What’s the Best Way to Teach Critical Thinking?

Written by Argumentful


There are 4 major ways in which we can teach critical thinking: general method, infusion method, immersion method and mixed method.

But before doing a deep dive into these, let’s quickly remind ourselves why we might want to even consider learning critical thinking.

There are a lot of things you can do with critical thinking. Maybe you haven’t given a lot of thought to this topic, so let me list a few of these.

• with critical thinking you are able to spot attempts of propaganda and you can guard yourself from being influenced by such malicious pursuits

• when you are a good critical thinker you can approach a problem from a variety of angles and manage to find the best solution possible for you with your current circumstances and at the current moment in time. For example you could analyze the dilemma of whether you should buy a house within the big city or out in the country

• critical thinking can also help you become a seasoned analyst of other people’s claims and arguments. You will find yourself easily identifying unstated assumptions and able to point out when those assumptions are not in fact generally accepted and require more inquiry.

But there are a few reasons why not more people are critical thinkers- among these, an important one is that it’s not easy to teach critical thinking.

Education efforts have been made to ensure that by the time they leave school, young adults should be able to discern clearly, practically and efficiently, but for now there is no consensus on what might be the best approach to teach these skills.

General Method for Teaching Critical Thinking

The general method of teaching critical thinking advocates for the acquisition of critical thinking skills and dispositions. There is no specific focus on subject matter knowledge, the learning objective being for the learners to acquire the critical thinking skills and dispositions.

Infusion Method for Teaching Critical Thinking

Within the infusion method, the content of the subject being taught is important, but so are the critical thinking objectives, therefore, the critical thinking learning outcomes are stated as explicit learning objectives next to the subject matter goals.

Within the infusion strategy, the learning activities take place by using the subject matter and the students are mentored and supported to think critically about the issues presented.

A study published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology tried to find out if the infusion method of teaching critical thinking is a suitable one. The study authors were also interested to understand if critical thinking instruction required a considerable amount of time, such as a semester, or on the contrary a few lessons would suffice.

The experiment compared a group of college students (25 participants) who were exposed to an infusion method of teaching critical thinking to another control group of students (26 participants) that did not receive explicit critical thinking instructions. All students were enrolled in the same academic course: Introductory Psychology.

The experimental group received instruction which comprised of ’10 hours of class time activity and an additional 20 hours of homework exercises.’ As such, since this instruction was delivered within the actual Psychology course, throughout the semester, the method is deemed to be categorized as infusion method.

The control group did not receive any special critical thinking instructions, but they were exposed to the typical critical thinking content which was part of the curriculum and was included in the textbook and additional ‘incidental psychology critical thinking items’. However, since the objective of the course for the control group did not include explicitly such critical thinking skills, one can assume that this group was exposed to the immersion method at best, or no method at all.

Both groups participated in pre- and post- tests, using the Cornell Critical Thinking Test.

The findings show that the results of the experimental group exposed to infusion method increased significantly, while the results of the control group had a very small increase.

This experiment was conducted to understand what would be a minimum amount of infusion instruction necessary to be able to positively influence the scores on Cornell’s Critical Thinking Test. The findings show that a number of 30 hours in total (instruction and homework) can increase the scores, by comparison to no explicit instruction. These results show promising potential for educational programs that might not be willing or ready to invest considerable amount of time and resources in order to modify their curriculum. The fact that the essay writing skills of the students showed an improvement as well, should be an additional reason in persuading that explicit critical thinking instruction does seem to yield positive results, even when the investment is not that large.

Immersion Method for Teaching Critical Thinking

The immersion method is conducted in such a way that although there is critical thinking advocated and practiced throughout the course, this is done in the context of the topic being taught; the achievement of critical thinking skills or dispositions is not explicitly stated as a learning objective, rather the subject matter is the one on which there is most focus.

Comparison Between Infusion and Immersion Method

A study run by Peter Facione included four experiments in an aim to establish the relevance of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST) in measuring the effect of specific critical thinking courses which had been introduced and approved for college students.

There were four courses which were using the infusion method and which were selected for conducting the study, all aimed at specific skills as detailed below:

(1) Psychology ‘Reasoning and Problem Solving’

(2) Philosophy ‘Argument and Reasoning’

(3) Philosophy ‘Logic’

(4) Reading ‘Critical Reading as Critical Thinking’

Additionally, the study conducted a fifth course for the control experiment, which was using the immersion method:

(5) Introduction to Philosophy

Comparison Between General and Immersion Method

Another study run by Lisa Marin and Diane Halpern set off to assess the claim that critical thinking skills can be ‘learned, practiced and transferred’ by using instructions which are delivered explicitly. The study comprised of two different experiments and it was targeted at high school students with very little previous experience, so there were two schools selected which both belonged to a low-income group of schools in California. The study was aiming to establish which of the two methods would show better results: explicit or implicit instructions.

There were two experiments used, one where the participants volunteered and then were further selected according to an established criteria to ensure similar level of performance, the other one with a larger sample population and which was randomly selected.

The findings are highly relevant: the first experiment showed a greater improvement for the general method than for the immersion method. The second experiment confirmed the findings and in fact showed no statistically relevant improvement for the immersion method, while the general one yielded a statistically relevant increase.

This means that it is more efficient to teach critical thinking through explicit instructions than through an immersion method.

Overall, Marin and Halpern’s study provide a rather promising insight into the efficiency of the general method by comparison to the immersion method.

Mixed Method for Teaching Critical Thinking

Within the mixed method there is a combination of general method with infusion or immersion. As such, the subject matter is taught separately while critical thinking skills are also being developed separately; however this is achieved within the subject matter, by using a different, additional learning thread focused on instructing the principles of critical thinking.

Which Critical Thinking Teaching Method to Choose?

When considering the aim of teaching critical thinking, we must not lose sight of efficacy of the aim.

Efficacy of teaching critical thinking implies transfer of learnings from one area to another, from being taught in an abstract form to the learned skills being applied in varied school subjects or in real life situations.

Looking at the comparisons between different types of methods above, two choices stand out: general method and infusion method. Of course, factors like teacher readiness, availability and level of expertise will need to be considered. But finally, as far as transferability is concerned, the general method has yielded good results. Nevertheless, such studies as the ones quoted above are quite limited and more research is needed to confirm the transferability of the identified skills with this method.

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