Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Death of Socrates: Why Critical Thinking Matters.

 (The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787) 

In 399 BC the Greek philosopher, Socrates, was put on trial for 'moral corruption of the youth' and 'impiety'. Or, as is generally accepted, for his questioning and outspoken views of the established oder of society. Socrates espoused the importance of seeking reasoned and logical conclusions to philosophical debates. For Socrates, the main purpose of education was to develop thinking rather than deliver a rigid curriculum. He did not believe that students should be given answers but rather should be challenged through a process of questioning to seek the truth (Brickhouse and Smith, 2000). This post will consider why Socratic philosophical critical thinking is needed now more than ever in our schools. 

There is an abundance of literature on the purpose and importance of teaching critical thinking in schools (Lipman, 1991; Ennis, 1997; Paul et al., 1990; Fisher, 2008). Even so, what the term critical thinking means is still highly contested as it has different applications and meanings (Bailin et al., 1999; Moore and Parker, 2007; Cho, 2010; Breuing, 2011). One of the main issues is that there is some confusion between critical thinking from psychological and philosophical dispositions with some theorists using the two interchangeably (Bailin et al., 1999).  Indeed, Nicholas and Raider-Roth (2016) contend that this misunderstanding is a consequence of an amalgamation of conflicting interpretations and ideas regarding critical thinking. More worryingly, it  has suggested that critical thinking has been hijacked by neoliberals and is not really concerned with developing children’s criticality but instead moulding them into economic citizens with edu-businesses selling generic thinking and problem solving skills programmes to unassuming schools (McLaren (1998)Ennis (1987) maintains that critical thinking should involve such skills as assessing the validity of arguments, judging the credibility of sources and challenging unsubstantiated assumptions. Ennis' revisionist approach is closely aligned with the Socratic model of critical thinking which was based on seeking evidence and reaching thoughtful conclusions based upon that evidence. This form of critical thinking is essentially about what to do or believe through the process of logical reasoning (Ennis, 1987; Bailin et al., 1999).

Supporters of philosophical critical thinking argue that developing children’s criticality can have a positive impact on society as it makes them increasingly aware of how they can positively contribute and engage in the decision-making process (Ennis, 1987; Paul et al., 1990; Fisher, 2008)According to Fisher (2008), one of the main reasons for teaching critical thinking is that every person should be given opportunities to have their thinking and intellect developed. Children should be provided with opportunities to develop their thinking and acquire the tools needed to become successful learners. However, in order for this to happen requires schools to provide opportunities for children to be be questioned and allow them to question. Critical thinkers are not people who are negative or critical about everything, in fact, they are quite the opposite. Critical thinkers are people who refuse to accept assumptions without first critically assessing the evidence and reaching informed judgements (Paul 1990 et al.; Bailin et al., 1999). One of the main reasons for this is that developing children's criticality can act as a buffer against indoctrination (Costello, 2000).  The main features of indoctrination are the push for uncritical acceptance of ideas and the dismissal of evidence.  Teachers have a responsibility to guide, influence, and steer pupils. However, to indoctrinate, is to run counter to teaching in a democratic society or to develop politically literate and active thoughtful citizens.

Critical thinking will not only serve pupils well in education but is also useful in a vastly challenging and capricious world. The last ten years have witnessed the birth of Facebook and Twitter and the mass growth of blogging as a means of communicating ideas. It is fair to say that the new millennium has been driven by a cyber and technological revolution (Salmon and Lucas, 2011). This technological revolution is having an enormous impact on society and strengthens the argument for teaching philosophical critical thinking in the 21st century. Indeed, instant and easy access to online information, which one may not be able to trust, makes critical thinking more important than ever. Children need to be taught how to question and evaluate what they read on the Internet and not just accept it because it is published on the Mail Online or, worse still, Breitbart. During these times of post-truths, alternative facts and Donald Trump it would appear that developing children's critical thinking could be considered a matter of national urgency. 

Developing critical thinking in schools should not however be reserved for children and can be beneficial for teachers too. Enhancing one’s own critical thinking allows one to approach and question educational initiatives with a healthy dose of cynicism. For example, in 1984, Kolb argued that all children have preferred learning styles; visual, audio and kinaesthetic (VAK).  Consequently schools were pressured, usually by educational businesses, into ensuring that teachers cater for all children’s preferred learning styles within their lessons. Learning styles have now been largely debunked through evidence-based research (Nuthall, 2007; Sharp et al. 2,008). Similarly, there have been a number of concerns lately regarding Dweck's (2006) Growth Mindset, again, largely due to it being repackaged and sold to schools as some sort of educational panacea. Hattie argues that ‘teachers and school leaders need to be critical evaluators of the effect that they are having on their students’ (Hattie, 2012, p. 2012). This will only happen if teachers and school leaders are able to consider evidence-based research around the latest educational fads. Enabling teachers to think more critically about policy and practice is possibly one step closer towards that goal.

One of the main arguments against teaching critical thinking is that it devalues the importance of teaching knowledge (Hirsch, 2006; Young, 2011). It is suggested that detailed subject knowledge is more important than the development of children’s criticality. As Hirsch (2006, p.12) maintains ‘the only thing that transforms reading skill and critical thinking skill into general all-purpose abilities is a person’s possession of general, all-purpose knowledge’. Shor (1992, p. 32) has however criticised Hirsch’s approach to central knowledge as being an overtly ‘Eurocentric cannon of information’. Indeed, this idea of knowledge often seems to neglect the culture and histories of marginalised and minority groups.  Fisher (2008) has also suggested that critical thinking is required to make sense of subject knowledge. Contextual knowledge is almost redundant if one does not possess the ability to apply that knowledge accordingly. Indeed, ‘teaching content and skills is of minor import if learners do not also develop the dispositions or inclination to look at the world through a critical lens’ (Burbules and Berk, 1999, p. 48). However, the two do not need to be mutually exclusive. One needs the factual knowledge and understanding in order to apply critical thinking (Willingham, 2008). This does, however, seem to get overlooked within the polemical discourse being espoused by traditionalist educators. 

Traditionalist educators believe that the best way for children to learn is through teacher-led, didactic instruction. They argue that children learn through the transmission of knowledge from the teacher, who is the expert, to the novice child. Freire (1970) refers to this as ‘knowledge banking’ education which he believed suppresses critical thought. Instead, Friere (1970) argues that education should be about posing problems rather than merely imparting decontextualised knowledge. Traditionalist educators are highly critical of such progressive methods which tend to be more child-centred, skills-orientated and dialogic in their nature.  Very often traditionalist teachers employ the old (misquoted) adage ‘knowledge is power’ (Bacon, 1597) , however, ‘knowledge is not exactly power. Knowledge is the power to know, to understand, but not necessarily the power to do or to change’ (Shor, 1992). For children to become active citizens they must have the ability to think critically about their lives and the world within which they reside.

There been much debate over whether critical thinking should be taught as a stand-alone subject or infused into the curriculum (Ennis, 1987; Swartz and McGuiness, 2014). The former refers to critical thinking programmes such as Philosophy for Children whereas the latter contests that it should be ‘taught implicitly through disciplinary content’ (Nicholas and Rider-Roth, 2016, p. 2). One of the approaches for improving the teaching of critical thinking in education is through philosophy. Fisher (2008) argues philosophy allows children to explore thinking in different and exciting ways. One of the most renowned philosophy programmes is the ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C) movement which uses philosophical enquiry to improve the critical thinking of pupils of all ages and abilities. The worldwide movement began in 1972 with the work of Mathew Lipman and uses novels which act as starting points for philosophical discussions. One of the central concepts of the Philosophy for Children movement has been that of the community of inquiry. ‘The community embodies co-operation, care, respect and safety; and the ‘inquiry’ reaches for understanding, meaning, truth and values supported by reasons’ (P4C, 2008). It is difficult to not see similarities between communities of inquiry and ‘circles of culture’ as advocated by Freire (1974). Both are fundamentally about creating safe environments where people feel confident to discuss ideas and formulate arguments backed by thoughtful reasoning. Developing children’s philosophical reasoning can improve their political consciousness which hopefully means they leave education as reflective and politically literate citizens (McLaren, 1998; Costello, 2000; Garratt and Piper, 2011).

For those who advocate the infusion model of teaching critical thinking, the Socratic method is often used as an example of how enquiries facilitated by questioning can be developed across the curriculum. The Socratic method of teaching aims to support creative and critical thinking and is divided into two approaches; Socratic enquiry and Socratic questioning (Fisher, 1998). The former tends to involve more formal lesson of enquiry whereas the latter is about the infusion of Socratic teaching across the curriculum. Socratic questioning techniques can be used across all subjects and support the infusion model of teaching critical thinking (Warren et al., 2004; Swartz and McGuiness, 2014). Socratic questioning gives priority to the investigation of the beliefs pupils have and the rationale behind those beliefs, opposed to recalling information which has been given to them by their teacher (Davis, 2012). Unfortunately, research suggests that teachers still tend to ask more closed questions with an emphasis on facts and subject knowledge (Gall, 1970; Harris and Williams, 2007). It should also be remembered that in order for the Socratic approach to be successful the teacher must have a genuine interest in what children are thinking (Fisher, 1998). One of the main advantages of the infusion model‘is that children can ‘transform the critical skills they acquire in other subjects and ‘publish’ it in forms that are relevant to their citizenship’ (Pike, 2007, p. 482).

It could be argued that the current educational system is a direct attack on the conditions that allow for critical thinking to happen.  In England, the most recent version of the national curriculum places much greater emphasis on core subjects and knowledge than developing children’s capacity to think critically and creatively (DfE, 2013; DfE, 2014). Coincidentally, this is at odds with education in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland where there is an explicit commitment through national curricula to develop children’s critical thinking across all phases (Northern Ireland Curriculum, 2007; Education Scotland, 2013; Welsh Government, 2015). In a recent speech the Schools Minister (DfE, 2017) announced that he favours a knowledge-rich curriculum influenced by Hirsch. What he fails to acknowledge is since its introduction in 2009, the Common Core curriculum in the US has actually resulted in a drop in performance for high school students in reading and math (Singer, 2016). Worse still, the children whose performance has been affected the most are those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This is particularly disconcerting as children from disadvantaged backgrounds in both the States and the United Kingdom continue to underperform academically when compared to their more affluent peers  (NAEP, 2015; CentreForum, 2016). Maybe it's about time educational systems moved beyond core knowledge, high stakes assessment and standardisation and focused more on developing children's criticality and creativity. After all, that's what Socrates would have wanted. 


  1. Excellent discussion Daryn. Great to read such a strong defence of critical thinking that both draws on its philosophical roots and places it confidently in the current context - the resurgence of traditionalism and the ongoing 'hijacking' of its principles by corporate/neoliberal culture. Traditionalists, commonly citing Bailin, argue that critical thinking can't be taught separately/generically. But in my view - backed by personal experience of teaching a critical thinking module at degree level - it certainly can. Of course domain knowledge informs critique. But the principles/skills, allied to a questioning/critical frame of mind (which you rightly argue can be gained from learning Philosophy) can be applied to any subject once they've been picked up. I think the question of what approach best develops these remains open. But there's no question in my mind that critical thinking is critically important - and as such needs to be embedded from an early age. You set out the case for that here convincingly.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I think we have a shared outlook on the importance of teaching critical thinking. Really appreciate the time taken to read, respond and retweet. Makes it worthwhile. Don't worry, that Q is coming......