Thinking Left Behind: 5 Reasons Education Fails at Critical Thinking

brighter minds better futures critical thinking education system Feb 15, 2024

(Check out The Critical Thinking Institute Podcast for the full discussion:

Recognizing the Issue

If you've stumbled upon this post, chances are you've sensed a glaring issue within our educational system regarding critical thinking skills. This concern may stem from various observations: the state of current global events, the behaviors and problem-solving abilities you notice in your own or your friends' children, the general level of discourse in your surroundings, or the trajectory our society appears to be on. You're here seeking confirmation for your suspicions and understanding of the reasons behind this trend.

Conversely, a smaller group of readers might find the idea that our educational system fails to instill critical thinking skills in students quite shocking. This realization might worry you, especially if it suggests that your children, or even you yourself, might not have been taught to think critically during your school years.

Assurance and Clarification

Regardless of which perspective you bring, this blog aims to unequivocally demonstrate that our educational system, across public and private institutions and at all levels up to graduate studies, does indeed fall short in teaching young people critical thinking. If you suspect this issue is tied to political ideologies or educational movements like Critical Race Theory or its opposition, you'll discover that the problem is deeply systemic, relating to the very nature of education and our approach to it, rather than to any political or social debates.

Ground Rules for Our Discussion

Before diving into the five core reasons behind the educational system's failure to teach critical thinking, let's agree on three foundational principles:

The Definition of Critical Thinking Is Secondary

For our purposes, critical thinking encompasses problem-solving, decision-making, innovation, ideation, logical reasoning, evidence evaluation, and "thinking outside the box," among other related concepts. While the Critical Thinking Institute adopts a more nuanced, neuroscientific, and linguistic definition, the broad understanding suffices here because, regardless of the definition used in research, the findings about critical thinking in education remain consistently disappointing.

The Issue Is Not With Teachers

It's crucial to understand that this systemic problem does not originate from teachers, who are themselves victims of this wider educational failure. This discussion aims to shed light on the systemic nature of the issue rather than assign blame to individual educators.

Distinguishing Intelligence from Critical Thinking

Lastly, acknowledging that students are not learning to think critically in school is not an indictment of their intelligence. Intelligence, defined here as the brain's processing capability, is distinct from critical thinking, which comprises a set of learned skills. This distinction is vital and supported by research.

By adhering to these ground rules, we can explore the critical thinking gap in our educational system more constructively and identify paths forward to address this significant challenge. 

With this backdrop of educators grappling with the challenge of defining and teaching critical thinking, let's delve into how this impacts the classroom and the broader educational landscape.

Reason 1: Teachers Have Not Been Taught How to Teach Critical Thinking.

The simple fact of the matter is that even though the term “critical thinking” gets thrown around a lot in teacher education programs, most educators receive no direct training in how critical thinking is actually taught. So, we cannot blame educators for not teaching critical thinking.  They received an education about how to teach, but we're not provided, within that education, a means of teaching critical thinking. In fact, I can't tell you the hundreds or thousands of educators with whom I've interacted who will openly say that they want nothing more than to teach their students to think critically, but never have been given the means to do so. So, if you are frustrated that our schools are not teaching critical thinking, imagine how our teachers feel about it. 

For example, one study, Teaching The Dog's Breakfast: Some Dangers And How To Deal With Them, found that not one out of 30 educators could provide a sufficient definition of critical thinking. They could only offer “a dog's breakfast” definition, meaning. “a hodgepodge of miscellaneous terms and catchphrases, including, but not limited to, some mix of reasoning, argument analysis, introductory, formal logic, informal logic, inductive reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving and or decision making.” In other words, they could throw around the same general group of terms that everybody generally throws around, but they could not provide an authoritative and teachable definition. 

So, educators cannot even really define critical thinking, much less teach it.  But that’s not really their fault, and the reason is that it was not until relatively recently that science began to understand what actually happens in the brain when we think. Innovations and accessibility to things like MRI scans, where we're able to watch the brain thinking in real time, have finally granted us the means to develop brain-centered strategies for the teaching of critical thinking. Without those recent developments in science and neuroscience, the critical thinking institute would not exist. So, in a very real sense, for most of education’s history it was not possible to develop scientifically grounded methods for teaching people to be better thinkers. 

Reason 2: Education Has Valued Knowledge over Thinking. 

The second reason that schools don't teach critical thinking is that our educational system is predicated on the acquisition of knowledge, not on the development of independent critical thinking skills. For most of modern education’s history, which dates back to the 1800s, knowledge was a much more valuable commodity than it is today, and that's because people had no access to most of the knowledge in the world.  For example, there was no way to become a doctor except to learn directly from people who already possessed that knowledge. 

Thus, students would show up for a lecture and they would be taught by a doctor who, and this should blow your mind, knew everything there was to know at that time about medicine. Think about that again. Unlike having the world’s knowledge at their fingertips, for most of human history, knowledge is rare, and thus much more valuable.  And there wasn’t nearly as much of it.   Again, the doctor who was teaching the class knew everything there was to know at that time about medicine. 

Contrast that against today. Not only is there no way for anyone to know everything that is known about medicine, no doctor could even keep up with everything that's being published in their individual specialty, such as neurology or orthopedics.  Not only that, in today’s world, anyone who wanted could, on their phone, access all of the same information that any doctor can access. (Of course, especially with medicine and other sciences, they might not understand most of what's published in academic publications. But the accessibility remains.) 

The point, however, is that since everyone now has access to the same information, information no longer holds the value it used to hold. Furthermore, as the amount of information increases, what becomes more valuable are the critical thinking skills to discern what is valuable and how to put it into action. Unfortunately, our educational system has in no way kept up with how the world has changed. 

What value is the teacher who can tell the student about the Civil War when the student can learn the same information on their phone while sitting on the bus on the way to school? And so, even though access to information has increased by incalculable exponents, the role of our educators has not changed at all, and thus their role has been diminished. 

Our educational system has to reconceptualize what it is to be educated. And to be educated is not merely about the acquisition of knowledge, as it used to be. To be educated, truly educated in the modern world has to be predicated on the ability to think critically about information and use it to solve modern problems. 

Reason 3: Educators Believe They Are Teaching Critical Thinking When They Are Not.

Many educators do try to use teaching methods that they truly believe are teaching students to think critically. And they believe that, again, because they have not been taught otherwise. In fact, in study after study after study, roughly 90-to-95% of educators claim that they do in fact teach their students to think critically. But why do they believe that they are teaching critical thinking when they're not?

Well, there are two primary reasons: The first reason is lecture.  Ample research studies, including wearable MRI scans on students, demonstrate that lecturing not only doesn’t foster critical thinking, it hampers it.  Simply put, the teacher’s doing all the talking, the students aren’t thinking.  Unfortunately, even though most educators will say that they do not lecture very much, research studies demonstrate that lecture is still prevalent.  It's just been disguised a little bit. It's disguised by what are called flip classrooms, where the students watch the lectures outside of the classroom on video, by clicker interactions during classes, by class “discussions” that are really lectures with questions invited along the way, and so on. 

The second reason that educators believe they teach critical thinking even though they do not is even more important. It’s the distinction between immersion methods of teaching critical thinking and direct methods of teaching critical thinking. Immersion methods of teaching critical thinking create a learning situation where students have the opportunity to think—things like class discussions, group work, writing assignments, reading reflections, online discussion forums, etc. All of those are situations where, in contrast to lecture, students do enjoy more active opportunities to express their thinking, to reason through ideas, to talk to one another, etc.. 

But if we actually look at the research on immersion methods of teaching critical thinking, what they show is that, on the whole, they don't really teach critical thinking at all. Even Montessori education, of which I am a tremendous fan for its research outcomes with respect to cognitive development and social skills, is an immersion environment that could do so much more, so easily to teach critical thinking skills directly. Why? Because there is an essential difference between giving students the opportunity to think and teaching them how to think better

This might be the central critical flaw as to why our educational system does not teach critical thinking: Only direct methods of critical thinking instruction--actually teaching students strategies for thinking critically, such as methods for problem solving--are shown to increase critical thinking outcomes. 

Think of it like this: At recess, students have an opportunity to run around, and most students, especially younger kids, will certainly seize that opportunity. And, to a very limited extent, running around during play will help students run better.  But play-running is very different from a gym class that takes students out onto a track and teaches them how to run, and makes them run with better form over longer distances, over and over again. Allowing students the opportunity to run around at recess in no way compares to training students to be skilled runners. And so immersion methods for critical thinking, such as group discussions, are like recess. They grant students the opportunity to think, but they still don’t train students in how to think better

Reason 4: Grades Aren’t Based on Critical Thinking.

Not only do educators not put critical thinking at the forefront of their assessments of student work, you’ll actually find a high percentage of educators who will tell you that critical thinking can't be assessed. Even educators who say that they teach  critical thinking in their classes will also tell you that the main aspects of their assessment are not based on critical thinking. And those educators who do assess students based on critical thinking will not necessarily be able to tell you exactly what that is and the standards by which they are doing so. 

Again, this is not their fault. It was only around 1990 that the first recognized popular rubric for assessing critical thinking even emerged in educational circles.  Worse, though there aren't many, most of the modern rubrics for assessing it aren't particularly effective because they struggle to  delineate between ineffective critical thinking and effective critical thinking. For example, if, looking at a writing assignment, a rubric might try to gauge how well students use evidence. But if a rubric creates a hierarchy for the use of evidence, it usually goes something like this:

C - the student used little evidence. More evidence is required. 

B - the student used an adequate amount of evidence to support their ideas. 

A - the student's use of evidence was thorough and complex. 

But how does one consistently define the distinction between “little evidence” vs. “adequate evidence” vs. “thorough” use of evidence?  How are students to understand those exact distinctions?  And what is it to use evidence in a “complex” way?  How is that defined?  Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to define those distinctions clearly for students, much less with objectivity.  Thus, even when a thinking rubric is presented, which is exceedingly rare, it’s typically not very helpful, nor objective.

(Better methods do exist, by the way, but that’s a much larger discussion to itself.)

Reason 5: A Class Structure of Madness.

Consider how classes are typically organized: We require students to go to their first class, perhaps History, and devote an hour thinking about the Civil War. They are supposed to get deeply intellectually involved in issues around the Civil War, and become passionate and invested in their thinking about the Civil War. But only until 10 o'clock.  At exactly 10 o'clock, the bell tells them to stop thinking about the Civil War. It doesn’t care how passionate they were about it, about what ideas they were developing, about what brilliance might have emerged a few hours later. Instead, they are forced to turn their brains off with respect to History and walk down the hall and, in theory, become immediately, passionately,  and deeply thoughtful about Hamlet. But no one can switch their brains on and off as if with a light switch.

This class structure has two effects: First, it tacitly teaches students, very early on, that the educational system does not truly care at all about their thinking. If it did, it wouldn't arrange classes the way it does. Instead, it would afford students long, extended, deep periods of time to truly delve into their ideas, build them, formulate them under the tutelage of a master thinking educator. 

But the second effect of this structure is madness. What sane person would create an educational system that treats a young person's brain in this fashion? What sane person would think it is even possible for a young brain to get deeply invested in complex thought within an hour about one subject, only to immediately shut that subject off and turn on deep invested critical thought about another subject, over and over and over again, for years and years and years. 

And if you're wondering, well, how else could education be set up? What would such a different structure look like? Well, there are other structures and it is entirely possible. In fact, in many ways it's simpler and easier, but that's a discussion for another podcast. 

But, for now, consider the consequences of these five reasons why schools don’t teach critical thinking.  All of them are deeply woven into the fabric of our educational system itself, and all require that we rethink what our system values, how it is structured, and how it goes about training our teachers.  There’s a lot of work ahead, so I hope you’ll join the effort for school reform and work tirelessly for the benefit of our young people, and our future.

What Can You Do For Your Children?

Recognizing the crucial gap in critical thinking education, the Critical Thinking Institute offers specialized programs designed to equip children with the essential skills they need to think critically and solve problems creatively. Our programs are grounded in the latest neuroscientific research and educational best practices, ensuring that your child receives a robust foundation in critical thinking that schools often overlook. By enrolling your child in our programs, you're not just enhancing their academic abilities; you're preparing them for a successful future in an increasingly complex world. Take the first step towards securing your child's future success by exploring our programs today. Empower your child with the tools to navigate their educational journey and beyond with confidence and competence. Join us at the Critical Thinking Institute, where we're committed to fostering the next generation of thinkers and leaders.


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