Is “critical thinking” a generalized skill?


Based on the things I’ve been reading lately, the answer to the titular question is “mostly no.”

It’s common for experts to be “corrected” by non-experts who claim to be engaged in critical thinking. These non-experts will get it wrong, despite their efforts to think critically, because they’re missing key facts or making incorrect assumptions. (And, women get this much, much, more often than men, but you already knew that.)

I’m not going say that the existence of mansplaining means that critical thinking is not real. Mansplaining is merely an extreme demonstration of what happens when a person mistakenly thinks that their own attempt to think critically is an adequate substitute for actual knowledge and experience.

Several months ago, I shared with y’all an article that’s been kicking around the back of my mind. That article linked to a highly readable 15-page report called How To Teach Critical Thinking, by Willingham. I only recently got around to the report itself, and I recommend it highly.

Last week, I attended a workshop about course-based research experiences, and one topic that came up repeatedly was “critical thinking skills.” Critical thinking skills over here, critical thinking skills over there. Critical thinking skills everywhere. I could only think about that article — which suggested that most of us have mistaken notions about critical thinking. We somehow think critical thinking is a general trait that can be taught to be used generally, even though, apparently, that’s not what the research says.

I’ve also been thinking about how these ideas about critical thinking intersect with an idea in the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. In the higher ed business, so many professors talk about teaching students how to think. Meanwhile, students thinking to themselves, “I know how to think just fine!” I never thought for a minute when I was in college I was being taught how to think — I was just being exposed to so many ideas and learning what to think about. Some veins of thought are more rewarding to mine than others, and that’s really what we pick up in college, I think.

What the linked article says is that the practical application of critical thinking is domain-specific. Yes, there are standard principles of logic that are generally applicable in all circumstances, and using those basic logical principles is part of thinking critically. However, in any particular discipline, the ability to perform critical thinking in a meaningful way requires domain-specific knowledge. For example, being able to think critically in biology doesn’t transfer well to critical thinking in literature. Or thinking a critically in physics doesn’t transfer well to critical thinking in sociology.

If you’re going to perform successful critical thinking in some domain, then you’ve got to know about how critical thinking works in that particular domain. The failure to embrace that concept is how we end up with a bunch of books of bad anthropology written by Jared Diamond. And this is why so many scientists who think that being scientist automatically qualifies them to solve problems involving the sociology of our academic communities, without doing the work to learn in that realm.

I think teaching critical thinking skills is important. But I don’t think we should fool ourselves that when we’re teaching skills to think critically in our own disciplines, that are necessarily training scholars to think critically in other fields. Because so many of us have emphasized trying to teach critical thinking as a general skill, we’ve not done as solid of a job teaching it as we can? Maybe if we embrace the domain-specificity of critical thinking, we might be more effective in our teaching?

Critical thinking definitely requires a mindset as well as experience. And by teaching domain-specific problem-solving skills, we can help engender the mindset. Which is still pretty valuable.

I don’t do research on cognition, and I’d have to delve into this more deeply before I attempt any grand claims. There are plenty of assessment tools developed by education researchers to assess critical thinking skills. What are they measuring, and how much of these assessments are scaffolded on domain-specific critical thinking? (If you go by the sample questions from the test that ETS wants to sell you, then clearly experience doing critical thinking in literature matters.) Once you start looking at the measurement of critical thinking, that means, then you’ve got to specify what critical thinking actually is. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus, except that sometimes experts get together and form a consensus among themselves, but that turns out to not be a consensus.

If any of us are talking the talk about teaching critical thinking, perhaps at a minimum, we should be able to say exactly what that is that we’re trying to do? Because I imagine some people teaching critical thinking are emphasizing problem solving, and some are emphasizing interpretation of results, and others are emphasizing experimental design, and/or a combination of those things, or none of those things. All I know is that when I hear someone say that they teach critical thinking in their science, I really don’t know what that means they are actually doing in their classrooms.

2 thoughts on “Is “critical thinking” a generalized skill?

  1. I’m not an expert in any field. Nor do I have much formal education. I’m an autodidact. I’m certainly not a teacher. But I like to learn and I was taught certain kinds of critical thinking, initially from my parents, a business professor and a speech pathologist (both varieties of teachers), and later on from diverse reading. My critical thinking, imperfect as it is, couldn’t exactly be called domain specific, although it obviously involves much reading comprehension.

    Here is a thought. Maybe the missing component in your discussion here is fluid intelligence, i.e., general problem-solving, which would be more broadly applicable across fields of study. What I tested high in as a child was fluid intelligence. No one had to teach me it for I apparently had it early on and it isn’t the kind of thing usually taught in school. Measures of crystallized intelligence would be more about what one is taught, including specific forms of critical thinking skills but also related aspects such as factual information, rules, equations, methodologies, etc.

    If one wishes to teach more general thinking skills that would be more widely applicable, what needs to be taught is flexibility of mind to deal with different kinds of problems. That could only come from fluid intelligence. Maybe schools should be teaching that more often and more extensively. Fluid intelligence would help bring together various areas of critical thinking and increase general intelligence. The increase in average intelligence this past century has mostly come from fluid intelligence.

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