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Rethinking the Way Colleges Teach Critical Thinking

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For the past couple years, I’ve been working as a science communicator on two fronts, as a freelance science writer and a community college Earth science instructor. I’ve seen, from many angles, the difficulty people have understanding and assessing scientific issues. With topics that are publicly contentious, those difficulties rarely arise from a simple lack of understanding. Other things get in the way. A student once said to me, “Well, I’m a conservative, so I don’t believe in climate change.” The frankness of that statement opens up a window into the obstacles science faces in the public sphere. (If only those who post internet comments were as honest with themselves…)

The combination of science writing and education has influenced my approach to both, which share a common, overarching goal: to reach out to people and present them with the power, wonder, and relevance of science. Like most educators, one of my central aims is to impart critical thinking skills— to help students make sound decisions in a confusing world of conflicting information, sales pitches, and smooth-talking politicians.

Though critical thinking is universally regarded as a pillar of higher education (including by employers seeking college graduates), results show that students are not developing their critical thinking skills to the extent we expect. For their 2009 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipsa Rocksa followed a little over 2,300 college students through their first two years of school. They found “a barely noticeable impact on students’ skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing” and “no statistically significant gains [in these skills] for at least 45 percent of the students.”

These students may be learning things, but they’re not becoming better thinkers or writers. That’s a remarkable failure to realize the promise of a college education—and that disappointing reality actually appears to have gotten considerably worse over the last few decades. It’s irrelevant how much blame should be placed on the school and how much on the students. We must get better results.

As an educator, I’ve constantly struggled with how to stimulate growth in these skills. In an introductory Earth science course, my first job is to teach my students about plate tectonics, soil formation, oceanic and atmospheric processes, the climate system—all the things that comprise a firm foundation to build on in further classes. But the vast majority of my students will never take another Earth science course, and while this information is still useful in their lives (a point on which they may not particularly agree in the moment), there are more important things to be teaching them. There are larger points, like the nature of science and scientific thinking, and the perspective brought on by an appreciation of the complexity of Earth systems and the mind-numbing scale of the universe.

In the face of this balancing act, the traditional approach is often to simply focus on the details of a particular science (to build that foundation for prospective majors) and assume that all the students will absorb the other stuff in the process. Scientific literacy and critical thinking skills are seen as natural side-effects of studying a science. Critical thinking by osmosis.

I don’t think it reliably works that way, especially for students who expect to struggle with and be bored by science classes from the outset. It’s easy to sit through a class, memorizing some facts and working through assignments with minimal effort, without ever actually engaging with the scientific process that created this knowledge. I fear that too many of my students have done exactly that.

Increasingly, I’ve found myself addressing these big-picture, take-home points explicitly. For example, before the first box of minerals and rocks comes out of the closet, I now dedicate a couple weeks to critical thinking and the scientific method.

This progression of teaching style reached its (perhaps) natural conclusion when I realized that what I really want to do is give these students an entire semester on critical thinking and the nature of science. And why not? Why continue to pound the square peg through a round hole, herding disinterested students through “Physics for Poets” or “Rocks for Jocks” (their calculated paths of least resistance through science requirements), hoping that they’ll pick up these key skills along the way? There are many great reasons for students to experience various fields of science, but why not address critical thinking directly, as well?

This is hardly a radical thought, and I’m far from the first to think it. For decades, there have been pushes to teach these skills formally, which have ebbed and flowed with the educational tides. The Association for Informal Logic & Critical Thinking and the Foundation for Critical Thinking, for example, have long been advocating for better critical thinking instruction. Where standalone critical thinking courses exist, however, they are mostly found within the humanities and social sciences. Those courses often center on argumentation and literary criticism, or instead on the philosophy of logic, but there are opportunities to expand this— particularly by giving science a larger presence. I think there is an enormous amount of untapped value in a broader model.

I envision a course that incorporates many facets of critical thinking. Students should get an introduction to logic. They should learn a bit about cognitive science to understand some of the biases and mental shortcuts we all subconsciously employ. (How can you think at a high level without the awareness that there are wayward tendencies in your thinking machine that sometimes require troubleshooting and maintenance?) They should study some of the tools of rhetoric so they can identify the art of persuasion at work, particularly when they’re being targeted by it. And they should study the scientific method in this context, as a reliable guide through a treacherous terrain full of pitfalls and mirages.

These topics have one big thing going for them—they lend themselves very easily to an active and engaging classroom that fosters the ideal conditions for genuine learning and development. That’s a struggle in many subjects, but here it just comes naturally. Most of these concepts are best taught through application to familiar, real-world case studies. Fortunately, American culture is absolutely saturated with object lessons (Jersey Shore, anyone?) and sandboxes in which to hone skills. Student discussions absolutely beg to be facilitated—another fantastic learning environment. All students have opinions and perspectives that they bring to these issues, and the sharing and sifting of ideas among classmates should elicit the very critical thinking skills that we’re after. Few things encourage intellectual maturation like recognizing and examining the assumptions behind one’s opinions, and the course would be flush with opportunities to do so.

Take the public conflict over vaccinations, for example. Combing through the arguments of “anti-vaccine” advocates would reveal ways in which complicated information is misinterpreted and would illustrate the persuasive power of anecdotes. Digging deeper into the science strips the issue down to what we do and do not know, and how new knowledge would be acquired. Turning to the arena of public opinion, you can evaluate how others arrive at their opinions through a range of rational and emotional avenues. From there, you’re ready to put the spotlight on your own mind. How did you really form your initial opinion? Does it need to change?

If you can genuinely lead students to ponder their way through those thorny thickets, how can they not come out the other side with new eyes?

Like children who don’t notice the vegetables hidden in their favorite cheesy casserole, I think students would actually really enjoy a class like that, challenging and cognitively nutritious though it would be. It’s not hard to make this a fun and enlightening experience that sticks with students.

Contrary to the criticism that classes like this would merely be weekly exercises in debunking, critical thinking is as much about problem solving and extracting meaning from complexity as it is about not falling for hokum. (Of course, conspiracy theories and sasquatches would certainly make an appearance.) And this is where science fits in so naturally. Practice with a scientific way of thinking—developing conclusions that flow from the data, rather than cherry-picking data to support your pre-existing conclusion—adds such an important tool to the kit.

There is a need for a more inter-disciplinary alliance to bring many elements of critical thinking into one coherent experience for students. While each element is worthy of a semester-long deep-dive of its own, it’s not easy to get even a single semester with students, and I’d argue that a broad survey is the most efficient use of that time.

There are many, many factors contributing to disappointing outcomes in higher education—from changing student attitudes toward academics, to the rising tuition costs that drive students to work more while they’re in school, to problems in the K-12 education system— and there is no silver bullet that can take us were we need to go. But, as Albert Einstein recognized, “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” Colleges are not like the Field of Dreams (if we build it, they will think?), and it’s high time we rolled up our sleeves and got serious about making that training happen.

Related: Making implicit knowledge and skills more explicit in science education

Scott K. Johnson About the Author: Scott K. Johnson is a hydrogeologist by day, Earth science instructor at Madison College by the other part of the day, and freelance science writer for Ars Technica by night. Follow on Twitter @ScottJ_ars.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 17 Comments

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 2:33 pm 12/14/2012

    Children shouldn’t have to wait till college to learn to think rationally. This should be taught as early as possible. You can then use every other course to reinforce the principles of critical thought. Why are we allowing churches to turn our children into mindless zombies? Give our children a future, teach them to think for themselves.

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  2. 2. jgo8 2:51 pm 12/14/2012

    “A student once said to me, “Well, I’m a conservative, so I don’t believe in climate change.” The frankness of that statement opens up a window into the obstacles science faces in the public sphere.”

    That’s right. Anyone who adheres to the scientific method should be skeptical of the “climate change” claims. There’s some evidence of a possibility of long-term warming, but none for 16 years. OTOH, what kind of scientific hypothesis is it that “climate changes”. Of course, climate changes, and, from the best available evidence it always has. It has nothing to do with whether one is a left-wing extremist or a “conservative”. It’s a matter of carefully examining the evidence.

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  3. 3. jgo8 3:03 pm 12/14/2012

    “plate tectonics, soil formation, oceanic and atmospheric processes”

    So, one effective approach is to teach the ugly processes of when and how hypotheses about these matters were first developed, the challenges made to older hypotheses, and the newer hypotheses which replaced them and some of the challenges to them… But stop short of the current ones. Ask them to form their own hypotheses about one or more of these matters and draw them into the process rather than giving them lists of “facts” to memorize…
    maybe quote them a sentence or two from Karl R. Popper’s _Conjectures and Refutations_.

    Then tell them, “For now, this is how I and our text-book writers and editors think this works, but mysteries remain and research is continuing…”, kind of like the disclaimer in the SciAm sign-up blurb.

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  4. 4. DrHopeful 4:18 pm 12/14/2012

    The first task is to get students to distinguish between a fact and an opinion. The second step is to suggest that students are not entitled to an opinion unless they know the facts.

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  5. 5. karenalcott 6:54 pm 12/14/2012

    To jgo8, “Well, I’m a conservative, so I don’t believe in climate change.” The student seems to be telling their teacher that they don’t want to learn the science in his (science for folks trying to get out of learning any, class) because they hold a belief, not because they know any facts. The teacher in turn wants the student to learn the difference between the two and the proccess by which they can learn to recognize and gather facts and put them together to form a scientific hypothosis, as opposed to a belief system. Science is based on measurments and observed states, faith is based on beliefs; the science must change when new data and observations dictate, real faith is immune to surprises.
    I think that college may be too late to learn critical thinking. I started with my preschooler; Even a toddler can be shown the difference between the crap in a happy meal box and the TV commercial. Cobble that together with learning grown-up stuff like which fork goes with what and how to figure out your tip on a cool grown-up night out, topped off with a flaming desert. And that kid is on her way to forming fact based oppinions of her own and resisting salesman of all types.

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  6. 6. Denham 8:16 pm 12/14/2012

    Has any one heard that a coin has two sides and you cannot see both at once. I was a salesman and I used this analogy often. Discussing two products I would always ask my client to give me 25 cents for the coin in my hand and usually they would say yes. Wen I turn the coin over it was a double headed coin. I made the point that there are always two sides to a coin and ALWAYS look at the other side no matter. How sure are you are of your knowledge. It usually made the sale because I had very good and honest product. One must develop the permanent habit of always looking on the other side of the issue (read coin). It is a simple basic of critical thinking and so easy to use. There is no conservative or liberal approach… one must look at both sides always. I try to KISS every problem or situation.

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  7. 7. SirFrancisBacon 10:19 pm 12/14/2012

    I’ve done a fair amount of research on critical thinking, and experts such as David Jonassen say that general critical thinking skills are difficult to teach. Critical thinking skills should be taught within a context (e.g. medicine, law, etc.) because they do not transfer well from one domain to another.

    The experts do recommend case-based learning. Authentic cases are embedded within problems. The instructor typically demonstrates how to solve a problem while thinking aloud and implementing a set of principles. Then student teams work on a problem and compare their solution to an expert solution. Initially, instructor may solve the first half of a problem, and then students work on the second half. Also, early problems typically contain more background information, hints, etc. Later problems are more open-ended. In other words, the problems become progressively complex.

    One major skill that experts try to teach is argumentation. They want students to explore and evaluate multiple solutions to a problem before selecting one (or synthesizing a novel solution). And they want students to justify their solution with reasons and evidence and explain why their solution is the “best one,” based on certain criteria. Initially, students may be supplied with the criteria, but later on they may have to create their own criteria.

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  8. 8. lump1 1:02 am 12/15/2012

    The course here described is just like one that I have taught several times as a part of a philosophy department. Mine included a large section on evaluating causal explanations, including strategies for designing and critiquing controlled and statistical experiments. I thought it was the most valuable thing I have ever taught. The university, however, yanked the class.

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  9. 9. Perisoreus 6:54 am 12/15/2012

    Since you emphasize the term “critical” in the title, may I suggest a somewhat different approach to that word?

    What does it mean for you, to be critical? Is it the conviction that all our perceptions are susceptible to error, misconception and illusion? The moral then, of a lesson in critical thinking, would be to categorically mistrust oneself’s experiences. And I think it does not really matter if we refrain from blunt debunking but turn to asking “why they’re wrong”. There is no real difference in here. You take the outcome as truth and therefore as granted. Instead of explaining it, you take it as an explanation. Anti-vaccine activists _must_ therefore be wrong, because they ignore the truth. All we have to do then, ist to find out where exactly they went wrong.

    If you really believe in the wonder and relevance of science (its power has been a two-edged sword for most of its existence), then why not leave this question open? And instead of ready-made science – papers, statistics etc. – why not turn to science in the making? I think anti-science attitudes cannot be adressed properly in the public. Instead, take your students to a laboratory. Let them talk to the researches, let them hear all the difficulties, doubts and struggles the scientists have when producing thruth. Let them feel the difference between the hard truth in papers and statistics that defies als experience, perception and believe and the truth that needs all these in order to come to be. Show them that science is not about truth but about certainty and that facts or truth won’t helb you while working with scientific objects.

    The point about science is not facts vs. beliefs, but ironically, this is hwat climate scepticists have in mind when trying to debunk climate science as political or interest-driven. Of course it is interest driven political and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as scientists take serious what they experience in their labs and on the glaciers. The danger is an image of a pure science and truth that live on their own, independent of humans and their experiences. If you stick to this image, you will always reinforce the cleavage between science as it is and science as it’s supposed to be. Climate scepticists, who are among the most critical thinkers of the world, will always notice the difference and play it against you.

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  10. 10. sjfone 7:37 am 12/15/2012

    So that’s why the lead doesn’t turn into gold.

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  11. 11. Gary Hansen 8:55 pm 12/17/2012

    Critical thinking, like education in its broadest sense, is not confined to formal instruction. Potentially they can become habitual learning processes exercised over a lifetime. There are five fundamental questions: What, Why, Where, When and How. Examine them carefully and you will discover that one question is primary: What? What reason (Why), what place (Where), what time (When) and by what means (How) are secondary questions. What next?

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  12. 12. Heteromeles 12:46 am 12/18/2012

    Personally, I strongly advocate against debunking. It enrages true believers, and it encourages lazy thinkers to place their faith in the church of rationality, where something is correct because Dr. So-and-So told me it was (as in the 1940s and 1950s). Neither of these is critical thinking.

    A better approach, say for Bigfoot, is to watch something like “Finding Bigfoot,” have the students figure out the methodological mistakes, and then figure out other ways where they could check an area for sasquatches and definitively determine whether they are present or not. The thing that stinks about these shows isn’t the paranormal, it’s the literal pseudo-science. They’re not doing anything that will confirm or debunk their hypotheses, nor are they gathering standardized information about mysterious phenomena, to determine whether there are patterns that can be explained. That’s what really makes their activities pseudoscience.

    For example, I’ve actually got a way to test whether horoscopes work, not by going through the physics, but by asking students to compare each other’s horoscopes, and assess qualitatively whether their personal horoscope fits their lives better than someone else’s horoscope does. According to astrological theory, this should never happen (your personal horoscope is generated for you, personally). Generally, people like others’ horoscopes better than they like their own, and you can even have them do the stats to prove it.

    The point is not to proselytize skepticism as a new faith. By the time kids hit college, their mental immune systems are maturing, and they’re already spent 12 years having adults tell them what they should know anyway. I’m suggesting that making a game out of figuring out how to turn pseudo-science into science is a better way to learn.

    As for rocks and soils, I might hesitantly suggest finding the most horrendous geology report you can for houses and buildings. Perhaps you can use a mansion built on a coastal sandstone bluff with shallow foundations, or a housing development built on shrink-swell clays, or a multistory condominium built on a slope in a high earthquake risk zone. Or houses dealing with methane in their water due to fracking. Then use these risks as the framework for teaching them about geology. When mistakes cost millions and wreck lives (and they often do), it’s a much more interesting class. It might even make them want those granite countertops less, once they get the lesson about freeze-thaw fracturing of granite and how Yosemite was formed…

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  13. 13. Jerzy v. 3.0. 10:37 am 12/18/2012

    Critical thinking is useful in everyday life. Methods used to debunk the existence of Bigfoot are essentailly the same as methods which stop you from buying scam products online.

    I recently had great fun in explaining my friends scientific method, and asking them to devise the funninest scientifically correct experiment to test whether milk gets sour because fairies piss into it (a kind of local folk tale).

    However, I understand that many teachers will not be happy to teach children critical thinking – fearing that it will undermine their authority. Focus on teaching facts against teaching to think seems to be motivated mostly by laziness of teachers.

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  14. 14. labellaflora 5:28 pm 12/18/2012

    Many good comments have been made here.

    Teaching middle school art class allowed me to have students think critically by introducing how advertising and propaganda can manipulate us psychologically. It was enlightening and fun for students.

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  15. 15. labellaflora 5:32 pm 12/18/2012

    Jerzy v. 3.0, to say that teachers fear teaching critical thinking skills because they might lose control of students is, at least, silly and at most, insulting.

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  16. 16. CliffClark 6:40 pm 12/18/2012

    I see a few things in the comments that don’t pass muster. 1) “College is too late to learn/teach critical thinking.” It’s never too late to learn critical thinking skills. If they are not learned early, then they can be learned late. 2) “Criticalthinking skills can be picked up without formal teaching”. Not true. Google critical thinking and read through the first four or five things that pop up. Critical thinking can be taught and should be taught. There is no excuse for not doing so. 3)”to say that teachers fear teaching critical thinking skills because they might learn control of students is, at least, sillly…” Perhaps true as far as it goes. Are there any individuals, groups, institutions to whom critical thinking skills are a threat. (From my own experience, I would say yes. But that’s just anecdotal evidence…) Sad to say, when I taught Masters and Ph.D. students in Medical Microbiology, some in their next-to-last year, most to all had absolutely no idea how to use critical thinking skills and strategies. When I provided an example to help them figure out what critical thinking was and how it worked, one student left the room suddenly. When I talked to her later, she said she had left because she was so deeply upset at realizing she had not been taught critical thinking skills and really had no idea how to go about acquiring them. This should never happen in a supposedly advanced society. I find I am in full agreement with Scott Johnson’s article.

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  17. 17. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:59 am 12/19/2012

    Sad to say, but many teachers are not the most gifted and most skilled in their job. Probably many never learned critical thinking themselves.

    So many are tempted just to give facts and avoid discussions which could drift to difficult topics. For example, could every physics teacher answer the question from xkcd 1145?

    To avoid spam filters: web adress is http semicolon slash slash xkcd dot com slash 1145.

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