July 2nd, 2008

Critical Thinking: A Lifelong Journey


I don’t know any college teacher who doesn’t aspire to teach students to think critically. I don’t know any college teacher who doesn’t think that most students have significant skill deficiencies when it comes to critical thinking. And I don’t know many college teachers who aren’t regularly frustrated and disappointed by the results of their efforts to teach this important skill. Partly, this is because better thinking processes aren’t always easy to see, but often our efforts don’t appear to have much effect because learning to think critically is hard.

I love Tim van Gelder’s analogy. He begins by observing that, “humans are not naturally critical. Indeed, like ballet, critical thinking is a highly contrived activity. Running is natural; nightclub dancing is less so; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution did not intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle might have said, we were not designed to be all that critical either. Evolution does not waste effort making things better than they need to be, and homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive, while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.” (p. 42)

Acquiring good critical thinking skills should be thought of as a lifelong journey, according to van Gelder. Given that trajectory, it is unrealistic to expect a lot of progress during a two-week module or even a course for that matter. However, the difficulty of both teaching and learning critical thinking skills does not excuse either teachers or students from expending efforts to master this skill.

I got to thinking about this while rereading van Gelder’s excellent article on teaching critical- thinking skills. Drawing from cognitive science, he offers six principles that should guide efforts to teach the skill. It’s a practical, helpful, encouraging and well-referenced article. It gets a 10/10 from me, and I don’t give perfect scores very often. If you collect good articles on teaching and learning (and I hope you do), this is one I don’t think you should be without.

Reference: van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking: Some lessons from cognitive science. College Teaching, 53 (1), 41-56.

—Maryellen Weimer