Critical thinking vs indoctrination

We hear a lot about wanting our students to be better critical thinkers, but what exactly does that mean?  And is it a good thing?

Critical thinking is defined as follows: ” Critical thinking is reflective reasoning about beliefs and actions.[1][2] It is a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false.”. In other words, not just accepting something that you read, hear, or are told as truth without researching the subject for yourself.

It seems pretty obvious to me that critical thinking is an important skill that I want my children to have.  After all, I don’t want them to just believe every lie that they are told without thinking for themselves.  But not everyone agrees with me.  I was shocked, but not totally surprised, last year when the Texas state Republican platform stated this:

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.

Sooo, they want their students to not question anything they are taught.  (and grow up to be good little worker drones!)

Stephen Colbert had some great things to say about this.  Here is a link with a video.

The opposite of critical thinking is indoctrination.  Defined as “the process of inculcating ideasattitudescognitive strategies or a professionalmethodology (see doctrine).[1] It is often distinguished from education by the fact that the indoctrinated person is expected not to question or critically examine the doctrine they have learned.[2] ”

I’m absolutely sure that I don’t want that for my boys.  Is it really possible, though, to not impose my beliefs on them?  I’m sure that every day, in a thousand little ways, they are listening to me and figuring out which things I think are ok to believe and which are not.  And do I really want them questioning everything?

The key, in my opinion, is to allow them to ask questions and allow them to find their own answers.  When a 6 year old questions why he has to go to bed, it is simple enough to tell him that if he doesn’t he will be tired the next day.  It is not necessary to spend hours debating it.  It is completely different when reading about something like history and trying to decide if Christopher Columbus was a great man, a terrible man, or something in between.  Sources can be given, facts explored, and in the end the child can give their opinion and reasons behind it.

If we look at Bloom’s Taxonomy we know that rote memorization is the lowest level thinking.  It is only as we move up the pyramid that we engage the learner’s critical thinking when they are able to apply and analyze their knowledge and later evaluate it in some new way.


Some of the ways I encourage my boys to think is to by discussing what we read together and encouraging them to to questions whether or not they agree with the author.  We also enjoy playing various logic and strategy games that make them work through possible outcomes.

My goal is to make them really think about things, not just spout facts back at me.  I hope that my boys will always feel free to question what I tell them, even if in the end I have to over-ride their opinions. (yes, you have to brush your teeth because cavities suck).