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Daniel Willingham on Teaching Critical Thinking

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “How to Teach Critical Thinking” by Daniel Willingham in a June 2019 Future Frontiers Occasional Paper (New South Wales, Australia),; Willingham can be reached at [email protected].
In this Future Frontiers Occasional Paper, Daniel Willingham (University of Virginia) says there is no disagreement about the importance of teaching critical thinking skills. “In free societies,” he says, “the ability to think critically is viewed as a cornerstone of individual civic engagement and economic success. We may disagree about which content students should learn, but we at least agree that, whatever they end up learning, students ought to think critically about it.”
But what exactly is critical thinking? It’s what people need when they play chess, plan strategy for a field hockey game, or design a product, says Willingham. Each situation is fluid and challenging, and there aren’t any routine, reusable solutions – hence the need to deploy critical thinking. He offers a “commonsensical” definition of what it looks like for an individual student:
- The thinking is original in the moment, not carried over from a previous situation.
- The thinking is self-directed, not following instructions from another person.
- The thinking respects conventions that make it more likely to yield useful conclusions – for example, Consider both sides of an issue and Offer evidence of claims made.
Willingham notes that another aspect of critical thinking is choosing to think that way when others might not – for example, noticing a way to get a better bargain in a store when most people would just pick up an item and pay. But the main focus of this paper is successful critical thinking. “Of course we want students to choose to think,” says Willingham, “but we won’t be satisfied if their thinking is illogical, scattered, and ultimately fails.”
Can critical thinking be taught? Willingham believes it’s not something people just pick up; explicit instruction can improve skill in this area. The question is whether students can transfer critical thinking skills to new situations. For example, if students are taught how to evaluate the arguments in a series of newspaper editorials, will they be able to apply what they learn to a different medium of persuasion; or if they learn Latin or computer programming, will they think logically in other contexts? Research findings on this are “decidedly mixed,” he says.
What about explicitly teaching critical thinking skills in schools – for example, giving students five hours on this subject a week, as some schools are doing? Willingham reports that follow-up studies show very little gain, and there isn’t good research on whether the skills transfer to other situations. While we wait for better studies, he believes there’s a problem we can see right now: the unrealistic expectation that teaching students to “analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information will improve use of those skills across the board.” This leads Willingham to his major conclusion: critical thinking looks different in each subject area, and we should teach it within each subject without expecting that students’ gains will necessarily transfer.
“But wait,” he says. “Surely there are some principles of thinking that apply across fields of study.” For example:
- “A” and “not A” cannot both be true, whether in mathematics or history.
- Strawperson arguments are always weak.
- Having a conflict of interest makes your case suspect.
- Looking at many instances gives you a more accurate picture of what’s going on than looking at only one or two.
True, says Willingham. “The problem is that people who learn these broadly applicable principles in one situation often fail to apply them in a new situation.” There’s a “surprising failure to deploy useful knowledge.” For example, people may have been taught the fourth insight on the list above (looking at lots of instances improves accuracy) but still jump to a conclusion about a person’s friendliness based on a single action. One study found that students needed to be told explicitly about the link between two different situations to transfer a skill to a new scenario.
Looking more closely at the failure of transfer, Willingham found that the similarities between disparate situations are at the “deep structure” level, but people tend to look at the surface characteristics. Yes, we understand the principle that lots of data yield a more-accurate analysis, but when we see a person being rude, we conclude that this is a rude person. Surface versus deep structure. Why do we do this? “Probably because the surface structure is explicit, obvious,” says Willingham. “And just as obviously, the deep structure is not explicit.”
So why not teach deep structure? We can, but it’s abstract and difficult for students to grasp. If taught the principle of large data sets, they naturally ask for examples, which takes the teacher back to surface structures.
The good news, says Willingham, is that students (and adults) can make the connection between deep and surface structures if (a) they’ve learned a lot about the subject, and (b) they see several examples linking deep and surface structure (Oh, this is that sort of problem). One technique: ask students to compare two solved problems with the same deep structure but different surface structures.
He says that “extensive stores of knowledge” about a subject are very helpful to critical thinking in open-ended problems. Here’s how:
- First, knowledge of parts of similar situations can be “snapped together” when solving complex problems. For example, experienced chess players remember patterns and can quickly see the strengths and weaknesses of their positions and their opponents’.
- Recognizing clumps of information allows working memory to handle more, freeing up mental bandwidth for higher cognition. An experienced chess player sees a king, a castle, and three pawns in a corner and clumps them as one defensive unit.
- Knowing more about a topic makes it easier to deploy thinking strategies; students are more likely to remember something like being sure the experimental and control groups are comparable if they’ve read several articles on the subject and gone through the same process.
What does all this mean for teachers? Willingham says that while teaching generalizable critical thinking skills is very iffy, he’s confident about the usefulness of teaching critical thinking within each subject area. Here’s his four-step plan:
• First, identify what critical thinking looks like in each domain – history, mathematics, literature, science, art – and practice using it. In history, it’s not enough to teach students to “think like a historian.” They need to learn, for example, to interpret documents in light of their sources, corroborating them, and putting them in historical context. Learning to read like a scientist is quite different, since scientific documents are written in a consistent format.
• Second, identify the content knowledge students must know in each domain. This knowledge is “a crucial driver of thinking skills,” says Willingham. Knowing the details of a historical era is crucial to doing a critical analysis of an original source.
• Third, decide on the sequence in which students learn factual knowledge and skills. “We interpret new information in light of what we already know,” says Willingham “The right preparation makes new learning easier.”
• Fourth, decide what skills need to be revisited across K-12, because students will forget a lot. Skills should be practiced with different content, and their repetition must be assured and planned. Cross-grade coordination will greatly improve students’ learning of critical thinking skills.
Willingham closes with these assertions: (a) Even in the absence of a comprehensive K-12 plan, individual teachers can still make important contributions to their students’ critical thinking; (b) Students can learn these skills at a young age; Piaget’s theory about a rigid sequence of thinking capabilities has been proven wrong, says Willingham; (c) All students should be taught critical thinking skills, avoiding the trap of believing that lower-achieving students need the basics first; (d) Assessing critical thinking is expensive and time-consuming because to get accurate information, well-trained assessors need to listen to students thinking aloud while answering challenging questions.
“This means that designers and administrators of a program to improve critical thinking among students must take the long view,” concludes Willingham, “both in the time frame over which the program operates, and especially the speed with which one expects to see results. Patience will be a key ingredient in any program that succeeds.”

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