Recently for The Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay provided an overview of scientific research that finds that content knowledge is crucial to effective critical thinking. Portions of the piece appear below:
Critical thinking is all the rage in education. Schools brag that they teach it on their websites and in open houses to impress parents. Some argue that critical thinking should be the primary purpose of education and one of the most important skills to have in the 21st century, with advanced machines and algorithms replacing manual and repetitive labor.
But a fascinating review of the scientific research on how to teach critical thinking concludes that teaching generic critical thinking skills, such as logical reasoning, might be a big waste of time. Critical thinking exercises and games haven’t produced long-lasting improvements for students. And the research literature shows that it’s very difficult for students to apply critical thinking skills learned in one subject to another, even between different fields of science.
“Wanting students to be able to ‘analyse, synthesise and evaluate’ information sounds like a reasonable goal,” writes Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.”
Willingham’s reading of the research literature concludes that scientists are united in their belief that content knowledge is crucial to effective critical thinking. And he argues that the best approach is to explicitly teach very specific small skills of analysis for each subject. For example, in history, students need to interpret documents in light of their sources, seek corroboration and put them in their historical context. That kind of analysis isn’t relevant in science, where the source of a document isn’t as important as following the scientific method.
“Critical thinking is needed when playing chess, designing a product, or planning strategy for a field hockey match,” Willingham wrote. “But there are no routine, reusable solutions for these problems.”
And this is where content knowledge becomes important. In order to compare and contrast, the brain has to hold ideas in working memory, which can easily be overloaded. The more familiar a student is with a particular topic, the easier it is for the student to hold those ideas in his working memory and really think. Willingham uses chess as a good example. Once a student has a played a lot of chess, then he has many board positions memorized in his brain and can sort through which one is better in each particular circumstance.