Education reformers frequently mention “critical thinking” as one of the essential skills that universities should teach all students to prepare them for the demands of the labour market now and in the future.
The concept of critical thinking, however, is not new to today’s learning environment. The idea of explicitly teaching critical thinking in schools and universities goes back several decades, the late American education writer and consultant Jonathan Haber explains in his book “Critical Thinking.”
Haber’s book was first published in 2020 as part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. An Arabic edition of the book was recently published online by the Hindawi Foundation, translated by Ibrahim Sanad. It is available for download free of charge.
Putting Critical Thinking on the Curriculum
Haber traces the modern trend of teaching critical thinking skills to university students back to a “watershed moment” in 1983 when the State of California required students at all state colleges and universities to complete a critical thinking course before graduating. Haber thinks that decision led to the proliferation of critical thinking courses in higher education in the United States and beyond. This development also spurred a huge increase in education research dealing with teaching critical thinking.
Haber traces the modern trend of teaching critical thinking skills to university students back to a “watershed moment” in 1983 when the State of California required students at all state colleges and universities to complete a critical thinking course before graduating.
Another impetus came the same year, when a presidentially appointed commission published a seminal report titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.” The report concluded that the American education system lagged behind those of other countries, which led to a wave of educational reforms designed to improve U.S. schools through accountability practices based on rigorous academic standards and regular assessments of students at all educational levels.
In tandem with these reforms came the transition from an industry-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, which favors skills such as critical thinking, persuasive communication, and teamwork, over the ability to absorb and memorise information.
Critical thinking became even more important, Haber writes, with the dawn of the Information Age. With access to basic information just a computer click away, it became imperative for students to learn how to think effectively and critically in order to separate reliable and credible information from misleading and potentially false information.
What is Critical Thinking?
Haber also looks at definitions of critical thinking that various scholars have put forward. He cites one definition from the Foundation for Critical Thinking, an educational nonprofit organisation based in California. It states:
“Critical thinking is that mode of thinking—about any subject, content, or problem—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.”
In the words of the foundation’s president, Linda Elder, “critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.”
Elements of Teaching Critical Thinking
Haber also outlines the concepts a person must master to become a critical thinker. In a dedicated chapter, he reviews those elements, which include organised thinking, logic, and language and argumentative skills.
He also lists a number of personal traits and habits of mind that many scholars and educators see as necessary for critical thinking.
Among those traits are curiosity, empathy, and creativity. While these may seem more appropriate to describe a person’s nature than elements of a curriculum, they are, nevertheless, traits that educators believe a critical thinker should be able to apply in the context of disciplined reasoning about real-life situations.
Traits that scholars see as necessary for critical thinking include curiosity, empathy, and creativity. Educators believe a critical thinker should be able to apply these traits in the context of disciplined reasoning about real-life situations.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking has also developed frameworks that define the characteristics of a critical thinker. It offers a list of “valuable intellectual traits” which include:
Intellectual Humility: Being aware of the limits of one’s own knowledge, and potential errors in thinking.
Intellectual Courage: The ability to confidently defend one’s beliefs, and not passively accept the validity of what others say, even if under social pressure.
Empathy: The willingness to imagine oneself adopting the mental orientation of others, in order to better understand their situations.
Intellectual Independence: The ability to think for oneself, while also controlling logical thinking.
Intellectual Integrity: Being honest in thinking and argumentation, commiting yourself and others to the same strict intellectual standards, and being willing to admit when you make a mistake.
Intellectual Perseverance: The willingness to exert arduous intellectual effort to overcome obstacles to answer questions or argue in defense of his positions.
Confidence in Logic: Believing that the best for all over time is a commitment to logical thinking, as a means of acquiring knowledge and finding solutions to problems.
Fair-Mindedness: Striving in good faith to treat all points of view fairly, regardless of personal beliefs, emotional response to issues under discussion, or community norms, such as peer pressure to agree with one point of view.
Methods of Teaching Critical Thinking
The book does not overlook the modern methods of teaching critical thinking. Haber says that critical thinking-related knowledge should be taught in an explicit way, in a dedicated course, or as a discrete component of other courses.
“Many innovative methods have been applied, and are still being applied, to teach critical thinking skills. They include guided discussion, project-based learning, and inquiry.”
He writes that teachers who wish to integrate critical thinking into their courses should be trained on specific critical thinking skills and methods of teaching them. He calls for integrating critical thinking into other courses in a way that provides students with the opportunity to interact continuously with critical thinking methods, rather than limiting critical thinking topics to one or two classes in isolation from the rest of the course. He also calls for providing opportunities for students to apply what they learned in practice.
Besides these general principles, Haber writes that many innovative methods have been applied, and are still being applied, to teach critical thinking skills. They include guided discussion, project-based learning, and inquiry.
He describes one university classroom where professors adopted principles from the martial arts, awarding belt levels to students for their ability to apply critical thinking skills, rather than grades based on effort and tests of knowledge.
Jonathan Haber, who died in May, was a longtime educational researcher, writer, and consultant working in the field of technology-enabled learning and teacher education. His writings on education topics have appeared in EdSurge, Inside Higher Ed, and other publications, and major newspapers have written about his One Year BA experiment, in which he tried to learn the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts in just 12 months using only MOOCs and other forms of free learning.
Haber’s other books include “MOOCs,” also in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, and “Critical Voter,” in which he applied elements of critical thinking to making independent decisions in the voting booth.
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