One of the most touted reasons for the necessity of every student undertaking mathematics courses in school (regardless of their ability or interest level in the subject) is that math teaches students critical thinking skills. I hate to burst bubbles here (actually I don’t) but this claim is completely and utterly false. Critical thinking in mathematics is a myth.
To “think critically” is by definition “to be critical of thoughts” or in other words “to critique ideas” as they arise rather than accepting or rejecting them blindly. Critical thinking means thinking rationally and reasoning through arguments with care and consideration of the options on the table. This, of course, sounds all well and good until we as educators stop and actually consider the reality of the situation in the math classroom.
A critique can only be meaningful if you already have a standard by which to judge something. I can’t critique an argument as “true” unless I know what it means for something to be “true.” I can’t critique a painting as “beautiful” unless I know hat it means to be “beautiful.” I can’t critique an act of charity as “good” unless I know what it means to be “good.”
There is an underlying standard of judgment that is being instilled in students (whether knowingly or unknowingly) and this is the root of what is occurring in mathematics classrooms. The way in which students implement their “critical thinking skills” upon the completion of their mathematics courses is simply a symptom of a deeper reality that is being formed within them. That reality can be formed from a Christian perspective where it is God who sets the absolute standards for Truth, Beauty and Goodness, or it can be formed by very humanistic standards of relative truth, subjective beauty, and goodness defined by utility.
I submit to you that there is an opportunity present before us as math educators to impact the very standards by which students judge their thinking. This is the goal we should ultimately be aiming for. Don’t settle for simply teaching “critical thinking” skills.
They are just a myth.