Critical thinking is central to the scientific method and believed to be essential to a successful democracy. Recently, the 2012 Texas Republican platform voiced the party's opposition to the teaching of critical thinking skills in public schools. This stance raises many controversial questions on the GOPs motivation, but also a fundamental question: are public schools in the US successfully teaching critical thinking?

In the West, critical thinking descends from the Socratic method and is a central tenant of the tutor system at the earliest institutions of higher learning (Oxford and Cambridge, for example). This historic dedication of the top institutions to teaching critical thinking suggests that the method is effective. On the other hand, contemporary psychologists of education are suggesting that critical thinking cannot be effectively taught (Willingham, 2008).

Can critical thinking be taught? Are there studies (with proper controls) that show that a course on critical thinking teaching the skill beyond standard domain specific problem-solving/fact-knowing courses?

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    $\begingroup$ See: eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/… $\endgroup$ – Greg McNulty Jul 11 '12 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev The closest research article I could get is Jenny Reed's study on Critical Thinking. Its a lot localized though. criticalthinking.org/resources/JReed-Dissertation.pdf .Similar resources can be found on the research section at www.criticalthinking.org website. $\endgroup$ – Ubermensch Jul 11 '12 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ Something relevant might be the idea of progressive education. Those who support progressive education typically emphasize problem solving skills and critical thinking. I wonder if there is work in this topic to support how you can teach or convey critical thinking to students. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Owens Jul 11 '12 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ I think we need a better definition of critical thinking to be able to answer that question. From a purely anecdotal perspective of a teacher though- when you see students come into an engineering program as freshmen and leave as seniors, you have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that critical thinking, in every sense, can most definitely be taught. $\endgroup$ – rmayer06 Feb 28 '14 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ Yes! > 1. International Baccalaureate teaches it to all high school students (proud IBer -- can change your life forever) > 2. other schools? I would say this has taught me far more than any course in any university. You may also want to study epistemology or just grap the IB TOK book -- it is a fascinating book! $\endgroup$ – hhh Oct 14 '14 at 13:14

It seems like somebody's done a lot of literature pooling already:

Is Rationality Teachable?

Among influences mentioned are statistics, logic training, and debiasing.

There's also a book that summarized findings:

Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons From Cognitive Science Tim van Gelder College Teaching Vol. 53, Iss. 1, 2005

ABSTRACT: This article draws six key lessons from cognitive science for teachers of critical thinking. The lessons are: acquiring expertise in critical thinking is hard; practice in critical-thinking skills themselves enhances skills; the transfer of skills must be practiced; some theoretical knowledge is required; diagramming arguments (“argument mapping”) promotes skill; and students are prone to belief preservation. The article provides some guidelines for teaching practice in light of these lessons.

Anecdotally, I recognize a tendency for science professors to let students use their intuition at first and then crush it in an attempt to make debiasing habitual.

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    $\begingroup$ +10 for debiasing. I have also seen a lot of them with powerful teachers $\endgroup$ – Ubermensch Jul 14 '12 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ I really don't think this does a good job addressing the question. Can the skills be taught? I wouldn't know from reading this. $\endgroup$ – rmayer06 Feb 28 '14 at 22:03

There is a classic paper by Halpern (1998) on the topic. From the abstract:

Numerous studies have shown that critical thinking, defined as the deliberate use of skills and strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome, can be learned in ways that promote transfer to novel contexts. A 4-part empirically based model is proposed to guide teaching and learning for critical thinking: (a) a dispositional component to prepare learners for effortful cognitive work, (b) instruction in the skills of critical thinking, (c) training in the structural aspects of problems and arguments to promote transcontextual transfer of critical-thinking skills, and (d) a metacognitive component that includes checking for accuracy and monitoring progress toward the goal.

Halpern DF. (1998) Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains. Dispositions, skills, structure training, and metacognitive monitoring. Americal Psychol. 53(4):449-55.

While I agree with @Xuritio point about importance of statistics, logic training, and debiasing, I have a subjective sense that including modules on Philosophy also contributes heavily to the development of critical thinking. One of the most mind grinding modules I did in my undergrads was close reading of Immanuel's Kant Critique of Pure Reason. Doing modules on Philosophy of Mind and Epistemology simultaneously with Cognitive Neuroscience was also a game changer for me. Getting this meta-level perspective clashing with hardcore research somehow enables healthy, critical, creative distance towards empirical studies.


One might argue that the skill of critical thinking is the sum of the goal of higher education. I certainly take that view. On the other hand- we don't really have a good definition of exactly what comprises critical thinking. Without a concise definition, it is difficult to answer the question (see the last paragraph below).

From a purely anecdotal perspective of a teacher though: when you see students come into an engineering program as freshmen and leave as seniors, you have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that critical thinking, in every sense, can most definitely be taught.

Here is an excerpt from a paper that I have published on the topic (if I don't remember to put the link in, please leave a comment to remind me).

Excerpt from How engineers learn: a study of problem-based learning in the engineering classroom and implications for course design (Mayer and Stone, 2013)

It can be said that the most important quality in an engineer is the ability to think critically—to analyze a given proposition from a variety of angles and determine its strengths and weaknesses. Critical thinking is generally accepted as a primary goal of higher education (Mason 2007, Abrami et al. 2008, Bailin and Siegel 2003, Sheffler 1973). As educators, it is our responsibility to build these skills in our engineering students, or we will produce engineers who can pass courses but who cannot function in the workplace. Therefore, both the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking skills are very important in an engineering curriculum (Douglas, 2012). It stands to reason that the goals of an engineering education process might best be met through methods which can be proven to build critical thinking skills, in addition to conveying subject-specific knowledge. This implies a need to reliably evaluate both students’ contextual knowledge and their critical thinking abilities simultaneously.

As recently as 2008, Abrami and his colleagues performed an exhaustive analysis of literature concerning the teaching of critical thinking skills. They mainly found that methods which attempt to teach critical thinking skills are generally successful at doing so. In particular, they found that students learn critical thinking most reliably when CT skills acquisition is a stated objective of the course; indirect approaches, where students are expected to learn CT as a by-product, are generally not as effective.

There are, however, some important limitations to the current literature on critical thinking. As Abrami et al. (2008) observe, “[critical thinking] is a complex and controversial notion that is difficult to define and, consequently, to study.” Most definitions take a pornographic (“I know it when I see it”) approach to defining critical thinking, which is not terribly useful from a research perspective. On the other hand, the current scientific definition of critical thinking (as defined by the American Philosophical Association – Facione, 1990) comprises the better part of a paragraph, which is nice, but intractable (Anderson et al., 2001). Therefore, it can be argued that there needs to be an engineering-specific definition of what comprises critical thinking, and that this specific skill can be taught in the classroom.

  • $\begingroup$ You can probably add the link by now? :) $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Sep 12 '16 at 21:56

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