Teach Critical Thinking in Public Schools?

When I was in third grade we had an assignment where we had to label various statements with “fact” or “opinion”. I guess it stuck with me because I struggled with some of them. But it was a good exercise for a little kid. If I had to guess I’d say that assignment is not part of a modern curriculum.

Propaganda is not new, but the public education system seems to have left most Americans totally unequipped to deal with a tidal wave of misinformation. A lot of us just don’t have the cognitive toolkit to tell fact from alternative-fact. Reality gets so muddied that a lot of us just go with whoever has the loudest and most confident voice.

I don’t have kids but I’m curious whether my future neighbors are learning about confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance in school? If not, shouldn’t they be? IME supporters of the current regime have never even heard of such things and see no value in understanding them. And that is the root cause of the current clusterfuck.

Are there any efforts underway to introduce this sort of thing to the national curriculum? Should there be? How could that be done successfully? I’ve seen some college courses introduced but college is way too late IMO.

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What makes you think that schools don’t teach that sort of thing nowadays?

From articles like these:
Why Public Schools Don’t Teach Critical Thinking – Part 1 | HuffPost
Why critical thinking is overlooked by schools and shunned by students | Teacher Network | The Guardian
Texas GOP Declares: “No More Teaching of ‘Critical Thinking Skills’ in Texas Public Schools” (truthout.org)

If they are teaching it, I submit that it isn’t working very well!

I suppose responsible information consumption is a skill just like math and reading that some kids are good at and some are not. But it’s different in the sense that if you’re bad at math, you generally know it, while information consumption is a bit harder to nail down.

I’m not sure that that exercise really teaches critical thinking, although I suppose it might be a necessary foundation. But my two second graders had that lesson this year.

ETA: I suspect that this may be a skill that has to be modeled and reinforced at home for it to “take” with some students. And some households will actively punish it.

If “critical thinking skills” is something taught, let alone tested for, I would love to see evidence.

I would love to hear from someone who knows something about what is actually taught in schools, like @Left_Hand_of_Dorkness.

The problem isn’t that schools aren’t trying to teach it. In fact, it’s the #1 priority at most schools. The problem is that it’s something that’s really, really difficult to teach. If you have any ideas for how to do it better, teachers everywhere would love to learn it.

Here’s some evidence of it in other countries: https://www.plato-philosophy.org/teaching-high-school-philosophy/

In the US though, yeah…

What evidence are you basing this on?

I was in high school in the early 1970s. I can’t remember if it was English class or Social Studies, but we definitely learned about debating skills: How to find holes in the opposition’s argument, and how to support your own. Certainly counts as “teaching critical thinking”.

More currently: The SAT exams often contain some sort of essay arguing for some point or another, and the student’s assignment is to evaluate how well the author proved his point. This sort of thing would not be on the SAT exam unless the College Board had a reasonable expectation that critical thinking had been taught to those students.

I can speak from personal experience, but ti’s a little harder for me to speak more broadly.

Broadly, Common Core informational reading standards talk a great deal about facts and opinions at the elementary level, and when writing opinion pieces, it’s crucial to support opinions with facts. For example, here’s a third grade writing objective:

At fourth grade, it becomes:

A sub-objective includes:

A fourth-grade nonfiction reading standard:

In Common Core math, there’s a tremendous emphasis on critical thought–indeed, it’s this emphasis (over rote memorization) that comes in for so much criticism. Here are the first three Standards for Mathematical Practice:

How much people use these standards to teach critical thinking is gonna vary. Here are some of the things I’ve done:

  • Created a variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, called The Sharing Game, to teach about game theory.
  • Used the Socratic Method to teach kids about binary number theory.
  • Organized a debate about the American Revolution, in which kids sought arguments to support both the British and the American sides.
  • In literature discussions, over and over emphasized the need to support opinions about the book with specific textual evidence (this is really hard for fourth-graders).
  • Required kids to justify their mathematical reasoning. My three cardinal rules of math are that mathematicians use methods that 1) Get the right answer, 2) They understand, and 3) Don’t take too long. If they can’t prove that their answer is right, they need to keep working at it.
  • Conducted discussions of current events in which students read articles and discuss what’s happening, with the provisos that they must keep the discussions grounded in facts and must show respect to different opinions.

I totally agree that teaching critical thinking is crucial. It’s really, really hard, but when kids grow in this area, it’s key to their growth across all disciplines.

It isn’t difficult to teach kids about propaganda, and it can be a fun subject for them. This is how I learned about such things as a 5th-grader: https://www.agloa.org/propaganda/

Nice LHoD. If that’s representative of what kids are challenged with these days then maybe there’s hope for us yet.

My public school experience was divided between CA and GA (HS). I didn’t encounter anything like what you describe at my school in GA. In fact I doubt many of the teachers I had would have been able to handle it. In 9th grade I got poor marks in Citizenship class for disagreeing with the teacher who was enthusiastically pro-Reagan (she said I didn’t deserve to pass regardless of my test score. TBF I was probably a jerk about it).

If we have people in school who are taught to be critical thinkers and distinguish fact from opinion, then a lot of the trendy nonsense that is also being pushed in ever-lower grades these days might run into some opposition. I wonder which initiative will win.

Most of the time when people complain about “trendy nonsense that’s being pushed into lower grades”, it’s the critical thinking itself that they’re complaining about. Did you have something else in mind?

If you were my student, I’d point out that you’d told us your opinion, but that you still needed to support it with specific facts.

  1. I don’t think we need a separate critical thinking module as such, but several subjects (of course the sciences, but also geography, history etc) should discuss a little how we know things. I have met so many people who have a good understanding of many concepts of modern science, yet still seem to think it’s just a matter of which theory seems intuitively right to the most people. Or have other misconceptions, like that science often gets wholesale rewritten, so why bother to listen to scientists now?

  2. The US does seem to be at something of a crisis point, and mere changes to education are going to be too slow. Tens of millions of people right now apparently believe (and are angry about) the election was fraudulent, based on nothing. Millions believe in QAnon based on worse than nothing (QAnon has made countless false predictions). These are the people who will say they can only trust OAN, Hannity and other utter garbage sources.
    This is the part where I say what the solution is, but sadly I have no idea. I’m just saying: events of recent years have shown just how badly misinformed the US populace is, and how dangerous that is. I’m not saying let’s end free speech, I’m just saying, bringing people back to reality should be one of the forefront topics right now, or the country’s fucked.

Critical thinking is great in theory, but sounds like something that would be extremely difficult to introduce in practice without accusations of bias. An educator would have to do a lot of both-sides-ism to prevent a storm of complaints about people claiming that students are being exposed to a diet of “Team Blue Bad, Team Red Good” or vice versa.