Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard To Teach?
“Teaching students to think critically probably lies in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.”
Very awesome paper highly recommended
Favorite Quotes (Via AFT):
“Critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in—and even trained scientists can fail in.”
“Knowing that one should think critically is not the same as being able to do so. That requires domain knowledge and practice.”
So, Why Is Thinking Critically So Hard?
Educators have long noted that school attendance and even academic success are no guarantee that a student will graduate an effective thinker in all situations. There is an odd tendency for rigorous thinking to cling to particular examples or types of problems. Thus, a student may have learned to estimate the answer to a math problem before beginning calculations as a way of checking the accuracy of his answer, but in the chemistry lab, the same student calculates the components of a compound without noticing that his estimates sum to more than 100 percent. And a student who has learned to thoughtfully discuss the causes of the American Revolution from both the British and American perspectives doesn’t even think to question how the Germans viewed World War II. Why are students able to think critically in one situation, but not in another? The brief answer is: Thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about. Let’s explore this in depth by looking at a particular kind of critical thinking that has been studied extensively: problem solving.
Imagine a seventh-grade math class immersed in word problems. How is it that students will be able to answer one problem, but not the next, even though mathematically both word problems are the same, that is, they rely on the same mathematical knowledge? Typically, the students are focusing on the scenario that the word problem describes (its surface structure) instead of on the mathematics required to solve it (its deep structure). So even though students have been taught how to solve a particular type of word problem, when the teacher or textbook changes the scenario, students still struggle to apply the solution because they don’t recognize that the problems are mathematically the same.
Thinking Tends to Focus on a Problem’s “Surface Structure”
To understand why the surface structure of a problem is so distracting and, as a result, why it’s so hard to apply familiar solutions to problems that appear new, let’s first consider how you understand what’s being asked when you are given a problem. Anything you hear or read is automatically interpreted in light of what you already know about similar subjects. For example, suppose you read these two sentences: “After years of pressure from the film and television industry, the President has filed a formal complaint with China over what U.S. firms say is copyright infringement. These firms assert that the Chinese government sets stringent trade restrictions for U.S. entertainment products, even as it turns a blind eye to Chinese companies that copy American movies and television shows and sell them on the black market.”
With Deep Knowledge, Thinking Can Penetrate Beyond Surface Structure
If knowledge of how to solve a problem never transferred to problems with new surface structures, schooling would be inefficient or even futile—but of course, such transfer does occur. When and why is complex,5 but two factors are especially relevant for educators: familiarity with a problem’s deep structure and the knowledge that one should look for a deep structure. I’ll address each in turn. When one is very familiar with a problem’s deep-structure, knowledge about how to solve it transfers well. That familiarity can come from long-term, repeated experience with one problem, or with various manifestations of one type of problem (i.e., many problems that have different surface structures, but the same deep structure). After repeated exposure to either or both, the subject simply perceives the deep structure as part of the problem description.