THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 8, Fall 1994

William A. McEachern, Editor

Critical Thinking

Nearly two decades ago, some educators began to disparage rote memorization in favor of teaching students how to think. Several highly regarded studies pointed to students' lack of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The critical thinking movement began at the primary and secondary levels, then proceeded to college level. College courses in critical thinking are now taught in the social sciences as well as in the humanities, especially philosophy and English. The California state university system requires such a course of undergraduates. A critically thinking and creative work force is seen as one response to growing foreign competition.

What is critical thinking? Robert Innis, the father of the movement, defines critical thinking as "reasonable, rational thinking that helps us decide what to do or to believe" (1987, p. 10). Harvey Siegel defines critical thinkers as those who are appropriately moved by reason (1988). And Matthew Lipman argues that critical thinking is "skillful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgement because it (1) relies upon criteria, (2) is self-correcting, and (3) is sensitive to context" (1988, p. 10). (For references, see The Evidence File.)

One controversy involves the question of whether critical thinking skills are applicable beyond the narrow disciplines in which these skills have been learned. A big question is whether the reasoning process is discipline-specific or whether it can be applied more generally. Are there critical thinking skills that transfer, or generalize, across subjects?

Most proponents of critical thinking courses claim that such courses improve the student's ability to reason about everyday problems and issues in the same way that general composition courses improve writing ability. But some educators argue that critical thinking is not a generalized ability and can only be taught in the context of a specific discipline, not as a free-standing course.

For example, John McPeck claims that different things count as good reasoning in different fields, so thinking well differs from field to field. For example, he recalled a "State-of-the-Union" address by President Reagan describing his economic policies; that address was followed by the Democrats' response. To McPeck, each side sounded reasonable; neither side seemed to commit logical fallacies. McPeck says what he needed to know was whether or not the premises offered were in fact true. He felt overwhelmed by the economics, and thought what he needed to know was more economics, not more logic.

Proponents of special courses in critical thinking claim such courses enable people to make more rational judgements about "everyday problems" of just the sort McPeck described. McPeck says that most everyday problems worthy of public debate are seldom about logical reasoning but are almost always about the truth of complex information, ideas, and propositions. We are not analyzing arguments so much as evaluating data, information, and purported facts. He claims that 98% of our mistakes in rational judgement originate either from poor information or from our failure to understand the empirical foundations and meanings of information we do have. (1990, pp. 10-11)

He says the concept of "reasoning ability" is something like the concept of "speed." If someone offered to improve our speed, the first thing we would ask is "at what?" Likewise, if someone offered to improve our reasoning ability, we should ask "at what?" He claims there is no such thing as "general reasoning ability." Psychologists offer evidence suggesting that what differentiates experts from novices in a variety of fields is knowledge of the subject and not a generalized ability to think well.

Nearly all educators agree that we should be teaching students how to think, not what to think. The sticking point that remains is how best to do this. Which is most effective: a course in logic, a more discipline-specific course, or perhaps some combination? McPeck would argue for a discipline-specific approach.

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