Let's stop trying to teach students critical thinking

Re: Let's stop trying to teach students critical thinking — Comments

by Евгений Волков -
Number of replies: 0
  1. John Arthur Turner

    Retired manager

    Before commenting I also read the authors article of 6th June.
    In my view critical thinking involves finding evidence when considering an issue and weighing up the value any conflicting evidence before forming your own opinion. What could be wrong with teaching students how to do that?
    That is more likely to occur when teachers and the any particular school's ethos is not influenced by belief in the existence of some spiritual entity for which no evidence exists.
    In the NSW public school system ethics classes are teaching students the art of evidence seeking and analysis.
    A trial at Clackmannanshire in Scotland showed that allowing and encouraging 10-12 year old students to do for about 50 hours over a 16 month period improved their intellectual ability by about 6.5% and significantly reduced bad behaviour both in and out of class. The trial also showed that even without reinforcement the improvements increased with time. Who knows, the students might even be able to pass on the improvements to their own children through better parenting. In my view, after examining the evidence the professor is wrong.
    The Clackmannanshire Trial report is at, http://onlineopinion.com.au/documents/articles/Clackmannan.doc
    If that does not appear as a link copy and paste the address in your search engine.

    1. Xao Ping Wang

      Health Advocate

      In reply to John Arthur Turner

      But for the sake of argument, if you were being truly critical, you wouldn't make closed statements without justification, such as "That is more likely to occur when teachers and the any particular school's ethos is not influenced by belief in the existence of some spiritual entity for which no evidence exists."
      - Is there really no evidence of "some spiritual entity" or is it just that you haven't or don't want to find any?
      - Does the belief in a spiritual entity really limit the capacity for critical thinking?
      - What about the converse, that is, does atheism limit the capacity for critical thinking?

      Personally, I have no problems with children being in a faith-based school, so long as they are given the opportunity to discuss all aspects of the faith spectrum. Secular schools should review their policy of exclusion of the spiritual and philosophical, which is just as likely to encourage close-mindedness in their graduating students as much as any prejudiced fundamentalist school.

      Just my thoughts ...

  2. Tim Dean

    Philosopher at UNSW Australia

    Thanks for the interesting article Dennis. However, in the spirit of criticism, I must say find your piece confusing, or perhaps confused.

    I wonder if what you call "critical thinking" is very different from what I (and many others) think of as "critical thinking." You appear to be using "critical thinking" to refer to a fairly modern invention that is common in continental schools of thought, particularly Marxism in its many modern forms, often under the moniker of being "critical" or taking a "critical perspective." In this case, you're right that it often passes as "critical thinking" yet (ironically) it is really a form of uncritical ideological indoctrination.

    However, my understanding of critical thinking (at least philosophical critical thinking) is that it *is* a skill: it is, broadly speaking, the application of logical and epistemological principles to analysing utterances, beliefs and arguments, whether one's own or others'.

    This includes unpacking utterances and assertions and figuring out the argument, if any, behind them. Then understanding the argument's structure, digging up hidden assumptions, identifying inconsistencies or logical fallacies, exploring implications and scrutinising evidence, among other things.

    This form of critical thinking can be applied to any kind of utterance. It seems to be a skill because it must be learnt and consciously applied. That doesn't mean the skill cannot eventually become tacit or influence character in the long term.

    As such, I am a passionate advocate for teaching philosophical critical thinking in schools. I've said before that no child should leave school without being able to read, write, do maths and identify logical and argumentative fallacies (among other things, of course). One benefit of teaching philosophical critical thinking in schools is it will make students more resistant to "critical perspectives" later in life.

    I would welcome a clarification from you about how you see the distinction between philosophical and "continental" critical thinking.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Tim Dean

      Tim, The recent developments I was thinking of are not all continental - I was more concerned here with very new developments such as critical reflective practice in education and critical race 'theory'. I think there is more to being critical than learning skills. Training pupils using the eristic dialogues or working through Copi might be useful and produce some clever young people but what really would give pupils the basis on which they could have the critical spirit in later life is reading philosophical texts carefully and well. Dennis

    2. Dirk Baltzly

      Professor of Philosophy -- University of Tasmania

      In reply to Dennis Hayes

      All granted, but I think you under-estimates the value (and rarity) even of the 'mechanical skill'. Many students are simply unable to identify the central conclusion(s) of a short piece of argumentative writing. Fewer still are able to charitably and succinctly paraphrase the evidence in favor of the conclusion. Fewer still are able to assess the relation of this evidence to the conclusion. (Does it offer inductive or deductive support?) Students' capacity to handle reasoning that involves statistical evidence is a topic too depressing to even bring up.

      So -- sure -- one class in critical thinking will not make a university student a critical thinker in the sense of inculcating a philosophical comportment to the world. But you've got to start from somewhere.

    3. Tim Dean

      Philosopher at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Dennis Hayes

      Thanks for the clarification Dennis. However, while you continue to use the term "critical thinking" in this context, then you are attacking a straw man.

      The term "critical thinking" is conventionally applied to philosophical critical thinking (dealing with argument structure, logic, fallacies etc), but you are using the term to refer to things such as "critical reflective practice in education and critical race 'theory'". Had you written an article criticising the latter without using the term "critical thinking" then I would have agreed with you wholeheartedly.

      However, by attacking "critical thinking" you do yourself and students everywhere a disservice. It is precisely the clarity of thought that comes from learning critical thinking skills that we are able to see "critical reflective practice in education and critical race 'theory'" etc for what they are.

      I would encourage you to refrain from using the term "critical thinking" in this context, and only use the term to refer to philosophical critical thinking.

      I firmly believe we need (philosophical) critical thinking to be taught in high school (if not earlier), and I would hate for a misuse of a term to undermine this project.

  3. John Arthur Turner

    Retired manager

    I have corrected errors in my hurriedly prepared earlier comment.
    Before commenting, I read the authors article of 6th June.
    In my view, critical thinking involves finding or thinking about evidence when considering an issue and weighing up the value of any conflicting evidence before forming and voicing your own opinion. What could be wrong with helping students learn how to do that? That is more likely to occur when teachers and any particular school's ethos is not influenced by belief in the existence of some spiritual entity for which no evidence exists.
    I know of a faith school run by a principal who is disappointed that such an intelligent man as Sir David Attenborough can undermine the creation story by presenting such TV programs as he does.
    In the NSW public school system ethics classes are teaching students the art of evidence seeking and evaluation.
    A control group trial at Clackmannanshire in Scotland showed that allowing and encouraging 10-12 year old students to discuss open ended questions for about 50 hours over a 16 month period improved their intellectual ability by about 6.5% and significantly reduced bad behaviour, both in and out of class. Follow up retesting showed that, even without reinforcement, the improvements increased with time. Who knows, the students might even be able to pass on the improvements to their own children through better parenting. In my view, after examining the evidence, the professor opinion is wrong.
    The Clackmannanshire Trial report is at, http://onlineopinion.com.au/documents/articles/Clackmannan.doc

  4. David Wright

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Let's first get clear about what 'critical thinking' is not - unthinking criticism, AKA whining.

    Surely the ability to think 'critically' is an ability to see the logical flaws in arguments, or to challenge false assumptions rather than (technically correct) logic. You need to be aware of the conditions for an inference to be sound, not just valid.

    It's also the ability, deliberately subverted by both political and marketing rhetoric (both applications of the same subversion of rationality, to different realms of persuasion), to see through rhetoric to what we're being manipulated into doing or believing.

    Countering rhetorical bullshit depends on two things: various kinds of topic knowledge, and awareness of techniques of valid argument - and the traditional moves to circumvent them. The latter comprises a well-documented set of techniques, which may be learned to great advantage by consumers and voters. Oh yes, and lawyers.

    Knowledge of underlying logic is a teachable skill, whatever else it may be ('gift', 'innate ability', etc). An ability to read with awareness - ie 'between the lines' or even in spite of them, to get at what's really being attempted by the person presenting a case, is less mechanical as a skill, but still improvable with guided practice. And yes, it depends on an audience alert to rhetorical tricks. Maybe worryingly hard to find at any time.

    Arnold surely had it right. And the term 'critical theory' is strange and seems to me an unhappy import from some other language(s). For some reason, German and French come to mind. But I could be wrong. (Rhetoric alert! That formulation is an attempt to get you to agree that we both know I'm not.)

    Your point 1, as presented, is itself rhetorical and dismissive, in order to bolster your case. Who in their right mind would advocate the teaching of 'second-rate' logic - or Voodoo, come to that?

    If you feel that basic syllogistic logic is 'second rate', I challenge you to give an example of first rate logic. It's incomplete, of course, but can had as been extended to deal with this. It is also teachable, to good effect, - and has been, since Aristotle's day. And later, Boole's

    Arnold's position can of course be subverted by anyone with an 'agenda', and always will be; but in that case, one goes for the premises, if one finds the formal logic is correct (Valid argument, but not yet 'sound.')

    But note we're talking the abuse, not use, of formal logic in this case.

    We of a thoughtful disposition in any case tend to over-value logic in terms of understanding what persuades people. Emotional, cultural, and prejudicial aspects are all open to manipulation by the skilled but unscrupulous marketer. A lot of work on 'behavioral economics', depressing tho it is as pointing out how fragile a reed logic is, in persuasion, makes this point brilliantly. Or you might try listening to two good QC's thrashing it out in court. Get to the 'truth'? Not the aim of English jurisprudence, which is adversarial; get the better story out, and you collect your fee as the perpetrator walks free.

    The very last thing the defense may want is the jury to be too adept at 'critical thinking!'

    And so on. But this is far too long anyhow! Thanks.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to David Wright

      If someone was skilled at spotting every logical error they saw - as some people are skilled at doing hard crossword puzzles - we'd call them 'clever' rather then 'critical'.

  5. William Hazen

    logged in via Facebook

    While I do agree with the articles premise, I am not sure if his "solution" is not painted in black and white. I am not sure of giving up entirely on the idea of teaching critical thinking because the discipline is misused. A progressive solution might be to "re-introduce" Critical Thinking back into the cultural and educational mainstream.

  6. Ray Butler

    logged in via Facebook

    The biggest obstacle to critical thinking and logical deduction is heightened impulsive states; critical thinking isn't something you learn, it is more a result of disciplining fears and desires in an effective way.

    1. Ray Butler

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ray Butler

      Knowledge is just a tool, too many people make it an identity; knowledge is only a small part of it, what we end up doing with knowledge is what counts and having the discipline to apply it for the optimal effect is the true measure of wisdom.

  7. Ellie Lawson


    This article more or less sums up the 'critical literacies' approach in teacher education today, which I take great issue with, but I don't really think it touched on critical thinking in the classroom at all.

    Perhaps the popular view of critical thinking, which means little more than teasing out the hidden assumptions and biases in texts, is just that, a skill set mostly useless where real thinking isn't being demonstrated, and yes, from my own experience, it is an indoctrination tool, as widespread in universities as anywhere.

    But as someone whose sole reason for becoming a teacher is to bring philosophy into classrooms, I don't really see your point, beyond the above comment on an overused term. We shouldn't strive to engage our students critically? We shouldn't conduct discussions for discussion's sake? Critical thinking isn't a skill? Please. How absurd.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Ellie Lawson

      I stick to my point - teach philosophy and not 'philosophy for kids. If you read Plato or any great philosopher you don't use it to teach something you want to call 'engaging our students critically'. It is just a synonym for teaching Plato or whoever.

    2. Ellie Lawson


      In reply to Dennis Hayes

      I can't make out a clear point from anything you are saying, but I'm encouraged that you've stuck to your point. Teaching philosophy to kids is about dialogue. It isn't an indoctrination tool, like the critical literacies approach of today, which seems to be what your article is upset about. What's more, talk of critical thinking in the classroom never equates to dialogue. If it did I'd be one very happy parent.

      And Plato? For children? Who is this even directed at? Have you looked into P4C or are you going on a hunch that it is an exercise in futility? If so I urge you to talk to these inspiring P4C educators, observe the dialogues taking place in and out of classrooms with children young and old, and then come back and argue that critical thinking can't be taught.

    3. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Ellie Lawson
    4. Stephen Gorard

      Professor of Education and Public Policy at Durham University

      In reply to Dennis Hayes

      For your possible interest - I am just completing a large two year randomised controlled trial of the 'impact' of primary-age P4C, for the EEF. Outcomes will be based on observations, KS results, CAT pre- and post-tests, and a wider outcomes instrument selected by SAPERE. Reporting later this year. Watch this space.


  8. David McDivitt

    happy person

    It's all about values and what people want. Unless critical thinking is expressed as having a payoff, people see no need for it. The brain makes instant snap judgements by nature. Consider survival in the jungle and recognizing harm, or survival in the marketplace and recognizing trades. Simple things require no great reasoning, but the more abstract an idea is, the more reasoning must be learned to facilitate it.

    I do not agree critical thinking is a moral imperative, right, or correct. People who want to think critically, think that way. Moving into higher order concepts with discussions and group involvement demands critical thinking. What is right has nothing to do with it. Unless a person thinks critically, higher order concepts simply won't be understood. It depends on what type intellectual environment a person wants, if one is wanted at all. I do not agree it is right, correct, or a necessity for every person to be an intellectual or pursue intellectualism. Neither do I think an intellectual baseline exists among people to be imposed or enforced. Participation in society requires a degree of intelligence, possibly to appreciate some of the finer things. It isn't like we need to be snooty about it, or demeaning, or moralistic, but we can express what is associated with what.

    As society advances the average person necessarily becomes more intelligent. There's more stuff to keep up with and pay attention to. There's more stuff to want. There's more stuff to play with.

    My opinion about public school is, those who want to learn will learn. Why do some want to learn and others not? School therefore should have two purposes: one, attempt to convey essential concepts regarding participation in society and personal well being, and two, provide an environment for those who want to learn, to learn as much as they want.

    1. "Critical thinking" is a skill. No it is not.

    Yes it most certainly is.

    2. "Critical thinking" means indoctrination.

    No it most certainly does not. Critical thinking is anti-authoritarian. It means refuting "arguments from authority" as arguments from authority.

    3. "Critical theories" are "uncritical theories". When some theory has the prefix "critical" it requires the uncritical acceptance of a certain political perspective.

    Bullshit. There are more progressives than conservatives, true. If a progressive publishes work, it may well have a progressive slant. So what? Confirmation bias is confirmation bias. This is a well known problem in science. Acknowledging the existence of it does not make it magically go away. If conservatives sometimes seem to serve as no more than a cog in the wheel of progress, interpreted of course from the perspective of progressivism, so be it. Critical thinking is required, but it is still pursuant to personal values. To believe machine-like thinking exists, above and beyond any aspect of personal valuation, is a naive idealistic view not unlike religion.

    Critical thinking does not equate to criticism in general as the author implies. Think of it as deductive reasoning, with deduct meaning "to remove". The point is to challenge reasoning given for various phenomena to see if it stands. It does not mean simply to criticize all things for which there is no political affinity. So, according to the author, the critical thinking of progressives is simply that they criticize conservative viewpoints? That's a very stupid opinion. Progressives have progressive ideas. Conservatives have conservative ideas. Critical thinking has nothing to do with either one, except that each is given a means to justify logic and reasoning when speaking to other people.

  9. Evan Milner

    logged in via Facebook

    Correction: The quote by John Anderson is from the essay "Socrates as an Educator" written in in 1931, not the 1980s by which time Anderson was long dead.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Evan Milner

      Quite right - that is a blip by the sub-editor - here is my original reference in full: John Anderson ([1930] 1980)'Socrates as an Educator', in Education and Inquiry. (1980) Oxford: Basil Blackwell: 64-80.

  10. Andrew McDowell


    Despite the introductory quote, I believe it is worth looking for teachable skills, because these can be placed on a syllabus, explicitly taught, examined, and the effectiveness of that teaching monitored. In historical order I would nominate mathematical proof, scholasticism, the formation and attempted falsification of hypotheses by experiment, Franklin's Moral Algebra, statistical sampling from populations, correlation vs causation, and the Analysis of Competing Hypotheses.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Andrew McDowell

      You have a point. There is nothing wrong with teaching skills. Logic is very useful. But skills are skills and we should not confuse them with critical thinking.

  11. Norman Douglas Mullins Jr.



    First, I would like to thank Professor Hayes for addressing such a crucial and vexing topic in a short article: I know that it must have been difficult to compress your thoughts into the space available. Despite the limitations of the format, Professor Hayes touched on some fundamental issues and raised some excellent points.

    As a high school teacher in the US with fifteen years experience, I want to lend my fullest support to the idea that it is impossible to teach critical reasoning as an isolated skill. Socrates himself was always engaged in a dialogue ABOUT something--justice, the good life, love etc. To put it another way, not even the man who claimed to have no certain knowledge was able to engage in critical dialogue without utilizing prevailing social opinion as a starting point. We should pay careful attention to this basic fact. Furthermore, what can be a better starting point for dialogue than the best ideas, practices, and works that we have inherited from our tradition. I do not think that Arnold wanted us to put the great works in a museum, drained of life and vitality. Criticism is the best--perhaps the only--way to make the great works of our tradition live again and serve as guides in an always uncertain word. Can feminists, radical socialists, and post-colonial scholars gain inspiration and wisdom from Plato, Sir Thomas More, Machiavelli, and Milton? More than most, I should think!

    I must also sound a note of critique: I have to say that very few of my experienced colleagues in the US hold the ideas about critical reasoning that Professor Hayes seems to attribute to us. Perhaps it is different in the UK? It is, however, true that these views are relentlessly rammed down our throats by trainers, professional developers, and various "experts." Of course, we must sound the right notes of approval to keep our jobs, but very few of us actually believe these "critical thinking" mantras. Some of our younger colleagues are ensnared in these ideas, but in my experience they have been thoroughly disabused by their fourth year of teaching.

    Once again, thank you for an interesting and important article.

  12. Don Duggan-Haas

    logged in via Facebook

    The author is setting up a straw man argument, I think. It doesn't seem to me that the educators I know who advocate for teaching critical thinking (including me) see it as he pretends these advocates see it. I certainly don't see it as a skill, though it involves a suite of skills.

    It also involves an attitude, which is perhaps hard to teach, but I don't think is impossible. Years ago, I heard the line (and haven't been able to track down a source) that how you teach is what you teach. I think that's perhaps most important as related to curiosity, critical thinking and a joy of learning. And critical thinking, in my personal view, requires an embrace of uncertainty.

    It seems to me like the author made up a caricature of a teacher to attack, rather than trying to actually figure out what educators generally mean when they talk about critical thinking.

    The idea of being bound to a 100 year old definition also seems misguided. That's not the way language works, generally.

    Of course "critical" has many meanings, and we should think about which one we're after, when we talk about "critical thinking." I'm reminded of earlier discussions on this list about the terms "heat" and "rigor." I can better deal with the array of meanings for heat, than for rigor, and wish we'd stop talking about "rigor" in the context of education, and instead talk about things that are "appropriately challenging". But I digress.

    Here't the array of synonyms that comes up for "critical" on visualthesaurus.com. http://www.visualthesaurus.com/app/print?ts=hyow76qh
    When I think of "critical" as in "critical thinking", I'm mostly thinking about stuff between 8:00 and 10:00 if this figure was a clock. That's at least somewhat different from what Hayes says.

    So, I say teach critical thinking, but not this dude's portrayal of it.

  13. Joe Sterbinsky

    logged in via Facebook

    Help. Is Prof. Haynes discussing this as "critical thinking" is used in the U.K. or the U.S. I am a pubic school History teacher in the states. "Critical Thinking Skills" is a push in President Obama's education initiative. I dislike most everything about the president's policies; this is a rare exception.

    When I started teaching in the 1970s what is being called critical thinking skills today were Bloom's taxonomy of thinking skills. As I began practicing the craft of teaching they were extended into the teaching of writing as various kinds of writing could be categorized as comparative, analytical, synthetical (?) or evaluative. In the last 20 years my students have lost those abilities as my bosses - in education and politics - have stressed facts over writing.

    If we succeed in teaching students to be more comparative, analytical, etc. I think it bodes well for conservatism as the Left's arguments is based so much on feelings over reason. It is why I favor this innovation that is not an innovation but rather a return to education's roots.

  14. Stephen Gorard

    Professor of Education and Public Policy at Durham University

    Two rather different points struck me on reading this (which I have heard before).

    My experience, for what it is worth, chimes with the claim that those who use the term 'critical' as a preface are often dogmatic. Academics who push 'critical theory', for example, are among the least critical (and the least 'useful').

    Genuine criticism is neither the religious approach of critical theorists nor is it mere gainsaying or querying (a trivial exercise). It must be based on evidence and logic, showing where a position is at odds with these, and so suggesting that the position is not as strong as before (or is to be preferred less than another). It also involves considerable creativity in generating alternative explanations, before sorting these into order of feasibility. This takes hard work and talent (and of course time with freedom from hunger, danger, fear and so on).

  15. Keith Varga

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    I must agree with Mr. Hayes on his first point. A person can learn many different ways to think, and that person may apply himself in any number of ways, but every one of those ways, unless nascent to his being, will be an adaptation at best and continually subject to persuasion. A trait is neither subject to persuasion nor manipulation except in its application. (People still have strange ideas that are neither rational nor practical.) A person may learn artistry or musicianship or athleticism, but without the physical and mental aptitude, no matter how much he struggles, he will never attain the greatness of the artist or musician or athlete who enjoys the application of his natural traits. I disagree, however, with his titular idea. Schools should teach the tenets of critical thought just as art and music and athleticism should continue to be presented from adolescence through adulthood. Something must often cause people to become aware of their potential for greatness as few people are self-motivated enough to figure it out for themselves. I believe the same is true of the critical spirit. People are either critical or not. They may learn to see differing points of view and learn all sorts of theory and artifice, but generally, as alluded in the article, these are points of learning and are not bred from a critical mind, rather they are bred from a spirit of opposition. Thus there is often an aura of offense found wherein the truly critical would recognize that no true offense was possible. A spirit of criticism is not the same as opposition, nor is it any more common than common sense. I applaud Mr. Hayes on the heart of his article. A truly critical mind is not something that can be learned, though intellect and experience will certainly shape it into a tool most extraordinary.

  16. Arnastu Buttwehak


    A problem this piece faces is the absence of definition of its central term - "critical thinking". The writer frames various things that it sort of means, or that other crudely-generalised people might sort of mean by it, but nowhere do we get a clear understanding of quite what it is that the writer doesn't like.

    Hayes ambiguates "critical thinking" and "criticism". In effect he is saying "You can't teach people to be critics", which is a not-all-that-subtly different discussion. Probably you can teach people to be critics - that's more or less the aim of a degree in literature, for example. Instilling deep understanding of a body of knowledge, dragging you through the perspectives and methods of critics who were or are active in some period, group, or writer, and so on. But taught or not, it has little to do with what is usually meant by "teaching critical thinking."

    A typical dictionary definition of critical thinking might be "disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence". When presented with an idea, such as for example this piece, you can ask such questions as "What are the terms of this discussion, what evidence is offered to support its main thesis, what counter-arguments are possible, what rhetorical devices are employed", etc.

    "Critical legal studies" or "critical feminist studies" are ideologies, but they are not examples of critical thinking.

    The stuff about how critical thinking really indoctrination, and how teaching students to accept diversity and multiculturalism is akin to brainwashing, is just shrill and peculiar, suggesting some strangled private anger that is the real impulse behind this rather blurry bit of scolding.

    I'm not quite sure what this is all about, but I don't think it's about what it thinks it's about.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Arnastu Buttwehak

      Unusually for me, I 'define' being critical as being able to engage in deep conversation. The purpose of education in any subject is knowledge and understanding. I use Arnold's definition of criticism to suggest just this. It's the 'critical thinking' industry that produces that sort of 'dictionary definition' you use. You can't use those techniques unless you have knowledge and understanding of a subject.

  17. Thomas Brackett


    "This means debate and discussion based on considerable knowledge - something that is almost entirely absent in the educational world.”
    Point: Exactly where did you get the information that debate and discussion (with considerable knowledge) is almost entirely absent in the educational world? You have over-generalized; expressing an opinion when you should be focused on developing a coherent set of propositions to support that opinion as a conclusion. I don't know about your "educational world,” but mine has consisted of professors and seminars that have been based upon debate and discussion-with considerable knowledge. I think you would do well to define your term "educational world.” You write with safe ambiguity as to what that term may refer, but you might be referring specifically to university level instruction. If that is the case, then professors do have "considerable knowledge,” and depending on the particular course, debate and discussion do occur.

    "The need for teachers to engage in this kind of deep conversation has been forgotten, because they think that being critical is a skill.”
    Point: You equivocate on the term "skill.”
    "If being critical consisted simply in the application of a skill...somewhat as a crack rifle shot....”
    Point: Passmore and you both seem to be under the misapprehension that "skill” is limited to adherence to the idea of rote practice to a set standard of training, like target shooting or for that matter knitting. Indeed, if critical thinking were a skill like target shooting or knitting, then some degree of accomplishment would be its fruition through endeavored practice--but it not that kind of "skill.” Critical thinking when referred to as a "skill” is intended to mean the ability to maneuver one's thinking to accommodate different perspectives, and thereby, gain a possible--not necessary-- new attitude.
    "But in fact being critical can be taught only by men who can themselves freely partake in critical discussion.” Gaining the "skill” of critical thinking isn't achieved by practice; it is gained by attitude, and therefore, it isn't something that can be "taught”--it can be shown, not taught.
    Point: Exactly who are these "men who can themselves freely partake in critical discussion” ? EVERYONE can freely partake in critical discussion. Perhaps Passmore meant to use the term "should” as in "those who should freely partake in critical discussion are those who have the "skill” to accommodate different perspectives. (Skill read attitude.)

    Another objection is that when "skill” is used in reference to critical thinking, it seems to be used with its connotation of accomplishment rather than ability.
    When the term "skill of critical thinking” is used it is with the sense of this value. If the professor wishes to impart the "skill of critical thinking,” I would assume he/she intends to show the value of THINKING CRITICALLY, not a step-by-step process to achieve an ability.
    "One student said that the lecturers she most disliked were the ones who banged on about the importance of being critical. She longed for one of them to assert or say something, so she could learn from them and perhaps challenge what they say.” Perhaps you could have addressed the fact that the lecturer in question did indeed assert something that the student could challenge--critical thinking! However, since the student has no awareness of being a critical thinker, she couldn't even challenge that assertion!
    "Critical thinking" is a skill.” Well, I have addressed this issue. So, yes it is a "skill.” (Or at least a kind of "skill.”)

    "At best this view reduces criticism to second-rate or elementary instruction in informal and some formal logic. It is usually second-rate logic and poor philosophy offered in bite-sized nuggets.” Well, most (all) "second-rate instruction” is, well, second-rate, and therefore, second-rate logic; but "elementary instruction” in logic, (sic, read "instruction in elementary logic”) done competently does not result in second-rate thinking.

    "Seen as a skill, critical thinking can also mean subjection to the conformism of an ideological yoke.” Well, here is the equivocation come full circle. You referred to it earlier as an ability, like target shooting, now it becomes an attitude.

    "If a feminist or Marxist teacher demands a certain perspective be adopted this may seem like it is "criticism" or acquiring a "critical perspective", but it is actually a training in feminism or Marxism which could be done through tick box techniques.” I suppose that if a professor "demanded” a critical perspective evaluated through "tick box” exams, then all the professor has done is challenge the students to allow another perspective to be part of their thinking on issues--to accept a difference. As for the course becoming a training ground in feminism/Marxism, then what about a course in democracy/capitalism? That would be fine, I suppose; or is it that, students do not need to adopt a critical perspective on these topics--because they have none! Therefore, the professor in a course on Marxism should remind (demand?) students to be open-minded, ergo, have a critical perspective.

    "Critical thinking" means indoctrination.” Ok, this is almost too silly to waste time to comment. "When teachers talk about the need to be "critical" they often mean instead that students must "conform".” Really? "It is often actually teaching students to be "critical" of their unacceptable ideas and adopt the right ones.” When you say "their” I assume you are referring to the student's "unacceptable” idea. Unacceptable to whom? You mean society, no doubt. So racism and bigotry are unacceptable in society, and a student believes in something racist, you call challenging that student's attitude "indoctrination”? "Having to support multiculturalism and diversity are the most common of the "correct ideas" that everyone has to adopt.” Umm, yea. Why? Well because racist views cannot be supported by any rationale--they are upheld by emotion, not thought. You, again, use a loaded term to make your point, (attempt to at least). Obviously "indoctrination” isn't a good thing; why don't you just use a neutral term like "instruction”?
    "When some theory has the prefix "critical" it requires the uncritical acceptance of a certain political perspective.” Really? Why is that? No one is "required” to accept a certain political perspective just because they have been exposed to it. We are not sheep. You underestimate the average person's ability to think critically and decide for themselves what they chose to believe.
    "Criticism, according to Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold, is a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. We should all be as "bound" by that definition as he was.” That's just dandy except that this isn't really "critical thinking” but education. Education is the endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. Critical thinking as a subject unto itself has much evolved since the 19th century, so quoting a Arnold is not advantageous to your point.
    Christopher Hitchens--
    "The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
    THAT is critical thinking.

    "But when I discuss Socratic criticism with teachers and teacher trainers I miss out Anderson's mention of the word "uncertainty". This is because many teachers will assume that this "uncertainty" means questioning those bad ideas you have and conforming to an agreed version of events, or an agreed theory.” Then the fault in this case is with those particular teachers, not with the concept of critical thinking.
    "Becoming a truly critical thinker is more difficult today because so many people want to be a Socrates.” Including you, Sir, too; and according to your "article,” you are no Socrates.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Thomas Brackett

      Critical thinking is not just ranting about every sentence in a piece.
      Hitchins is wrong. Like many people he divorces form from content. What you say is the most important thing.

      Arnold was defining criticism. It could be called education. But education is not what passes for critical thinking today - do go and look at any university web page that tells you what 'critical thinking is'...divorced from any content!

    2. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Dennis Hayes

      I forgot to add to the challenge about my 'knowledge' that I have been writing, researching and experimenting with debate and discussion for almost 20 years. Have a look at The Routledge Guide to Key Debates in Education' - my introduction is a start but also Tyrrell Burgess' piece.

  18. Michael Joseph Carpenter

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Your article should be called "In Defense of Faith". You equate critical thinking with feminism, Marxism, indoctrination, critical race theory, multiculturalism and diversity, in an effort to inject as many charged words as possible. Code words for the faithful. Just come out and say it, "Critical thinking leads to Atheism since our holy books crumble under close scrutiny."

    On "Critical Thinking", one of the most self evident necessary skills for people in an information age, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks"

  19. Julie Enevoldsen


    I disagree that in discussing Socratic criticism you miss out on uncertainty; I think the key Socratic principle is his statement, "I know that I know nothing."

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Julie Enevoldsen

      Yes, he did, but after years of intellectual struggle. The danger today is that too many people start from the position that they know nothing.

  20. karen mulhern

    logged in via Twitter

    I stumbled in here accidentally, (with no education or philosophy credentials whatsoever) so take this for what it's worth.
    Although I could have afforded private schools for my kids I felt STRONGLY they'd develop the "critical spirit" you're writing about at our local urban (American) public school. I don't think a critical spirit is "taught" from the front of a classroom. I think you develop it by navigating a varied student body with all the attendant social problems and poverty from the first day of first grade.
    People thought I was crazy for choosing an "unsafe environment" for my kids' education, but all 3 are tremendous problem solvers/thinkers/college graduates today and using their B.S. degrees in their respective fields.
    Maybe you need to teach it in the suburbs, but in the cities this stuff takes care of itself (imo.)

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to karen mulhern

      Karen, I was on the Mayor of London's education inquiry and we discovered that why many London schools now excel is not the urban environment but the fact that the best teachers there taught subjects and gave their pupils knowledge. Dennis

  21. Shane McLoughlin

    logged in via Facebook

    Hi! I see the point of your article, but I'd like to offer an alternative perspective.

    Education is but one branch of applied psychology. I don't think that education is a sufficient background for such a broad psychological concept. A trainable, measurable approach to critical thinking exists: http://contextualscience.org/pragmatic_verbal_analysis

    Further empirical analyses are expected in the coming years, but the preliminary data have supported the fundamental predictions of PVA.

    Using this school of thought for raising intelligence has seen unparalleled results in over 100 years of modern psychology (20-30 IQ points on average with clear avenues for how to go beyond that), so I think that this group might have cracked psychology more broadly.

    I don't think it's time to give up on teaching critical thinking yet. As yet, there are no tools for teachers to operate as technicians of this theory, but keep an eye out in the coming years. A lot depends on funding for the researchers involved.

    The premise is that all kinds of thinking and acting are functional adaptive behaviors to the environment around us. Really basic stimulus-response kind of stuff. There are several papers that provide hard empirical evidence that the relevant patterns of responding to arbitrary stimuli in the environment can indeed be taught. Alas, many find it difficult to understand, so if you want to give it a look, be prepared for a lot of reading. Don't get me wrong, I had to do a lot of reading myself.

    I hope that this is of interest to some. If anyone wants more information or for me to provide the relevant papers, feel free to email me at shane.p.mcloughlin@nuigalway.ie

  22. Douglas Scown


    I enjoyed the article. I am no philosopher however I completely agree that thinking is primarily the attitude you bring to it. Was it Boghossian? The willingness to attack an idea and not the person, to be proven wrong, to reconsider, to doubt more that if it were true would suit you. I'd even go so far as to say brave, honest and a humanist. As for tools, every tradesman and academic, every clinician has tools but what are they without that approach?



    1. Jacqueline Baxter

      Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University

      In reply to Douglas Scown

      I think that Douglas comes closest to my understanding of it.

      I think that criticality is an attribute not just a skill, it starts with the individual...

      Read more
  23. Rebecca Flores

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Article evoking critique of multiple "criticalities": critical thinking, critical pedagogy, critical literacy:


  24. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Dennis Hayes

      Professor of Education at University of Derby

      In reply to Michael Newman

      I have no power to delete comments, however rude. The punctuation point (not a matter of grammar) is a style thing from another online publication I write for. The point is that 'critical thinking' isn't logic. As a logician I wish it were.

  25. Michael Newman

    logged in via Facebook

    Based on the nature of the topic of the post, and that you are engaging commenters in conversation, I'd assume that we are open to discussion here. But seeing as my comments are being deleted, I find it now more obvious that you are only open to a discussion that requires little to no critical thought.

    Isn't academics, discussion, science, and all that fun stuff about having discussions with those we disagree with, and about openly voicing dissenting opinions, and not about deleting those opinions we disagree with?

    1. Michael Newman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Newman

      Except my original comment is back online... now I am thoroughly confused

  26. Patrick Amon

    logged in via Facebook

    I haven't read the text from which it's quoted but, in isolation, I'm not sure how 'clear,' exactly, the sentence by John Anderson about Socratic education is. It seems to me that someone who does not already know something about Socrates and Socratic dialectic will probably be left little the wiser by reading what sounds like a lofty, but vague, statement of principle. I think I can be more specific. Socratic interrogation usually proceeds with Socrates asking someone to define some term (something important like Justice or Beauty, the sort of thing it feels OK to write with a capital letter). Once Socrates's interlocutor has given a fairly common sense definition of the term in question Socrates shows that that definition has consequences in certain circumstances that few would find acceptable. His interlocutor then has to

    a) reject his original definition


    b) accept the consequence that few would accept


    c) deny that his definition does have that consequence

    For example, in The Republic, Glaucon (or Adeimantus; I don't remember which) says that Justice is giving people what is owed them. Socrates points out that if someone lends you a weapon then naturally enough you owe that person its return. If, however, they have taken leave of their senses in the meantime, then returning the weapon is irresponsible and hardly in accordance with the dictates of justice. Glaucon is forced to reconsider his original definition of justice. I take it that this is what Anderson means by 'the awakening of the mind to the need for criticism, to the uncertainty of the principles by which it supposed itself to be guided.'

    If I can give a more modern example, in April 2014 Brendan Eich, the CEO of Mozzilla came under pressure from staff and customers, and then ultimately the board of Mozilla, to resign because he had contributed to a campaign group opposed to same-sex marriage. A debate was held about it on the BBC world service. One speaker, a woman whom it was difficult not to assume shared Eich's antipathy to same-sex marriage though I shouldn't make assumptions, vigorously defended Eich's right to hold whatever political views he liked without incurring such a sanction. Another speaker, a gay activist, pointed out that no one would be happy with a Nazi as the CEO of a major corporation. The first speaker, irrelevantly, objected that to imply that someone who holds traditional Christian views is like a Nazi is insulting. The second speaker had done no such thing of course, and had merely tried to get the first speaker to accept that there is an inconsistency in holding both that the CEO of a major organization may hold whatever political views they please and that an avowed Nazi may not be the CEO of a major corporation, and that it followed from this that she is not entitled to hold both views simultaneously. The first speaker here, admittedly, had not given a definition of a key term in the way that Glaucon had. Rather, she had stated what she held to be principle of proper civic life. Nonetheless, I think the structural similarity of this to the previous example is clear. She must

    a) reject her principle (that a CEO may hold whatever political views s/he pleases)


    b) accept the unpalatable consequence of her principle (that an avowed Nazi may be a CEO)


    c) deny that her principle does have that consequence.

    The debate is here; http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01wd037

    Bertrand Russell said, if I remember correctly, that a pedant is simply someone who cares whether what they say is true. If critical thinking amounts to anything doesn't it amount to that: caring whether what we say is true? Am I right in thinking that this is what you mean when you say, 'criticism is always about the world and not about you'? And if we care whether what we say is true then at the very least we should accept the requirement that the various things we might be prepared to say at any given time be not inconsistent with each other; that they not contradict each other. Isn't a 'critical spirit' just this - the willingness to survey all the things we believe to be true and check that they are consistent with each other, together with the acceptance that when our beliefs turn out not to be consistent with each other we must abandon some of them? If too many teachers are not critical thinkers isn't it because they refuse to accept this last condition, are too attached, for various reasons (careerism and self-importance seem to me to be the main ones), to certain beliefs to be prepared, really, to put them in jeopardy? They don't care, sufficiently, whether what they say is true.

  27. Dennis Hayes

    Professor of Education at University of Derby

    For those of you in the US I will be on the Dan Maduri Show (NewsTalk) at 3.30 ET today discussing this ideas in this article:


  28. Frank Roper

    logged in via Facebook

    The writer confuses various usages of the root word -- a personality type, "being critical," literary or artistic criticism - as a movie critic, criticism as fault-finding, critical theories meaniing KEY theories.

    Then he plays the "opposite day" game. "Critical theories" are "uncritical theories." Critical thinking means indoctrination, subjection to the conformism of an ideological yoke,

    As an American, I recognize where this is going. Feminism. Marxism. The undertones that white people are the true victims of racism. People who fight against intolerance and racism are "intolerant" of people with "different viewpoints." In America, the Republican party and Fundamentalist Christians both attack critical thinking because it undermines the authoritarian binary mindset that there are no shades of grey --it's black or white, good or evil, or as President Bush famously told protestors of his war and wiretapping policies: "You're either with us, or with the terrorists."

    The Texas Republican party platform could not be more clear:

    --We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.--

  29. Gavin Moodie 

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I object to the universalist claims for skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and team work, as if these skills were the same in all domains. Critical thinking as it is posited here is not a general skill that applies to all disciplines, but a philosophical skill. Forms of reasoning are quite different in other disciplines such as history, mathematics and physics.

  30. Melanie Voevodin

    NHMRC Public Health PhD Scholar at Monash University

    Hello to all,

    Gosh. Can you teach someone to be a critical thinker? Can you teach someone empathy? Can you teach someone to be a leader?

    There are so many contradictions in what we teach, or think we can teach, and the real world. As I walk into the school yard I see posters all around the school done by groups of students about being an "individual" and "choose your own path" and "find who you are".....but then there are a set of strict and enforced rules from "must stand for the national anthem" to "the colour of the girls' hair band" - boys of course have short hair. Be critical, speak up, and its straight to the office!

    I teach ethics to the medical students but my main gig is teaching "Integrating evidence to practice" to students of health professions. The trend over here (in real life and at university) is to call this "translational research". Kind of self-explanatory - but it about teaching students the skill of reading about a study and knowing what it means for their professional practice.

    But in fact it is more than learning to be critical....it is about confidence. Confidence in each individual student's ability to trust their critique. To know when they are out there alone in practice they have to trust their interpretation of what they are reading. And of course this means drawing on all their knowledge, including their own set of ethics, their experience, what they see in the media, and what they are hearing from the person in front of them (the patient they are often interpreting for).

    From my perspective there is a "skill" component - understanding statistics, study design, analysis, and putting that together to interpret the paper/study, but against the backdrop of you, the critiquer, for the patient.

    The classes are facilitated discussion with "skill" components. But it is about the students individual ability to "critique" but to then demonstrate how they came to that point - why they think the way they have - and talk about their interpretation.

    How ethics comes in to these discussions is to recognise your own attitudes/ beliefs / experiences, and how these influence your interpretation of the information in front of you. What is amazing is the same information is put to students, but there are different interpretations of what we would expect to be "hard evidence", facts....from rigorous scientific studies. So the critique is quite heavily influenced by personal judgements - which is fine, really it is, as long as the student recognises the value judgements (personal ethics) they bring to the evidence, and the translation of that evidence, and then, in interpreting this evidence to the situation of the individual in front of them.

    Can you teach this? I believe there is a set of "skills" in there, and the rest is building confidence in their critical thinking - their own critical thinking, and as long as they can justify their critique reasonably, with evidence, whatever that is, then yes, that is a teachable skill.....but rather grey - bc as the article and the comments suggest, who gets to decide if the critique is correct?

    But surely, as one of the other commenters said, it is the "process" of critical thinking we are teaching. The "teacher" is there to build confidence in the students as individuals to practice this, to practice the process, which includes discussion and debate and going back to the evidence - to see openly in a group the same information can be tabled, but there are different interpretations - translations - of that same information.

    Summary: "critical thinking" has components of "skill" but is maybe one of those "skills" that is not discipline or subject specific. However, to develop the "skill" to a mature level, to a level students see value in it, a dedicated "subject" may be needed.

    Critical thinking encompasses ethics (recognising self in decision-making), empathy (trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes and recognising your own ethics in how well you can have empathy for something you have not experienced), and leadership (being able to bring others along with you in a coherent and methodical manner based on an interpretation of the evidence).

  31. Sharon Hayes

    Associate Professor in gender and crime at Queensland University of Technology

    Interesting article. However, I disagree. Sure, some people take to critical thinking like a duck to water, but many don't. Those students need to be guided through the quagmire of critical thinking by the hand. Logic is useful as a first step. Not everyone can think laterally.

  32. Maerzie Dotes

    Retired BSN, RN

    It would be an enormously helpful improvement if people were just simply taught how to THINK! Period! Look how many gullible people eat up and swallow political propaganda, as fact, with ZERO research, just simple toddler type trust and belief, thus voting AGAINST their very own lives and families! Is it ignorance? Or is it simply laziness to do the research for, and take concern in, the facts??

  33. Torn Halves

    logged in via Twitter

    A supplementary point that adds to the argument that critical thinking is reducible to a skill: The best critical thinking in the modern period is motivated by things other than a concern for logical consistency or empirical evidence. Aesthetic experience, for instance, has played a very important role in post-Enlightenment thinking. That experience gives people a sense of a meaningful order that is at variance with the formal rationality prevailing in industrial/commercial society.

    Hence, although it may be folly to think that you can teach critical thinking, there are lots of things teachers can do to help students acquire the kinds of experience of meaning that will later stand as reference points for robust critique.

  34. Paul Matthews

    Mathematics lecturer

    This seems the wrong way round. It is not critical thinking that is indoctrination.
    If someone was arguing that we should not teach critical thinking, that would be arguing for indoctrination!

  35. Veit Mürz

    logged in via Facebook

    Radu Atanasiu from the Maastricht school of Management RO follows up with an Online Course (MOOC) about critical thinking: https://iversity.org/courses/critical-thinking-in-today-s-communication - may proof to be helpful to the discussion.

  36. Terry Beckmeyer

    logged in via email @operamail.com

    I take exception. Now a retired high school art teacher, I taught critical and creative thinking in terms that students and teachers could understand and implement at appropriate levels.

    Yes, teachers of critical thinking must themselves be critical thinkers, as is true of teachers of any discipline. But critical thinking is not the domain of a population of elite deep thinkers. Critical thinking can be taught, learned and used at levels appropriate to the anyone. The most significant critical thinking anyone may do happens at 70 miles per hour behind the wheel of 4,000 lbs. of steel, glass and plastic.

    The first step is to define critical thinking. Here is the premise. The acquisition of knowledge and the brain's ability to organize, categorize and associate knowledge is not thinking; it is learning. On the other hand, thinking is the process of making choices and solving problems. Of the many variants, here are a few:

    critical thinking: the process of making choices and solving problems based on standards called criteria.

    creative thinking: ...... based on the imagination.

    emotional thinking: ....... based on feelings.

    logical thinking: ....... based on past events.

    rational thinking: ...... based on that which can be controlled.

    In practice, no single thinking event is exclusively one or the other but an amalgam.

    If critical thinking is not a teachable skill then it must be an anointment for the privileged, something Socrates may have agreed with. But rhetoric courses are yet taught at most universities and are commonly described as instruction to acquire and improve critical skills. Anything taught and then practiced becomes a skill, at some level of aptitude. Critical thinking is first learned at its simplest form and then aggregated in complexity. It can be used to solve every day problems and is not exclusively for academics, philosophers and intellectuals.

    One should not expect all individuals to possess the same strength of critical thinking, with disparities explained by proximity and opportunity, not innate intelligence. For, every word, idea and image is acquired. Some are part of a formal knowledge base while others are part of a meandering river of memories and recollections. No one comes into this world with any more knowledge than another. One's placement in society determines both the potential to acquire critical skills and the opportunity to exercise them.

    In my interpretation of critical thinking, the criteria by which a solution is to be judged are announced at the time the problem is presented. Such that the dialogue that accompanies the process is ever directed towards a successful solution, as defined by the criteria. Since, as an art teacher, my use of problem solving also involved creative thinking, many proposed solutions that did not fit the criteria had validity and use for other applications. In the end, the proposed solutions were analyzed against the criteria and a consensus formed about the solutions' appropriateness to solve the problem by using a rubric, scored by both teacher and students.

    In my classroom was posted a List of Forbidden Words that were not permitted in the dialogue. The list included: good, bad, right, wrong, better, like, hate and, the dreaded phrase, "I don't know”. When tempted to utter the unthinkable phrase, students were expected to say, in order, "May I have more time to consider my answer?”, "May I consult my research materials?” or "May I consult another student?”. In the critical thinking phase of the lesson, students were never given answers by me, but only clarification directed back to the criteria.

    As for the other words on the forbidden list, they are emotionally charged words from childhood, and they misdirect the student from the aims of both critical and creative thinking by introducing emotional thinking, something on the order of transactional analysis. For example, the most troublesome of the bunch are good and bad. Aside from being nondescript and ambiguous, they recall the axioms of childhood, "Be mommy's good little boy. Don't be bad.” Such terms trigger sensitive emotional responses within the student that interfere with the acceptance and interpretation of criticism.

    Was my approach nothing more than "second-rate or elementary instruction in informal ... logic” or "second-rate logic and poor philosophy offered in bite-sized nuggets”? Not by my definition of thinking and not by the audience to which it was directed. Most teenagers use emotional thinking to solve their problems (as well do most adults), and learning a basic approach to critical thinking can be a significant asset in developing positive, productive life skills and habits.

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