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Are you a critical thinker?

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

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If we want to effectively deal with the tremendous problems we now face, we must begin teaching students to discipline their own thinking. Teachers must move beyond rote and merely active engagement, and work toward transforming how students reason through complex issues, to look beyond easy answers.

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We must teach students that the only way to learn a subject or discipline is to learn to think within the logic of it, to focus on its purposes, questions, information, to think within its concepts and assumptions.

It is true that some students learn some critical thinking implicitly along the way. But, as is evident in the dismal state of affairs, our collective thinking simply isn't good enough.

There is some good news. Many global organizations such as the Peace Corps, UNICEF, and Amnesty International are promoting critical thinking within a particular area of importance. As part of their reaccreditations, the University of Louisville and Eastern Kentucky University are both making concerted efforts to bring critical thinking across the curriculum. But much work is still needed. William Graham Sumner, the Yale academic and essayist may have put it best when, in 1906, he said:

"The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators.... They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens."

His warning resonates today. Though there is no quick and easy fix, we can all start by beginning to think about how we think. We can question our purposes, our assumptions, our ideas, and our inferences. We can question whether we are considering the views of others to understand them, or to dismiss them. We can open our minds to the larger world with all of its complexities. If we are to reverse the downward spiral we are presently experiencing, we must begin to actively and deliberately foster fair-minded critical thinking in our schools, our homes, our social institutions, in government, and indeed, in every part of human life.

Linda Elder is the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, an education nonprofit organization concerned with fostering fair-minded critical societies. She is an educational psychologist who has co-written four books on critical thinking and 20 thinker's guides.