Critical Thinking Research and Stats

Ep 183: Critical Thinking – Important? Yes. But Can We Teach It?

Can We Teach Children to Think Critically?Why does it concern psychologists that the Texas GOP platform recently opposed the teaching of critical thinking? Most of us have been told since we were very young that critical thinking is very important. Psychologists certainly agree and a lot of time spent in most psychology classes is spent learning how to think critically. Why is it such a central part of our classes? And here’s a kicker: it might be a lot harder to teach it than we had hoped. Find out why critical thinking is so central to psychology. Sounds kinda dry? I think you’ll find this a lot of fun (in a mental kind of way…).

Critical thinking is essential if we are to get to the root of our problems and develop
reasonable solutions. After all, the quality of everything we do
is determined by the quality of our thinking. – The Critical Thinking Community

Resources on Critical Thinking

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. – 2012 Platform of the Republican Party of Texas

School Health Care – We urge legislators to prohibit reproductive health care services, including counseling, referrals, and distribution of condoms and contraception through public schools. We support the parents’ right to choose, without penalty, which medications are administered to their minor children. We oppose medical clinics on school property except higher education and health care for students without parental consent. — 2012 Platform of the Republican Party of Texas



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  1. Avatar


    October 28, 2012

    No kidding – it actually is Carl Sagan day. Didn’t know that existed but I love it. I read his Demon-Haunted World book many years ago and found it to be very influential on my thinking. Thanks Mark!

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    Mark Spencer

    October 28, 2012

    Both excellent episodes. You have inspired me to somehow promote critical thinking. I have been considering starting an Astronomy club, maybe that would be a good way to contribute. Thanks for these episodes I am taking some notes and will respond more after I get through them all. Happy Carl Sagan day!

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    October 28, 2012

    Does anyone have any recommendations of picture books for kids that would encourage critical thinking or might start a good discussion? One that comes to mind for me is “Boy were we wrong about Dinosaurs!” (

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    October 28, 2012

    BTW- Mike’s comment is brilliant.

    I hope I have effectively communicated why a rational person can pragmatically want to pull CT from the curriculum. The Christian angle is only one way the focus on softer skills gets abused; the basic premise is, it is too easy to railroad it into a discussion that is less about CT and more about someone’s agenda.

    Also I have sat in on those platform committee’s and when you see something called out so specifically as CT was in the Texas GOP platform, it indicates that somewhere in the state has been handing out rotten apples in their class room and has passed it off as CT. A similar argumenet would be- if kids were using the library computers to download vast amounts of porn, would you not put a lock down on that?

    As per the birth control thing, lets agree to disagree. As a parent, I have vehemet opposition with another adult having those conversations or givng birth control to my minor child w/out my consent or knowledge. Again here in Wa, a school official lined a 13-14 year old minor up for an abortion- w/out her parents ever knowing… and yes this was through Planned Parenthood. The rest of civilization might be ok with sexxing up our kids or abandoning their role as parents in this matter- but in our house that is the parents turf and school officials need to stay off of it. Note that this is different than opposing sex ed or knowing about forms of birth control (I am all for kids having that knowledge).

    Where do you suppose Einstein, Edison, Ben Franklin and countless others learned CT when it wasn’t taught in public schools?

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    October 28, 2012

    I think the best way to outgrow religions is to teach about religions. Not one religion as truth as it’s done today, but from a historical and psychological point of view. To teach about the history, roots, causes of religions. What makes people religious and the opposite.

    Religion is very interesting phenomena. It’s unbelievable how it’s possible for sane people living in 21 century with tons of facts, literature and scientific instruments available to still believe in myths wrote down several thousand years ago by some barely literate desert hippies.

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    d thompson

    October 28, 2012

    that is what sunday school is for. to teach religion in church. im not sure they should be teaching religion in public schools with all the different religions. it seems it would cause an uproar with parents and students. a catholic or christian school which i attended before, it would be ok or religion college like johnson bible college. im not against religion i just dont tthink alot of people are going to go for know how some people are.

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    d thompson

    October 28, 2012

    critical thinking is important yes and no i dont oppose teachers,there are a lot of good teachers out there that care about teaching and their students.

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    d thompson

    October 28, 2012

    that dont make any sense. why would you through in the part aboput beating the spous? republican demacratic yes. i understand. no one is truely rep or dem, everyone i know is a little of both. so why cant we get an independent in office? wouldnt they be the better choice.? gov wont allow it iguess.

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    October 28, 2012

    An interesting conversation. I just now had a chance to catch up on these posts and I’ve made a few notes on Andy’s position on this issue. I’m a little busy today but I definitely will post a response – or perhaps discuss this in a future episode.

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    October 28, 2012

    Not all issues are binary issues. By advising someone to “consider both sides of an issue” you are implying that all issues are binary or that the issues being asked are valid. It isn’t just Republican or Democrat. It also isn’t valid to raise the issue “Has Greg stopped beating his wife?”. You could say there are two sides to that issue, the affirmative and negative, but they both would be wrong if Greg never beat his wife. Also just because you have considered all known sides still doesn’t mean that there are not unknown positions on an issue that no one has considered yet.

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    October 28, 2012

    Andy, these are not my statements. These are questions for clarification 🙂 For now i understand your position as that critical thinking is important and a good thing, but teachers use it as an excuse to attack Christians and belittle their beliefs. Is this your position ? if not, what is then ?

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    October 28, 2012


    Those are your words, not mine and by the phrasing of your question I’m skeptical you are interested in an honest debate or understanding on the dissent rather you are looking for a way to parrot back a highly bigoted stereotype against the position.

    My case is illustrated by an individual named Dan Savage. He was brought in via a public school program to teach tolerance to kids here in Washington state. How did he do this? In a mandatory assembly in front of multiple student bodies, he proceeded with a verbal assault against Christians in the audience. It was extremely hateful and made the news for about a week here locally.

    His agenda was hate and it was guised as teaching tolerance. Sadly this is not an isolated incident of that kind of behavior by school officials in positions of authority. Texans are seeing similar abuses with critical thinking and think it would be a better use of education dollars to excel at the basics.

    In his podcast, the prof references agenda driven parties. Conservatives have had enough of politically agenda driven idealogies in the school system. Aside from failing to meet the well intended outcome, it is coming at the cost of teens who can’t read, write or do basic math.

    The dissent has less to do with some massive conspiracy by conservatives to create mindless automatons blindly following an ideology than it does with the practicality that the curricula is rampant with abuse and the pragmatic solution is to get back to basics.

    Oddly the first generation to not do better than our parents is the one which was taught critical thinking and self esteem by the public school system, so the case to get schools to excel at the basics is a strong one.

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    October 28, 2012

    So critical thinking is important ? And you oppose teaching it, because all teachers teach it the wrong way ? ;D

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    October 28, 2012

    first- apologies for a few grammatical errors. I had a house guest arrive just as I trying to wrap that (long and hopefully) response. I’m writing a comment on the internet, not a thesis.

    Tomas- yes- as a new dad I’ve given a lot of thought to this topic. My answer is pages long and you would not like parts of it.

    The first part comes from home. An unshakable amount of respect and pride in one’s parents and family. When your moral compass and week begins and ends with Sunday dinner with 3 generations of family, you are getting wisdom and role modelling that cannot be replaced. I guess in a way, this is social programming, but it is also undeniably the best social programming and group think there is.

    The next part is a lot more complex than I’ll state it and dove tails well into critical thinking…and is best stated as follows. Treat everyone giving you information as though they were full of beans and leading you off a cliff. You can take this second part to whatever extreme you want, but a healthy amount of skepticism towards others is key.

    I’ll bait another topic: I am not as eager to throw the old ways of thinking out the door as the Prof. Things that are learned the hard way get passed down from our parents and grandparents because they found them to be true for them. Largely these are true. I am not cavalier to think I am smarter at my age than they were over an entire lifetime or generations. Presume they were rational people with lots of wisdom. Ok.

    So take a highly controversial topic ie racism and connect it to generations previous to our own. How did rational people come to embrace such behavior? Many people bandy accusations of racism where it doesn’t exist and completely ignore it where it does. This might be getting out of the Psych file territory- so leave it alone if that’s the case.

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    October 28, 2012

    @Andy You have raised an important issue of social programming and group-thinking. Do you have any ideas how to be / raise your kids to be less susceptible to it ?

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    October 28, 2012

    I have your podcast in my rotation and often catch it along with other viewpoints for my 2 hour each way to work commute to and from work. I was patient and listened to both episodes. I waited and digested it before taking the time to give you another vantage point.

    My conclusion is that your podcast on critical thinking was lacking in, critical thinking. “See both sides of the issue?” You did not. You did not explore why rational people would want this material pulled from the public school curriculum. Instead, you assaulted Fox news as agenda driven (curious you didn’t point to the lack of objectivity from other news networks) and completely brushed over the gap between critical thinking being a great thing and what goes wrong with executing public policy. As you correctly point out, critical thinking is hard to teach. In fact it’s a trait so rare that few truly become good at it. Next, the part of the brain where decision making takes place doesn’t fully develop until about age 26- ie the ability to really think things through. Taught wrong, critical thinking will simply reinforce behaviors that lead to “group think.” I can tell you that back in the 1980s in Washington State public schools, we were taught critical thinking and while you can understand the tenets, you only really apply it after having learned a thing or two in life the hard way. What typically happens is critical thinking cannot be taught by the same people who will ostracize you for disagreeing with them and who fail to truly embrace it themselves.

    Next, take a look at what is being piped into our public school curriculums.

    Lesson 1: Self esteem. You are special. You deserve a trophy for participation. You will exceed anything your parents ever did because you are smarter. We won’t keep score in games because we don’t want to injure this sense of ego we are cultivating.

    Lesson 2: Critical Thinking. We’ll teach you about it and even tell you that people have been burned at the stake for practicing it through the centuries. However we won’t ever confess to the group-think mentality WE participate in and strongly re-enforce.

    Lesson 3: Let’s talk about climate change. We’ll watch the Al Gore movie and declare the science is settled and if you disagree with the teacher, you will get sent to the principal’s office and I’ll refer to you as a close minded bigot and criticize your parents for the rest of school year.

    Lesson 4: The universe was not created by God and if you assert any notion that a higher power had anything to do with us evolving from single celled slime, we’ll ostracize you.

    Can critical thinking really be taught in that environment? No. Do you not agree that parents are getting the perception that their public school system is taking on too much of the parenting role and frankly want to rein it back to the basics? I know teachers who believe this as well. Further, I’ll assert that critical thinking gets used as a tool to drive an anti-faith agenda which seems to be running strong in the public school system. I saw that in my own school and that was at a time when I very much disliked anything to do with organized religion. In my assessment, never has a Lord of Flies type of mentality been so strong among youth. With good reason, parents are blaming it on the level of social programming that’s going on schools.

    We don’t have to agree on politics, but we do need to agree that my kids are off limits to social programming which has been guised as something else ie critical thinking.

    It seems to me Professor you’ve allowed your own politics and perceptions of conservatives and conservative values to cloud your assessment. In my view your analysis was not even handed and has marred what I’ve considered prior to this point to be a highly objective approach to a fascinating subject.

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    October 28, 2012

    Steve: I disagree with you on many points. First, a critical thinker is not necessarily someone who does not believe in god. That is a key issue. You simplify things far too much when you say that what is at stake is a world with or without god. Scientific/critical thinking does not have as it’s “agenda” to rid people of the idea of god (at least most scientists would agree with that). Second, a class in science is not “suppressing” anything. A class in science is a class in science. It is not a class in religion. Scientific thinking emphasizes the importance of evidence. Religion is not taught in a science class because there is no physical evidence for the existence of god. If there were, it would be discussed. However, just because there is no evidence does not mean that there is no god. There very well could be a god. When there is evidence for it then it would be discussed in a science class. For now, it shuold be taught in a class on religion. In a class on writing, you do not teach math.

    Considering alternative arguments is what science is all about! Scientific/critical thinkers MUST ask themselves if they are wrong and if there is evidence for a different point of view. Again – if the question has to do with the existence of god, there is yet to be evidence. But scientific thinkers should keep their minds open to the possibility.

    As for “shaky theories”: the theory of evolution is not shaky at all. There is a ton of evidence to support the theory that living things evolved over millions of years. That said, if we find evidence that life is only 6,000 years old then it should be discussed in a science class. There is no such evidence. The evidence strongly supports evolution over millions of years. This, again, does not mean that there is no god. When/If there is evidence in favor of the existence of god, it will become a topic in a science class. For now, the two ways of thinking need to be taught and they need to be taught pretty much separately because they are two different ways of thinking about the world.

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    Stephen Fordenbacher

    October 28, 2012

    I am a Christian and I listened to your Critical Thinking podcast recently. Let’s cut to the chase. Your comments about the Texas GOP opposing the teaching of critical thinking boils done to one issue that you sidestepped. Our government, has removed God/Christianity/Religion from our schools and replaced it with Atheism/Secular Humanism/Evolution. They support this with the idea that the government shouldn’t promote a specific religion. But, what is really at stake is not just a matter of religion, but a matter of world view: one with God and one without. Is it really fair to attack children in school because they were raised with a worldview that differs from your own? They are vulnerable and not mature enough to handle such a lopsided attack.
    To continue, do the schools really teach critical thinking when they suppress discussion or evidence that opposes molecules to man evolution? Not really. Are they promoting critical thinking when they mock Christians as ignoramuses that ignore science? Not really. To be sure, there is an agenda afoot, and lofty academic language doesn’t hide what is really going on. Your side is in power on this earth and using it to their own benefit. Your side does not give alternative arguments, or challenges to your shaky theories a fair chance in the discussion. So let’s call a spade a spade – you are not really promoting critical thinking in all areas equally. If you were, things would be very different in our country and our schools.

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    October 28, 2012

    You take it too mild Michael, it’s not that “there are some issues here”. The idea is more than stupid, and those who came up with it are idiots who don’t know what they are talking about or intentionally want to harm society. The same with ones who signed it. People who don’t know what they are agreeing with, are stupid or criminals are not welcome in government.


    With that “undermining parental authority” they are basically saying that parents have the right to lie to their kids, and should be helped by government to enforce their lies from being exposed.
    Guess what, if kids weren’t able to expose tooth fairy or santa in childhood, how are they going to expose corrupt politicians when adults? It’s sad to see how efforts are put in making a population more stupid, obviously for more control. It’s a crime against nation and it’s a shame these people not only walk free, but are in power.

    With all that “this is a big mistake” thing, it could be planned in order not to lose supporters if people rise up, and to push the law if they don’t. win-win.

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    October 28, 2012

    Of course critical thinking can be taught. The question is whether it can be taught in a one-semester undergraduate course. There is also the question of how CT ability is measured. I think some of the same problems that arise for attempts to measure intelligence also arise for attempts to measure CT. Depending on criteria of measurement, some CT methodologies seem to be teachable (for example, there is some research that supports the claim that CT can be improved by teaching argument mapping, though I am not sure how rigorous this research has been – see, for example: ).

    I am an academic philosopher and have taught CT courses in the past.The biggest problem, as I see it, is that students often gain explicit knowledge of how to apply the tools and methods for the purpose of doing well in the course, but they may not transfer or generalize that knowledge to non-course contexts. This problem doesn’t apply only to CT instruction, of course. The same problem has also been noted for other areas of competence. I wonder, Michael, if you are aware of any particularly good research on how to help students transfer knowledge or skills to novel contexts?

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    October 28, 2012

    I agree with both of you wholeheartedly. I suspected that in an episode like this one on the importance of critical thinking I would be speaking to like-minded listeners. Still – very good to hear from you both.

    You are correct about how the explorer should fill the bag full of sand and leave it behind him (or her) as he walks through the cave. What’s interesting about this question is that it is not that hard for Americans to answer – almost everyone gets it right. What I’ll discuss in the follow-up episode is that if you ask the same question of someone from China almost all of them get it wrong. Now – can you figure out why that is so?

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    October 28, 2012

    A possible answer to the question posed in the podcast about the explorer in the cave would be to fill the bag with sand from the beach and lay a trail of sand down as the explorer goes into the cave.
    As a parent, I relish my child questioning my reasoning about things. If I cannot justify my actions and beliefs then they should be questioned. It is not necessary that I convince my child to agree, but only that I have the justification for my position. but encouraging my child to engage in critical thinking would only result in my child better understanding my reasoning and be more likely to accept (and maybe agree with?) my position. To me, a child that can critically think, as defined in the podcast, is far easier to parent, provided the parent is a critical thinker as well.

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    October 28, 2012

    Wouldn’t we live in a much nicer world if kids questioned their parents and parents actually listened? The US govt school system looooooves authority. But authority doesn’t love kids. It controls, it doesn’t teach.

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