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How to cultivate critical thinking

Manuel Bächtold
Manuel Bächtold
Lecturer in Epistemology and Didactics of Science at Université de Montpellier
Gwen Pallarès
Gwen Pallarès
Lecturer in Science Didactics at Université de Reims Champagne-Ardennes
Céline Schöpfer
Céline Schöpfer
PhD student in philosophy at the University of Geneva
Denis Caroti
Denis Caroti
Doctor of Philosophy on the issue of Critical Thinking
Key takeaways
  • Critical thinking seems to be seen as a weapon against conspiracy theories, false information, and radicalisation.
  • However, critical thinking remains difficult to define, leaving open the question of how it can be taught.
  • Rather than “learning” critical thinking, it is more about “cultivating” it by nurturing attributes in people. For example, fostering the interest, motivation, and desire of students to become good critical thinkers, aiming for intellectual autonomy.
  • With this in mind, we begin to better grasp the value of critical thinking education, particularly in terms how to avoid pitfalls such as motivated reasoning or failure to consider context of an argument.

For the past ten years, crit­i­cal think­ing has been a sub­ject that has attract­ed much atten­tion and reached politi­cians, result­ing in a dra­mat­ic increase in the num­ber of train­ing cours­es for teach­ers in the nation­al edu­ca­tion sys­tem. A plau­si­ble hypoth­e­sis put for­ward by Denis Caroti, PhD in phi­los­o­phy and lec­tur­er, to explain this is in the occur­rence of tragedies such as the 2015 attack in the Bat­a­clan night­club in Paris. Crit­i­cal think­ing seems to be per­ceived as a weapon; a tool to fight against cer­tain things, such as con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, false infor­ma­tion, or radicalisation.

Empowering citizens

How­ev­er, as Gwen Pal­lares, a lec­tur­er in didac­tics of sci­ence, points out, per­ceiv­ing crit­i­cal think­ing as an instru­ment to fight against some­thing lim­its its scope con­sid­er­ably. Edu­ca­tion for crit­i­cal think­ing is above all about form­ing eman­ci­pat­ed cit­i­zens.” So there seems to be a mis­un­der­stand­ing in the way we think of crit­i­cal thinking.

Crit­i­cal think­ing is not a sim­ple skill that can be learned. At least not in the same way that we learn to do maths. The ques­tion then is: what is crit­i­cal think­ing and, beyond learn­ing skills, how can it be cul­ti­vat­ed? This sim­ple ques­tion makes the task much more dif­fi­cult. But it must be tack­led. Indeed, how can we teach some­thing if we don’t even know what it is?

Sources that address the con­cept of crit­i­cal think­ing include three main streams: philo­soph­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and edu­ca­tion­al. All three have their own par­tic­u­lar­i­ties. Philoso­phers are gen­er­al­ly inter­est­ed in what an ide­al crit­i­cal thinker would look like. Psy­chol­o­gists look at the cog­ni­tive process­es we use to ini­ti­ate so-called crit­i­cal think­ing. And, in edu­ca­tion the focus is on more prag­mat­ic ele­ments involv­ing com­plex skills such as argu­men­ta­tion and analysis.

Nev­er­the­less, these three cur­rents have a com­mon objec­tive. “Reflec­tions on crit­i­cal think­ing in phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­o­gy are gen­er­al­ly turned towards ped­a­gog­i­cal objec­tives. There isn’t a divi­sion between philoso­phers and psy­chol­o­gists on the one hand and edu­ca­tors on the oth­er. They are all work­ing towards a com­mon goal – name­ly teach­ing crit­i­cal think­ing” explains Céline Schöpfer, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Gene­va, who works on the top­ic of crit­i­cal think­ing and its definition.

A complex definition

When it comes to defin­ing crit­i­cal think­ing, we usu­al­ly turn to the con­sen­sus pub­lished in 1989 by Peter Facione and more than 40 experts on the sub­ject1. The prob­lem is that the def­i­n­i­tion becomes extreme­ly long and los­es its prac­ti­cal foun­da­tion. “This def­i­n­i­tion is com­plete and inter­est­ing from a philo­soph­i­cal point of view,” says Céline Schöpfer, “but it is not clear how teach­ers can use it in prac­tice. More­over, while every­one agrees on the exis­tence of skills, dis­po­si­tions, and knowl­edge nec­es­sary for the exer­cise of crit­i­cal think­ing, there are no clear lists.”

In pol­i­cy dis­cours­es about crit­i­cal think­ing, the focus is usu­al­ly on skills and knowl­edge. Exer­cis­es are rarely men­tioned, prob­a­bly because they are dif­fi­cult to assess. Yet they are the major issue in crit­i­cal think­ing edu­ca­tion. “We often have an ide­al­is­tic view of the crit­i­cal thinker who is iso­lat­ed and crit­i­cal of the world around them at all times and in all places. This is not at all con­sis­tent with real­i­ty. Some authors argue that the rela­tion­al aspect of crit­i­cal think­ing, which is not men­tioned enough, should be empha­sised. Crit­i­cal think­ing is an epis­temic activ­i­ty that requires inter­ac­tion with oth­ers and is not auto­mat­i­cal­ly trig­gered by the sim­ple fact that we pos­sess cer­tain crit­i­cal skills,” argues Céline Schöpfer.

Imag­ine you have a tool­box but you are not at all good at DIY. If a prob­lem aris­es, you need to iden­ti­fy it first, which is not an easy task. Only then can you use the tools at the right time and in the right con­text turn­ing to the appro­pri­ate tech­niques. In this metaphor, the tools are crit­i­cal skills. Just as tools are use­less if you have no inter­est in DIY, crit­i­cal skills are absolute­ly use­less if you are not pre­pared to use them properly.

With­in these tools are epis­temic virtues which is now a field of research: the epis­te­mol­o­gy of virtues. This field assumes that there are epis­temic virtues and vices. In oth­er words, cer­tain char­ac­ter traits are under­stood as qual­i­ties (e.g. courage to ques­tion) in rela­tion to knowl­edge for­ma­tion, while oth­ers are under­stood as defects (e.g. intel­lec­tu­al lazi­ness). The advan­tage of this dis­ci­pline lies in the fact that its object of study is peo­ple, their devel­op­ment, their achieve­ments. It is there­fore sim­i­lar to the edu­ca­tion­al stream and the teach­ing of crit­i­cal thinking.

The pedagogy of critical thinking

A key ele­ment of a teacher’s suc­cess in impart­ing skills, dis­po­si­tions and epis­temic virtues is the use of an explic­it approach. “Study­ing the his­to­ry of sci­ence or hav­ing stu­dents con­duct exper­i­ments is not enough. It is absolute­ly nec­es­sary to be explic­it about points such as the dif­fer­ence between the mea­sure­ments obtained by each group dur­ing an exper­i­ment, to give pupils the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ques­tion and dis­cuss so that they devel­op a more crit­i­cal view of how sci­ence works and become aware of cer­tain essen­tial aspects (for exam­ple, the dis­tinc­tion between a the­o­ret­i­cal mod­el and the empir­i­cal data on which it is based),” says Manuel Bäch­told, a lec­tur­er in edu­ca­tion­al sci­ences and a spe­cial­ist in didac­tics of physics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Montpellier.

On the virtues side, the teacher must first of all be a mod­el for the pupils and use prac­ti­cal tools such as fic­tion­al works to encour­age an explic­it approach. “We shouldn’t hes­i­tate to mul­ti­ply fic­tion­al ref­er­ences (nov­els, series, films, etc.) so that the pupils can iden­ti­fy with cult char­ac­ters and so that the teach­ers can dis­cuss the way in which the char­ac­ters react, always with this objec­tive of ver­bal­i­sa­tion and expli­ca­tion,” stress­es Denis Caroti.

All of this is inte­grat­ed with­in strate­gies that have a com­mon goal: to fos­ter the inter­est, moti­va­tion, and desire of stu­dents to become good crit­i­cal thinkers. That is, crit­i­cal thinkers aim­ing at intel­lec­tu­al auton­o­my. These dif­fer­ent approach­es and strate­gies allow, accord­ing to sev­er­al empir­i­cal stud­ies, pupils to fos­ter the devel­op­ment of epis­temic beliefs towards an eval­u­a­tive stage. The result is the acqui­si­tion of bet­ter skills, pri­mor­dial dis­po­si­tions, and the devel­op­ment of high-qual­i­ty argu­men­ta­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the ques­tion remains how to rec­on­cile such sci­ence and crit­i­cal think­ing edu­ca­tion whilst respect­ing the school curriculum.

For Manuel Bäch­told, “there is a con­flict between cov­er­ing a wide range of knowl­edge con­tent and equip­ping stu­dents with argu­men­ta­tive, method­olog­i­cal, dis­po­si­tion­al, and crit­i­cal skills through reg­u­lar debate prac­tice. If the range of knowl­edge to be cov­ered is too wide, few teach­ers will have the lux­u­ry of organ­is­ing debates in class.”

These ele­ments make it eas­i­er to under­stand the val­ue of crit­i­cal think­ing in edu­ca­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in terms of avoid­ing pit­falls such as moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing or the fail­ure to con­sid­er the con­text and field of valid­i­ty of an argu­ment or piece of knowl­edge. As Céline Schöpfer points out, crit­i­cal think­ing edu­ca­tion should not become its own enemy.

Julien Hernandez

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