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Opinion

Are you a critical thinker?

Quality thought is vital. So why don’t schools foster it?

By Linda Elder / March 12, 2009



Dillon Beach, Calif.

How can we hope to thoughtfully address the economic issues, conflicts, world poverty, and many other pressing concerns that trouble our planet, if we don't take the way we think seriously?

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We can't. To effectively deal with these issues, we must cultivate the spirit of critical thinking throughout human societies.

Right now we are not even teaching the skills and dispositions of the critical mind in our schools. We are not cultivating the intellect.

Everyone thinks; but we don't always think well. In fact, much of our thinking, left to itself, is sloppy, distorted, partial, uninformed, or prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and all of the decisions we make depend precisely on the quality of our thought. At present, the act of thinking is virtually ignored.

Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking that aims to take the reasoning we all do naturally to a higher level. It is the art of analyzing and evaluating with the goal of improving thought. When making a decision, it is the difference between weighing information to come to a logical conclusion and making snap judgments without understanding the information.

Consider some of the great thinkers: H.L. Mencken, Tom Paine, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Bertrand Russell, and Jane Austen. They became some of the greatest thinkers by not accepting information at face value, but by thinking deeply for themselves, asking questions, and refining their thinking over time. It wasn't easy. Of his own thinking, Charles Darwin said: "I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time, but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others."

His diligence paid off. Darwin's critical thinking pushed the boundaries of science and society. And isn't the purpose of education to give students the tools to thoughtfully contribute (on a small or large scale) to society? Right now we are not doing that. With few exceptions, we are not teaching them how to fully and deeply comprehend what they read or write with clarity, precision, and purpose. We are not teaching students to integrate ideas within and among subjects. We are not teaching them to entertain (in good faith) viewpoints with which with they disagree.

We are failing them at the most fundamental level.

Some believe that critical thinking was once cultivated in schooling. But it is fair to ask if it has ever really been fostered in a meaningful way in mainstream schooling (and the standardized testing movement is only making it worse). Teachers, like students, live in a nonintellectual culture, one that, for the most part, neither values fair-minded critical thinking nor encourages it.

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