By Michael Zwaagstra,
AIMS Education Fellow

Michael Zwaagstra discusses recent literature from the department of education in New Brunswick, which professes to make critical thinking and 21st century skills “embedded in expectations for students.” To succeed, Zwaagsta argues, they strengthen traditional learning methods such a memorization, giving students a strong basis of knowledge. Read this piece in the Telegraph-Journal.


All students should become critical thinkers. This goal is agreed upon by virtually all educators. The ability to synthesize and evaluate information and come up with new ways of looking at things is highly prized in education circles from kindergarten to graduate school. As it should be.

Given the importance of critical thinking, it’s not surprising that schools across the country proudly trumpet the progress they make in developing this skill. It’s also become increasingly common for provincial education departments to rave about “21st Century skills,” one of which is critical thinking.

As a case in point, the New Brunswick government recently released its 10-year education plan entitled Expecting the Best from Everyone. In the section on student learning, the document places critical thinking at the top of its list of 21st Century skills. Critical thinking, together with other 21st Century skills, are deemed so important that they “must be embedded in expectations for students.”

Yet, New Brunswick’s education department is falling for the glitzy and over-hyped promises of the 21st Century skills movement and discarding tools we know work.

The reality is that if we want students to become critical thinkers, they need to memorize facts – lots of them. They also need to spend lots of time doing rote learning – consolidating knowledge and skills by practice and repetition – so that the facts become embedded in their long-term memories. This is not the focus of the 21st Century skills movement, but it is supported by a wealth of research evidence.

Dr. John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and one of the world’s foremost experts on educational research. His findings do not support the claim that critical thinking skills can be taught in isolation from content.

Hattie makes this clear in a recent Npj Science of Learning journal article: “These [21st Century] skills often are promoted as content free and are able to be developed in separate courses (e.g., critical thinking, resilience). Our model, however, suggests that such skills are likely to be best developed relative to some content. There is no need to develop learning strategy courses or teach the various strategies outside the context of the content,” explains Hattie.

The reason for Hattie’s conclusion is simple; students cannot think critically about something they know nothing about. Surface learning, which includes the memorization of basic facts and vocabulary, is just as important as deep learning since deep learning cannot take place in the absence of knowledge. Students need to acquire lots of knowledge, most of which needs to be taught directly by competent teachers.

Once surface knowledge has been acquired, students need to consolidate it so it becomes part of their long-term memories which they can automatically retrieve later when they want to think critically. As Hattie explains, “Although some may not ‘enjoy’ this phase, it does involve a willingness to practice, to be curious and to explore again, and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty during this investment phase.”

Critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation because it depends on content. For example, there is a huge difference between applying advanced mathematical principles and analyzing the factors that led to a major historical event. Both require critical thinking, but there is no reason to assume that students can do either of these things without first acquiring substantial background knowledge and then consolidating it through practice.

Proponents of 21st Century skills may think of critical thinking as an isolated skill that does not depend on specific content, but research from Hattie and many other psychologists shows otherwise. It is a huge mistake to downplay curriculum content and replace it with critical thinking strategies.

If we want students to become critical thinkers, we need to make sure they acquire and consolidate as much surface knowledge as possible. Only then will deeper learning take place.