What’s so Scary About Critical Thinking?

By now you may have heard of the most recent Texas GOP Platform (.pdf download here) that kicked off such an uproar. The particular section that caused the most controversy reads:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Makes your jaw drop doesn’t it?

However, a spokesman for the Republican Party later retracted the part about “critical thinking skills” by saying, “that it was an oversight of the committee [Education subcommittee], that the plank should not have included ‘critical thinking skills’ after ‘values clarification . . . And it was not the intent of the subcommittee to present a plank that would have indicated that the RPT in any way opposed the development of critical thinking skills.” (Source: TPM Muckraker)

OK, fair enough. But really, the education section of the platform is barely over TWO pages long, and neatly organized into short 1-2 sentence statements. How hard could it be to proofread? It seems like their true regret is choosing the words “critical thinking skills” instead of calling it something else. Educational jargon drives me crazy. So, what is it really that the Texas GOP is opposed to?

They refer to Outcome-Based Education (OBE), which is a broad name for the type of controversial school reforms sweeping the nation in the early 90s. The basic idea was that instead of measuring a student’s academic performance through inputs (hours in class, texts used, grading to the curve), students would be measured by attainment of various learning outcomes determined by the States. It sounds reasonable, but the problem was getting everyone to agree on what those learning outcomes ought to be, and figuring out how to measure them objectively (click here or here for further info on the controversy). Instead of concrete outcomes such as “Demonstrate finding a percentage of a number,” States often came up with vague social and ethical outcomes such as “positive self-image” or “appreciation of diversity in others.”

I remember living in Washington State while all of this was going on and was dumbfounded that the State would presume to collect information on the feelings and beliefs of our children, and then decide if they were enlightened enough to get a diploma (or even a driver’s license). It’s not that I was opposed to self-esteem or appreciation of diversity, or any of the other politically correct platitudes the Board of Education dreamed up. I was opposed to the State telling my kids what they could think and believe (even if I happen to agree with those things). So, I can relate to the Texas GOP platform on that issue, except that I don’t believe students need to have any fixed beliefs protected. Brainwashing by parents is just as bad as brainwashing by the State. This world is full of opinions, and we all need to learn how to listen and think objectively. Drilling down on one worldview isn’t much of an education.

What about the “Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification)” that the TX GOP opposes? The term “Higher Order Thinking Skills” seems to have started with an educational psychologist named Benjamin Bloom who developed his Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in 1956. Here’s a representation:

In 2001, some former students of Bloom revised his taxonomy to look like this:

Notice the difference between Bloom’s initial use of nouns to the revised version which describes the progression of thinking skills using verbs. Also, the revised version seems to condense synthesis and evaluation into one level and places “Creating” at the top of the thinking skills progression. These charts generally represent the process we all use to learn something new. Here’s a few more terms to help describe Bloom’s original taxonomy:

Knowledge: collect, label, read, describe, match, retell, name, copy, enumerate

Comprehension: compare, contrast, explain, discuss, estimate, group, paraphrase

Application: use, illustrate, solve, teach, modify, demonstrate, report

Analysis: arrange, connect, divide, infer, discriminate, focus, prioritize, compare, contrast, correlate, diagram

Synthesis: compose, generalize, modify, invent, plan, substitute, create, adapt, formulate

Evaluation: assess, compare, decide, rank, test, conclude, judge, criticize, defend, persuade

Most educational experts seem to agree that the top three levels of Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation represent “Critical Thinking Skills,” and that we all need to have more of those. I guess I will take the Texas GOP at their word that they also are in no “way opposed the development of critical thinking skills,” even though it says so in their platform statement. Maybe the problem is that they lumped “values clarification” in with “Higher Order Thinking Skills,” which represents a whole other pile of educational jargon.

In brief, values clarification is another school reform measure that started in the 1960s with the intent of helping kids with their moral development. Teachers were taught not to hand down their own morals though, but to help draw out the child’s own personal values through a technique of open-ended questions like Socratic Dialogue. Of course, this just makes everybody mad, but especially people with firm religious beliefs. With “values clarification” there are no absolutes, just moral relativism and a definite slant towards humanism (click here for a critical essay by Apologetics Press).

So, I can see why the Texas GOP is not in favor of “values clarification,” but it really has nothing to do with critical thinking. I think they just lumped all the school reform of the last 40 years into one big pile and set fire to it, but when everyone screamed and pointed, they noticed the priceless antique critical thinking skills sticking out and rushed to grab it, only a little singed.

Now that we are all so relieved, I think I’ll do a post about critical thinking next time.


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