In the interest of getting the next release of SchoolTool done, I may have to adopt a policy of unsubscribing from any blog that links to a column by Jay Mathews. But now that I've read the damn thing and thought about it lying in bed before and after falling asleep, read the background material, etc., I might as well spit out a brief post on the matter of "The Thinking Behind Critical Thinking Courses."
First off, there is no evidence the main topic of the article is a problem. Let's take it for granted teaching "critical thinking" as a skill separate from content knowledge is ineffective. Is there any evidence that this is taking place in schools? No. The article cites a book on the topic distributed to approximately 3% of the teachers in the US circa 1990. Small potatoes.
Beyond that, Mathews overshoots the conclusions his source material in a distinctly conservative direction.Mathews:
Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject--facts, concepts and trends--before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good. [...]
Willingham, like any good educator, still hopes for enlightenment even in his slowest students, like me. He provides tips for teachers who want to give critical thinking instruction a try: avoid expensive special programs, teach critical thinking only after students have absorbed sufficient content and don't reserve such lessons just for advanced students. (emphasis added)
What Dr. Willingham actually recommends is:
Thinking critically should be taught in the context of subject matter. (emphasis in original)
The difference between the two should be apparent to any teacher.
As an ed-tech addendum, Willingham's article is very relevant to those trying to promote things like "evaluating internet resources" as a separate skill -- really, just the online version of "critical thinking." The bottom line for me is that "critical thinking" is not an add on, it is the absolute end product of public education. The reason the state compels you to learn science is so you can think critically about science and make informed decisions as a democratic actor. Critical habits of mind should be fundamental to the cultural DNA of every school:
-The question of evidence, or "How do we know what we know?"
-The question of viewpoint in all its multiplicity, or "Who's speaking?"
-The search for connection and patterns, or "What causes what?"
-Supposition, or "How might things have been different?"
-Why any of it matters, or "Who cares?"