Barriers to Critical Thinking: Challenges and Opportunities
The best critical thinking education available provides learners with the opportunity to acquire new thinking aptitudes and thinking attitudes. The successful learner emerges from their course work with different attitudes towards argumentation, reasoning and decision making, and new-found facility at performing these tasks. Yet in many cases, bright would-be critical thinkers still find themselves facing difficulties translating their new skills and knowledge into practice. Is there more that critical thinking educators can do to help learners to grow further? Are there holes in the standard curriculum that need to be addressed? I think there are. Before I offer my own suggestions for augmenting the standard curriculum, I need to acknowledge a couple of factors that in part account for why, even among those familiar with its methods, critical thinking has not become more widely embraced.
First, it hardly needs stating that without repeated practice, critical thinking skills will remain underdeveloped, and the habit of thinking critically will not become ingrained. Without making a dedicated effort to integrate new patterns of thinking into our cognitive repertoires, our thinking will naturally revert to older, more established patterns. A considerable barrier to critical thinking is inadequate unlearning of those older patterns.
Second, it seems that there are inherent variations in natural affinity for the tasks that critical thinking requires (regardless of general intelligence) that inclines some to practice more than others, leading to greater success. Many students of critical thinking find themselves unmotivated to improve in this area, and so they (predictably) remain operating in their untrained habitual mode of thinking, while others excel at it with little effort. In terms of the Keirsey Temperment Sorter, for example, the “Rationals” tend to pick up critical thinking easily and enjoy it, while for even the brightest of “Guardians” (who outnumber the Rationals 3:1), engaging with the process can be a challenge. (If you are a critical thinking instructor, do you incorporate an awareness of this diversity in “metacognitive pride” into your courses?)
Within the standard critical thinking curriculum, we can, as instructors or designers, engineer some incremental improvements in the skills of our learners by focusing more on ways to make critical thinking habitual. In my opinion, critical thinking should be incorporated into other courses as well. In many contexts, the assessment and appraisal of arguments relies on sophisticated methodological tools that we frankly just don’t teach as part of the critical thinking curriculum, and we probably shouldn’t start. Ideally, educators will impart the knowledge of what “the critical standpoint” looks like within the context of technical courses focused on the methods specific to certain fields. Of course, this presumes that educators in a specific field are capable of doing this and their curriculum makes space for it. It also helps if their textbooks treat the assumptions underlying the methods they promulgate, the limitations of those methods, and what alternatives might be used instead. Unfortunately, the critical standpoint is seldom dealt with explicitly in technical courses, so learners are more or less on their own to figure it out.
Now, if we want to drive toward a culture of critical thinking, we need to do more than just engineer incremental improvements, and courses in communications, critical thinking, informal logic, etc. seems to be the appropriate starting point (as opposed to, say, econometrics). While working on developing my own courses on “effective thinking,” I have become convinced that there are a few additional topic areas that seem to be mostly neglected by the standard curriculum (at least based on my review of a good number of text books). My expectation is that if the scope of coverage was broadened to address these areas, it could go a long way to improving critical thinking performance. In subsequent posts, I’ll point out the direction I’m going by sketching my (admittedly half-baked at this point) hypotheses about how to get from “critical” to “effective.”