Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Developing Critical Thinking Skills

An article in the Washington Post led me to think about the emphasis placed on developing critical thinking skills in schools. Critical thinking, according to the article, “has become a mantra among educators from pre-kindergarten through graduate school …yet there is no agreed-upon definition of what it is or how it can be developed.” According to Jean Anyon, working-class and middle-class schools largely fail to foster critical thinking skills in their students. She claims that there is a “hidden curriculum” of schoolwork that is implicitly preparing working-class children for low wage, low prestige jobs, while preparing upper-class children for positions of social power and prestige. Although this assertion may be overly simplistic, and it seems to paint a gloomy and deterministic view of the educational system, I think it raises an important question: Can critical thinking skills be taught to students at all levels?

Without a firm grasp of factual knowledge, I do not think students are able to think critically about subjects. As one educator in the article put it, “You can’t acquire these processes in the absence of facts.” With this in mind, perhaps the curriculum in working-class schools is structured this way out of necessity and not to covertly prepare students for their future societal roles. Considering the strong link between family background and achievement, working-class students may start school with less content knowledge (and less cultural capital) than their more affluent counterparts, and thus may be less equipped to handle tasks requiring higher level critical thinking. Another factor to consider is the role that NCLB has played in forcing schools to place a higher emphasis on standardized testing. Educators may be more apt to teach to a test than try to develop a student’s critical thinking skills by teaching at a more conceptual level.


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