s critical thinking skills by asking questions that evoke analyses, interpretations, evaluations, explanations, and inferences AND following up by demanding thoughtful and fair-minded explanation of the reasons for those judgments. 
  2. Create and sustain an environment that fosters all the positive critical thinking habits of mind, truth-seeking, inquisitiveness, open-mindedness, maturity of judgment, etc.
  3. Practice thinking about thinking, that means being reflective about how and why each important conclusion was reached, each assumption was made, and each alternative was evaluated.

The academic subject matter or the set of problems and decisions that the professional field must grapple with become the topics to which individuals and teams apply their critical thinking.  The goal is always to enable each person to maximize their natural potential. The educator’s challenge is: “Given the raw material, how much can we achieve?”

Teaching FOR thinking is like coaching a championship

Consider, as an analogy, what it takes to succeed at the highest levels of competitive athletics.  Native strength, size, agility, and coordination are very important.  So are a knowledge of the game and thousands of hours practicing and playing the game competitively.  And so is good coaching that addresses not only the physical moves, but the mental preparation and the in-game tactics and adjustments, and too, the overall game-plan (strategy) that will best position the competitor to prevail against a given opponent. Think of tennis, for example.  Now ramp it up several notches because all these pieces are essential for success at the highest levels in team sports.  To become a championship team we need every athlete on the team to be applying native talents and their critical thinking (well-trained and practiced so it can be done in real time) to the specific problems and decisions that must be made within the context of that sporting competition.  

What about critical thinking in health care, business, governmental leadership or military success? The same elements are essential (critical thinking, native intelligence, content knowledge, and experience with the problems and decisions that constitute that concerns at that level/ in that professional field.     

When we say that the data show that we can develop strengths in critical thinking in people, we are saying something akin to what a coach says when looking at a promising athlete and saying that it will be possible to coach the person, over time, into a champion.   To do this the coach (athletic or critical thinking) must work on the skills and the mindset dimensions, which go hand in hand.  But the process is not quick, nor easy.  It is a matter of exercising (not just talking about) the skills in multiple and progressively more challenging situations, and of the constant formation of the mind, inculcating and reinforcing mental disciplines including the discipline to think first, before reacting or relying on a decision heuristic unreflectively. 

Learn more

For more on critical thinking in educational settings download “ Talking Critical Thinking .” For a fuller explanation of the concept of critical thinking and its relationship to the science of human decision making, download “ Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts ”. 

Insight Assessment provides industry leading validated objective  critical thinking assessment solutions structured for educational and professional purposes. Contact us today to discuss your assessment goals.

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