Teaching Critical Thinking: An Interview with Steve Pearlman

I recently read Steve Pearlman’s excellent new book, America’s Critical Thinking Crisis: the Failure and Promise of Education, and I immediately reached out to him. At the Institute for Humane Education, we share Steve’s conviction that critical thinking is critically important, and we’re thrilled that he offers pedagogical approaches for creating critical thinkers. Steve is the co-founder of the Critical Thinking Initiative, which provides tools, an online course, and consultation. He’s been teaching in higher education since 1992 and now serves the University of Saint Joseph as the Director of Interdisciplinary Writing and Reasoning, where he focuses on faculty development for pedagogies related to critical thinking and student engagement. 

Zoe Weil: When I was regularly delivering humane education presentations in schools, I often told the students, “Don’t believe a word I say.” I wanted them to be investigators and researchers in order to ascertain for themselves what is true, especially around controversial issues. You point out, however, that critical thinking skills don’t improve by telling students to “question everything” and that students need to be taught to think critically. How can teachers do this? 

Steve: This is a great question, and it speaks to one of the biggest misconceptions about critical thinking in education. Many educators believe that engaging students in an activity in which the students do some thinking is equivalent to teaching them how to think. This is understandable because it seems to make sense that if we can get students thinking, they’ll eventually become better thinkers.  But prompting students to think and teaching students to think are distinct actions.  

Consider that thinking is natural to human beings; students think all the time. They think through social relationships, life problems, sports, music, etc. And thinking about some of the problems in their lives is often more complex than thinking through school learning. For example, consider the complexity of thinking required to understand and persist through a parents’ divorce. That situation confronts any child with far more moving parts – emotional, social, personal, psychological, economic, geographic, etc. – than just about any school assignment. As one piece of evidence among many, wearable fMRI monitors show lower brain activity during class than outside it. 

Teaching students to think critically requires direct instruction in what critical thinking is and how to do it. It requires instructions in critical thinking methods – supported by assessments – thinking-driven pedagogies, and more. At the root of teaching thinking is actually a thinking-based means of assessment, so educators who wish to step into the process should devise gradable conceptions of critical thinking that students also understand, and assignments should be directed toward those explicit thinking goals.  We devised our own at The Critical Thinking Initiative, but any explicit descriptions that students understand and that have levels of achievement are a big step in the right direction.

It is absolutely critical to note that educators should not be faulted for not teaching thinking. They’ve not only never been trained to do so, but the research on how to do so is only becoming clear as we speak.

Zoe: Why is critical thinking so challenging? 

Steve: Two answers, one more accessible and one locked in neuroscience: For the accessible one, ask yourself, as well as your friends and colleagues, to define critical thinking. You’ll probably find yourself regaled with terms such as “analyze” or “gain insight into,” and other catchwords.  

Then probe a little more deeply. Ask them what it means to “analyze” (or whatever concept they offer).  More importantly, ask them how to train someone to do it.  See if they can really offer concrete methods.  Even if someone can define critical thinking and provide what seem like good ideas for how to teach someone to do it, are those ideas supported by research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, or do they just sound good?  Unfortunately, when it comes to teaching critical thinking, what sounds effective sometimes (or often) is not.  

Even if you encounter a person who offers a very lucid definition and method, see if it aligns with others.  Chances are that you’ll get as many different conceptions of critical thinking as people you ask. Thus, even if one person defines it well, the fact that so many others define it differently means that we’re seldom even discussing the same thing. (And then think about how hard it is for students to think critically when educators define it differently!)

As for the more neuroscientific answer, teaching critical thinking not only requires a conception of critical thinking rooted in the neuroscience of how our brains function, but also requires an ecosystem around it so it can flourish. If we can provide students with a neuroscientific conception of it, but do not foster it with well-designed assignments, then the definition does students no good. If we offer assignments but do not assess based foremost on the same conception of critical thinking, and do so in a way that students understand what we are assessing and how, then the teaching of thinking will fail again. If we do all of the above but lack pedagogies in our classrooms for supporting students’ efforts to think critically, then we still fail. And if the same conception of critical thinking is not reinforced from class to class, and from grade level to grade level, then any skill that is developed may atrophy. So critical thinking must be given primary emphasis and attention; it must not only infiltrate but drive the education ecosystem.

Explaining how to accomplish that educationally takes more time than a blog affords, but a critical start any educator can take is to move students away from a focus on knowledge and toward a focus on interrogating and applying ideas. For those who fear it will diminish the amount of learning, know that research shows that engaging ideas more deeply increases the persistence of that learning.

Zoe: Toward the end of your book you write, “What would our world be today if education taught every child how to think critically about problems we never saw, toward solutions we don’t know, with resources at which we might never even have glanced?” I love these questions! What do you think the world would look like if we transformed education in this way?

Steve:  Better. But the delta there is incalculable. We cannot know what discoveries we haven’t made, what breakthroughs we did not reach, what problems we would have staved off. But if we consider the millions upon millions of students we could have educated (or could educate moving forward) to think critically and did not, then I think it is safe to consider the loss, at the very least, tragic.

Zoe: At the Institute for Humane Education we consider critical thinking to be absolutely foundational for solving problems and creating just, sustainable, and humane systems and societies. But by itself critical thinking is not enough. What else do you consider essential in education?

Steve: Education should never just do one thing. But I’d like to emphasize the number of other positive qualities that come along with real training in critical thinking. Critical thinking helps students appreciate other points of view and the complexity of ideas. It fosters intellectual humility, compassion, open-mindedness, patience, and so many other qualities we need to see in our world. That said, I don’t propose that critical thinking is everything. Far from it. We need education that fosters compassion, collaboration, and the embrace of change. To put it another way, intelligence without wisdom is a golem.

Zoe: Do you have hope that we can transform the education system in these ways? How do you think we can best do so?

Steve: I think we can change it, and it will change. It’s not a question of if, but when. More and more educational institutions are putting critical thinking forward, and those that aren’t making serious moves to do so now will soon find themselves behind the curve. But let’s enjoy this ride. It’s an exciting time, and we can all experience, and play roles in, a revolution in education.

Thank you so much for inviting me to take part in this blog, and for all the amazing work you do to improve the world.