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Critical Thinking Is a Key to Repairing Our Social Fabric

Teaching critical thinking skill is imperative to regain our lost social values.

The last four years seem to have frayed the social fabric of this country more than any period in my lifetime. Distrust of media, government, and each other is running high; passions are inflamed; and even close family relationships are suffering. As we move on from the Trump presidency, many people will be looking for ways to rebuild social trust. From my perspective, education, particularly education in critical thinking, must be part of the solution.

A series of surveys conducted by the Reboot Foundation (for which I work as an advisor) has found that people are generally pessimistic about the state of reasoning in this country. They seek out opposing viewpoints less than they should. They exhibit poor media literacy skills. They doubt that our education system is doing enough. Teachers, likewise, suggest that standardized testing, lack of materials, and the role of tech in their students’ lives have made teaching critical thinking more challenging.

And yet, having sharp critical thinking skills might be the most important 21st Century skill we teach our children.

How can we get students thinking more critically to ensure they are able to capably contribute to their communities? Three things can help, I think:

  • Getting clear on exactly how critical thinking should be taught.
  • Modeling civil political discourse for our students through a renewed commitment to civics.
  • Prioritizing media literacy at every level.

How to Teach Critical Thinking

Too often of late, education has come to be seen as paint-by-numbers. Curriculums are mandated and one-size-fits-all. Requirements are imposed uniformly by state regulators. Test scores have taken on more and more significance, and thus more and more class time.

The result, too often, may be disempowered teachers, demotivated students, a lack of creative and open-ended exercises, and too little critical thinking. Students’ natural curiosity is too often diminished by “teaching to the test.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Rote learning has its place, but it can’t take the place of intrinsically motivated student-driven pursuits of knowledge, small-group inquiry exercises, and teacher-facilitated project-based learning.

At the same time, we have to be realistic. While the curricular framework should change, that will take time. Meanwhile, we need to help empower teachers who are working within it to nonetheless teach these more open-ended skills and foster intrinsic motivation.

Research strongly suggests that teaching critical thinking is best done within particular disciplines, closely integrated with content knowledge—not as an independent subject matter. This is good news because it means giving students better critical thinking instruction can be done without major changes to state or district rules and requirements. Instead, teachers can make subtle tweaks to their current classroom practices that will help guide students toward deeper thinking.

Take for example teaching critical thinking in science. Instead of science labs where students simply try to confirm known experimental results by following a “recipe,” science teachers can give them more open-ended projects, where students can make mistakes, reflect on what works, and become better acquainted with the scientific method first-hand.

Recommitting to Civics

As many commentators have noted in recent years, we seem to have lost the ability to talk to each other. Social media degrades political “debates” into vicious rhetorical battles that end with blocks and unfollows. Substantive discussions of the real problems facing the country are replaced by tweets and likes.

Civics was once thought to be the pillar of our education system. From the beginning, the central rationale for developing a universal public education system was to develop the knowledge, habits of mind, and commitment to liberal values necessary for democratic self-government.

Just 24 percent of students show themselves to be "proficient" in civics, according to the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is not necessarily because civics is completely ignored in the curriculum. According to the National Education Association (NEA), “All 50 states require some form of instruction in civics and/or government, and nearly 90 percent of students take at least one civics class.” Rather, the problem, according to the NEA, is that rote memorization of facts about government is prioritized over actual civics activities, like mock debates, open-ended discussion, and community service.

Teaching civics without a robust critical thinking component is unlikely to address the problem. The Reboot Foundation recently published a guide for teachers on how to better teach critical thinking. It includes tips for how to conduct in-class debates, teach argumentative writing, and integrate content knowledge with deeper thinking.

The Importance of Media Literacy

Finally, recent upheavals have shown weaknesses in media literacy across the population. I don’t mean to point the finger or insult our collective intelligence. It’s understandable that a rapidly changing media environment—primarily the rise of partisan “news” outlets and algorithm-driven social media platforms—has posed serious challenges to our ability to process information and opinion.

But the response from our education system has thus far been too slow. Part of the problem is that this is something we’re all struggling with. It can be hard for teachers to feel like they’re in a good position to teach media literacy, especially when we often associate younger generations with being more “tech-savvy."

But tech-savviness does not translate to media literacy or even evidence-based practice and any teacher who can teach good general research skills can teach media literacy as well.

Teaching media literacy needs to start with reflection on the role media plays in all of our lives. Students will likely be eager to discuss issues like their own social media and smartphone use and worries about tech’s impact on attention spans. This will generate immediate buy-in and make it clear that media literacy is not a niche subject, but a core part of our lives.

The next step is to start reading media sources with a more critical eye. Teachers can foster good habits by modeling them: for example, showing students how to try to verify information by “reading laterally”—or opening up new browser tabs to see if news on one site is widely backed up or disputed on others. In-depth reading and research projects in middle and high school are also a necessary part of generating good investigative skills. Teachers can integrate media literacy into the projects by discussing issues like bias in information sources and the necessity of exposing oneself to information from a variety of viewpoints.

For all the upheaval of these last few years, it’s still an exciting time to be alive. Technology has improved life more than it’s hindered it; opportunities abound, even if they remain unfairly distributed; and it’s within our capabilities to solve big problems, like climate change and political polarization. But in order for the next generation of students to rise to these challenges and help make things better, they need to be able to think clearly and critically. We owe it to them to teach them how to do that, and to equip them with the tools and thinking habits necessary to change our trajectory.