Teaching critical thinking in public schools

As I begin to study for the Law School Admission Test, a test which focuses almost exclusively on one’s ability to reason well and identify flaws in reasoning, I have found myself strangely entertained by the demands such an exam makes upon its takers. Because it tests the unique set of skills required to make inferences, apply common sense and read both accurately and critically, it is impossible to effectively cram for the LSAT.

For exactly these reasons, as well as its strict time constraints, the LSAT is generally considered a pretty difficult test. As I form my own study habits and methods in the hopes of improving my capacity for critical thinking, I have found myself thinking that while the sort of skill I seek to refine is something that must be attained through sustained habit and diligence, this necessary consistency is not necessarily all that difficult, just unfamiliar.

This thought has led me to a question: why haven’t I been taught critical thinking in my 15 years of education up to this point? Given the real-world value of being able to look at a set of claims, identify what the speaker is arguing, what evidence they offer in support of that argument and what possible gaps between the claim and its support there may be, it is almost startling that, at least in my own experience, this sort of knowledge has not been prioritized in curriculum.   

Sure, critical thinking has been quietly present in many of the assignments I have been given in the past, and it is certainly beneficial to one’s K-12 experience to have good critical thinking skills. Critical thinking has also been an implicit expectation in many parts of my education thus far, such as writing strong thesis statements and participating in class discussions. Still, I argue that it should be explicitly and thoroughly covered in schools, maybe even as its own distinct area of focus.

You may be thinking that schools are underfunded and teachers are overworked as is; why pile yet another responsibility on educators? I would argue that good critical thinking skills could function beautifully in public school curriculums as a facilitator of the development of the sort of skills that make learning everything else easier — a learning lubricant, if you will.

By teaching children the specific terminology (argument, conclusion, inference, fallacy and so on) that relates to evaluating arguments, they could not only learn how to verbalize precisely why they intuit the strength or weakness of ideas with which they are presented, but also to more efficiently structure, articulate and revise their own ideas.

These skills are a Swiss army knife — a pocket-sized tool for many common needs and purposes — and kids need to be armed for the vast and varied quandaries they will face in life after high school, whether that entails higher education or pursuing employment.

I am biased: I am a philosophy major, something that requires careful thought and diligent scrutiny of arguments, and, as I previously mentioned, I have been spending a decent amount of time studying exactly the thing for which I am arguing. Still, it stands to reason that thinking well is critical to thinking well about whatever particular given thing. That the fundamentals of logic and reasoning are not covered in K-12 courses is discordant with how crucial and important they are to doing well in school.   

My argument is, put most simply, this: critical thinking is deeply important to all other areas of study; therefore it should be taught in schools. Although the importance of critical thinking may be something that we can all reflectively acknowledge, the current education system does not reflect this — that is a problem, even if critical thinking is sometimes practically rewarded with good grades.

On the subject of grading, it is relevant to consider how the standard numerical grading systems currently in place factor into the general undervaluing of explicit training in critical thinking. Numbers are pretty nifty; objective standards for evaluating schools are, at least in the world we live in, necessary for matters such as the awards of government funding.

Numbers cannot, however, accurately reflect the invaluable, real-time mental processes one engages in when critically assessing a piece of information or argument. Moreover, numbers punish mistakes, which are a crucial element of the process of reflecting on and then ameliorating one’s cognitive shortcomings.

If the education system is going to require children that they exhibit good thinking skills in order to succeed in school, then it is a necessary responsibility to teach those skills. More importantly, if the mission of education is to enrich young minds, then critical thinking, the very core of much of our daily mental activity, should be given due respect and space in the classroom.

To teach kids information without teaching them how to think, regardless of whether or not good thinking is rewarded already, is to produce parrots.