Why is critical thinking difficult?

Why is critical thinking difficult?

Students struggle to think critically

85% of teachers thought critical thinking skills were inadequate when students reached post-16 education (TES). Our own qualitative research in schools revealed typical worries that students have such as: losing track of the argument; not planning before starting an essay; including irrelevant information. Examiners’ reports consistently point out the lack of a good argument in exam entries. Moreover, teachers express concern with regards to teaching of critical thinking skills. Students are often much better at learning facts than making a good argument, but there is no time to teach this properly in a content-heavy curriculum. The requirements to think critically have increased, but the textbooks and training have not always kept up.

Arguments are hidden in textbook prose

In school, students are introduced to critical thinking by reading and writing arguments in prose. The textbooks, articles and original sources they read are usually in prose, as are the essays they write. Prose is a very flexible medium, but it is not the optimal way to represent an argument.

Firstly, students cannot look at argumentative prose and immediately find the argument. Prose makes no distinction between the sentences which are part of the argument and those that do other things, such as supporting facts and context. So the argument is hidden amongst other information, much of which is distracting.

Prose is linear, but arguments are branched

Prose is written in a way that makes it hard to understand the structure of the argument. This is a problem, because the whole structure has to be kept in mind when evaluating the argument. For example, if they find a counter-example to one step of an argument, they need to know the structure to realise whether this defeats the whole argument or just a part of it.

Poor critical thinking leads to poor arguments

For these reasons, argumentative prose imposes a heavy cognitive load on the reader. Students are obliged to work hard to discover how an argument works before they can even begin to critique it. This is especially difficult for those who have reading difficulties such as dyslexia.

School students normally create their own arguments by writing essays. Even if they are well-informed they often write a lot of facts without pulling them together into an argument. The very flexibility of prose allows essays to be unrigorous, ambiguous, and irrelevant. Moreover, essays are slow for students to write and slow for teachers to check and mark, limiting the amount of arguments that can be studied in detail. For these reasons, learning critical thinking through school work is difficult and its results are patchy.

At Endoxa Learning, we design resources that make it easier for students to read, understand and create arguments.

What is critical thinking?