Apr 19, 2021
"Critical thinking" is an idea commonly discussed in education. Most people who talk about it say we need more of it. Almost nobody seems willing or able to define it. I have trouble believing in it.
With anything that I believe, I keep an open mind and even force myself against my cognitive biases to hear out those whose opinions I disagree with. This has been very useful to me in the past, as there have been a number of education-related ideas that I have had to eschew on further investigation. In line with this attitude, I was happy to give this book a chance, particularly since the author claimed to be a fan of the show, and therefore would presumably have some sense of my predisposition to this issue.
The book opened with promise. The author writes that he is aware of the many criticisms levied at critical thinking - that "it cannot be defined, ... or that it takes away from the content of the course, or that it is different in every discipline, or that it depends on knowledge..." (all of which would be exactly my criticisms). "You name the excuse; we heard it." Clearly, I thought with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, the author will show in this book why those criticisms don't stand up to scrutiny - I will have to part with a long-held belief of mine again to get closer to the truth.
He goes on to mention the success that he has had in teaching critical thinking: "Together [with collaborator Dave Carillo], we were charged with raising critical thinking outcomes across campus. And we did." (Emphasis in original.) So not only was I wrong in theory, the author wanted to show me in practice how effective he could make such interventions!
Alas, I found no more mention of the details of his interventions, no description of what he did and evidence showing that it worked. Neither did he ever again mention the criticisms that I had, saying that he'd heard them all before, but declining to explain what is wrong with them. To add insult to injury, right at the outset he deliberately omits discussing what critical thinking actually is, claiming "that's a very complex question" which would require "a whole other book in itself", and overall it would be a "tediously lengthy affair". I would rather a lengthy affair than an undefined concept lacking evidence and avoiding facing up to criticism.
Among the many failings of the book, there is one place where I picked up something new and useful - it seems that the research on project-based learning (PBL) is less negative in its conclusions than I had understood thus far. I have taken note to look into this more in future.
To be clear, I still hold that critical thinking might be a thing, it's just that (a) the cognitive science I've learned so far seems to have no need for the concept, (b) I only ever hear people talk about it in a stand-on-your-soapbox high-sounding sermon without reference to any actual evidence or even theory, and (c) this book does a terrible job of supporting the idea, as do so many others who love to talk about it. Perhaps one day I will encounter work that explains what it really is, shows that it really exists, and demonstrates how important it is using proper evidence rather than rhetoric. Or maybe all there is on the topic is impassioned oratory rather than solid science.
In case you are interested, Steven Pearlman co-hosts two podcasts: The Critical Thinking Initiative and Smarterer!.
Enjoy the episode.