Why teaching critical thinking is critically important

Discussing the number of Americans who believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, Professor Steven Pinker mentions psychic healing (55%), ESP (41%), haunted houses (37%) and ghosts (32%), “…which also means,” Pinker writes, “that some people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts.” The quote is from his recently published book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Call it what you will: ‘rational thinking’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘thinking skills’. I am guessing that most people would agree that having command of “the intellectual tools of sound reasoning” (another Pinker quote) matters. A lot. They might even agree that it matters now more than ever (though at this point we run the risk of getting sucked into political and culture-war quagmires). But at what point exactly in a child or young person’s life do we actually, systematically, teach them critical thinking skills?

Rationality is (like the other Pinker books I am familiar with) a must-read, beautifully written and compellingly argued. He opens with some famous illustrations of the common fallacies, cognitive biases and flaws in the way we think. Take the so-called Monty Hall dilemma. Though Pinker doesn’t refer to the novel, many readers may recognise it from Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I actually seriously considered calling this blog Why we should teach children the Monty Hall dilemma. If you are unaware of what it is, see the links below.

Pinker also gives us the Linda problem, a probability question in which more people agreed with the statement that a woman with a history of climate activism (for example) will become US president in the next decade than that a woman will become US president in the next decade. That, to be clear, is a literal impossibility.

Pinker talks about ‘tools of reasoning’ that help us, among other things, to weigh up risky choices, assess arguments and claims, and unpick problems and apparent paradoxes. He is writing, let us not forget, in 2021, a year when literally millions of people worldwide are refusing — for a whole variety of reasons, most of them comfortably fitting the definition of ‘irrational’ — to have a Covid vaccination. The science is clear, the evidence incontrovertible. And yet sceptics and deniers continue to attract huge numbers of followers.

Young people are growing up in an age of deceit, lying, misinformation and disinformation. Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the individual user’s very own echo chamber. Yet many people increasingly consume their news and other information via social media or other poorly regulated media outlets that show a similar aversion to evidence, fact checking and sound, dispassionate reasoning.

Just as citizens should grasp the basics of history, science, and the written word, they should command the intellectual tools of sound reasoning. These include logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, the optimal ways to adjust our beliefs and commit to decision with uncertain evidence, and the yardsticks for making rational choices alone and with others.

Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

“Being critical does not just mean finding fault. It means assessing evidence from a variety of sources and making reasoned conclusions. As a result of your analysis you may decide that a particular piece of evidence is not robust, or that you disagree with the conclusion, but you should be able to state why you have come to this view and incorporate this into a bigger picture…

“Being critical goes beyond describing what you have heard … or what you have read. It involves synthesising, analysing and evaluating what you have learned to develop your own argument or position.

“Critical thinking is important in all subjects and disciplines — in science and engineering, as well as the arts and humanities. The types of evidence used to develop arguments may be very different but the processes and techniques are similar.”

The above comes from the website of the University of Edinburgh. In fact, go on any university website and the chances are you will find something similar. But where do young people get a solid grounding in this kind of rigorous thinking before rolling up at university? And what about the many young people who don’t get a university-level education?

The answer to the first of those questions — in England, at least — looks worryingly like ‘nowhere’. The OCR exam board was even obliged to discontinue its A level in critical thinking several years ago following a government review. Instead, the assumption appears to be that critical thinking skills will somehow develop organically as part of subject learning. In other words: covered by every subject and mastered in none.

As books like Pinker’s Rationality, Daniel Kahneman’s terrific best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow and Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality all show, we don’t magically evolve into rigorous and rational thinkers. Quite the opposite. And why is all this so important? Well, if nothing else, because reality has an annoying habit of punching us and our irrational thoughts squarely on the nose. Hence my favourite line in Pinker’s book: “We discount the future myopically, but it always arrives, minus the large rewards we sacrificed for the quick high.”

What, then, are the ingredients of happy and successful lifelong learning?

Our blog A focus on teaching enquiry skills will help with lifelong learning mentions the phrase ‘a love of learning’ more than once. The word ‘philosophy’ itself comes from ancient Greek and means ‘love of wisdom’. The blog rightly champions a spirit of curiosity and open-mindedness.

We have also highlighted The Joy of Not Knowing (JONK), an approach to learning developed by Marcelo Staricoff. “Engaging children’s natural sense of curiosity and desire to find things out, allowing them to try out possible solutions and search for answers in classrooms that are ‘communities of enquiry’, offers an intriguing and exciting approach to accelerating children’s learning.”

And we have talked about the need to learn the way the brain learns. This involves:

  • children learning the way the brain learns, including knowing how the brain learns best, how to make effective use of the senses when learning, and how to improve short-term, routine, operational and long-term memory
  • helping children to construct their learning from what they know
  • ensuring that children feel comfortable in their learning environment, whether in school or studying at home

As Steven Pinker so ably demonstrates, another essential ingredient in the learning mix is critical thinking — the need for children and young people (and all the rest of us) to have the intellectual tools to think clearly, rigorously and rationally.

The Monty Hall Problem

Play the Monty Hall Simulation Game

Steven Pinker Talks About Rationality

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