Content or Critical Reasoning?

Excellent article posted by @Zachary_Ardern:

Willingham’s reading of the research literature concludes that scientists are united in their belief that content knowledge is crucial to effective critical thinking.

To be sure, there are basic logic principles that are true across subjects, such as understanding that “A” and “not A” cannot simultaneously be true. But students typically fail to apply even generic principles like these in new situations. In one experiment described by Willingham, people read a passage about how rebels successfully attacked a dictator hiding in a fortress (they dispersed the forces to avoid collateral damage and then converged at the point of attack). Immediately afterwards, they were asked how to destroy a malignant tumor using a ray that could cause a lot of collateral damage to healthy tissue. The solution was identical to that of the military attack but the subjects in the experiment didn’t see the analogy. In a follow-up experiment, people were told that the military story might help them solve the cancer problem and almost everyone solved it. “Using the analogy was not hard; the problem was thinking to use it in the first place,” Willingham explained.

To help student see analogies, “show students two solved problems with different surface structures but the same deep structure and ask them to compare them,” Williingham advises teachers, citing a pedagogical technique proven to work by researchers in 2013.

And particularly relevant to science and engaging the public:

Willingham says that the scientific research shows that it’s very hard to evaluate an author’s claim if you don’t have background knowledge in the subject. “If you lack background knowledge about the topic, ample evidence from the last 40 years indicates you will not comprehend the author’s claims in the first place,” wrote Willingham, citing his own 2017 book.


Too bad I don’t have enough background knowledge about the topic to comprehend this claim.


But the scientific method is easier to teach with everyday content. That needs to be done first, in primary school, before more complex content is introduced. Otherwise, you’ll just continue to confuse laypeople, which in turn makes them more susceptible to pseudoscience.


This one is near and dear to me. This is something I’m constantly struggling with, whether it’s arguing with the my faculty colleagues that content is indeed important (no, you can’t expect a single General Education course labeled as “critical thinking” to be sufficient) or arguing that education is more than a content-delivery system. It is a balance, and it’s not always very clear where that balance should be for any given class. The intended student audience and purpose of the course play a lot into it, as well as the approachability of the content itself.

One of the things that Willingham points out that is super important is just being explicit in showing the analysis and tying the analogy between a specific example and a generalized form. Here’s an example I run into all the time:

  • students are taught in their math classes that a line takes the form: y = m·x+b , where m = the slope and b = the y-intercept
  • in freshman chemistry I get to kinetics where we talk about chemical concentration as a function of time and I put up the 1st order integrated form: \ln([A]) = -k·t+\ln([A]_0)
  • I ask the students what I would need to plot to get a line and what the slope would be, pretty universally they have no idea
  • I then draw y = m·x+b underneath the equation so that y is under \ln([A]) and x under t, then the whole room sighs as they collectively “get it”

It took me a couple years to figure out that it wasn’t that they students hadn’t had the math classes, but that they way math is often learned is as a generalized, content-less, skill. I find students can do a lot more math when I write it out with the variables they are used to, the coordinate systems they are used to, etc. The math teachers are distilling it down to skills, avoiding any messy distraction and inconsistency, but it tends to lead to students who only know math in the context of a math class. I teach a lot more math in my physics and chemistry classes now because I realize that my students haven’t seen it outside of that context. I just do a lot of “translating” between what they’ve seen in their math classes and how we use math in my courses.

It’s not that students didn’t “get it” or learn it in their math class, they just learned exactly what they were taught, and no more. I have to watch out for the same things in my courses, of course. When I’m planning curriculum I’m much more likely these days to say “if it’s an important concept let’s reinforce it in a different class/context so students see another side” rather than “we’ve already covered that once, we don’t need to do it again.”

A person could write a book (or maybe already has) just on analogy and the relationship between content and critical thinking. I think this also plays heavily into ID (motors and code analogies) and the general conflict between origins “camps”.


I’ve had success teaching 8-year-olds to critically evaluate whether their dogs truly understand the meaning of the word “Sit!” or just the tone of voice used (most choose the former), walking them through the hypothesis they just articulated and an obvious experiment they can do with their dogs at home.

I don’t provide the answer.


One only needs to spend a few minutes a day reading these forums to see the truth of this statement.


I don’t think it is a case of either-or. Both are important. We need both content and critical thinking. Recognizing fallacious thinking, and having the necessary background knowledge are both very important to be able to properly evaluate any topic.

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