Student in classroom. Can critical thinking be taught?

Can critical thinking be taught? Yes, and 5 ways to learn how to think critically

Critical thinking is the cornerstone of sound decision-making, effective problem-solving, and the ability to select among information. While some may believe it’s an inherent trait, the encouraging reality is that critical thinking can be taught. It’s a skill that you can nurture and hone. Let’s explore the essential characteristics of critical thinking, how to acquire the skill, and practical methods for enhancing your critical thinking.

I recently experienced an interesting interaction while researching material on critical thinking. As a child of my time, I asked the Godspell of social media: “What books on critical thinking and problem-solving are must-reads?”

The response was quite blunt and straightforward: “Never read books on critical thinking and problem-solving!! Just solve more and more critical problems.” That’s quite a statement. It indirectly suggests that we should all either be critical-thinking experts by now or, by contrast, have abstained from problem-solving our whole lives.

But, the reasoning resonates with how most of us have been taught critical thinking. At school, we learn to take notes, memorize stuff, and figure out our teachers – one by one. As a result, we take thinking critically for granted. We don’t learn critical thinking. Instead, it’s a Nike mentality: We Just do it!

Or, to put it differently, “The way we generally go about cultivating critical thinking is to expect that students somehow will pick it all up through some mysterious process of intellectual osmosis.” But, honing our critical thinking abilities requires active learning and practice.

What is critical thinking?

The literature offers many definitions of critical thinking. However, let’s agree that critical thinking goes beyond merely acquiring, memorizing, or using information, which can be achieved mindlessly or passively.

By contrast, critical thinking demands a more active and engaged approach where the individual seeks deeper understanding, informed decisions, and creative solutions. Critical thinking allows us to think clearly, rationally, and objectively while actively and skillfully analyzing information, concepts, situations, or problems.

According to Richard Paul, a prominent expert on critical thinking, “Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.” Paul emphasizes the reflective and self-improvement aspect of critical thinking.

Can critical thinking be taught? A case for Light Bulb Man!
Can critical thinking be taught? A case for Light Bulb Man? Image by 51581 from Pixabay.

Edward M. Glaser, a psychologist who has significantly contributed to critical thinking, emphasized critical thinking as an engagement to thoughtfully contemplate when faced with problems or subjects relevant to your experiences. He defined critical thinking as:

  • A mindset inclined to consider personal experiences, problems, and subjects thoughtfully.
  • An understanding of how to approach problems or questions systematically and logically.
  • Proficiency in applying these methods.

Critical thinking is a multifaceted skill that transcends mere information acquisition. It’s about actively and thoughtfully engaging with information, ideas, and problems. It enables us to think clearly, rationally, and objectively. This thinking attitude creates the base to make well-informed decisions, elaborate creative solutions, and navigate information with an analytical mindset.

Is critical thinking a domain-specific or general skill?

As if we didn’t have enough problems defining critical thinking, whether critical thinking can be taught as a general subject is up for debate. Nevertheless, depending on how we teach and think about critical thinking skills, the skill encompasses domain-specific and general skill categories.

In one of his reviews, analytical thinking consultant Tim van Gelder nicely describes critical thinking as a higher-order skill composed of smaller and simpler skills. “For example, to respond critically to a letter to the newspaper, you must already be able to read and understand the letter (text comprehension)[…].” In other words, higher-order skills, such as reading and writing, require lower-order skills. However, learning lower-order skills doesn’t necessarily require higher-order skills.

So again, the higher-order critical thinking skill – the ability to reason, evaluate information, and make rational judgments – transcends subjects. In that sense, critical thinking is a general knowledge that we can use across domains and areas of life.

However, applying critical thinking in any specific domain requires domain-specific knowledge. Different fields have distinct methods, terminology, and standards for evaluating evidence and making judgments. To think critically in any discipline, we should familiarize ourselves with that unique practice to understand its reasoning. For example, thinking critically in mathematics involves different skills, logical reasoning, and language than in social or literature analysis.

So, while the foundational principles of critical thinking are general, which we can apply universally, the practice of critical thinking can be highly topic-specific. We must adapt and apply those general skills to the context and subject matter. As a general practice, critical thinking enables us to approach various issues and problems with a thoughtful and analytical mindset or attitude.

Put differently, having solid but general critical thinking training won’t guarantee you’ll be able to think critically about all topics. However, it will pave the way for improved problem-solving and decision-making in the topics or domains you know or decide to learn. Assuming two individuals have the same topic-specific skill level, we could expect that the one with generalized critical thinking skills will solve problems related to the topic better than a critical thinking naïve person.

In addition, critical thinking skills can also highlight limitations and gaps within a particular domain. It creates a sort of thinking that allows us to evaluate, question, and improve our knowledge and skills: independent thinking. See it as mastering a skill by mindlessly following instructions versus learning to tweak it based on your needs.

Critical thinking can be taught and learned

So, can critical thinking be taught? The short answer is “yes.”

Teaching and learning critical thinking has its pitfalls. Much of the criticism against teaching critical thinking as a generic skill points to school programs’ limited success in transferring those skills between topics. Often, studies look at students’ test results in different topics to evaluate the success of critical thinking transferability.

But, like any skill that takes time to master, critical thinking requires structured and targeted practice. A recognized drawback with the effect evaluation of students’ critical thinking is that the experimental setup might be flawed. We can ask if the teachers or professors were sufficiently proficient in critical thinking, if the transferability was highlighted, or if the courses emphasized the importance of a change in mindset or attitude. We may also want to learn whether the students had enough time to learn the high-order skill. I’d stick my neck out and claim the answer would be “no” to most of these questions.  

It’s not so much about learning new concepts but about creating a curious attitude that increases the probability of sound decision-making and problem-solving.

In one of his videos, the renowned linguist Steve Kaufmann expresses skepticism toward the generic application of critical thinking – with a particular focus on language learning. He emphasizes the need to learn through reading rather than focusing on critical thinking. However, in the end, he acknowledges some people’s critical thinking expertise, especially if they follow the scientific method, diversify their sources, and rationalize their strategies. “But people who can do that is a small minority,” he claims.

That’s fine. Think about it: people who know martial arts, excel in math, or have mastered storytelling are small minorities as well. It doesn’t minimize the ability to learn or teach the skill  (which, for the record, Kaufmann didn’t suggest). Anyone can learn critical thinking with the right tools, methods, and mindset (such as the scientific mindset).

How to teach critical thinking at school, higher education, and beyond

How do we create a school environment where students learn to judge situations and make decisions based on quality analysis properly? Can we change the approach to foster independent and critical thinking, helping people of all ages confidently navigate a content-dense internet?

We can start by creating a framework that emphasizes developing critical thinking skills throughout the educational journey. Following these and additional approaches can build a general base that simplifies critical thinking – general and topic-specific. Some of the methods we can use when teaching critical thinking to students and professionals include: 

Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning is a powerful method for stimulating critical thinking. Encourage the habit of asking open-ended questions that prompt deeper inquiry and discussion. Question everything, even your own thoughts. By continuously challenging assumptions and exploring different angles of a topic, students can enhance their analytical skills and develop a sharper approach to problem-solving.

Problem-based learning

Learning through practical application is crucial to developing critical thinking. Problem-based learning presents students with real-world scenarios and challenges that require analysis, research, and creative problem-solving. Through hands-on experience, individuals learn to navigate complexities and make well-informed decisions.

Debates and discussions

Engaging in debates and discussions fosters critical thinking by requiring students to construct and evaluate arguments. By researching, presenting, and defending their positions on different topics, participants learn to think critically about different viewpoints and evidence. It’s an effective method for considering multiple perspectives and honing persuasive reasoning.

Critical reading and writing

Reading and writing assignments focusing on critical analysis are fundamental to learning and improving critical thinking skills. When students are tasked with evaluating arguments, identifying biases, and assessing evidence in texts, they become more adept at dissecting information and forming reasoned opinions. Writing thoughtfully also sharpens their ability to express ideas clearly and persuasively.

Mind mapping and concept mapping

Visual tools like mind maps and concept maps help individuals organize information, recognize connections, and grasp complex concepts. These graphical representations promote structured thinking and can be particularly useful when tackling intricate subjects. Students who use these tools develop the ability to synthesize information and see the bigger picture.

Keep mastering critical thinking by learning

Let’s accept that mastering critical thinking will not create any shortcuts to learning new skills and knowledge. If we want to learn, we need to read and practice. When starting a new project or specializing in a topic, you must learn from different resources and accept some facts.

However, targeted and methodological critical thinking systems can and will simplify development in any subject. It’s a mindset change, a new attitude that will create shortcuts when analyzing information (data) to solve problems.

Luckily, people are interested in critical thinking and problem-solving. In other words, you’ll be able to keep finding content about the topic, reading your precious books, and learning to think critically and master your problem-solving skills. And, of course, just doing it as well.

Featured image modified version of students image by ken19991210

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Ivory Embassy’s blog aims to ignite and inspire your curiosity and independent and critical thinking—molding a scientific mindset one step at a time.

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