In Intellectual Character: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Get It, Harvard’s Ron Ritchhart asks, “Does school make kids smarter?”

To answer that question, we need to define “smart.”

Nearly all educators would agree that being smart includes being able to ask good questions. Do schools teach that? How many instances can you recall, from all your years of schooling, of being taught how to ask good questions?

A personal story: When our older son Mark was in 5th grade, he came home from school one afternoon and said, “We learned today that the Chinese discovered America.”

“No kidding,” I said with sincere interest. “When I was your age, we learned that Columbus discovered America. Later, schools taught that Leif Erikson and the Vikings discovered America. How did they decide that the Chinese discovered America?”

“That’s what the textbook says,” Mark replied.

“Okay, but how do the textbook’s authors know the Chinese discovered America?”

“Scientists discovered Chinese artifacts in Georgia,” Mark said.

“Hmmm . . . how do they know they were Chinese artifacts,” I asked, “and how do they know how old they were?”

“Gee, Dad,” Mark said, with obvious frustration, “I can’t answer all these questions!”

“I’m just trying to get you to think,” I said. “Don’t you ever ask your teachers questions like this?”

Mark replied: “If I asked my teachers questions like this, I’d drive them nuts! They just want you to learn stuff—they don’t want you to develop your mind!”

Obviously, no teacher would want students to think, “We don’t want you to develop your mind.” Mark’s teachers undoubtedly would have been shocked to know he had concluded that. Virtually all teachers would say that they want to teach students to learn to think—and to think critically.

What One Teacher Does

Our two sons are now fathers, one with eight kids and the other with six. I picked up our oldest grandson Fin after school recently when he was a high school senior. His last class of the day was American Government, which he said was his favorite course. I asked him why.

“The teacher’s very smart, and he has a great sense of humor,” he said. I asked, “How does he bring the subject matter to life?” Fin said:

“Well, at the beginning of the course he said that his goal was to teach us to think. He said he wanted us to know his bias; he’s a libertarian and that would probably come through in various ways. He makes you feel very free to express your own opinion. The part of the class I like best is when he teaches us about logical fallacies—how to spot them in arguments.”

So here is a teacher who intentionally fosters critical thinking in three ways:

■ He tells his students that his goal is to teach them to think.

■ He alerts them to his bias and creates an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.

■ He teaches them a skill of logical thinking—identifying fallacious reasoning.

Continue reading at Critical Thinking: How To Teach It? (pdf)

Other points covered:

* Colleges not teaching critical skills. New York University sociologist Richard Arum, in his 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, reported his four-year study that tracked the development of 2,322 college students from a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities. Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning, or writing skills during the first two years of college. After four years, 36 percent showed no gains. Many students graduated without knowing how to differentiate fact from opinion, make a clear written argument, or assess conflicting reports of a situation or event.

* A programme which does: In Oakland (CA) Technical High School, a large, urban, multi-ethnic public school, we observed a curriculum designed to teach critical thinking: the Paideia program. Based on a model developed by University of Chicago philosopher-educator Mortimer Adler, Paideia develops thinking and communication skills through Socratic methodology, the integration of English and history, and demanding reading and writing requirements.

* Structured controversy. A research-based approach to controversial issues—one that prevents teacher bias from skewing the discussion, maximizes student participation, and reaps the benefits of cooperative learning—is “structured controversy.” Developed by cooperative learning experts David and Roger Johnson, this model defines controversies as “interesting problems to be solved rather than win-lose situations.” The Johnsons reject the classic debate format in favor of a format in which students work together.

* Should schools discuss abortion? The ethicist John Noonan observes that not since the Civil War over slavery has the nation been so divided over questions as basic as “Who is a human being?” and “Who shall be accorded human rights?” When some Maryland schools approved “respect for life” as one of 18 ethical values to be taught, teachers weren’t sure how to handle questions about abortion, which they expected to come up.

Dr. Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility0. 

Thomas Lickona ( is the author of nine books on character development and directs the Center for the 4th and 5th...