Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?

In Relentless Questioning Paves a Deeper Path, Washington Post Staff Writer Valerie Strauss discusses the teaching of critical thinking skills.

The term seems to mean different things to different people. It might mean
  • reading deeper into what is written.
  • understanding why historical events happened, rather than simply memorizing facts.
  • using analysis, synthesis, application, and reflection.
  • discerning judgment.
The controversy seems to be whether critical thinking can be taught as a stand-alone skill without content knowledge, and whether the skills can be transferred from one situation to another.

As Daniel T. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says, “To understand the structure and the nature of poetry, you need to read a lot of poems. It’s the same thing with mathematics and science.”

Teachers and parents need to make certain that students know the difference between memorizing material and understanding it, that they are open to different ways of thinking, and that they learn as much as they can about as much as they can.

“The easiest way to encourage critical thinking is to force [students] to question everything,” said Michael Tabachnick, professor of physics at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, PA, who teaches a course in the subject.

“Question me, question their parents, their pastor, everything,” he said. “It doesn't mean you can’t believe, but you must question. Is it true? Is it opinion? Is it justified by fact? . . . Students eventually learn to analyze. Some will do it better than others, but you can always get them to at least question.”

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