The State of Critical Thinking

A look at school-based programs that are aimed at promoting richer forms of thought

Helen Lee Bouygues

There’s growing interest in critical thinking programs, and a number of new programs have arisen over the past decade, as experts learn more and more about how people engage in reflective thought—and how better forms of thought can be taught and learned.

Our team looked at several different programs to get a better sense of how organizations develop programs to improve critical thinking. From our research, we pulled together a matrix of programs that use learning and thinking strategies to improve critical thinking skills in young children, though some address adult learning as well.

As we note below, the programs vary in their origins and sources of funding. Some programs were established by nonprofit organizations, as is the case with the Cognitive Research Trust, sponsored by the Edward de Bono Foundation. Others are university-based, like the Practical Intelligence for School Project, part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

There are also now companies that offer “brain training” to improve critical thinking. ThinkRx, for instance, was created by a for-profit company called LearningRx, which is part of a growing billion-dollar trend in for-profit “brain training” companies that aim to improve cognitive skills—among them, critical thinking skills.

It is important to note that there’s a lot of skepticism around brain-training exercises. The Federal Trade Commission complained in 2015 that LearningRx was making “false and unsubstantiated claims” about its products’ ability to prevent or cure serious conditions like autism and ADHD; LearningRx settled. More generally, a 2017 study in The Journal of Neuroscience by neuroscientists Joseph Kable and Caryn Lerman concluded that such products have no discernible benefit on “neural activity during decision-making.”  Given the ubiquity of such programs, however, we included the ThinkRx program below.

We also looked at the research behind the effectiveness of different programs. None posted very large gains, but some showed small to medium gains. For example, a study of the Instrumental Enrichment program yielded effect sizes between .3 and .52. (An effect size of .5 is considered a “medium” effect size.) The Philosophy for Children program also showed a large positive impact. However, comparison between studies is difficult because of methodological issues, and the evidence base for the programs varied.

We also included one program that targeted adults, not children, to improve critical thinking skills in young people. Ellen Galinsky’s program, Mind in the Making has been groundbreaking, and, unlike the other programs reviewed, it focuses on teaching adults how children learn, rather than simply teaching children better learning skills. Her efforts hold a lot of promise.

All of the programs surveyed below suggest that there are many ways to better critical thinking skills in children. More research is certainly needed, and more programs, too, but the efforts below suggest researchers are making valuable progress in understanding and teaching critical thinking. 

NameSizeFocus areaResearchNotes
Cognitive Research Trust Over 7 million students in more than 30 countriesIndependent thinking, metacognition, and critical thinkingA recent research study in Jordan tested the effectiveness of Cognitive Research Trust strategies. Researchers assessed seventh grade students’ critical thinking skills in history class and saw some improvement.Cognitive Research Trust is a 60-lesson course to help students of all abilities become “independent” thinkers in all parts of life.
Instrumental Enrichment Thousands with a strong focus on teachers, therapists, and parents.Learning and thinking strategies like how to categorize an ideaA recent, high-quality study assessed the Instrumental Enrichment program and found positive effects, some as high as .52. Researchers in several countries studied children age 5-7 with learning disorders. Instrumental Enrichment is offered to either young children and “low-functioning individuals,” or to older children, like high school students. Mediators work one-on-one with individuals to complete non-curricular tasks around problem-solving.
ThinkRxParent company, LearningRX, has reached more than 95,000 people through a national franchise network of about 80 brain-training centers and locations in 40 countriesA version of brain training aimed at improving focus, thinking, etcThere’s a lot of skepticism around the ThinkRX approach and brain training in general.That said, there’s some evidence for the LearningRX intervention. A2016 study examined the cognitive effects of LearningRx for children aged 8 to 14 in the U.S. Children in the experimental group showed “improvements in several cognitive skills.”As a for-profit “brain training program,” ThinkRx uses different procedures to train skills such as attention, memory, processing speed, auditory & visual processing, and logic & reasoning.
Philosophy for ChildrenProgram practiced in more than 60 countries Reasoning and argumentative skillsA recent independent evaluation of Philosophy for Children assessed the effectiveness of a year-long program for 4th and 5th grade students in the United Kingdom. The effect was positive and had the biggest positive impact on disadvantaged students.The program aims to give students experience in developing arguments about things that matter to them. “The aim for each child is not to win an argument,” their site reads, “but to become clearer, more accurate, less self-contradictory and more aware of other arguments and values before reaching a conclusion.”
Practical Intelligence for School Project Curriculum has been used in schools since the mid-90s, data not available on how widely it is usedA mix of “learning to learn” skills and critical thinkingA 2002 study assessed the effectiveness of a Practical Intelligence for School-based intervention in improving school achievement in American middle school students. Researchers saw improved practical and academic skills in children from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.A middle-school curriculum that targets sixth- and seventh-grade students. Divided into five sections, the curriculum helps students consider their learning purposes, then address them in reading, writing, homework and test-taking, the site explains.
Mind in the Making Reviewed more than 1,000 studies on children’s learning and conducted interviews with 85+ children’s learning researchersExecutive function along with social and emotional skills. A 2013 book of the same title explains the “Mind in the Making” philosophy, which is based on original research and an extensive review of research on how children learn best.The Mind in the Making initiative helps adults better understand how children learn, what they need to learn and how adults can take simple, effective steps to promote this learning. The initiative promotes content knowledge and learning-related skills in a way that “maintains children’s engagement in learning.”

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation and author of a forthcoming book on critical thinking.

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