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Michael ZwaagstraAll students should become critical thinkers. The ability to synthesize and evaluate information, and come up with new ways of looking at things is highly prized in education circles from kindergarten to graduate school.

Given the importance of critical thinking, it’s not surprising that schools across the country proudly trumpet the progress they make in developing this skill. It’s also increasingly common for provincial education departments to rave about “21st century skills,” one of which is critical thinking.

As a case in point, the New Brunswick government recently released its 10-year education plan Expecting the Best from Everyone. In the section on student learning, it places critical thinking at the top of its list of 21st century skills. Critical thinking, together with other 21st century skills, are deemed so important that they “must be embedded in expectations for students.”

Yet, New Brunswick’s education department is falling for the glitzy and overhyped promises of the 21st century skills movement and discarding tools we know work.

The reality is that if we want students to become critical thinkers, they need to memorize facts – lots of them. They also need to spend lots of time doing rote learning – consolidating knowledge and skills by practise and repetition – so that the facts become embedded in their long-term memories. This is not the focus of the 21st century skills movement but it is supported by a wealth of research evidence.

Dr. John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and one of the world’s foremost experts on educational research. His findings do not support the claim that critical thinking skills can be taught in isolation from content.

Hattie makes this clear in a recent Science of Learning journal article. “These [21st century] skills often are promoted as content free and are able to be developed in separate courses (e.g., critical thinking, resilience),” he writes. “Our model, however, suggests that such skills are likely to be best developed relative to some content. There is no need to develop learning strategy courses or teach the various strategies outside the context of the content.”

The reason for Hattie’s conclusion is simple – students cannot think critically about something they know nothing about. Surface learning, which includes the memorization of basic facts and vocabulary, is just as important as deep learning, since deep learning cannot take place in the absence of knowledge. Students need to acquire lots of knowledge, most of which needs to be taught directly by competent teachers.

Once surface knowledge has been acquired, students need to consolidate it so it becomes part of their long-term memories, which they can automatically retrieve when they want to think critically. As Hattie explains, “Although some may not ‘enjoy’ this phase, it does involve a willingness to practise, to be curious and to explore again, and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty during this investment phase.”

Critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation because it depends on content. For example, there is a huge difference between applying advanced mathematical principles and analyzing the factors that led to a major historical event. Both require critical thinking, but there is no reason to assume that students can do either without first acquiring substantial background knowledge and then consolidating it through practise.

Proponents of 21st century skills may view critical thinking as an isolated skill that doesn’t depend on specific content, but research from Hattie and many other psychologists shows otherwise. It’s a huge mistake to downplay curriculum content and replace it with critical thinking strategies.

If we want students to become critical thinkers, we need to make sure they acquire and consolidate as much surface knowledge as possible. Only then will deeper learning take place.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, and author of A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.

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