Daniel Willingham on Teaching Critical ThinkingA few days ago I wrote about Daniel Willingham's views on learning styles (he says research demonstrates that there is no such thing), and now would like to comment on what he has to say about teaching critical thinking.
In the Summer 2007 issue of American Educator, Willingham, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, talks about the difficulty teachers have when they try to help students strengthen their ability to think critically, by which he means "seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth."
Willingham's basic argument is that "[t]he processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thinking." Therefore, it "makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content." And, in addition to acquisition of relevant knowledge, development of critical thinking requires considerable practice.
Willingham reports that experience with programs specifically designed to teach critical thinking shows that they are not very effective. Given sufficient practice, students learn how to apply critical thinking strategies to the particular areas of knowledge that the examples in the programs deal with. Outside of these areas, students are likely to know they're supposed to think critically, but not actually be able to do so because of too little specific knowledge and/or practice in different content areas.
Because of people's inability, even after considerable training, to consistently apply critical thinking in all situations where doing so is appropropriate, Willingham says that critical thinking can't really be classified as a skill. He goes on to say,
This understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital. It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.1In Willingham's view, the need to have a knowledge base in order to do a good job of deploying critical thinking in an area like science, makes it essential to combine teaching of content with teaching of strategies for analyzing information and arguments critically. Willingnam cites a meta-analysis of forty experiments investigating methods for teaching scientific problem solving which
showed that effective approaches were those that focused on building complex, integrated knowledge bases as part of problem solving, for example by including exercises like concept mapping. Ineffective approaches focused exclusively on the strategies to be used in problem solving while ignoring the knowledge necessary for the solution.In a sidebar at the end of the article, Willingham sums up his recommendations for teaching students to think critically:
- Special critical thinking programs aren't worth it.
- Instead, thinking critically should be taught in the context of subject matter. Also,"students must be given opportunities to practice preferably in the context of normal classroom activity." This is something I heartily endorse, and I would hope that its successful implementation is picked up in tests such as the College Learning Assessment.
- Critical thinking is not just for advanced students. "Virtually everyone is capable of critical thinking and uses it all the time ... The difficulty lies not in thinking critically, but in recognizing when to do so, and in knowing enough to do so successfully."
- Student experiences offer entrée to complex concepts. "Although critical thinking needs to be nested in subject matter, when students don't have much subject matter knowledge, introducing a concept by drawing on student experiences can help." One example Willingham cites is illustrating the principle that "correlation does not imply causation" by discussing the high correlation between "consumption of ice cream and the number of crimes committed on a given day. With a little prodding, students soon realize that ice cream consumption doesn't cause crime, but high temperatures might cause increases in both."
- To teach critical thinking strategies, make them explicit and practice them. Willingham suggests proceeding in three stages:
- "The first time (or several times) the concept is introduced, explain it with at least two different examples ... [L]abel it so as to identify it as a strategy that can be applied in various contexts, and show how it applies to the course content at hand."
- "In future instances, try naming the approrpriate critical thinking strategy to see if students remember it and can figure out how it applies to the material under discussion."
- "With still more practice, students may see which strategy applies without a cue from you."
1 Willingham does observe in a footnote: "... it is important to note that for people with extensive training, such as Ph.D-level scientists, critical thinking does have some skill-like characteristics. In particular, they are better able to deploy critical reasoning with a wide variety of content, even that with which they are not very familiar."