“Academics” and the “Practical” Part II: Neither Just Skills nor Just Facts

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Picking up (after a month of constant travel) on my effort to build a unified field theorem of education reform, I want to respond to a strong challenge Jay issued to my use of the word “skills” in my original post.

I used the term “basic skills” to refer to the three Rs, without even thinking about it. I didn’t even stop to define it; after Jay challenged me I thought he had misunderstood what I meant by that term, so I went back and posted a clarification. But it turned out Jay had understood me perfectly well. He just wanted to challenge that use of the term.

I think this is likely to be a crucial issue in my effort to reconcile the legitimate interests of “liberal artists” with the legitimate interests of “pragmatists,” so it’s worth pausing to hash it out.

Jay pointed me to this article by Daniel Willingham: “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” I haven’t had nearly enough time to digest it fully, I’m afraid, but I’ve digested enough of it to offer what I think is a useful next step in thinking about this issue.

First off: In a discussion of the controversy between teaching the three Rs (and all the other things liberal artists want) and teaching critical thinking (and all the other things pragmatists want), why did Jay challenge my conception of what it means to teach the three Rs and then, to back up his challenge, point me to an article on critical thinking? Why not an article on the three Rs?

Because this is, really, an article on the three Rs, and on the whole liberal arts agenda more generally, disguised as an article on critical thinking. Presumably that’s how he got it published in American Educator – an organ of the AFT! It’s the educational equivalent of the Sokal hoax. Willingham has a bunch of pragmatists – teacher union pragmatists, no less – publishing liberal artist propaganda. It’s a brilliant practical joke.

…or so I thought when I first looked at it.

But the more I look at it, the more I think the joke is as much on us liberal artists as it is on the pragmatists.

Willingham’s thesis in a nutshell:

First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically(to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice.

The idea that critical thinking isn’t a skill is the real core of the article:

Critical thinking does not have certain characteristics normally associated with skills—in particular, being able to use that skill at any time. If I told you that I learned to read music, for example, you would expect, correctly, that I could use my new skill (i.e., read music) whenever I wanted. But critical thinking is very different. As we saw in the discussion of conditional probabilities, people can engage in some types of critical thinking without training, but even with extensive training, they will sometimes fail to think critically. This understanding that critical thinking is not a skill is vital. It tells us that teaching students to think critically probably lies in small part in showing them new ways of thinking, and in large part in enabling them to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time.

Rather, critical thinking is what emerges when you do a good job of teaching content. That’s because learning “to deploy the right type of thinking at the right time” only happens when you learn a specific field. You don’t learn the scientific method by studying the scientific method (which is what is implied by calling it a “skill”). You can learn about the scientific method that way; that is, you can acquire “head knowledge” of facts about it, facts that could be regurgitated on a test. But it doesn’t make you any better at actually using the scientific method. Studying biology, on the other hand, will make you better at the scientific method because you’re actually using it. It will even make you better at using the scienfic method in all other disciplines, even the ones you haven’t studied. That’s because in your study of biology you’re learning 1) knowledge of the “deep structure” of problems in that field, and 2) “contextual cues” in that field that signal you when to do what. That knowledge, and not “the scientific method” learned as a skill in its own right, is what helps you figure out “deep structure” and “contextual cues” in other fields.

So the pragmatists, who want to focus on “critical thinking” as such, have it all wrong, and the liberal artists, who want to focus on teaching content, have it all right. Right?


Throughout Willingham’s analysis there is an emphasis on how critical thinking emerges from learning these content-specific disciplines in practice. You learn “deep structure” and “contextual cues,” not by studying deep structure and contextual cues as such, but by learning specific disciplines like biology. However, you learn deep structure and contextual cues in biology, not by reading books about biology, but by doing biology. You conduct experiments, you do field research, etc. You go out and solve problems and create knowledge.

Look again at one particular phrase in my description of Willingham above: studying the scientific method as such wouldn’t make you any better at using the scientific method, but it would give you facts about it – the kind of thing you could regurgitate on a test.

And there’s our problem. We liberal artists really do have a strong tendency to reduce content knowledge to “head knowledge” of facts. If you can pass a test on a subject, you know the subject. But – and here we are hoist on Willingham’s petard – that is not the kind of content-specific knowledge that leads to good critical thinking.

Obviously we need to have head knowledge. Students need to learn facts. That’s vital. In particular, for all the reasons outlined in my original post, I think the emphasis on standardized testing emerged for good reasons, and standardized testing needs to remain an important part of our educational landscape.

And I’m not giving up my position that the pragmatists, in their zeal to equip students with critical thinking, creativity, the entrepreneurial mindset, etc. have historically sought these qualities at the expense of, rather than in addition to, content knowledge – and that this has historically had devastating effects.

But I’m also sounding a red alert that we liberal artists have gone just as far wrong in allowing our zeal for accountability – which in practice has come to mean “testing” for too many of us – to drive us into a reductionistic approach to what content knowledge really consists of.

I wonder if it would help to go back to Aristotle’s concept of “intellectual virtues.” He classified the goal of education as imparting not skills or facts, but virtues. And alongside the “moral virtues” he put “intellectual virtues.” Indeed, he thought the two were not just equally important but interdependent; you couldn’t have one without the other.

He warned that a “virtue,” whether moral or intellectual, cannot be reduced to either just a personal characteristic we possess or a thing that we do. If a virtue is just a characteristic, then we’re “virtuous” while asleep or in a coma; if a virtue is just a thing that we do, then our “virtue” depends as much on circumstances outside us as on our character. Rather, virtue must be something that is both active and intrinsic.

Aristotle solved this problem by proposing that virtue is a habit. To possess a virtue means to be in the habit of doing the right things at the right times.

Now, I suppose (stretching just a little bit) that the reductionistic tendency of the pragmatists is to pursue their goals – critical thinking and so forth – as merely something they want students to do. They seek the activity but not the intrinsicness. And the reductionistic tendency of the liberal artists is to pursue their goals as merely something they want students to have inside them; they seek the intrinsicness but not the activity. It might help us to start thinking of learning as the imparting of good habits – to intrinsically possess the quality of being prone to do the right things.

But whether Aristotle helps or not, it seems to me that a recovery of good education must be neither a turn away from the practical toward the academic, nor a turn away from the academic toward the practical, but an acknowledgement that, by separating the two, we have really lost both.

6 Responses to “Academics” and the “Practical” Part II: Neither Just Skills nor Just Facts

  1. It’s great having Greg back from the road so he can put up these thoughtful posts (and so he can see his family 🙂 )

    I’m no expert on these issues but I suspect that core knowledge people would have no objection to greg’s suggestion that content often needs to be taught through activity. Their beef with the status quo is about the curriculum (what is taught) as opposed to pedagogy (how content is taught).

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I assume you typed “core knowledge people” as opposed to “Core Knowledge people” intentionally? 🙂

    We all agree in principle that we want both academics and practical abilities. Everyone says they want both. The question is, how do we really get both? For that to happen, both sides are going to have to give up some sacred cows. As I pointed out in my original post, a lot of people have learned to talk about doing both, but nobody really does both.

    Case in point: You say the core knoweldge people are fighting over curriculum and don’t care about pedagogy. But as they build their agenda for changing curriculum, are they doing it in a way that even allows for the existence of, never mind actually encouraging the emergence of, a practical pedagogy such as Willingham’s analysis suggests we need?

  3. Good point. Curriculum and pedagogy are connected.

    And my typing is iPhone constrained.

  4. JBB says:

    Actually, once you’ve got good domain knowledge and good experimental skills, you can learn a lot of science through reading. That is how working scientists keep up with their fields. Their (by now ingrained) sense of how field work or bench work operate in their specialities, plus their growing stock of content knowledge, mean that they can “do” science or build scientific knowledge, inside their heads. One of the most rewarding parts of my high school education was, in fact, that once in awhile this is how even we as high school students learned new content and new skills both.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Yup, that’s all in the Willingham article. He even notes that for those who achieve very high-level mastery of a field, critical thinking starts becoming more like a skill.

  6. Parry says:

    Absolutely excellent post. I think one of the real challenges is that this is no simple dilemma/debate: figuring out how people learn (and what they should learn) is both incredibly complex and also critical to the improvement of K-12 education. It’s so much simpler to reduce the complexity to superficial phrases/concepts, such as “content knowledge” or “critical thinking skills”, rather than to truly wrestle with the complexity as you have here (and as Willingham does through his book and articles).

    Good stuff!


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