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Process and substance in critical thinking

Teaching critical thinking is hard. It means teaching several skills at once, guiding them as a process and giving students room to bring in their own expertise and world knowledge.

When I wrote about recent research on critical thinking skills among people with a conspiratorial mindset, I mentioned one of the perks of zooming in on argumentative skills is that they are teachable. That may have sounded odd, because educators (especially in higher education) often fall back on the refrain that if nothing else, they at least teaching critical thinking.

Whether that’s really the case is a topic for another day (but here’s a classic if you can’t wait). Let me suffice by saying that it’s difficult to teach something as multi-faceted as critical thinking and that most explicit teaching in critical thinking tends to stick with analyzing, in great detail, what critical thinking is. Such an analysis is valuable and has important roles in education, but by itself is not sufficient to teach critical thinking as a skill. To really train it, you need to actively practice.

In an article about what makes critical thinking hard to teach (Willingham, 2008), Daniel Willingham defines critical thinking as a “subset […] of reasoning, making judgements and decisions, and problem solving.” He elaborates:

[Critical thinking has] three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction. Critical thinking is effective in that it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on. Critical thinking is novel in that you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you. For example, solving a complex but familiar physics problem by applying a multi-step algorithm isn’t critical thinking because you are really drawing on memory to solve the problem. But devising a new algorithm is critical thinking. Critical thinking is self-directed in that the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.

Daniel Willingham, Critical thinking: why is it so hard to teach

Two things stand out from this description. Firstly, critical thinking is a container concept, encompassing several cognitive skills and possibly dispositions. Secondly, critical thinking is a process in which you employ those skills and dispositions.

If you take this process view, teaching critical thinking becomes about guiding a process, but with the caveat in mind that Willingham raises an important point when mentioning self-directedness: the thinker should have ample space to follow their own reasoning, not someone else’s. The process should then touch upon all the constituent skills and dispositions that make up the container concept of critical thinking.

These are already a lot of things to juggle when trying to teach critical thinking skills. The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci recently made the case, however, that all this is still not enough and that real critical thinking also requires knowledge and expertise.

Critical thinking is not just formulas to be taught but knowledge and experience to be acquired and tested and re-examined, along with habits and skills that can be demonstrated and practiced. But there is no separating the “process” from the “substance”. 

Zeynep Tufekci, Critical Thinking Isn’t Just a Process

While Tufekci’s arguments focus on critical citzenship, I’d say her argument also goes for scholarly or professional settings. For the critical thinking teacher this does not need to be a huge concern: knowledge and expertise taught in other classes can be used as input, as can world knowledge gained in civic or professional life. However, it does mean that any setup for teaching critical thinking would need to provide room for such knowledge, and should not stick to abstracted reasoning schemes or lists of fallacies and cognitive biases.


Tufekci, Z. (2021). Critical Thinking Isn’t Just A Process. https://zeynep.substack.com/p/critical-thinking-isnt-just-a-process

Willingham, D. T. (2008). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?. Arts Education Policy Review109(4), 21-32.