Critical Thinking and Special Libraries

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

June 01, 2021

There are few articles I refer back to over and over again, but the article Critical Thinking: Why is it so Hard to Teach? by Daniel Willingham (2008) is an exception. Since I first read it, I have mentioned it in numerous discussions and presentations. It has fundamentally shaped how I think about critical thinking–a topic I regularly discuss and attempt to teach. 

In libraries, we often state that we want to encourage and support critical thinking. However, can we do that and do it well? Willingham argues that, “…critical thinking is not a set of skills that can be deployed at any time, in any context. It is a type of thought that even 3-year-olds can engage in—and even trained scientists can fail in. And it is very much dependent on domain knowledge and practice.” The argument in favor of domain knowledge is further supported in the book The Knowledge Gap, where Wexler (2019) argued that a problem with schools is that there has been a shift to focus on skills such as reading comprehension—instead of focusing on knowledge. What Wexler found is that when students were taught content they were able to comprehend what they read; however, when students were taught reading comprehension skills they often failed to understand what they read. 


If cognitive psychologists know we need to be focusing on knowledge acquisition over teaching a specific set of skills in order to develop critical thinking, what does this mean for libraries?

It means that librarians need to teach in context. Research skills should be taught within a disciplinary focus. As we all know, there is a difference between the research skills needed to navigate an archive and the research skills needed to navigate Google. The type of information available in an archive and the type of information a person locates on Google also vary. 

Teaching in context also extends to discussions about source evaluation. People will be better able to evaluate information if they are knowledgeable about the subject matter. While teaching about the subject matter is outside the scope of most librarians’ jobs, it is important to consider how we discuss source evaluation. A standard set of skills or practices is not enough to be able to fully evaluate a document; subject knowledge is also needed. 


The style of a blog post does not allow for an in-depth analysis and discussion of Willingham’s article. As you have time, I encourage you to read the article and discuss it with others. I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I did.


Wexler, N. (2019). The knowledge gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system–and how to fix it. Avery. 

Willingham, D. T. (2008). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?. Arts Education Policy Review, 109(4), 21-32.

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays

Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent speaker on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her professional interests include information literacy, educational technology, library and information science education, teacher identity, and academic development. Please read Lauren’s other posts about skills for special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus, used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.

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