When I was in college, I remember that the course description for virtually every class I took said that it taught 'critical thinking'. But only one class came close to directly teaching actual thought.
The only class that came anywhere near teaching how to think in any way was my introduction to argumentation class, which was basically a rhetoric and logic class.
We learned a lot of logical fallacies that I'd never heard of before.
Imagine that; all those classes supposedly teaching 'critical' thinking, and only one of them taught me what a fallacy is!
For those who don't know what a fallacy is, it's an improper way of coming to a conclusion. For example, the fallacy of 'argument from popularity' is deciding that something is correct because it's popular. This isn't a good way to reach a conclusion.
Imagine concluding that the Earth is flat because that's the most popular idea at the time. Now you know why that's a fallacy. Wrong notions are often very popular.
I figured 'critical thinking' was some sort of buzzword that no one really paid attention to, but everyone figured should be in their course descriptions.
Critical thinking in secondary schools
When I became a secondary school teacher, I found that teachers were like-wise obsessed with 'critical thinking'. Well, what I mean is that they weren't obsessed with the actual act of thinking critically, they were just obsessed with using the phrase 'critical thinking' as a buzzword.
Sadly, I think some of them actually thought that they 'taught' it in their classes.
What is critical thinking?
Perhaps the most egregious problem with the way critical thinking is taught (or not taught) is that it isn't even defined.
Critical thinking has become this buzzword with magical properties, where despite what the word 'critical' means in a dictionary, once it combines with the word 'thinking' it means something vague and undefinable.
Sorry, but the word 'critical' has a meaning.
There are two meanings of the word 'critical' and they boil down to these two concepts: important, or fault-finding.
Critical thinking is meant to describe thinking that finds fault with arguments; skeptical thinking, if you will.
From my experience, however, most teachers seem to think of critical thinking as some sort of 'important' thinking. The word critical just serves to make it sound more impressive than thinking alone.
With this vague definition of 'critical' thinking, the phrase applies to pretty much anything that involves thinking.
And because logic is not taught in secondary schools, students are not actually taught how to think critically.
Instead, teachers tell unprepared students to think 'critically', and then teachers provide feedback on their performance.
This isn't teaching.
I call this Harry Potter teaching.
Harry Potter teaching
I noticed something disturbing about the way magic is taught in the Harry Potter movies.
Time and again, the teachers give the students absolutely no instruction and then ask them to use magic to defend themselves in some sort of dangerous situation. This is not teaching. This is forcing students to figure things out on their own.
Teachers do a lot of this; they don't instruct students in how to think 'critically', they just ask them to do it and then tell them what they've done wrong. Essentially, this is forcing the students to figure it out on their own.
Having students figure something out on their own is not teaching.
Here's a real-life example of Harry Potter teaching from outside of secondary schools: I was watching a show where two women were being 'taught' how to drive one of those boats with the giant fan in the back.
I think those are called fan boats. If not, they should be.
The guy 'teaching' them couldn't tell them which way to turn the lever to turn left or right.
He could drive the boat, but he basically had no idea how he did it, so he couldn't tell anyone how to do it. Instead, he just claimed that this was just something you had to figure out on your own.
Unfortunately, this is the same attitude most teachers have towards critical thinking. Maybe they can do it (or maybe not), but they have no idea what they do, and even less of an idea how to teach others to do it.
Yet, they claim to 'teach' critical thinking.
Is critical thinking even teachable?
I've wondered whether 'critical' thinking is even teachable.
Certainly, logic classes teach some elements of critical thinking. But ultimately, we don't know how we think.
But while thinking may not be teachable, I think we can teach students 'how' to be critical of ideas. This would mainly involve teaching the logical fallacies so that students would be better able to identify invalid arguments.
In science, we can teach students that 'critical' thinking means looking for both fallacies, and evidence that supports or invalidates claims.
So I think it's possible to teach 'critical' thinking, but not general thinking; which is what most teachers think of when they use the phrase 'critical thinking'.
But if we want to teach critical thinking (or anything else), we can't use Harry Potter teaching. And we'd better damn well have some sort of curriculum that explicitly teaches logic.
Ideally, this would come from a logic class. But with the inefficient teaching methods used in today's schools (in America), most of our time is wasted. Most schools essentially teach only three things: reading, writing, and math. They just don't have time for much else because so much time is wasted.
This wasn't always the case. Before we started using retarded constructivist/discovery learning/Harry Potter teaching techniques, students learned much faster.
American secondary education is committed dogmatically to the idea that they are teaching critical thinking. Yet few teachers actually know what critical thinking is.
Furthermore, there is no actual instruction in thinking critically. Instead, students are asked to think and come up with good conclusions without any preparation. It's identical to asking Harry Potter to defend himself against the dark arts on the first day of class before he's learned any defensive spells.
This is the method of constructivism. It's madness. The teacher doesn't teach anymore. Instead, he tries to set up activities where the students figure things out on their own.
Considering how long it's taken humanity to build our current knowledge, is it any wonder that students learn so little from the hours they spend in school?
What we need, are instructional techniques based on what works; not on what we want to work.
Psychology and it's younger sibling, cognitive science provide us with far better information about what works in teaching and learning than does constructivism.
In my collection, I have an unpublished article entitled Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science by Tim Van Gelder of the University of Melbourne. If you are serious about teaching critical thinking, this paper will help more than any dogma-laden education textbook.