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MISSION:  To improve K-12 instruction of critical thinking skills.

The Case for
Critical Thinking
Everyone agrees critical thinking is paramount, but it doesn’t appear evident in political partisans, science deniers, and conspiracy theorists. They have access to all the same information, but they lack the skills to distin­guish fact from misinformation, all while claiming they are the true critical thinkers.

Schools often highlight critical thinking as one of their highest goals. But the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are not very specific about how to teach it. Furthermore, data below shows critical thinking skills get very little instruction time, even by well meaning teachers.

“Critical thinking” is a rather abstract goal with a broad definition, so the first step is to clarify the definition and identify specific teachable skills:

Critical Thinking
Abstract Definition: Decision-making and problem-solving using reason, logic, analysis, unbiased objectivity, and good judgement.

Practical Definition: Detecting bad reasoning (from yourself too), especially to detect false claims and avoid being fooled, even when some information is unknown.

Component Skills:
Fact / Opinion
Logical Fallacies
Correlation / Causation
Credibility, Bias, Motive: Media Literacy
Scientific Method vs. Pseudoscience
See More


Note that logic is the application of objective rules, which is taught through math and other subjects. Analysis is breaking down ideas into smaller components, which is also taught. Knowledge helps inform your judgment. Critical thinking incorporates all to make a subjective judgment. The component skills are just exercises to help develop critical thinking.

In the CCSS & NGSS this is how many standards mention each skill. For comparison, notice that Quadratic Equations are cited much more than critical thinking skills:

Standards Qty Grade
Experimental Design 1 5
Correlation/Causation 1 HS
Fact/Opinion 3 6-8
Fallacious Reasoning 3 9-10
Evaluate Claims 3 9-12
Credibility, Motive 11 6-12
Quadratic Equations 14 9-12
Vocabulary 17 4-12
See Data

Actual classroom data shows a similar imbalance where critical thinking skills are taught significantly less. Below are relatively how many assignments and tests are given for various topics. Do you think this reflects what is most important for students to learn in life?

Assignments
Spelling
Quadratic
Gravity
Synonyms
Experim. Design
Antonyms
Fact/Opinion
Fallacies
Pseudoscience
See Data


“One of the first things taught in introductory
statistics textbooks is that correlation is not causation.
It is also one of the first things forgotten.”
— Thomas Sowell

These skills need to be practiced regularly, not just taught once. If critical thinking is at least as important as math and vocabulary, then it should be taught just as much.

Since the CCSS & NGSS do not specifically require many component skills for critical thinking, this is probably why many teachers spend so little time on them. We need to revise these and the state curriculum standards. In the meanwhile, we can augment the district and school curriculum.

Of course class time is limited, so adding more requirements means reducing other parts of the curriculum, which is a difficult and painful decision. It would be wise to identify what knowledge and skills are rarely used or remembered beyond school, to replace that instruction time with more critical thinking skills. To paraphrase a proverb:

Teach someone a lesson, they learn for a day.
Teach someone to think, they learn for a lifetime.

To fill gaps in the curriculum, I am developing free learning apps, and more curriculum developers need to create more content for these skills.

Educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities, could make critical thinking a greater part of their curricula. Rationality should be the fourth R, together with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mere instruction fails to provide lifetime immunity to fallacies, and almost no one makes the leap from abstract principles to everyday pitfalls. But well-designed courses and video games — ones that single out cognitive biases, challenge students to spot them in lifelike settings, and provide immediate feedback — really can train them to avoid the fallacies outside the classroom.
— Steven Pinker,  Rationality