A criticism of critical thinking

A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to travel to Japan to speak at JALT and visit some schools and universities with the wonderful representatives from OUP. During a book fair at a university near Tokyo, a tall Australian ex-pat teacher asked me if we had any books on critical thinking. I dutifully pointed him to a series I’d written for which has “critical thinking tips” and explained how we tried to embed them in the content and assignments. “No,” he frowned, “I want a book that just teaches critical thinking, not a language textbook.”

Honestly, I have no idea what that kind of book would look like, and I certainly couldn’t write it. I’m not even sure what critical thinking means, and I’ve been teaching academic ESL for over 15 years. So I’ve stopped talking about critical thinking, and I don’t claim to teach it. I’ll leave thinking to the psychologists and philosophers.

I have two related problems with the term critical thinking. Primarily, it contradicts my understanding of disciplinary knowledge and genres by suggesting that there’s a universal hierarchy of tasks and behaviors that can be ranked from critical to non-critical just by looking at a handful of verbs. I am of course referring to Bloom’s taxonomy. And actually,  I don’t have a problem with the taxonomy itself, especially in its 2001 revision: it’s useful to help students analyze assignments. My objection is to that pyramid you see plastered everywhere:


While we’re supposed to see the “lower” skills as the foundation upon which the other skills depend, visually the pyramid implies that the skills towards the peak are inherently and invariably more complex, more desirable, more “critical.” After all, they are higher up, right? So you get advice like this:

“Are most of your students juniors and seniors? Graduate students? Do your students have a solid foundation in much of the terminology and processes you will be working with in your course? If so, then you should not have many remembering and understanding level objectives.” (University of Arkansas)

I don’t know about you, but I really hope that my doctor spent a great deal of time in her medical school classes memorizing anatomy, symptoms, and medications rather than creating new ones. And in many fields, I’d suggest that reaching understanding-thoughtful, informed, and “critical” understanding-is a pretty good goal for many educational contexts. The same website continues with this word salad:

“Use Bloom’s Taxonomy to to make sure that the verbs you choose for your lesson level objectives build up to the level of the verb that is in the course level objective. The lesson level verbs can be below or equal to the course level verb, but they CANNOT be higher in level. For example, your course level verb might be an Applying level verb, “illustrate.” Your lesson level verbs can be from any Bloom’s level that is equal or below this level (applying, understanding, or remembering).”

This is baffling. Of course I can move “up” and “down” the hierarchy, using create tasks to help students work towards analysis or even understanding. Look at reader’s theater, which uses creative performance to help even struggling readers comprehend text.

It’s tempting to take interesting research and reduce it to a convenient diagram that can be pasted into a PowerPoint slide for a professional development workshop or used to criticize teachers’ lessons and control their assignments. It’s much harder – but much more important – to understand how knowledge is constructed in each academic discipline or professional setting, and how novice students can be apprenticed towards membership of those tribes. The goal is not some elusive universal capacity to “think critically”; it is to read, write, and speak as a historian, or a physicist, or a physician, or an art historian, or an applied linguist, or …

So why are we in ESL bombarded with this slippery notion of critical thinking? Herein lies my second objection to the term. It hides what we can really teach and students can really learn: language. And I don’t just mean grammar and vocabulary. I mean disciplinary discourse and high-stakes genres. I am tired of hearing that students don’t (or worse, can’t) think critically. How do we presume to know what students are thinking? My suspicion (reinforced by recent research from the University of Leeds) is that critical thinking is a socially acceptable shorthand for a sort of cultural discrimination (“students from country X just don’t learn to think critically”) and ethnocentrism (implying, inadvertently perhaps, that we in the enlightened west all do think critically?). Or, as I saw in my research with business faculty, critical thinking is sometimes used as a lazy euphemism for intelligence. Lazy because disciplinary language and disciplinary thinking can be taught, whereas intelligence is often seen as an immutable characteristic.

So, no, I don’t agree that universities are failing to teach critical thinking – I think we’re failing to understand that critical thinking, like all education, is situated. In many ways, critical thinking is like academic writing in that we should be past the point of talking about “writing skills” as if one form of writing would fit all context; as Elizabeth Wardle neatly put it:

There is no such thing as writing in general. Writing is always in particular.

In fact, Stuart Wrigley suggested in the Times Higher Education Supplement that critical thinking is a “tautology”-all thinking is critical, and our students really are thinking, even if they don’t or can’t yet show it effectively in English.

If these students are doing such a good job of thinking “critically”, why do they feel the need to ask me what critical thinking is? Why do they need workshops and self-help books? I think the answer is that they struggle to express their critical thinking in accordance with academic conventions. In other words, they can walk the walk but not, alas, talk the talk. This is what we need to teach them, and it means paying explicit attention to writing at university, and being prepared to talk about that writing.

My criticism of critical thinking is not a critique of criticality. I want my students to be critical consumers and maybe eventually producers of knowledge in their fields, but I believe the best way to reach that goal is through genre-based language instruction and language-enhanced content instruction that makes visible to student what criticality means in their field and how to use it to enter their discipline or profession.

What do you think?

(Image credit: Stuart Whitmore on Flickr)

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

4 thoughts on “A criticism of critical thinking”

  1. I greatly appreciate this perspective coming from a “legal English” perspective where I work with students who are there to learn law and legal writing but need language support to help them accomplish their academic aims. And I will hold on to the quote you shared: “There is no such thing as writing in general. Writing is always in particular.”

    1. Thanks for your comment! Legal reasoning is its own special field, of course. Elizabeth Wardle’s whole chapter is worth reading (the book is free online).

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