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Sun Aug 10, 2014, 03:36 AM

Let's Stop Trying To Teach Students Critical Thinking - strange article from io9


Many teachers say they strive to teach their students to be critical thinkers. They even pride themselves on it; after all, who wants children to just take in knowledge passively? But there is a problem with the widespread treatment of critical thinking as a skill to be taught.

The truth is that you can't teach people to be critical unless you are critical yourself. This involves more than asking young people to "look critically" at something, as if criticism was a mechanical task.

What do we think of this, DU? I think it could do with some criticism...

10 replies, 1956 views

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Reply Let's Stop Trying To Teach Students Critical Thinking - strange article from io9 (Original post)
sibelian Aug 2014 OP
Uncle Joe Aug 2014 #1
BainsBane Aug 2014 #2
Uncle Joe Aug 2014 #4
Igel Aug 2014 #9
PowerToThePeople Aug 2014 #3
Name removed Aug 2014 #5
Orrex Aug 2014 #6
rock Aug 2014 #7
LWolf Aug 2014 #8
Igel Aug 2014 #10

Response to sibelian (Original post)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 04:13 AM

1. The author seems to have an ideological bent, only singling out "feminist" or "Marxist" teachers

as breaking the rules of teaching critical thinking.

I disagree with much in the article but I did like his pic of Socrates.


Thanks for the thread, sibelian.

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Response to Uncle Joe (Reply #1)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 04:36 AM

2. It's an obvious reactionary piece

and insists critical thinking is leftist "indoctrination." He instead proposes. . .

Criticism, according to Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold, is a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. We should all be as "bound" by that definition as he was. We need only to teach the best that is known and thought and "criticism" will take care of itself. That is a lesson from 100 years ago that every teacher should learn.

Actually it's a lesson from about 150 years ago 1864. He's used the republication date as the original. I guess his version of critical thinking doesn't include how to read a citation.

This is the DU member formerly known as BainsBane.

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Response to BainsBane (Reply #2)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 05:02 AM

4. Actually now that I think about it, he was wrong about Socrates as well.

Becoming a truly critical thinker is more difficult today because so many people want to be a Socrates. But Socrates only sought knowledge and to be a Socrates today means putting knowledge first.

Socrates was more than a philosopher, he was a gadfly, a protester and critic.


In 406, he was a member of the Boule, and his tribe the Antiochis held the Prytany on the day the Generals of the Battle of Arginusae, who abandoned the slain and the survivors of foundered ships to pursue the defeated Spartan navy, were discussed. Socrates was the Epistates and resisted the unconstitutional demand for a collective trial to establish the guilt of all eight Generals, proposed by Callixeinus. Eventually, Socrates refused to be cowed by threats of impeachment and imprisonment and blocked the vote until his Prytany ended the next day, whereupon the six Generals who had returned to Athens were condemned to death.

In 404, the Thirty Tyrants sought to ensure the loyalty of those opposed to them by making them complicit in their activities. Socrates and four others were ordered to bring a certain Leon of Salamis from his home for unjust execution. Socrates quietly refused, his death averted only by the overthrow of the Tyrants soon afterwards.[16]


Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian hegemony to its decline with the defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens sought to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public may have been entertaining doubts about democracy as an efficient form of government. Socrates appears to have been a critic of democracy,[17] and some scholars interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting.[18] Claiming loyalty to his city, Socrates clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society.[19] He praises Sparta, archrival to Athens, directly and indirectly in various dialogues. One of Socrates' purported offenses to the city was his position as a social and moral critic. Rather than upholding a status quo and accepting the development of what he perceived as immorality within his region, Socrates questioned the collective notion of "might makes right" that he felt was common in Greece during this period. Plato refers to Socrates as the "gadfly" of the state (as the gadfly stings the horse into action, so Socrates stung various Athenians), insofar as he irritated some people with considerations of justice and the pursuit of goodness.[20] His attempts to improve the Athenians' sense of justice may have been the cause of his execution.

If Socrates had just been a "philosopher seeking knowledge" instead of pissing off the wealthy and powerful, he wouldn't have been forced to drink the hemlock poison.

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Response to Uncle Joe (Reply #1)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 09:55 AM

9. However, most teachers who push "critical thinking" have a certain bent.

The ones who push the hardest tend not to be right of center. So examples would show a population bias because the population to select from isn't random.

I've met very few RW teachers at the university level. Most of those were in fields that didn't push "critical thinking" as a separate kind of skill, but something that it's assumed everybody will always engage in as a matter of course: science and engineering. (Their assumption may be valid or not, but it's the existence of the assumption that's at issue.)

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Response to sibelian (Original post)

Response to sibelian (Original post)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 07:32 AM

6. My first formal course in critical thinking was in my sophomore year in college

I was not aware that there was any K-12 instruction in critical thinking. Certainly not in Pennsylvania.

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Response to sibelian (Original post)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 09:48 AM

7. My take is that the author of the article is a typical conservative

and doesn't know what he's talking about. Everything he says is biased and wrong. Now it's true that critical thinking is not a sideline but requires the most rigorous means to instill but it can be taught. I believe you can come to your own conclusion as to whether the conservatives would like their children taught these techniques. Need a clue? (No, you don't).

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Response to sibelian (Original post)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 09:54 AM

8. I'll keep my students thinking, thanks. n/t

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Response to sibelian (Original post)

Sun Aug 10, 2014, 11:13 AM

10. I teach mostly juniors and seniors.

And I haven't met a kid in high school who could even start to think critically. I haven't met a lot of teachers who could, either.

I've known a lot of critical kids. Few of them had the necessary knowledge to think critically. If you don't know enough, you not only don't know "how" to think critically for your discipline, it's just impossible. It's not that disembodied a skill unless you have a really abstract view of it.

A number of kids in my classes were in AP or pre-AP classes and had a fair amount of knowledge and even had been taught "critical thinking." Which, to those teachers, meant that they could recite the same facts that they'd been taught to challenge the status quo. Somebody who reads Zinn or Chomsky and regurgitates either or both might be a critical thinker or not. Same for somebody who reads and cites D'Souza or somebody considerably right of center. However, unless they've taken the time to challenge and see if Chomsky's or D'Souza's facts are both true and rooted in a reasonable historical and social context; questioned if their generalizations are valid and their logic holds water not only given the facts they present but the set of facts available that could undercut and harm their claims; evaluated them for both strengths and weaknesses; then they're not critical thinkers. They're acolytes, they're adherents and followers, students and not thinkers, accepting and not critical--and those can be left or right of center. Or dead center.

I had to help a college class once. It was taught by a fresh young PhD and involved war literature. It looked at presentations of manliness and militarism, at issues of women's rights and portrayal of ethnicity and race. It was a "literature of oppression and white male dominance class." And it required a multimedia project with a nice webpage or PPT. I sat in in case the web platform was glitchy or the classroom computer system crashed. I watched a critique of war literature from a humanitarian civilian-rights perspective. Truth versus reality of the representation of bravery and "manliness" in WWI. One that looked at the portrayal of Japanese in American WWII literature and Manzanita. One that looked at African-American participation in the Civil War. Interviews were a good thing, and some had tracked down Manzanita residents or blacks that fought in WWII. The teacher gushed and glowed as the presentations became more and more depressing. Dignity was okay--as long as it was beaten down or shown to be an example of false-consciousness, or finally triumphed legally. Then this poor guy got up who'd already been told to revise his presentation once got up. He pointed out a few things that were perfunctory, mostly what was taught and how he was to present things, often in the teacher's voice and which the teacher glowed at. How women were portrayed in WWII literature and the humiliating and demeaning role given to women in the military, doing a perfunctory deconstruction of the representation that said they were honorable and valued to show they were mere chattel and things. Then he did something that was a stupid mistake. He challenged that portrayal and showed he wasn't just going to repeat what had said--he was supported to collect data, interviews if possible, and did so. He had tracked down a dozen WACS and interviewed them. And *they* gushed. They viewed themselves with pride and dignity, as contributing to an effort they thought valid and as being groundbreakers, and were happy that somebody had asked them the questions that the teacher had listed for him. "Did you feel shut out? Did you feel like you were taken advantage of? After the war, was your treatment humiliating?" And none felt bad. One said that the WACS was an experiment that ultimately led to various others, from women astronauts to women commanding officers--and that they didn't consider this work done, there were still strides to be made, but they'd come a long way. Some were frustrated, but instead of looking at the negative looked at the positive. Most said they'd been raised to become mothers and did so. The result was that while the *culture* may have prescribed roles for them, they understood both the value of what they did and had accepted--even before leaving the WACS--what the limitations would be. And they were okay with those limitations and had been happy.

The teacher stopped glowing and was furious. This challenged her view. She yelled at him to turn off the recordings and before he could she jumped up to do so. She had to silence the voices of those women. *She* spoke for women. He was accused of *not* thinking critically. Right there she assigned him an F. He failed to "think critically." Which, for her, meant he failed to regurgitate her beliefs and reasoning and conclusion.

One RWer that did teach me some critical thinking tricks was also a bit psychotic. In a seminar we learned how to use archival resources. Some were collections in the US some abroad, some narrowly tailed to genre, time frame, geographic area, language. Some were huge and had competing cataloguing systems. The homework assignment proposed a thesis for archival investigation. You'd expect the assignment to be where would you find support for this, subject headings to look under, etc. But we'd had one of those already, a short little thing since that's what we'd be taught to do for years. Instead, it was to posit likely kinds of materials that would reduce your thesis to rubble--where would they come from, what form would they take, who would be likely to produce them, what kinds of things would they be likely to say, if no longer extant where would they have been quoted or cited, what cataloging and index title words would you look up, and of the scores of archival depositories and collections we'd seen mentioned, where would you go to find them? And we were expected to think outside the box: If we were after some medieval manuscript, might not an art museum have one that's missing from a typical archive? How about monumental inscriptions? If records were destroyed, what kinds of palimpsests would we examine using newer techniques to find older, overwritten records? What kinds of things would the documents have been incorporated into as binding materials? You have a week for the assignment. And the answer's a 20-page paper.

*That* is a critical thinking exercise. There was no real roadmap, and people with completely different answers could get top marks. Those who tried to regurgitate the teachers' "views" had no choice but to fail for reciting platitudes.

The definition given in the OP is too ambiguous and vague to support or attack seriously. I view critical thinking as an attitude that requires skills, but those skills are field-based (an assertion that is research-based; what you do in chemistry, history, and art are entirely different kinds of things, but the stance--one of challenging authority and claims from *any* source). You need logic to evaluate an argument for both strengths *and* weaknesses. You also need to have a lot of knowledge, because you need to have facts to challenge and contextualize the facts that are presented, need to know which facts are just wrong in the claim, and need to have facts to leverage to find out more information. I can't be critical about art. I don't know enough. What does experience say is important? What's the accepted view of authorial intent versus subjective experience--and what's the basis of that if I disagree and want to challenge it? But literature, linguistics, some sciences, some politics and some history ... those I can think critically about in useful ways.

But the key to critical thinking isn't demolishing the other side or defending my own side. That entirely misses the point and deifies confirmation bias. Critical thinking's chief purpose isn't to win an argument but to find truth, and the chief opponent of my reaching anything close to truth is me. I have my filters and biases all lined up--some perhaps genetically skewed, some set by my parents and church, others set by my former teachers. Some were accepted uncritically at the time and some were viewed critically but, in the light of new facts, are wrong.

It's easy to wage a full-scale war against opinions and views I disagree with. That's natural. That's me getting in the way. What's hard is applying critical thinking in a way that tries to be fair and objective. The view that I hate--start with the facts and look over the set of facts adduced. What facts are wrong? Mis-contextualized and mis-characterized? Which are true? Are those sufficient? What additional facts are needed that were left out, that destroy or help the argument? In this I need to be honest with myself and not exclude or overlook inconvenient facts. How about the logic? Do the generalizations and conclusions follow from the facts? Can the conclusions be rescued by imposing limitations on their scope or changing how it applies? So instead of a conclusion being about the world, it's about how a portion of humanity sees the world? Is the conclusion almost certainly wrong, but it's the best starting place for a good conclusion? Or is the conclusion simply false? But that's sort of pre-critical thinking. It's still easy, critical-thinking-in-training. The point is that you examine what you hate for what's *right* about it, and in the end evaluate it not yes/no, binarily, but also with a view as to relative rightness. Does it have any strengths, help understand something better than a competing view even if it handles other events or situations worse? Can it be fixed--because the goal is knowledge, not victory in a political argument or a culture war.

But what's really hard is the need to do the same thing with views and claims that I like. If you can't look at your own view harshly, in an attempt not to justify yourself and defend your but to see if your argument is in the way of the truth, you can't make it better. Your goal is you, not knowledge. You're missing the essential key to critical thinking, which is that it's a search for knowledge and not self-vindication.

It doesn't help that usually critical thinking assignments and exercises are other-centered or goal-oriented. You're given a thesis to evaluate ("attack" is still the wrong word; critical thinking is first and foremost an analysis, evaluation of facts with additional fact collection, an analysis of logic and a resynthesis, and then evaluation of the whole kit and kaboodle against competing possibilities. That evaluation has to cover both any negative as well as any positive aspects.). Or you're being asked to engage in "self-knowledge," but there's a predetermined outcome for that self-knowledge. You're essentially graded on whether you come to the same conclusion using the same facts and methodology as the instructor. It's like a road map, fossilized and regimented critical thinking.

That war literature professor from Berkeley failed the critical thinking test. She could only accept that students would think critically about views she disagreed with in order to conform to her views. She had to pick the data for them, she had to pick the analysis for them, she had to pick the conclusions for them. The one young man failed to learn her mental minuet with sufficient grace and had to be corrected, coached ("lift your right foot in front of you, count 3 beats, put it down and step forward; raise your left foot, wait three beats...). And when she was confronted with a bunch of women in their 70s and 80s who were independent and proud of what they'd done, who put their history in a context that accounted for a lot of data that the professor's views could not account for, she exploded and uncritically reverted to the trope that women were weak, easily deceived, and need to be guided to understand what was best for them. That professor was a sucky critical thinker and had never seriously thought critically about views she *agreed* with or oppressive and dismissive views she had and proudly displayed for her students. The kid did a good job on the assignment he was given, according to the rubric: He took the claims given and analyzed them, found facts that were indeed facts that were true but others which falsified part of the claims. What he failed was the assignment the teacher *wanted* to give as a kind of preacher: Did he come to realize that as a member of American society, American society was deeply racist, sexist, xenophobic, and imperialistic, and as a white male he was privileged, saturated with the original sin of racism, sexism, and white male supremacy? He failed to do penance and engage in self-criticism as did the others; had he been non-white, non-male he would have failed to properly understand how oppressed he was and how to fight the power. He did engage in some self-growth: He understood better how the role of women in the military had changed and had come to disagree with some of the limitations then in place on women in the military, viewing them as sexist. But he failed to be bowed and submit. (He was "uppity."

It's hard to teach critical thinking. Much easier to teach "right thinking." And devilishly simple to confuse the two.

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