Critical thinking is an important strategy for today’s educational and job-related environments. It is important, therefore, that teachers and administrators understand the nature of critical thinking and embrace its many parts, all of which are necessary for true learning to occur.
The first part of critical thinking, and one which has fallen by the wayside for the most part, is simple knowledge. Students must know something about a topic before they can think about it critically; therefore, teaching subject content is an important first step in the educational process. Knowledge is also the key to reading comprehension. Many times educators think that reading is a skill that can be taught in isolation and then transferred across content areas without difficulty. However, research has shown that reading comprehension greatly increases when students have some background knowledge of the material being read. Those who do not understand the majority of the words being presented or the ideas behind them will probably not attempt to read the content in the first place or will come away with a poor or incomplete understanding of what they’ve encountered.
Education author E.D. Hirsch, Jr. emphasizes this concept in his book, “Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories.” While presenting a great deal of research that confirms students’ reading comprehension is closely linked to their background knowledge of the topic being read, he goes a step further to emphasize knowledge’s critical role in increasing the success rate for students of low socioeconomic status. For many, the only place where they can obtain the necessary background knowledge is in the school environment. If schools are deficient in teaching core knowledge, then these children will be trapped in a cycle of poverty that includes limited higher education and low-paying job opportunities.
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, as well as many state and federal education laws, require teachers to use evidenced-based research to teach reading and content. However, many teachers rely instead on rote memorization and basic fact recall as a means of increasing achievement on the ever-present standardized tests. As these tests are often used as a means of “objectively” evaluating both teachers and schools, they put teachers in a position where they are, in fact, practicing the opposite of what research shows is good teaching. Spending large amounts of time preparing for high-stakes testing leaves little time for focusing on the research-based methods of teaching.
Newman (1990) observed classrooms and interviewed teachers in an effort to develop the distinction between lower- and higher-order thinking. He concluded that lower-order thinking requires only routine or mechanical application of previously learned information. An example would be listing previously memorized information and inserting numbers into previously learned formulas; there is no attempt to instruct how these numbers are obtained or why these particular formulas are of use. In contrast, he noted that higher-order thinking, “challenges the student to interpret, analyze, or manipulate information.”
Over a decade later, McComas and Abraham (2004) reinforced that conclusion when they stated that “Study after study reveals that although educators know that the higher-order divergent questions hold significantly more power to engage the learner and ensure transfer of knowledge, we consistently retreat to using lower-order convergent style questions when teaching and testing students.” Lewis and Smith (1993) also note that “Higher order thinking occurs when a person takes new information and information stored in memory and interrelates and/or rearranges and extends this information to achieve a purpose or find possible answers in perplexing situations.”
The problem is that the goal of education must be to develop children’s cognitive abilities to help them be successful not just in school, but also in daily life. Simply recalling information is not adequate to do that. The use of targeted questioning to help students move from lower-level recall to higher-level synthesis and evaluation provides the necessary structure to help students move beyond the basic knowledge typically assessed on a standardized test to a deep conceptual understanding that allows for meaningful transfer and a greater ability to think “outside the box,” an important skill in today’s competitive and challenging work force.
And so we come back to the beginning. For students to be able to ask the critical questions and transfer conceptual understanding to new situations, they must have the base knowledge to form the questions and to understand the demands of the situations. In short, basic knowledge is the foundation upon which all further learning and experience is built. We must work to increase the subject knowledge we teach in the classroom; only then can true synthesis and critical thinking occur.
 Zwaagstra, Michael. (November 18, 2016) There’s no critical thinking without a base of knowledge. Troy Media. Retrieved from http://www.troymedia.com/2016/11/18/critical-thinking-requires-knowledge/
 Twyman & Sota, (2008), as quoted in Smith, Vernon G. and Szymanski, Antonia. (October 2013.) NCPEA International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Vol. 8, No. 2 ISSN: 2155-9635 © 2013 National Council of Professors of Educational Administration
Newman, F. M. (1990), as quoted in Smith, Vernon G. and Szymanski, Antonia. (October 2013.) NCPEA International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Vol. 8, No. 2 ISSN: 2155-9635 © 2013 National Council of Professors of Educational Administration
McComas, W. F., & Abraham, L. (2004), as quoted in Smith, Vernon G. and Szymanski, Antonia. (October 2013.) NCPEA International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Vol. 8, No. 2 ISSN: 2155-9635 © 2013 National Council of Professors of Educational Administration
 Lewis, A., & Smith, D.C. (1993.), as quoted in Smith, Vernon G. and Szymanski, Antonia. (October 2013.) NCPEA International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Vol. 8, No. 2 ISSN: 2155-9635 © 2013 National Council of Professors of Educational Administration