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.