Here’s a plan for eliminating the national debt: Charge a tax of one dollar on anyone who says ”teaching critical thinking skills” should be the goal of schools. One person less likely to idly toss around the phrase in the future is none other than The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, arguably our most influential education writer. He concedes today that critical thinking programs “don’t work very well, except as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators.” How did he come to see the light?
A remarkable article by Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist outlines the reasons. Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations. Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject–facts, concepts and trends–before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.
“The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge),” Willingham says. “Thus, if you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.”
Willingham’s work builds the strongest case I know for why narrowing the curriculum to load up on reading and math at the expense of other subjects is ultimately self-defeating. If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need the broadest possible education. Describing Willingham’s upcoming book, Why Don’t Students Like School? — A cognitive scientist answers questions about how your mind works and what it means for the classroom, Mathews says “Willingham’s own work is, in my view, a triumph of critical thinking because he knows his content so well….We need to do our homework and remember that no matter how brilliant we think we are, we can be useful critics only after we master the facts.”