Objections to Critical Thinking

I hadn’t intended to write about critical thinking (CT) this week: I had prepared drafts on other topics. In preparing materials for an MA module, I came across an article by Atkinson[1] outlining four major objections to CT. These objections provoked me to seek your thoughts on CT and teaching EAP. Below, I briefly outline Atkinson’s four main objections to CT:

1)      CT is a tacit, common sense, social practice rather than a ‘rational, transparent, and – especially – teachable set of behaviours’ (72) which very few try to define (74). CT lacks clarity and definition and because it is a tacit social practice it is ‘beyond the capability of most teachers to teach [it] in more than an anecdotal and hit-or-miss way’ (77).

2)      CT is ‘exclusive and reductive’ (77) and part of a ‘conservative upper-class model’ (77) of education which marginalises other approaches to thinking especially ones that may ‘lead to more desirable social consequences in the long run’ (72). The alternative to CT can be found in feminist connected knowing entailing a sympathetic, non-antagonistic attitude to understanding others’ perspectives.

3)      CT is not universal and ‘many cultures endorse modes of thought and education that almost diametrically oppose it’ (72) rendering CT challenging for ‘nonnative thinkers’ (79). Nonnative thinkers may come from cultural systems with: ‘opposing notions of relations between the individual and social system’ (79); ’contrasting norms of self-expression across cultures’ (idem), and ‘divergent perspectives on the use of language as a means of learning’ (idem).

4)      CT shows no empirical evidence of being transferrable ‘beyond narrow contexts of instruction’ (72) begging the question of why we teach CT in the first place.

Atkinson’s aim is to ask practitioners ‘to reflect carefully and critically on the notion of critical thinking’ (89). Yet, who would want to teach CT if it is alien to and beyond all but a minority of (affluent) Anglo-Saxon males? Certainly, in EAP contexts, if we can’t define CT, can’t teach it and can’t guarantee transferability from the EAP classroom to elsewhere it would suggest that we are wasting our time. Perhaps he is right and I’d be interested to read your thoughts on this. Below are just two of my initial thoughts on Atkinson’s arguments.

My first objection is to question the gendered nature of CT. The validity and credibility of the research Atkinson marshals to support alternative ways of thinking (Belenky et al. 1986) has been severely undermined, especially by feminists:

[The authors] told their subjects ahead of time that the interviews in which they were participating were for the purpose of studying their special “women’s ways of knowing”, making it impossible to be sure that their responses weren’t biased by suggestion.

Haack, 1998:125.

Not only have the methods and procedures been questioned leading to strong doubts as to veracity of the results but, perhaps, more importantly the image of women projected as a result of this research has been severely attacked, e.g.:

 The authors make a strong case for the contention that some women have been epistemologically crippled, but they offer no foundation for any claim that the previously ignored ‘ways of knowing’ bestow power on women.

Koertge and Patai, 2003:167.

Atkinson argues that it is ‘beyond the capability of most teachers to teach [CT] in more than an anecdotal and hit-or-miss way’. How does this statement reflect your own attempts to teach CT? I can only draw on my own experience of teaching to suggest that Atkinson might be missing the point. The central question is less about whether CT is ‘teachable’ and more about whether criticality can be nurtured and developed in the classroom. This might well be the case, as I have done with foundation EAP students, of explicitly introducing notions and models of argument and informal logic into the classroom – skills and techniques if you like. However, whilst CT entails skills and techniques, I have found that I have dedicated more time for dialogue about why CT is important and focusing much more on the dispositional and attitudinal aspects of CT. CT is not simply a set of skills but a disposition to seek to be moved to act by, inter alia, reason, warrant, justification, and evidence. Whilst not all students display an enthusiasm for this, many do. Discussions centring on epistemology, truth, validity and argument can, and do, generate passionate, informed and stimulating debate especially when students initiate problems, examples or case studies that are of interest to them. What I hope to achieve with these students is less about the transferability of skills or techniques (although this would undoubtedly be useful) but more about encouraging a disposition that entails a questioning and critical approach to education. How effective I am in this is questionable but I do have some optimism that this approach to CT will resonate with at least some students later on.

I have many other objections to Atkinson’s polemic on CT, especially with the notion of ‘nonnative thinker’. I also find the notion that ‘cultures’ endorse diametrically opposed systems of thinking and education worrying. This seems to me an important political rather than cultural question.

I would welcome your views on CT, how you teach it (if you do), whether you agree with Atkinson (or not), what challenges or queries you have with CT, whether you avoid CT, how you define it… anything CT related is very welcome!


[1] Atkinson, D. (1997) ‘A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL’, TESOL Quarterly 31, 1: 71-94.


16 Comments on “Objections to Critical Thinking”

  1. Andy Gillett says:

    How can “Atkinson’s aim is to ask practitioners ‘to reflect carefully and critically on the notion of critical thinking’”, if he objects to it?


  2. Alex says:

    The irony hadn’t escaped me Andy and this kind of performative contradiction is rather self-defeating!


  3. Hi,

    my immediate reaction to this debate is that all depends on where we start our argument, in other words, how we define CT.

    One possible definition is:

    “We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment
    which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well
    as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological,
    or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based (APA,
    1990, p. 3). (Boghossian 2012: 5).

    Boghossian’s argument is that if we accept the premise – for example, that CT is ‘self-regulatory judgement’ – then we have to accept that self-regulation requires a foundation, a standard of what is right and wrong otherwise there is no basis against which we can decide if we are self-regulating correctly or not. This takes us into the philosophical debate surrounding constructivisim and foundationalist vs coherentist theories of knowledge. Constructivism, in its strongest form, denies there is any basis or foundation or ultimate standard against which to measure right or wrong (i.e. there is no universal truth about anything). Constructivism can take us down the path of relativism.

    If we go down the relativist route, then we can perhaps make sense of Atkinson’s claim that “3) CT is not universal …” (above) and therefore cannot be taught because there is no way of self-regulating (i.e. we can never know what is right or wrong/true or false).

    My position is not relativist. I believe that as teachers we do transmit knowledge and part of that knowledge is knowledge about how to think about things. For example, we can teach styles of thinking or reasoning (Hacking 2012). For me, CT is self-regulatory in the sense that there is a standard against which to measure it and that standard might the the style of thinking or reasoning that Hacking discusses in the context of scientific thinking.

    Basically, if we deny that CT is possible, then anything and everything is true and everybody’s opinion is valid. I personally don’t feel comfortable with this conclusion because it creates solipsistic worlds where we all have our private language and cannot communicate with each other (cf. Wittgenstein).



    Boghossian, P. (2012) ‘Critical Thinking and Constructivism:
    Mambo Dog Fish to the Banana Patch’ in Journal of Philosophy of Education 46 (1): 73-84 available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9752.2011.00832.x/pdf

    Hacking, I. (2012) ‘‘Language, Truth and Reason’ 30 years later’ in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A available here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039368112000441


    • Alex says:

      Hi Julia, what about those relativists who would argue that relativism doesn’t mean all perspectives are equally valid or true? That some theories can be discounted. It would seem that CT can be used by relativists too, although, to me, in a much less satisfactory manner.


  4. Ebefl says:

    Interesting post! Disagree with some of these ideas. Critical thinking is universal, not
    Culture bound. The writer Carl Sagan noted this, he wrote:
    “When you buy a used car, it is insufficient to remember that you badly need a car.  After all, it has to work.  It is insufficient to say that the used-car salesman is a friendly fellow. What you generally do is kick the tires, you look at the odometer, you open up the hood. If you do not feel yourself expert in automobile engines, you bring along a friend who is. And you do this for something as unimportant as an automobile.  But on issues of the transcendent, of ethics and morals, on the origin of the world, on the nature of human beings, on those issues should we not insist upon at least equally skeptical scrutiny?


    • Alex says:

      A nice quote! One thing that always struck me is that critical thinking is often portrayed as this pernicious, culture-bound, Enlightenment way of thinking… Yet, I don’t see a great deal of evidence that critical thinking really permeates thought, at least in the UK. Suggests to me we need more of it not less…


  5. Ebefl says:

    Also curious if this critical look at CT is using CT or another method? He seems to be applying CT here, no?


    • Alex says:

      Hi there, yes it would appear to be the case. I suppose a more generous reading of his article would lead me to say that he is offering reasons to be cautious about CT: that we should be careful about definitions, appropriacy of CT, availability of CT to all. Still, I don’t find all his arguments convincing at all.


  6. Katherine Anderson says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. I too found the article thought-provoking but problematic. The argument suffers badly from the fact that Atkinson never tells us what he, himself, means by “critical thinking”. On one hand, that’s part of his point: if we can’t define it, how can we teach it? On the other, Atkinson has no problem in defining CT as (exclusive and reductive) “separate knowing” etc. when he wants to oppose it to “connected knowing”. Similarly, he’s happy to connect CT to western norms about the “relations between the individual and the social system” when he wants to contrast them to non-western norms. In other words, he is willing enough to define—or let’s be more fair and say “identify an aspect of”—CT when he’s got something to oppose it to. This doesn’t quite play fair with the reader.

    As for my own definition of CT, for me, the “critical” part has always referred to my attitude towards myself, the reader. As I read, I monitor my own reaction: have I tried hard enough to see the author’s point of view? How does it relate to viewpoints expressed by others? Am I only thinking about how this article relates to myself, or am I looking at the bigger picture? This sounds to me not unlike the article’s “connected knowing.” Well, I am a woman after all. “Connected knowing” is supposedly my thing. But here I thought I had been thinking critically.

    As an aside, my work includes providing language support for first-year engineers, who take a course in design principles. The course is required for all first-year engineers at my university: 900 students in all. One of the core course objectives is to develop critical thinking skills. The course developers have been forced, due to vociferous complaints from students over the years, to define what, exactly, they mean by “critical thinking”. Their definition: “The ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives”. I like this definition. And no, the course developers aren’t women.

    To be fair to Atkinson, his article refers to TESOL in general, and not specifically EAP. I can see that if I were an adult NNS newcomer to a country, I might resent being pressed into learning a new way of thinking when what I really wanted was the linguistic competence to participate in society. But as EAP teachers, I think we do have an ethical obligation to expose our students to the skills needed for the studies that they have chosen to pursue. As long as CT is required by their univeristy, I don’t think we have the right to decide on their behalf that it should not be addressed. We can also arm our students with the skills needed to ask their instructors to clarify terms and assignment requirements. The students in our engineering design course were presistent (and forceful… easier when there are 900 of you!), made the course developers do some hard thinking, and were rewarded with a thoughtful definition.

    Thanks for the great blog.


    • Alex says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Certainly one of the affordances of critical thinking is that it can be used to help students frame questions and problems that involve their own academic lives. If it can help them develop an active and critcal stance vis-a-vis their studies and help improve the conditions of their lives that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?
      You are right that Atkinson writes about TESOL rather than EAP, however, much of his supporting evidence is drawn from ESL writing in US university programmes and other research from US university contexts. I do believe he is fundamentally wrong of all four of his major objections, especially as in a follow up comment to his article he suggests that most of our lives should be lived on a tacit level as we couldn’t cope with questioning. Something that, to me, is completely wrong headed.


  7. Though I can’t speak really beyond my own ideas and experience, CT is teachable, through examples and guided discovery. Watching my students develop this skill from acceptance of everything to questioning nearly everything, from information memorisation to synthesis for new knowledge, proves this to me.

    It is transferable, as without it, synthesis of ideas from various sources wouldn’t be possible–something that occurs in every discipline.

    CT is culture-dependent in terms of how society is educated to think, but also what type of rhetoric and argumentation is normal. How we define CT for our culture and our accepted style of speaking and writing varies than those in a Korean context, for example.

    Anyhoo, just a couple thoughts.


    • Alex says:

      Thanks for your comment! Just a quick question… If it is true that universities are ‘internationalised’ that we ‘live in a global village’ (and all the other somewhat tired cliches) then can there be cultures, educational cultures that remain immune to thoughts and ideas from elsewhere? Is it easier to think about university culture(s) rather than national ones?


      • I don’t think universities are ‘internationalised’ beyond the fact that students from more than one country attend them these days. Perhaps as they acculturate to the academic and cultural expectations of that university (or more widely ‘belief system’ that governs these expectations of the general area of that university–e.g. North American), it becomes more global so-to-speak, but moreso are influenced to the culture they live in. I’m sure there’s a little of the opposite (i.e., their native culture, belief systems, expectations, etc. affect others around them), but not as much. Do you think there is this ‘global’ university culture?


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  9. Gary Riley-Jones says:

    Dear Alex,

    Many thanks for your very interesting post and apologise for the extreme lateness of my contribution.

    First, I’d like to briefly critique Atkinson’s position as presented in your post, move on to my current understanding of what it might mean to be ‘critical’ and then consider how one might go about teaching criticality in the classroom.

    1) CT is often presented as ‘commonsensical’ and ideologically neutral. This supposed neutrality is born out of CT’s historical origins which ultimately lie in Enlightenment rationalism which itself is based on a linear understanding of logic; a form of logic that has become ‘naturalised’ in the West. So, rather than an ‘either/or’ as presented by Atkinson, CT is paradoxically both commonsensical and rational at the same time.

    By the way, Alex, in one of your later comments you say: ‘… critical thinking is often portrayed as this pernicious, culture-bound, Enlightenment way of thinking…’. In fact, I very much feel that it has become culturally unbound and I believe it is very difficult to state in any meaningful way what the influence of ‘culture’ actually is in terms of criticality. This is something I’m thinking about a lot at the moment.

    2) I don’t think CT in itself is ‘exclusive and reductive’. It is more a question of what constitutes knowledge and who has access to that knowledge and it is this (of which CT is a symptom) that is itself exclusive and reductive.

    3) The argument that CT is challenging to ‘non-native speakers’ and is not a universal. Again, CT is presented as ideologically neutral while at the same time presents a reality based on binary opposition (as reflected in such language as ‘diametrically opposed’ and ‘non-native speaker’) and presents a deficit model of the foreign other and the female other where, it appears ‘commonsensical’ that ‘they’ cannot think like ‘us’. Thus, although I might regard Atkinson’s argument as ethically unsound, it is actually ‘correct’ in terms of the reasoning it is based on; it is not Atkinson’s reasoning that is ‘at fault’ but rather the precepts upon which that reasoning is based.

    4) Perhaps surprisingly from what I have written so far and despite its ‘pernicious’ nature, I believe that there are two very good reasons for teaching CT. The first is for the simple reason that the precepts upon which CT is based are so powerful, and they are so powerful because historically they have been so successful. The real issue for me is that these precepts have become naturalised and valourised to the point that they have acquired the position of being the only way one can think where, in fact, they should be seen as just one of many ways available to us in an understanding of reality. The second concerns disciplinary epistemology (see e.g., Gimenez, 2012) where, in my interviews with Fine Art lecturers, the term ‘criticality’ implies a largely unstated theoretical position predominated by such thinkers as Foucault (1997), and Butler (2002). From this perspective, and regardless of what we as individuals or as EAP tutors might believe to be the ‘best’ form of criticality, it is only through an engagement with subject lecturers that we may best serve the interests of any particular group of students.

    And this is where I will stop. I’m presenting on this at the ALDin HE conference in Plymouth at the end of March and later at the BALEAP biennial in April.

    Butler, Judith. 2002. “‘What is Critique?” An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue’. In David Ingram (ed.) The Political. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

    Foucault, Michel. 1997. ‘What is Critique?’ The Politics of Truth. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

    Gimenez, Julio. 2012. ‘Disciplinary epistemologies, generic attributes and undergraduate academic writing in nursing and midwifery’. Higher Education. 63(4), 401-419.


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