Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? Learning critical thinking skills can only life skills mathematical reasoning and critical thinking a student so far.
Virtually everyone would agree that a primary, yet insufficiently met, goal of schooling is to enable students to think critically. This proper and commonsensical goal has very often been translated into calls to teach “critical thinking skills” and “higher-order thinking skills” and into generic calls for teaching students to make better judgments, reason more logically, and so forth. In 1983, A Nation At Risk, a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, found that many 17-year-olds did not possess the “‘higher-order’ intellectual skills” this country needed. It claimed that nearly 40 percent could not draw inferences from written material and only onefifth could write a persuasive essay. Following the release of A Nation At Risk, programs designed to teach students to think critically across the curriculum became extremely popular.
By 1990, most states had initiatives designed to encourage educators to teach critical thinking, and one of the most widely used programs, Tactics for Thinking, sold 70,000 teacher guides. 3 But, for reasons I’ll explain, the programs were not very effective — and today we still lament students’ lack of critical thinking. After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation.