we haven’t taught critical thinking particularly well

Yesterday I got told to “do some research” &, by extension, to think critically. The biologist in me cringed a little when I read it (and not because of the advice about doing research).


Biology teachers I know suggested that perhaps everyone should take the NCEA standard that lets students learn about the basic genetics that this commenter got so very, very wrong. But personally I think that’s not really the issue, and it isn’t the fix either.

This is because the relevant genetics content isn’t taught until students hit year 12, and sadly a lot of students (up to 60%, by some estimates) have decided not to continue with the sciences beyond year 10. That in itself is a problem that needs addressing, but it’s not my focus for this post.

To me there are probably two things in play, the first being a lack of critical thinking (which includes a certain amount of reflection on what you think you know), and that’s something that has to be learned and practiced. What’s the source of this information? Is it reliable? How can I check it to see if the information is accurate? Is there evidence to support it? What was the purpose in sharing it? Are there things I’m assuming or taking for granted? How can I extend my understanding of this material? What are my own biases (we all have them)? And so on¹.

These are skills that can be & are taught in school, and yet – at risk of upsetting some of my teaching colleagues – I believe we can and should do better. Like any skills, those of critical thinking need practice to acquire and grow rusty from lack of practice and reinforcement. How do we achieve that in an overcrowded school curriculum?

And the second? A profound suspicion of and distrust in science, which in this instance does make me wonder, with some sadness, if this particular person would have even been inclined to check what they were writing against even a biology primer. This is, perhaps, the hardest challenge to address.


¹ There are a range of online tools to support and develop critical thinking skills: here, here (including a link to a page on applying critical thinking to fake news),and here, for example.

One thought on “we haven’t taught critical thinking particularly well”

  • I couldn’t agree more, Alison, that critical thinking isn’t taught well. However, I think personality works against critical thinking to such a degree that it really doesn’t matter how well it is taught, people will believe as they are inclined to believe, not according to the evidence. From constant argument with people on both sides of the conspiracy fence on subjects such as the moon landings, 9/11 and COVID-19, I realise that people will believe according to their inclinations no matter what.

    I have an identical twin and on certain events we’re on the same page, for example, 9/11 and COVID-19, however, on the moon landings we differ: I think the evidence clearly shows they happened while she doesn’t. On this topic, she simply does not let me say my piece. If I say something in one argument, she will keep repeating back to me what I said in that argument although the thing I said was in a certain context and I need to clarify but she doesn’t let me – she simply turns into an argument bully and I cannot express what I believe. People often become argument bullies where they might not otherwise be bullies. Their belief holds such incredible sway they simply countenance no argument.

    You can teach people how to identify logical fallacies, you can teach them how to distinguish evidence from other information, you can provide very clear evidence that their belief is faulty, etc but my experience is that people, generally speaking, believe according to their inclinations to believe and often become extremely hostile when their beliefs are challenged. If they tend to disbelieve authorities, they will disbelieve them regardless while on the other hand if they tend to believe, they will believe them regardless and then there is the middle ground which very much tends to sway in support of the authorities but not always. Of course, when people’s beliefs align with reality they’re all logic, yes then they can produce all the logical arguments they need to defend their perfectly reasonable beliefs … but when they their inclination to believe is at odds with reality it’s a very different matter.

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