The ability to think critically is one skill separating innovators from followers. It combats the power of advertisers, unmasks the unscrupulous and pretentious, and exposes unsupported arguments. Students enjoy learning the skill because they immediately see how it gives them more control. Yet critical thinking is simple: It is merely the ability to understand why things are they way they are and to understand the potential consequences of actions.

Devastating Consequences, Tremendous Opportunities

Young people—without significant life experience and anxious to fit in—are especially vulnerable to surface appeal. Sometimes that appeal actively discourages analysis, as is the case with the targeted advertising that affects buying and eating habits. Students may choose friends for the wrong reasons, leading to heartache. Later on, decisions about joining the military or pursuing another career or about becoming a parent will have indelible effects on their lives.

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 the obligation to incorporate the application of critical thinking into his or her subject area. This helps students evaluate prepackaged conclusions and clears a path for original thoughts. Practicing critical thinking in the classroom may mean discussing the quality of a textbook, considering whether traditional beliefs about a subject are accurate, or even discussing the teacher’s instructional style.

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 yet profound. While we seek out and appreciate some illusions, such as films and novels, others can make us miserable or 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’re 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. They need tools to analyze all the input.

Making a Start in Teaching Critical Thinking

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

1) People believe stories because they are the ones available. Most people 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 stories become accepted because they are simple, sensational, entertaining, or already popular. But just because a story is available doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

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 back in 2004, the CIA had already concluded that Iraq possessed no stockpiles of illicit weapons. Even reliable, readily 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. Yet 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 would have left the building much more quickly.

4) People may not want to question their beliefs. 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 desire to believe what feels comfortable.

Students can be reminded that companies advertising products take advantage of our desires; they don’t 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’s a social reality that people encourage one another to make important decisions with limited facts.

When students are shown how to gather information, question what appears obvious, and think through possible consequences, they’ll be able to make decisions based on facts, not myths or propaganda. Years later, students may forget some details of a subject, but they’ll never forget the teacher who taught them how to think more effectively.