Can Critical Thinking be Taught?

I had a long discussion with JeanAnn Harrison recently about critical thinking and how to apply it to different areas of testing. We talked about how our different experiences in life so far help us to apply critical thinking to projects we are working on.

I feel like it is a topic that is never far from conversations about testing.

It got me wondering if there are ways to teach critical thinking? Maybe you feel that critical thinking can’t be taught. I’d love to hear why you feel this way too.

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Hi Heather

A short answer is “Yes”

A longer answer - it requires practice, more practice and even more practice.

I have run workshops on helping people to learn critical thinking techniques so I do believe it can be learned.

Some of those techniques can be found on my blog -

Thinking back to the book ‘Thinking fast and slow’ for critical thinking you need to slow down, pause and allow system 2 thinking which is purposeful and deliberate.

Hope that help.



I believe it can be taught but to also some respect it can be nurtured.

Potentially even just growing up in an environment where children are actively encouraged to ask Why may often provide a good foundation for critical analysis skills later in life.

The opposite is probably true as well unfortunately, if you are in a hierarchical environment where you are taught that there is only one way of doing something and only one right answer then this can over time in my view create a blocker to developing good critical analysis skills.

Even in a Testing environment if we move towards a very heavy command and control basis of managing testing or even just the view that every test should have a single right answer we are also potential creating artificial barriers to helping people develop their critical analysis skills.

Maybe if we start with the basic empowering and nurturing critical thinking then the deeper level that benefits from study and training would become a little more natural.


My gut reaction to that question is always “no”, but I’m not totally convinced that I understand why I think that…

It seems logical to me that people can be taught the techniques and habits of people who practise critical thinking but - and maybe it’s because I’ve never knowingly experienced someone who has “learned” critical thinking - something inside me thinks that would just be imitating critical thinking. And if it is, would that even matter if the results are the same?

As I said, I don’t think I really understand what my reasons are so maybe it’s not very useful or valid, but I think that critical thinking is more than just a skill or practise or quality - I see it more as being part of who we are (or are not) and something than can be harnessed or developed, but not plucked out from nowhere.

Perhaps my real thought is that everyone has some critical thinking ability, but it’s just that the degrees are so different. But that doesn’t quite sit with me either, as I do think there are some people who will never be interested or motivated to dig deeper, and who will be happy to accept - or dismiss - things at face value. They might even use the techniques you’ve taught them, but they won’t really be interested. And if something needs a different approach, they won’t try to think of one themselves.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh but it reminds me of musical talent. I enjoy music and can hold a tune; I had guitar lessons for a little while in school, but I’ve never been able to reliably separate or name different instruments in a piece of music. I just can’t, and no one can teach me to, although they can teach me to play the guitar or piano. But I just can’t hear music that way, and I’m okay with that. I have no desire to take action based on that. Maybe the same is true of critical thinking, for some.


Taught? No evidence, IME. Learnt? Definitely!

I haven’t seen many good course descriptions, books or blogs teaching critical thinking that are useful (meaning applying critical thinking to software testing problems in a step-by-step or staged approach, explaining what techniques are used along the way). I’m happy to be pointed at something I haven’t seen…

A course I have attended that uses critical thinking skills is Bach & Bolton’s RST - but that doesn’t mean it teaches those skills or improves those skills for the attendees.

Examples where I have seen critical thinking illustrated in a SW engineering & testing context are in the books:

  • The Leprechauns of Software Engineering [Laurent Bossavit]
  • Perfect Software–and Other Illusions about Testing [Gerald Weinberg]
  • Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design [Weinberg, Gause]

There are many other reports, blogs and articles that observe and illustrate some critical thinking skills (sometimes they are explicitly mentioned, and other times the author hasn’t categorized them as such) - but they are not easily accessible for people wanting to be taught or wanting to learn. Maybe, that’s an opportunity for someone - or an open source project - to categorize issues & solutions, in publically available real-world cases, as being mapped to examples of critical thinking. Just a thought…


I think that it can be taught, but not in the conventional sense. I’d be very skeptical of a course or programme that could claim to give a person these skills. To my mind, critical thinking is acquired by experience and introspection on experience that’s applied to future events.

As an example, by and large James Bach’s Rapid Software Testing course - which is intended to teach candidates ways of thinking about issues critically - spoke about past experiences he’s had and how the progression of those experiences taught him things to do differently or a different way of thinking through a problem he experiences later. We learned vicariously through example, then tried to apply those examples, and then learned from those examples and so on.


Critical thinking definitely can be taught, though obviously the person needs to be willing to learn the skills. You also need to separate out the skills of critical thinking and then the application of them to a situation. Like any skills you can teach someone the main skills of critical thinking such as analyzing arguments, evaluating claims,arguments and explanations and the construction of an argument by starting with the basics and building upon those. These are all base skills that can be applied to any subject or situation not just software testing. (So much so that there is an A level qualification available in Critical Thinking,

The application of these skills is something slightly different as with anything the theory is one thing but fully understanding how to apply these to real life situations, when they are useful and to do so at speed can only really come with experience.


I’d say that the skills involved in critical thinking can be taught. Willingness to apply them or even the ability to recognize situations that need critical thinking, not so much.

The reason I say this is that in my experience most people will do almost anything to avoid having to think for themselves. The people here are outliers, not least in that we’re in a profession where critical thinking is essential to success.

There’s a fair amount of neurological research that suggests thinking is expensive, and critical thinking even more so. It’s also not the natural mode for humans - relying on the autonomic nervous system and following well-worn habits is much more natural and less energy-intensive. It’s why so many people are change-averse.

You only have to look at the way pretty much everyone reacts to news to see this in effect: how many of the folks here - who are all accustomed to critical thinking as part of their career - exercise critical thinking when evaluating news items? How many of your non-testing friends or acquaintances would think to exercise critical thinking about a news article?

One final data point (yes, I know, it’s anecdata but I haven’t found any evidence against it and I’ve seen quite a bit for it): I’ve done a fair amount of tutoring over the years, and when I try to encourage my students (of all ages, including adults) to think through and find answers themselves, almost every time I get a response along the lines of: “Just tell me what to do/think/say/use.” Not because they aren’t intelligent, but because they don’t want to think, much less think critically.


So true. I’ve experience seeing the same bit of information made available to the same set of testers. But not everyone really tries to figure things out the same way as the next tester. And sometimes I open the floor to questions and I wonder why aren’t they asking the questions that they’d need to ask when they test the feature/user story. Sometimes, you can show examples to teach folks, but not everything would have available examples to teach with.

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Maybe in order for me to really recognise someone as being a “true” critical thinker, I also need to see evidence of interest, initiative and assertiveness.

Lots of people I’ve worked with just don’t have those. They’re not bad people, or even incapable. They just don’t do anything they haven’t been specifically told to.

In a testing context, I’d say those are the people that “need” written test cases and if I’m being very honest, I wouldn’t want those people in my team.


If it can’t be taught where do people learn to develop this skill? If we associate critical thinking with curiosity than kids make amazing critical thinkers because of their curiosity. Following that idea; do we actually unlearn curiosity as we get older or do we lose it through not practicing? Maybe some people are more interested in maintaining and practicing curiosity?

If you think about someone studying a science degree, do they learn critical thinking while studying? Learning how to question the world and prove/disprove ideas is critical thinking in practice. Philosophy often covers topics on logical reasoning. Formal Education likes to encourage the idea, “we help people teach themselves in how to learn”, I personally think that’s an expensive lesson to learn via formal education.

I believe any skill can be taught, I was listening to a podcast of someone who wanted to see if she could practice her way to professional singer. This is a skill we usually associate with natural talent that is then refined, she had none. Her instructor didn’t want to teach her. But by practicing with purpose she got to a stage where she could produce an album that people would actually buy. It was along that idea of it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master.

But we can’t all be master’s of every skill out there, I don’t think we choose to be critical thinkers but through our experiences we’ve actively developed skills associated with it. We seek opportunities to actively practice the skills associated with critical thinking.


My gut reaction to that question is always “no”, but I’m not totally convinced that I understand why I think that…

Congratulations; that’s critical thinking. Critical thinking is thinking about thinking with the goal of avoiding being fooled.

Critical thinking can, of course, be taught. It can also be learned. Whether those to go together is less certain.

In our Rapid Software Testing classes and Critical Thinking for Testers classes we give people examples of and practice in developing and diversifying models, considering alternatives, pausing to reflect, thinking statistically, safety language and other verbal tricks… We can teach those things; learning them is optional, and so is applying them.

I’ve been taught, and have learned, to be able to think critically. A much harder skill to master is the practice of it.

—Michael B.

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I think this is where a lot of people with a non-technical degree (myself included) can apply their experience analyzing texts and applying different thought models.

I find this happens a lot in my role as tester and I don’t necessarily recognize the steps I’m taking in my thinking.

I appreciate people sharing their experiences because it helps me see my own behaviour more clearly. Without that, it’s tough to improve.