Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?

Daniel T. Willingham :

Virtually everyone would agree that a primary, yet insufficiently met, goal of schooling is to enable students to think critically. In layper- son’s terms, critical thinking consists of see- ing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispas- sionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth. Then too, there are specific types of critical thinking that are characteristic of different subject matter: That’s what we mean when we refer to “thinking like a scientist” or “thinking like a historian.”

This proper and commonsensical goal has very often been translated into calls to teach “critical think- ing skills” and “higher-order thinking skills”—and into generic calls for teaching students to make bet- ter judgments, reason more logically, and so forth. In a recent survey of human resource officials1 and in testi- mony delivered just a few months ago before the Sen- ate Finance Committee,2 business leaders have repeat- edly exhorted schools to do a better job of teaching students to think critically. And they are not alone. Organizations and initiatives involved in education reform, such as the National Center on Education and the Economy, the American Diploma Project, and the Aspen Institute, have pointed out the need for students to think and/or reason critically. The College Board recently revamped the SAT to better assess students’ critical thinking. And ACT, Inc. offers a test of critical thinking for college students.