Can Critical Thinking Be seen as a Set of Skills?

Written by Argumentful

Critical thinking is important, but can we talk about a set of skills when it comes to something as complex as the inner workings of our minds?

The reason we want to “see” critical thinking as skills, is because once we have a set of skills, then we can talk about something that is both teachable and transferable. When we will have taught the skills, we can then check that these can be taken from the context they have been taught in and transferred to other contexts, indeed to a person’s entire life.

The topic of critical thinking has received a great deal of scrutiny in the educational arena; this matter has gained considerable traction in the educational policies since the 1980’s in the US and 2000 in the UK. The majority of the researchers involved in this debate agree that critical thinking is needed and plays a crucial role in leading your life in a sensible manner.

Christopher Winch, professor of educational philosophy at King’s College, London believes that critical thinking can help you get to a point where you can ‘make informed decisions about matters pertaining to the welfare of their society about which you do not necessarily possess specialist knowledge’.

The Added Complexity of The Ever Increasing Technological Progress

I think we all agree that given the expanding amount of information being created daily in our digital world, it becomes of the utmost urgency that the educational system emerges successfully in achieving the educational aims of helping create a society of people who can decide what to do with this huge amount of information.

Diane Halpern warns of the ever increasing possibility of being faced with a situation where we have access to all the data, but find ourselves in an impossibility of deciding what the data means or what to do with it. Indeed, the danger is even more acute if we consider the expansion of digital technologies that hook our attention and render us immobilized for hours.

However, despite the general agreement that there is a need for developing these higher order thinking skills, there is no universally accepted definition for what critical thinking is; and in fact, whether there are such things as thinking skills is still being debated.

The Problem with ‘Skills’

If we consider a context where the problem of developing such higher order thinking skills is considered, thinkers and education practitioners tend to see critical thinking as a skill.

This is more or less problematic, depending on whether in this context ‘skills’ is seen as the component belonging to the tripartite skills – knowledge – attitudes (or values). The difficulty with such a separation is when critical thinking is included in the ‘skills’ category, while the other two components- knowledge and attitudes are not given an equal importance or are excluded altogether. 

Specifically, in the critical thinking context, if we look only at skills, then we could imagine a person who has acquired the skills of arguing, of bringing counter-arguments, of presenting evidence. But this person might only use these skills sporadically, or worse- to advance their own hidden agenda. That is to say they would be missing some fundamental critical thinking attitudes, such as the tendency to always think critically: to keep an open mind, to consider alternate points of views etc. Back to the person who has skills of argumentation,  but does not keep an open mind, then this person could be using the skills only to further their own interests, dismissing opposite points of views and taking advantage of their experience in argumentation.

So this is the problem when we look at critical thinking as skills and when they become the focus to the detriment of the other two elements-  knowledge and attitudes (or values).

The Problem with ‘Transferability’

Nevertheless, seeing critical thinking as a skill could be considered necessary due to the fact that such a view embeds the possibility that critical thinking could be taught for the purpose of gaining those skills which could be transferable and used in other domains or in life.

And here we run into an additional difficulty: that of the transferability of these skills. Could such skills be transferred from one domain to another or are they organically connected to the domain in which they are learned?

The views of those concerned with critical thinking vary from thinkers who support the concept of critical thinking as skills to those who place importance on all the three components and argue for a conception of critical thinking as a combination of skills, knowledge and appropriate attitudes and tendencies.

As far as the transferability of these skills is concerned, today there are views who consider that transfer is possible, while others support the claim that transfer is untenable.

But any views need to be supported by evidence and transferability has been shown to occur in specific instruction settings.

So Can Critical Thinking Be Considered a Set of Skills?

As long as we don’t forget about the other elements- background knowledge and critical thinking dispositions, I would say that we can and should look at critical thinking as a set of skills. Because if we do that, then there is something specific we can aim for as an educational objective: the acquisition and transferability of such skills.

But studies show that more research is needed to provide evidence of the transferability of these skills. Additionally, given the complexity of interventions dealing with changes in thinking patterns, longitudinal studies showing long term effects would also be beneficial.

Now over to you! Do you think that such a complex subject matter as critical thinking can be looked at as a set of skills?

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