Critical Thinking in the Classroom: Some Questions for the Summer

Steven Volk (May 4, 2014)

If you did a search for the “learning goals” of liberal arts colleges, you probably wouldn’t  find a single one that didn’t emphasize “critical thinking.” In fact, critical thinking as a desired educational outcome only makes headlines when some group decides that it’s not what schools should be teaching, which brings us to the 2012 platform of the Texas Republican Party:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority” (p. 12).

Ah, yes. Education should not challenge fixed beliefs or parental authority! Still, I’m not interested in pursuing that line of thought at the moment (as tempting as that might be), but rather want to consider what we mean when we talk about “critical thinking.” And, while I’m at it, I’d like to raise some questions for us to think about over the summer months which are visible right on the horizon: Are we doing what we should to foster critical thinking skills in the classroom? What more could we be doing? What kind of support do we need to create classroom pedagogies that foreground critical thinking? What challenges are we likely to face?


Walking to the Horizon (by I-am-Avalon). CC

While there is some discussion as to what, precisely, we mean by “critical thinking,” most cognitive or developmental psychologists would be content with the description provided by the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) in one of its “VALUE” rubrics: “Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.” Those who create classroom strategies based around Bloom’s (2001 revised) taxonomy will recognize critical thinking as central to higher order thinking skills: analyzing, evaluating, and creating. (Bloom’s Taxonomy is a standard means of categorizing cognitive tasks by complexity, with the simplest at the bottom and the most complicated at the top.)

Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, provides his own layperson’s definition: “Critical thinking,” he writes, “consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.”

The November 19, 2012 “Article of the Week” was Willingham’s “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” In it he discussed the complications of actually teaching critical thinking, and you can review it again to see his arguments.

But I remain confident that as we explore the various components of critical thinking, we can develop teaching strategies which foreground it as an essential learning outcome for each class we teach. Perhaps what is so difficult about teaching critical thinking is that it is just one cognitive competency that is at stake within broad pedagogical contexts that require the development of specific abilities (e.g., the ability to take multiple perspectives, to layer relationships, etc.) and dispositions (including risk taking, task persistence, the ownership of learning, and perceptions of accomplishment)  (Perkins, 1994).


Bloom’s Taxonomy (Revised)

Shari Tishman, David Perkins and others (Tishman et al, 1993) have been examining what they call “thinking dispositions” for many years, developing useful approaches to help teachers develop informed pedagogies. Their list of seven dispositions that normally describe productive intellectual behavior includes:

  • The disposition to be broad and adventurous – open minded; explore alternative views; being alert to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  • The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity: to wonder, probe, find problems, observe closely and formulate questions; a zest for inquiry, alertness for anomalies.
  • The disposition to clarify and seek understanding: a desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to muddiness, an appreciation of the need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  • The disposition to be “planful” and strategic: the drive and ability to set goals, make and execute plans, envision outcomes; an alertness to a lack of direction.
  • The disposition to be intellectually careful: the urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  • The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons: the tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  • The disposition to be metacognitive: the tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one’s own thinking situations; ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

Much like the broad field of critical thinking, it isn’t easy to teach these dispositions. As we rush to cover the content areas that our students need in any particular class, we often quietly shove any focus on these learning dispositions out the window.


Matthäus Merian, Defenestration of Prague, 1618. CC

But even if it’s not a question of sacrificing dispositions to content coverage, foregrounding learning dispositions can be challenging for a number of reasons. For one, we often find that students, in their own cognitive development, are embedded in a “multiplist/subjectivist” phase of thinking, as Patty deWinstanley has pointed out in her valuable discussions with faculty preparing to teach first year seminars. [The best known proponent of a theory of intellectual and cognitive development among college age students is William G. Perry (Perry, 1970).] Whatever a student in that stage thinks is right, is right; and in areas where the “right” answer isn’t known, a multiplicity of views is right. Our challenge then becomes how we move students from this phase to a more “evaluativist” position.

In many ways, grappling with critical thinking and creating thinking dispositions in our classes can turn them into what Mary Louise Pratt described as a “contact zone” – a social space where “cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other…” If difficult, that “zone” is also where, Dewey argued (1910), real thinking occurs. Dewey talked about some experiences as “educative” because they enhanced the making of further experiences, and others as “mis-educative” because they had no further influence upon later experiences (Dewey, 1947). Thinking occurs, he argued, when the “normal flow” is interrupted, when our common assumptions and perceptions are challenged, when problems and conflict arise. In other words, learning occurs at this point of “clash.”

Our challenge as teachers, then, is to encourage the emergence of a “contact zone” classroom, what I would call the “uncomfortable classroom,” at the same time that we use the discomfort created to open it to real dialogue (Freire, 1970). When we have figured that out, we will be far on our way to promoting critical thinking in the classroom.

Still, as I suggested in the opening questions, creating such pedagogies often requires considerable support, so I encourage you to use the summer months to think about what you could use to help create challenging and dialogic classrooms. What seems perfectly clear and sounds impeccably logical on paper can feel quite different in the heat of the moment in a classroom discussion.

Some bibliography

John Dewey, Experience and Education [1947] (Free Press, 1997).

_______ , How We Think [1910] (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (February 10, 2013).

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1970] (Bloomsbury Academic; 30th Anniversary edition (September 1, 2000).

See David N. Perkins, The Intelligent Eye. Learning to Think by Looking at Art (LA: The Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1994).

William G. Perry, Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.)

Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay, David N. Perkins, “Teaching Thinking Dispositions: From Transmission to Enculturation,” Theory into Practice 32:3 (Summer 1993): 147-153.]

Daniel T. Willingham, “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” American Educator (Summer 2007): 8-19.

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