“Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really” – Daniel T. Willingham
I’m going to make a confession.
I’ve spent over a decade performing The Bad Science Show, an incursion that uses comedy, magic and sideshow students to promote critical thinking among high school students…
…even though all the research suggests that you can’t teach critical thinking.
Despite decades of critical thinking courses and programs, teachers are still just as worried about students ability to think rationally than ever before.
How many of your brightest students are obsessed with conspiracy theories? Or believe in ghosts? Or swear blind that their mother’s sister’s uncle is psychic?
Just check out these actual claims from Australian high school students:
“I don’t eat eggs from a chickens bum. I eat eggs from the supermarket”
“The sun isn’t a star because I can’t see it at night.”
“I only eat chocolate for breakfast when I have exams. Chocolate makes me smarter.”
These students all have the ability to instantly verify or disprove these ridiculous claims in their pocket. There is nothing stopping them from whipping out their smartphone and discovering the truth about chicken’s bums in seconds.
The problem is that while the internet has give students access to more scientific information, it has also given them access to more terrible scientific information.
Social media is jammed with armchair quacks like Belle Gibson and Pete Evans claiming, with no evidence, that they can cure any illness under the sun with a handful of activated almonds and a warm glass of soy milk.
The internet has helped promote the modern Flat Earth movement despite also being home to crystal clear video from Nasa and SpaceX clearly showing the curvature of the globe.
Students have access to a multitude of information sources making the the ability to separate fact from fiction more important than ever.
So why are so many critical thinking programs falling short?
According to American cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, critical thinking is not a skill.
We think of skills as a set of tools that we learn and use. Driving a car is a skill. Once we’ve learned to drive one car, we can drive most other cars.
However, when we think critically, we often focus on the surface structure of the situation, rather on the underlying problem. We end up think about the car and not the act of driving.
If we teach a student to question sources of information using social media as an example they may very well learn that they can’t trust everything they read on social media. But they won’t automatically question the sources they are presented with in newspapers, on television, in conversation or in books.
We’ve all met that students who will ace a test on the difference between correlation and causation but still believe that they got a good grade because they were wearing their lucky socks.
Perhaps critical thinking is like healthy eating. I know exactly what I should be eating and how I should be exercising but you’re still far more likely to find me eating hot jam donuts than broccoli. Is simply knowing HOW to think enough to make us actually do it?
So how do we turn our students into natural critical thinkers? How do we get the automatically reaching for those cognitive vegetables?
“Thinking critically should be taught in the context of subject matter…People do not spontaneously examine assumptions that underlie their thinking, try to consider all sides of an issue, question what they know, etc. These things must be modeled for students, and students must be given opportunities to practice—preferably in the context of normal classroom activity.”
Instead of telling students that they have to question sources of information using a few abstract examples, we need to apply critical thinking across multiple subjects and multiple classes.
That’s why The Bad Science Show has never really been about teaching critical thinking, it’s about turning students into critical thinkers. The extraordinary magic tricks, sideshow stunts and comedy are meant to light a fire under students and encourage them to find out more, to question their own thinking and apply the lesson they learn in the classroom to the world around them.
But I’m still not giving up the hot jam donuts.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, science communicator and author.