Critical thinking and deep knowledge


Sir, – Aine McMahon’s article on critical thinking and “spoonfed students” (Education, May 16th) is the latest in a long line of articles promoting the idea that we need to teach critical thinking. This concept has an air of plausibility about it, especially in the Google era when so many people make the “Sure you can always look it up” argument.

In fact, there is considerable evidence in the cognitive science and pedagogy literature that the ability to think critically is highly dependent on having relevant knowledge in one’s long-term memory. Critical thinking is not a generic skill that exists independently of knowledge. Even the eight year-old, problem-solving their way through a Super Mario “level” relies heavily on their knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the various villains that they encounter.

So if we want our students to become critical thinkers, we have to ensure that they develop a broad and deep knowledge of their subject. We do this by actually teaching them (ie by being that much-maligned “sage on the stage”), by teaching them how to study effectively and by demanding that they actually use their natural ability to think, an ability that we humans have acquired through evolution.

In effect we have to have high expectations of our students, we have to make it clear what those expectations are (through feedback), and we must refuse to reward students who do not meet those expectations. If we do this in every single module – not in one-off critical thinking modules – raw school-leavers will eventually become the critical thinkers we want them to be.

It really is that simple but it takes courage. – Yours, etc,


Associate Dean

for Teaching and Learning,

Faculty of Science

and Health,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.