Critical thinking skills are unanimously considered a cornerstone of individual self-determination in the framework of a free society as well as a fundamental tool to deal with the challenges presented by an increasingly volatile and ambiguous world where open problems and overwhelming information are becoming the norm.

Teaching to think critically should therefore be a top priority in education. But can critical thinking actually be taught?

In this article published in American Educator (Fall 2020), Professor Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia clarifies the concept of “critical thinking”, challenges established beliefs on general critical thinking skills, and outlines a pratical approach to teach students to think critically.

The author’s core contention is that there is scarce empirical evidence of general critical thinking skills and no proven method to teach them directly. Instead, critical thinking skills seem to be domain-specific and to require considerable knowledge within that particular domain, which makes them difficult to transfer to other domains. Evaluating the argument in a newspaper editorial requires different skills than distinguishing between anedoctal and statistically valid evidence in scientific research.

Consequently, a good critical thinker may be someone who masters a lot of domain-specific critical skills rather than someone with a smaller set of general – and largely yet-to-be-identified – skills, transferable across the whole spectrum of knowledge domains.

If that is the case, educators should focus on developing the former, more spefic critical thinking skills across as many domains as possible and strive to set up a tighter interdisciplinary cooperation.