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Critical Thinking: A Necessary Skill in the Age of Spin

G. Randy Kasten

Critical thinking specialist
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The ability to think critically is one skill separating innovators from followers. Critical thinking reduces the power of advertisers, the unscrupulous and the pretentious, and can neutralize the sway of an unsupported argument. This is a skill most students enjoy learning because they see immediately that it gives them more control.

Devastating Consequences

That said, young people -- without significant life experience and anxious to fit in -- are especially vulnerable to surface appeal. Targeted advertising affects their buying and eating habits; choosing friends for the wrong reasons can lead to real heartache. Decisions about joining the military, becoming a parent or choosing a career have indelible effects on a person's life. An inability to think critically at an early age can have devastating consequences.

Every educator is in a position to teach students how to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions and think for themselves. Because critical thinking is so important, some believe that every educator has not only the opportunities, but also the obligation to incorporate critical thinking into his or her subject area. This helps students evaluate prepackaged conclusions and clears a path for original thoughts.

A World of Illusions

Seeing beyond superficial appearances is especially important today because we are surrounded by illusions, many of them deliberately created. The effects may be subtle, or they may affect us profoundly. While we seek out and appreciate some illusions such as films and novels, other illusions can make us miserable and even kill us. We need to know if foods that taste perfectly fine can hurt us in the short term (as with Salmonella contamination) or in the long term (cholesterol). A virus might be so dangerous that we should avoid public places, and political candidates promising to clean up government can end up being more corrupt than their predecessors. We want to know if items we purchase are durable or junk, and whether people we are attracted to are truly as considerate as they seem at first. Students are constantly being presented with information not only in the classroom, but also from their friends, parents, the Internet, films, television, radio, newspapers and magazines, and they need tools to analyze all the input.

How False Ideas Creep Into Our Belief Systems

The first step in teaching critical thinking is to help students recognize how easily false ideas can creep into their belief system. For example:

1) People believe stories because they are the ones available.

Most people would identify Thomas Edison as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. Although Edison perfected a commercially successful design, he was preceded in the experimentation by British inventors Frederick de Moleyns and Joseph Swan, and by American J. W. Starr. Sometimes a belief such as the one about Edison becomes well known for reasons that are difficult to trace. At other times, it is easy to see that a story became available because a mainstream media source determined the story was newsworthy. Sometimes, that editorial decision has more to do with what is sensational, entertaining or popular than with what is of lasting importance. Just because a story is available does not mean it is accurate or important.

2) Beliefs may justify past actions.

In July 2006, half the respondents to a Harris Poll said they believed that when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, that country possessed weapons of mass destruction. But in 2004, the CIA had already concluded that Iraq possessed no stockpiles of illicit weapons. Even reliable, available facts had not superseded the mistaken impression that many still held.

3) People may not recognize the significance of their own perceptions.

In November 2005, a suicide bomber struck the Radisson Hotel in Amman, Jordan. On the eighth floor, Ita Martin heard a loud noise. Still, it was not until she turned on CNN that she learned a bomb had gone off. "Oh, my God, I'm in that hotel!" she exclaimed. Had she trusted her own ears and eyes, she may have gotten out of there much more quickly.

Understanding Motivations

Students don't need much convincing that two of the biggest enemies of the truth are people whose job it is to sell us incomplete versions of the available facts, and the simple absence of accurate information. They may need more convincing that a significant problem is their own willingness to believe what they want to believe. Students can be reminded that companies advertising products take advantage of our desires; they do not describe the benefits of their competitors' products any more than a man asking a woman to marry him encourages her to date other men before deciding. It is a social reality that people encourage one another to make important decisions with limited facts.

Fortunately, when students are educated about information-gathering techniques and critical thinking, they have the tools necessary to see through spin and make decisions based on fact, rather than myth or propaganda. Regardless of your subject, critical thinking is one of the most important skills you can teach.

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Darnelle's picture
Early Childhood Educator from NY

As the article suggests every educator is in a position to teach critical thinking skills, including parents and those who work with younger students. For example, during read alouds with picture storybooks adults can model certain strategies and use scaffolding to teach a child to infer, ask "why?", understand characters, etc. On the playground a teacher can help a child "think through" why a particular spot is not okay to play in.

swatil's picture
I am a parent of a 2nd grader in London,UK

Teaching children to think is a fundamental concept that most early educators strive to introduce to their young learners. Creative and stimulating strategies that cajole them into analyzing objectively any given challenge, topic or a task are critical to this process. For educators the entire process of inculcating this basic skill evolves from being an engaging activity to the most satisfying, when their young wards perfect the rudimentary skills of this vital aspect of learning. With each higher grade of learning it becomes increasingly important for educators to build the necessary skills in their wards to think beyond the face value of vetexts or topics. Viewing a topic or theme from various perspectives, is the KEY to stimulate learners to think BEYOND and reach a 'Higher Order of Thinking' (HOT).
HOT lays the foundations of critical thinking and with each passing academic year becomes the vital key to achieving academic competence. Bloom's Taxonomy is a much appreciated and adopted thumb of rule to structure and develop gradual levels of thinking higher. The six levels are Remembering, Understanding, Application, Analysis, Evaluation and Creation. These six levels of higher thinking provide the much required framework for acquiring strong critiquing and analysis skills for all age groups of learners. Encouraging learners to move from lowest to the highest levels of thinking will help in developing higher order thinking.

Gina's picture
Writer; MA-Forensic Psychology

Very important points, Randy, thanks! One of the best ways to teach critical thinking skills without antagonizing parents (a concern expressed by one comment here) is to show kids through specific exercises how vulnerable they are to cognitive biases and distortions. These exercises can be very simple and non-threatening, while also helping open each child's mind to the need for paying attention to "how" they think rather than simply "what" they think. I would HIGHLY recommend that every educator read Daniel Kahneman's recent book /Thinking, Fast and Slow/. He includes some simple and very concrete examples from his and others' research that make many common cognitive biases very clear. There's no need to attack any child's (or parent's) personal beliefs in doing so, and I would imagine that even educators will be surprised at their own capacity for cognitive distortion after reading this book. I've written a bit more about this on my blog, Family Matters ( but I really would recommend picking up the book if you get the chance.

Gina's picture
Writer; MA-Forensic Psychology

I appreciated the link to your blog. As one of your posts mentioned the importance of "focused, individual feedback," I thought I'd take the opportunity to give you some and say thanks very much for that point, especially in the context of teaching critical thinking. It can be too tempting (as you mentioned) to get frustrated when they take the superficial route, and scold them for laziness (which could just end up silencing them from sharing any further attempts at critical thinking). On the other hand, a little coaching can go a long way toward making the skill one they enjoy using.

Robert Swartz's picture
Robert Swartz
Books on teaching critical thinking, staff development trainer

These are fine comments about the need to teach students critical thinking skills. I would want to extend these comments to specifically flag helping students learn how to make discriminating judgments about the reliability of sources of information, the likelihood of predictions, the likelihood of causal explanations, and about the best options and best solutions in decision-making and problem solving -- and doing these with an open mind. Add to these skill at identifying, analyzing, and evaluating arguments, as well as constructing good arguments themselves, and writing good reflective prose -- and we have a core of contexts that call for effective instruction in our schools and colleges on critical thinking.

But we need to be discriminating ourselves in how we do this. Many teachers think that it is enough to give students critical thinking challenges: What is the best energy source for our country to rely on as its dominant energy source? Why did Huck Finn's father abduct him? What caused the Titanic to hit that iceberg? Which internet sources about the moon landing are reliable? These are challenging questions, but unless students have a sense of how to answer these questions, they are usually invitations for hasty non-critical responses. In order for these challenges to be effective invitations to careful critical thinking we need to teach students so that they use effective thinking strategies in answering them with an open mind, e.g. they know what kind of evidence is needed to support their judgments, and they don't rush to judgment until they have all the evidence on both sides of an issue.

I have found many many teachers wanting to do this who are not sure how to. That has been the focus of my work over the past 25 years -- infusing instruction in critical and creative thinking into their content instruction -- and most teachers I have worked with have had dramatic results -- great lessons that not only improve their students critical thinking abilities but significantly elevate their level of real content understanding. This is not too hard for a teacher to master. My experience has convinced me that while infusing such instruction into all classrooms is achievable, it will take many alerts like we find in Randy Kasten's article to wake the world of education up to the need to do this. I urge you all to make spreading this word a priority! Our future may depend on it.

Tim's picture
Educator and political activist designing learning opportunities for the ge

I'm inwhole-hearted agreement with you here Randy, but would spin you further along by countering that Critical Spinning is Necessary in an Age of Thoughtlessness. Standing in the forum arguing "truth" against doxa gets you killed (Socrates) or, in the best case, a 20 point trouncing in the polls (been ther, done that!) Yes, students need to think critically, but not by wielding Occam's Razor to hack out the truth through a jungle of spin. The 21st century 24-7 spin machine moves too fast for that ancient approach. Once they have found their truths, students need to learn to produce "realities" that "fight fire with fire," or they will just be engaged in academic fiddling while Rome burns (been there, and done that, too!)

Jeff's picture
Professor, entreprenueur, author, life alchemist

Unfortunately, even though many if not most colleges place critical thinking high on the mission statement list, too many employers still complain that students are missing this critical skill, if I may. In order to teach it and make sure students learn it, we must use critical thinking itself to problem solve. First, education cannot be forced. The student must be motivated or choose to learn, and by learn I am referring to the stickiness of knowledge. All to often A's are obtained, even 4.0's with little learning. Personally, I ignore these biased indicators. In addition, I don't check to see if students have learned. I do check, however, to see if they are paying attention and enthralled with the priceless, all encompassing, purifying, freeing, empowering nature of critical thinking, even critical, creative, intuitive thinking (all that I teach and coach are in these three words). Yet I do see its acquisition in the focus and attention paid, the statements made, the enlivening seen, and the greatest of being, be-ing.

We MUST create awareness and free the student to learn critical thinking, anything, for that matter. WE must have a passion for critical thinking. But more than that we must CARE. Care about the students, first and foremost. Once this equation is satisfied, success follows. Academia often fails for many inherent reasons. Even the former president of Harvard, Derek Bok, tells us that we do well by our students; however, we still fall far short of passing on the critical skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed by all of today's citizens. And that's the key. All must have access to CT and be able to not only obtain it but master it to greatest intellectual, emotional, physical, even spiritual effect. And that will only be solved by freeing the teaching of it from academic bureaucracy and state corruption, only by placing it where all have access to it free of these corruptions will the gaining of this critical knowledge begin to reach the heights of acquisition and application it so justly deserves.

April B.'s picture

Great topic and very timely with the "information age" we are in! I think it's so important for students to learn to think critically and to question everything... Understanding the motivations of those behind the information is huge and with so much information and mis-information out there this is a must. ~April (

ExpectMore24's picture

I decided to make critical thinking one of my "core pillars" this year. However, I found embedding it within my curriculum was much more difficult than I expected, especially when trying to keep it engaging. has great lessons built around current events and public radio pieces that push kids to critically listen and evaluate stories.

Jayro's picture
Mindfulness-based teacher and student education facilitator

Great article Randy. There is some interesting research outlined in the article below about transcend limiting beliefs and ideas we may have picked up unconsciously or via advertising/media, as you point out.

It's a research piece about limiting beliefs and the practice of affirmations, however the findings can be applied in the situations you speak of and used effectively with children to help them move beyond limiting beliefs and stories through the use of properly formed/structured questions that get the mind to expand beyond its limits.

I have applied the findings in my mindfulness work with students and teachers with great success. The power of questions continue to amaze me and are powerful tools in the push for teaching critical thinking skills, among other things.

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