Critical Thinking Not Possible Without Content Knowledge

by Robert Pondiscio
August 11th, 2008

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.”


  1. Whoooo. Hold on a minute. Maybe its just Matthews who is misreprenting Willingham, but will you offer me a dollar for every success I have in teaching critical thinking, and inculcating the habits (which Willingham recommends) so that they are like riding a bike.

    Teaching critical thinking without facts is impossible, and teaching critical thinking even with facts is far more difficult than many realize. In fact, both Willingham and Matthews imply that even though it is difficult, it remains the goal of education.

    Changing the subject, check out the Washington Post story on credit recovery (I got it by following A Russ’s link today, and then linking to Aug 8, as I recall.) Let’s compile some facts and share some critical thinking. How many times did students, parents, and educators say that they liked the online program because it was cheap and easy?

    Comment by john thompson — August 11, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  2. You got me, John. I was referring to those who argue against a core curriculum, saying that content knowledge is unimportant and that we should be teaching critical thinking skills instead, as if you can divorce it from content.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 11, 2008 @ 10:21 am

  3. Nice post – thanks!

    Comment by Josh — October 20, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

  4. Maybe the proponents of such methodology can teach us how to think critically about nothing.

    Comment by Dana — February 17, 2015 @ 5:49 pm

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