Is Critical Thinking Domain Specific?

There is an increasing and welcome push for teaching Critical Thinking in schools, but there is also a staunch resistance.

The opposition is built, as far as I have observed, on two main pillars: 

  1. There’s already enough on teachers’ plates without adding one more thing;
  2. Critical Thinking relies on domain specific knowledge.

I’ll address both of these arguments, but the focus of this piece will be on the second.

Can critical thinking be developed without domain specific knowledge?

Those who argue not suggest that a basis of remembered facts is necessary for critical thinking. This is the belief that critical thinking is in fact little more than a retrieval and analysis of collated facts. This sees critical thinking essentially as an emergent property. As a result, a priority is placed on the direct instruction of explicit information. On this view, critical thinking is therefore limited to the specific domain in which the learner has amassed their facts. They might have enough domain specific knowledge to employ critical thinking in that domain, but they would not be able to think critically about anything else.

However, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what critical thinking is. Proponents of critical thinking development in schools would insist that it can indeed be developed independent of domain specific knowledge. Moreover, I argue that not only is critical thinking not an emergent property of facts but that in fact, by prioritising critical thinking, learners will be be able to acquire a great deal of the facts themselves.

So what is Critical Thinking?

For the most part, we talk of critical thinking as a skill. But I’m not sure that is helpful. For one, I don’t believe it is quite accurate. And moreover, I think it gives grist to the opposition mill, because there is some weight to the claim that ‘skills’ are not as transferrable as we might have thought. But this is something of a red herring. A lot of what we call skills, aren’t really skills after all. We might find it more useful to call them tools, approaches or even habits. This is how I think of Critical Thinking. And that is why I say that it doesn’t rely on domain specific facts.

Developing the habit of Critical Thinking means equipping learners with tools and approaches that they can apply in various scenarios in order to make sense of things. The primary foundation of Critical Thinking is asking questions. In particular, the questions ‘how’ and ‘why’. Another is counterfactual thinking, which can even be boiled down to another question, ‘what if’. A third tool of Critical Thinking is pattern recognition.

When faced with a novel scenario, pointing these tools at the facts can help develop new understanding. Asking the right questions, identifying patterns and relationships, making predictions; making a habit of these approaches can ensure we get the most out  new facts with these tools can ensure that we get the most out of the facts. More than that, these tools of Critical Thinking can help learners sift through the available information and extract the facts while casting aside distractions and mistruths. And those facts that are acquired are more than just facts; they’re richer than rote learned facts, they are contextualised and meaningful. They come with understanding built in, which is very often not the case with facts memorised through direct instruction. 

But what about teachers’ limited time?

If you don’t believe I’ve already answered that question, then I’d suggest you read the points above and engage your Critical Thinking tools…

Developing Critical Thinking is not another thing on the already crowded plate of the teacher—and yes, our plates are absolutely overflowing. 

Rather than another thing to learn, Critical Thinking is more of an approach to learning. Learners will learn the same things, but the quality of the learning will be improved if they learn them through Critical Thinking. The learning will be more meaningful and more contextual, which means it will be more memorable and more practical.

And when we look at Critical Thinking in this light, we see that it is not just transferrable, but it is foundational. More than being applicable across domains, it is a gateway to new domains. With well-established critical thinking habits, one can approach a novel field, ask the right questions, identify the useful information and engage in learning by themselves.

As long as schools focus on explicitly teaching a predetermined set of facts, they guarantee two things: the learners will learn those facts, and they will learn nothing else. They also secure their place as the sole arbiters of those al-important facts. By developing Critical Thinking, teachers open the door to an infinite world of learning and show the learners how to thrive on the other side.

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