If you check the mission statement of your college, the school is probably charged with instilling "critical thinking" skills in students. The reason for this addition during the last generation is partly due to the advent of the Internet, with its ability to provide instant information on almost any subject. If you don't know much about the Bay of Pigs, for instance, a quick search online provides more facts than you likely want to know. Let Google handle it.
Hence, the reasoning goes, we must get beyond mere knowledge and teach students how to think more critically.
Well, don't tell anyone, but there is a debate going on over what critical thinking even means. For a comprehensive treatment of the subject, please have a look at this article by professor John Schlueter, in Inside Higher Ed.
Some authorities argue that critical thinking is that which can be transferred to virtually any discipline. So we offer intro courses in critical thinking, presumably to get students to transcend rote memorization as they tackle college. Other authorities, however, argue that all thinking must involve context first. Please read the entire article for this important debate, which includes links to empirical data. The writer argues that, since we have placed our bets on critical thinking as a goal, we should teach ourselves what it is. It's a valid recommendation, assuming what's already expected of us. (By the way, it's likely that the author's definitions will not be your own, underscoring the confusion.)
In fact the big takeaway from the piece is the startling lack of consensus on what critical thinking entails. It's easy to see, for instance, how a kid in elementary school will learn what a "bay" and "pig" are. Then, later, the student will learn where the site is located (Cuba). Then he or she will examine the history (a botched CIA-led insurrection against Castro). Then, (finally?) a more advanced student will learn of the event's significance, perhaps symbolizing a misguided decision by policy makers, thereby teaching us a cautionary lesson about hubris—a concept from ancient Greece.
Lots of thinking going on there, but each of these steps can be memorized. Students do it every day.
In fields involving quantification, the leap across disciplines can be seen between, say, calculus, and computer programming, or between economics and biology. But it's still difficult to take learning out of disciplinary context. That's the crux of the debate.
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously wrote, on the subject of pornography, in a Freedom of Speech case, "I can't define it. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that." His comment is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Someone must decide. Human impressions are inevitable.
When it comes to critical thinking, why not trust the teacher? We probably know it when we see it. At the very least, perhaps we should think more critically about critical thinking.