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What Does Critical Thinking Mean in Economics, the Big and Little of It?

Paper Session

Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021 12:15 PM - 2:15 PM (EST)

Hosted By: American Economic Association & Committee on Economic Education
  • Chair: Gail Hoyt, University of Kentucky

What Does Critical Thinking Mean in Economics, the Big and Little of It?

David Colander
Middlebury College
John Siegfried
Vanderbilt University


Teaching students to use critical thinking skills is a frequently specified goal of many economics courses. But what does “critical thinking” really mean and how is it implemented?

We consider various interpretations of “critical thinking,” and how it changes over time. We argue that critical thinking in standard neoclassical economics is focused on a different set of skills than a broader conception of economics requires. The skills that are emphasized in standard neoclassical economics include identifying unintended consequences of an action, documenting implicit foregone opportunities and non-pecuniary as well as pecuniary costs, and statistical issues such as statistical vs. economic significance, selection bias, reverse causation, correlation vs. causation, and nominal vs. real values. We call this approach “little think” because it stays within the confines of neoclassical economics.

Critics argue that economic teaching should include “big think” as well as little think skills. These big think skills include how economic models apply to the real world, social justice, inequality, the importance of economic institutions, and how to integrate value judgments into the analysis when preferences are endogenous rather than fixed. The paper discusses the tradeoffs involved in integrating these big think issues into the principles course.
Daron Acemoglu
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Melissa S. Kearney
University of Maryland-College Park
John A. List
University of Chicago
Gregory Mankiw
Harvard University
Deirdre McCloskey
University of Illinois-Chicago
Betsey Stevenson
University of Michigan
JEL Classifications
  • A2 - Economic Education and Teaching of Economics