Critical Issues About Critical Thinking

PUBLISHED: Oct 16, 2019

In This Episode.

Steve and Dave engage an article by Daniel Willingham about whether or not, and how, critical thinking can be taught.  This podcast strikes deep into critical thinking education, taking on essential questions concerning transfer, deep structure, disciplinarity, and content knowledge.  How should we fundamentally conceptualize critical thinking’s presence in the educational process?

Episode Archive

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because as Bertrand Russell said, most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts Steve Pearlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Welcome back to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast. I am Steve.

Dave Carillo: I’m Dave.

Steve Pearlman: You know, as I said that like when football players are announcing themselves and they say the University of Ohio, the

Dave Carillo: Ohio State University.

Steve Pearlman: Some of them emphasized the right totally. And I did that for us.

Dave Carillo: Well, Ohio is a big state and there are a lot of schools in that state. And so I can see where Ohio State might feel compelled to say The Ohio State.

Steve Pearlman: It’s a little redundant and it’s a little arrogant at the same time, but I kind of dig it for some reason.

Dave Carillo: I would love to hear a history on that from someone who teaches at or attends the Ohio State University. So get back to us on that.

Steve Pearlman: The amount of hate mail coming my way from people who say the about their university is going to be astronomical. No shutting off by

Dave Carillo: Email, you said both cool and arrogant. That falls well within some sort of top gun spectrum of how to carry yourself. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of hate mail, actually.

Steve Pearlman: So today we’re going to tackle a really controversial question in critical thinking, dumb. But before we get going into that, we just want to remind you that, as we mentioned in a previous podcast, we are by popular request starting up the corporate consulting arm of the Critical Thinking Initiative. We will have some things up on the website about that soon, and we’ll let you know. But if you know of people who might be interested in that kind of consulting work to bring strong critical thinking and problem solving and writing skills into any organization, reach out to us. We’d love to open up that conversation. Today, we’re going to reach right into the heart of the controversy around critical thinking education. We’re going to Temple of Doom our way into reaching into the heart of this matter. And look, we

Dave Carillo: Don’t have to reach too far for the heart of this matter because we are essentially going to look at an article that came out in 2019 and from our way of thinking sets up the state of critical thinking in education today and almost single handedly raises or at least touches on every problem, debate, challenge and issue regarding critical thinking as we know it in the educational world.

Steve Pearlman: We’re going to center this podcast on an article by Daniel Willingham, who is absolutely a friend of the podcast. He was one of our first guests, and he’s a pillar of thought in the critical thinking community. But we also feel as though we need to draw some lines of distinction between his positions on things and ours. And that article is how to teach critical thinking, which was a paper commissioned by the New South Wales Department of Education and New South Wales being in Australia.

Dave Carillo: So like we said this, this is just fresh off the presses. Twenty nineteen and we feel that we need to respond to this and hopefully keep the dialogue going because we feel that not responding to this article closes the door on a lot of meaningful critical thinking discussion, and we don’t want that to happen.

Steve Pearlman: Exactly. Look, there are aspects of this article to which there is a different perspective, and it’s important that the world hears that there’s another way to see this

Dave Carillo: Right because we’re already seeing other organizations and institutions picking up on what Willingham is saying in this article. And there’s at least two or three that I’ve seen so far, and each one of those articles or blog posts doesn’t really do much more than repeat what Willingham has concluded. And there’s no sort of critical reflection on Willingham’s conclusions or questioning of Lincoln’s conclusions. Willingham has made some key points that we see strengthen. He is obviously an ally because he is worried about the same kinds of things that we are, but they’re not the kinds of conclusions we would draw, especially considering the kind of data that we’re seeing almost daily about critical thinking outcomes in high schools and colleges, and the critical thinking that all employers are looking for and the kind of critical thinking that it’s clear the world needs just to keep spinning.

Steve Pearlman: Do you give you a sense of what he covers in the article and what this article is up to? It really centers on this question of transfer, which is perhaps one of the most essential questions that we face in critical thinking discussions, because transfer raises the question of whether or not we can take a critical thinking skill from one context and apply it in another context. So a student learning some kind of critical thinking act in English class is able to transfer that into history. Class is able to transfer that over into biology class, and it really comes down to the central question of how we are going to go then and approach critical thinking. Are we going to view it and be able to define it as something that’s transferable? Or are we going to view it? And define it as something that’s not transferable, and then that would get into how do we go about conceiving it, how do we go about teaching it, how do we approach it? So it is sort of one of the root questions that we need to contend with when we’re thinking about critical thinking in education. In order to get into that discussion, he also talks about something called deep structure. Deep structure tries to get to the fundamental elements of any question or any critical thinking act that apply across the different domains, regardless of the surface material. So as a very simple example, once you get the premise of addition, then you realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re adding three plus three or four plus for the deep structure of addition is understanding the additive quality of it by the same idea. Once we look at the notion of a non sequitur as an informal, logical fallacy, we can find a non sequitur whether we’re working within politics or whether we’re working in history or whether we’re in a conversation with a friend. The non sequitur is the deep structure. So he’s not only talking about the importance of transfer. He goes into bringing the importance of deep structure, which is another great aspect of what he’s doing in this article.

Dave Carillo: Part of Willingham’s argument about deep structure and transfer is that it works better if you have a specific knowledge of the kinds of problems that you’re working with, specific types of content that allow you to identify these kinds of problems. And he’s arguing this based on this much older debate about whether critical thinking is a generalizable skill or a discipline specific skill. And as he has done in most of the articles that he’s written on the subject in the past, Willingham falls squarely on the side of the discipline specific way of thinking about critical thinking. In other words, he draws the conclusion that because this deep structure transfer problem is so difficult, the only way to really teach critical thinking is to do it well within the disciplines. And he argues here and elsewhere that in order to really think critically, you need a foundation or a fund of content knowledge in order to do so. The strength of the article that he’s thinking about these things when he thinks about the problem of critical thinking, and as such, he goes on to give educators four steps for actually teaching critical thinking in their classrooms. Where we think this is a strength, again, is the fact that there are plenty of articles that we’ve seen out there that’ll say critical thinking is hard to teach, but it needs to be taught, but then won’t in any way shape or form supply any sort of method to do so. And Willingham doesn’t leave his readers hanging in that respect, and in fact, he’s fairly explicit about the kinds of things he’s asking educators to do. And that’s one of the things that we’ve said here before that if you want to be in the business of teaching critical thinking to your students, you have to be explicit about what you want them to do

Steve Pearlman: And we’ll get into the things that he recommends. But where I think it’s important to note here is that with respect to the debate between generalizability and being domain specific or discipline specific, in one sense, his stance is perfectly accurate and correct, which is that if we want students to be able to think deeply about the Civil War in very complex ways, then obviously without question, students need a great deal of knowledge about the totality of the Civil War to be able to say something profound about the Civil War as a whole. In other words, no one’s going to be able to make a comment that’s intelligent about any body of knowledge unless they have a fairly firm grasp of that entire body of knowledge. So we don’t debate that. In fact, we agree with that. Where are we depart? Is the idea that no critical thinking can transfer from subject to subject, or we have an inability to think at all about a discipline without a large fund of knowledge? First, we believe there is a deep structure that can be transferred to discipline to discipline that deep structure skill can be identified and it can be taught and it can be transferred.

Dave Carillo: As you can hear, like Steve’s already chomping at the bit to get to where we part ways with Willingham on on this really important subject. But just to recap, Willingham’s greatest hits include the notion of transfer that’s important. The idea that deep structure is involved with transfer, those are important points. He does raise the point of disciplinary. There is something to having a knowledge of the discipline in order to to do good things or to do strong work in the discipline. And in the end, he’s saying to the extent that he can or feels that he can critical thinking, can and should be taught, here are the ways to do it. But beyond those, we depart pretty significantly. And so let’s get into that. First and foremost, we have to object to the premise that Willingham begins with, which is this Age-Old debate about critical thinking being either generalizable skill or discipline specific skill. That’s a broad, ineffectual binary framework for thinking about such a complex act as thinking, and we know from our own experience that you have to do both. You can’t define it as either one or the other, because in order to do any good critical thinking, you have to function from a. Place where you can continually apply generalizable universal skills to the content that you are coming into contact with.

Steve Pearlman: Look, if you had to reinvent what critical thinking was every time you encountered a different body of information, every time you entered a new context, then there would be no contiguous value for anything you’ve ever done in the past with respect to problem solving. So if the argument therefore is that it’s either exclusively one, we can only think a certain way when we learn the information within a discipline or two, it’s just purely generalizable. Then it has to break down because all of us would be making the most catastrophic mistakes whenever we encountered what would be an unfamiliar context of information, right?

Dave Carillo: And I’m glad you brought up that point, Steve, because in doing so, you bring up a couple other points that I think we should get to in terms of this argument. First and foremost, Willingham is arguing for a critical thinking curriculum that essentially is defined differently and changes per class. And we know from a lot of different avenues of research that students aren’t getting consistent practice with any sort of critical thinking. Then they’re never going to be able to learn how to think more critically

Steve Pearlman: Or consistent practice with anything, right? I mean, think about the implications of that if every professor has to teach every class how to think in their way. Think about the burden that this sets those students to relearn everything about critical thinking for this one context. Maybe they have five of those contexts every semester as opposed to trying to identify what’s contiguous, and that really gets into the deep structure.

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Steve Pearlman: As opposed to trying to identify what’s contiguous, and that really gets into the deep structure.

Dave Carillo: And that’s another issue that I think we need to bring up. Students today have to go from class to class to class and either memorize a whole bunch of stuff without ever getting a chance to practice any kind of critical thinking. Or they often have to write in a different way. And I’m not talking about like different disciplinary formats, but different elements are valued in terms of how they’re going to get graded and they have to learn what those elements are.

Steve Pearlman: And they’re often never specific.

Dave Carillo: They’re never right.

Steve Pearlman: And when we ask faculty if they can define critical thinking or how they define it, we either get the notion that many of them say they really cannot offer a functional definition of critical thinking, or the researchers see that they cannot or they vary from course to course, of course, which puts the students at odds with trying to be successful in that environment because they figure out what it is the teacher wants in the first place.

Dave Carillo: And you see Willingham mentioning that in somewhat of a problematic way when he mentioned the definition of critical thinking in this article, he says, quote It’s not useful to think of critical thinking skills once acquired as broadly applicable, wanting students to be able to quote, analyze, synthesize and evaluate information. Sounds like a reasonable goal, but analyze, synthesize and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines. Literary criticism has its own internal logic, its norms for what constitutes good evidence and a valid argument. These norms differ from those found in mathematics, for example, end quote. And so he’s doing two things there. First, he never really refers to or tries to even look at an established definition of critical thinking. And on one hand, I’ll say this he’s right. It is different in every discipline, but not necessarily because it has

Steve Pearlman: To be because nobody knows the deep

Dave Carillo: Story, because no one’s thinking about transfer. But it’s not because critical thinking as a concept or an act or skill can’t be defined universally. It’s not because it eludes total definition. Rather than looking at the strengths or weaknesses of any move toward universally using a definition, you just uses these sort of throwaway terms analyze, synthesize. You get it. Everybody has their own definition, and that’s why critical thinking can’t be taught universally

Steve Pearlman: If it ultimately cannot be defined in any universal way. And I’m not saying that means that we are going to come to the perfect definition of it. But if we can’t roughly define this in some universal and functional way, then there is no it right. Then we’re saying there’s this thing that’s critical thinking, but there’s not really a thing that’s critical thinking. And so there’s no way we can ever really have a successful discussion about it. There’s no way we should aspire to even involve it in what we’re doing anymore, right? Because it’s not an it anymore.


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