Critical Thinking: How Long Does it Take?

Critical Thinking: How Long Does it Take?
by Jonathan Haber

One of the questions I wanted to answer while creating the Critical Voter curriculum (which used the 2012 presidential election to teach practical critical thinking skills) was how long it would take to cover all of the subjects needed to provide students with sufficient skills to be useful in the context of a complex event, such as a presidential race.

Unlike other cultural experiences many Americans share (such as a popular TV show or major sporting event), the things that take place during an election campaign (such as frequent use of argumentation and persuasive rhetoric) make elections an ideal case study for applying various elements of critical thought.

For instance, when studying persuasive language (such as the use of rhetoric) an election provides ample material in the form of speeches and debates where rhetorical devices of various types are deployed in almost every sentence. And arguments can be found everywhere (from party platforms and presidential proposals, to TV ads — especially the negative ones) which students can use to learn tools such as logic maps and Information Literacy.

Key to understanding the answer to my original question (how long it takes to teach this stuff) is the notion of sufficiency. For while it is certainly possible to spend one’s entire life learning about subjects such as logic, rhetoric and cognitive science, the subset of these subjects one needs to master in order to become a critical thinker can be learned in a far shorter time period.

How short? Well, as it turned out, the time needed to teach this curriculum (which was delivered in the form of audio-based lectures delivered as a podcast) was less than eight hours, during which the following subjects were covered:

• Bias — Both the reasons behind it (derived from the study of cognitive science) as well as techniques for identifying and controlling for it
• Logic
• The Modes of Persuasion that underlie most arguments and human communication including logos (logic), pathos (emotion) and ethos (authority, or connection with the audience)
• Argumentation, including how arguments are organized and can be diagrammed
• Rhetorical devices and other persuasive techniques
• Media and Information Literacy

Several subtopics were also included in these lessons, including fallacies, mathematical deception and the appropriate use of factual information.

I’ll admit that this timing surprised me (especially since those seven+ hours also included ample time spent on examples from the campaign, as well as input from various guests who provided additional perspectives on what it meant to be a critical thinker).

But upon reflection, I can think of a few reasons why such an important skill seems to take a relatively modest time to teach:

First off, the podcast format taps into the fact that hearing is our most efficient sense for taking in logos (i.e., fact-and logic-) -based information.

Second, the skills needed to achieve sufficiency in critical thinking are indeed finite and relatively simple. This might seem counter-intuitive, given that these skills originate within complex areas such as philosophy and cognitive science. But remember that we are not talking about learning enough to achieve a degree in philosophy or brain science (or any other subject). Rather, we are talking about incorporating a small subset of practical skills that derive from these admittedly vast subjects into routine activities such as the analysis of information and decision making we do every day.

But this observation provides the third and most important reason why a subject (critical thinking) that can be taught in less than eight hours seems to be in such short supply. For critical thinking skills are similar to other practical skills such as carpentry or mastery of a software program in that they are a mix of knowledge and practical application. And unless those skills are put to use immediately and repeatedly, to the point where they become part of our “muscle memory” (with our brain being the “muscle” in need of training with regard to critical thinking), they will quickly be lost (just as skills obtained by training on a computer program quickly dissipated if not put to use immediately.

So while one can learn these skills quickly, they do take longer to master. Not a lifetime, but more than the time needed to listen to seven to eight hours of lectures. Fortunately, critical thinking (unlike other subjects) can provide immediate practical value in the form of better grades, shorter (and more constructive) arguments, and better life choices.

For instance, one student (my son, as a matter of fact) learned the importance of primarily using the future verb tense when trying to convince, something that earned him a high grade on a history paper, as well as moderating fights with friends and parents. And having gained a “win” through use of this one critical thinking technique, he has been motivated to learn, use and (one hopes) internalize more of them.

So far from being some form of esoteric knowledge, critical thinking turns out to be one of the more easy-to-learn and pragmatic skills available to all. Or at least all those willing to put in the reasonable amount of work needed to achieve success.