Why critical thinking needs to be taught as its own class

In Singapore, ranked among the best in the world at reading, mathematics, and science, officials are discussing extending critical thinking programs to kindergarten. In the UK, however, we are busy scrapping the Critical Thinking A-level.

Educationalists are overlooking this critical component in teaching children to be high achievers.

Young people don’t need to know what to think, they need to know how to think. That means dedicated classroom time on how to evaluate arguments, analyze evidence, ask questions, and reflect on meaning.

In 2008, Canadian researcher Philip Abrami analyzed 117 studies into how to teach critical thinking effectively. The conclusion was very clear. Critical thinking skills develop students’ ability to learn more in all subjects. The best way to equip students with such skills is to have a critical thinking class on the timetable, as well as to teach it through all the curriculum subjects. In other words, to teach it explicitly as opposed to simply expecting it to develop while you are teaching another subject.

Abrami also concluded that critical thinking skills were best taught through an authentic “critical dialogue” with teachers and among students. That is, a real argument rather than an invented exercise.

Critical thinking is not only necessary for school-age children, but also very much for higher learning. Universities want students to arrive with critical thinking skills so they can analyze and debate great works of scholarship. For example, such thinking is needed to study the work of Simone de Beauvoir, specifically her use of anthropology, psychology, and history in The Second Sex , the groundbreaking analysis of the position of women.

Yet many universities find it necessary to run a course for first-year undergraduates to get them up to speed. This is down to an often-confused attitude to acquiring such skills at school. In the UK the A-level in Critical Thinking has been dismissed as “easy” and will end in 2017. When I was chief examiner for the OCR (Oxford Cambridge and RSA) examining board, however, it was the hardest subject of all to get an “A” in. There is also evidence from Cambridge that students who take the critical thinking qualification achieved higher grades in other subjects.

That said, critical thinking does not have to be taught for an examination to earn its place on the school timetable. Many schools teach children to question, analyze, and reflect on what they are learning. Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that four-year-olds can already understand reasoning. In light of this, I am working with Maryland Primary School in London on a program to develop thinking skills. It is not a selective school and draws pupils from a diverse community. Critical thinking is central to what they see as making Maryland a “good” school and eventually an “outstanding” one.

Those children will have a head start on their contemporaries in schools where teachers simply expect critical thinking to develop through traditional teaching. They will be better equipped to think flexibly and creatively in a twenty-first-century jobs market where simple cognitive skills are increasingly taken over by technology.

Economically strong nations need people who can think critically and solve problems creatively. No nation that values education should wait until university to give classes in critical thinking. It should start in kindergarten.