There are numerous packaged materials, apart from challenging and informative books, for supposedly teaching "critical thinking" and I am suspicious of most of them because, normally, teaching critical thinking involves thinking along with the students in some way that analyzes and responds reasonably, and when necessary, challengingly, to what they say. And though it is possible to anticipate what students might say, and have some sort of program that responds appropriately when they select certain answers, it is highly unlikely such programs are available, as I am writing this in 2002, that serve well enough to do that properly.
Similarly, there are various "teaching strategies" available that are supposed to teach "critical thinking." I want to discuss here three of the sorts of strategies I have seen in middle schools which are often considered to be examples of teaching critical thinking, but which I believe have nothing to do with it. I have numerous articles at my web site, about teaching for understanding and about fostering better thinking, and I will not repeat that material here. I only want to give some examples of strategies which many teachers and schools mistakenly believe teach critical thinking.
In one seventh grade class, the teacher explained to her students they were going to have a debate. She divided the class into teams and she told each team which side of the debate they would be arguing. Many of the students were thus put on the side they did not believe, for their very first debate experience, so they were going to have to argue on behalf of something they thought was false. That frustrated many of them and immediately made them lose interest.
The topic was "Resolved: Women ought to be given the right to have abortions." Some students did not understand how you could debate that something ought to become a right that already was a right under the Roe v. Wade ruling, so they did not really understand the resolution as it was worded, or what they were supposed to be arguing.
The teacher said that sarcasm and snide comments were not to be allowed. That alienated a bunch of the students -- particularly the boys who thought there should be some sport involved in any intellectual combat.
And information was to come from such sources as Time Magazine or other, presumably similar, magazines and commentaries.
All this teaches students, if it teaches them anything, is that what you believe does not matter as long as you can argue for it, that popular culture periodicals such as weekly news magazines are sufficient sources of information, that information is all you need to form justified conclusions, and that winning a debate with peers or getting a good grade in a debate is all there is to thinking.
In a sixth grade class, a teacher came in with household objects that she distributed to groups of students, each group receiving one object. The objects were things such as a jewelry box, a Scotch tape dispenser, a stapler, a postage stamp dispenser with stamps in it, etc. My favorite object, especially considering to which group she gave it, was a melon baller -- the kitchen tool with a handle and a scoop on each end that lets you scrape out watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew fruit in the shape of balls. She gave it to a group of four boys. When she handed it to them, you could see from the looks on their faces they did not know what it was, and they were even hesitant to touch it. They weren't sure where it had been, or what it had been used for.
These objects were part of a "thinking" project. The assignment was to use the objects as a metaphor for one of the abstract nouns she had written on the board: love, democracy, truth, honesty, justice, beauty, etc. They could choose whichever noun they wanted as the subject of the metaphor for which their object could serve. Most of the students pretty much had blank looks on their faces. I presume I did too, since I could not figure out what any of this meant. She then gave an example of what she meant, and what it turned out to be was that you were to show how your object had certain characteristics that were in some ways similar to characteristics that could be ascribed to the concepts on the board. For example, you might say that the jewelry box was like beauty in that external appearances might not show what was inside. But you were to have more than one characteristic; and the more, the better.
She then sat at her desk to grade papers or some such, and left them to their own devices. I had permission to talk with the students, and after watching the boys with the melon baller sit there for five minutes or so, not saying a word to each other, and not having any spark in any of their eyes, as they just kept looking at the object before them, I finally approached them and said "You guys don't have the first clue what that thing even is, do you?" They looked up and with some hesitancy admitted they didn't. I told them what it was and how it was used, and that made them smile, because the thought of such a thing had never crossed their mind or their experience. They had seen melon balls before but it never occurred to them there was an implement for making them, and that it might look like this. But now they were still stuck, since knowing what it was did not help them figure out how it might be related to honesty, love, justice, truth, etc. One boy did ask me what the difference could be between truth and honesty because he thought they were the same thing. I told him that one could make an honest mistake in telling someone something and that it might not therefore be the truth, though the person telling it thought he was telling the truth because he honestly believed it. I gave him an example of the difference between honesty and truth from literature that most people find interesting, of a person caught by the enemy in war who is tortured till he tells where a friend of his is. The friend had said he would hide in someone's basement, and the captured victim lies that his friend is hiding in the cemetery on the edge of town, in order to send his tormentors on a wild goose chase before they kill him. But, unknown, to him, his friend had decided the basement was not a good option, and he had instead gone to the cemetery to hide. This was an example of both lying and yet telling the truth. The boys thought that was pretty cool.
But that still did not help generate any metaphors. So I asked them what was the most noticeable characteristic of the melon baller, and they said "the two scoops". So I said "Are there any words on the board which have to do with two things?" and they said "love". I looked at them and said, "Well since you guys are in sixth grade, I presume you are all experts on love and women" and laughed at them and they all laughed back and said "Oh, yeah, of course" with as much sarcasm as I had used when I said it. And then I said "Just make up whatever you can about this thing and love." It doesn't have to be anything anyone would say; you aren't trying to make some discovery here. Just be creative and funny, and say whatever comes to your minds, even if it is silly." This is meant to be about creativity, not science. That let them at least get to work.
Two girls were paired together and they had not made any progress with their Scotch tape on a dispenser, so I helped them out in a similar way. They, of course, at least knew what the object was they had, but they either did not understand the assignment or thought they were supposed to discover something that is already known by adults. They were stuck with the metaphor part.
Now why this teacher thought that this assignment, without any further help from her, would teach critical thinking, is beyond me. The students were, for the most part, obviously uninterested and unmotivated. They clearly had no idea what they were supposed to do or how to go about doing it. They saw no value in the assignment other than it would somehow be graded.
Finally, in an eighth grade classroom, a teacher led a discussion of a novel that was about teenagers. The idea was apparently that students would relate to the story and would be able to discuss it creatively and meaningfully in some way. But they either could not do that or did not want to do that. She asked various "teacher-type" of questions: "What is the setting of the story?" "What was the motivation of [one of the main characters] to do what he did?" "What was the result?" Etc., etc. only a few students had any sort of response, and they just said something simplistic that they seemed to think would please the teacher by being the answer she was seeking. She would say something like "That is right" and then move on to her next question. Most of the class just sat blankly and occasionally looked at their watches. Yet, she thought she was engaging them in critical thinking about the story.
I don't think so. None of these classrooms were teaching, fostering, nurturing, inspiring, demonstrating, modeling, using, or even explaining critical thinking of any sort. They all simply had to do with elements that the teachers thought had something to do with critical thinking. But it was just tinkering around the edges. Clearly, debate can involve thinking critically; clearly, creating, or even analyzing, interesting and clever or appropriate metaphors can involve critical thinking; and clearly, dissecting and analyzing a novel and relating it to one's experience and condition can involve critical thinking. So it is not that the assignments could not have been used in some way to generate stimulating and interesting ideas that were then scrutinized in the light of reason. But the assignments by themselves, as they were presented and then just left to the students, had almost no chance of successfully doing that. These assignments did not teach anything to most of these students other than to confirm further their belief that school is boring, irrelevant, and meaningless.