excerpts from Critical Thinking: Multiple Models for Teaching and Learning
By Aubrae Vanderpool and Tracy Ann Robinson
“A great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized.”
The development of critical thinking skills increasingly is being identified not only as an essential component of writing courses but even more broadly, as a desired outcome of an undergraduate education. In this article, adapted from a paper by Aubrae Vanderpool that focuses on critical thinking in first-year writing classes, we take a look at what critical thinking means, offer some strategies and suggestions for incorporating critical thinking pedagogy into subject-matter courses, and comment on assessment issues and strategies.
Critical Thinking Defined…Or Not…
For some critical thinking has a lot to do with understanding one’s own perspective and those of others. Another model [of critical thinking] is dialectic, an idea or work is critiqued in a way that produces a counter-perspective and ultimately leads to a synthesis. For some critical thinking evokes a synthetic or inductive model based on testing evidence and making arguments. The exercise of reflective judgment is also a form of critical thinking. (“Critical Thinking and Broad Knowledge”)
While widely accepted as an educational imperative, critical thinking, as the above statement (excerpted from meeting notes for a Critical Thinking dialogue group at Western Washington University) indicates, is quite variously conceived and described. . . . Clearly, however, how an institution or department defines this intellectual practice will influence where in the curriculum critical thinking is taught, how it is taught, and, equally importantly, how it is assessed. For those in the process of formulating a working definition, familiarity with the following widely utilized models may serve as a helpful starting point.
According to Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956)—a cross-disciplinary model for developing higher-order thinking in students—learning how to think critically involves the mastery of six increasingly complex cognitive skills: knowledge (i.e., possession of specific facts or pieces of information), comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. See sidebar for details.
Bloom’s Taxonomy conceives critical thinking mastery as a sequential process, that is, one cannot move to the next cognitive tier without successfully negotiating the previous level. (“Teaching Critical Thinking”). Thus, some view the taxonomy as “a set of microlevel skills which may be used in critical thinking but do not represent critical thinking” (French and Rhoder 195). Philosopher Richard Paul objects to the taxonomy’s product-oriented conceptualization of thinking as a “one-way hierarchy” as opposed to thinking being a process that involves the recursive use of interrelated skills (French and Rhoder 195). Nonetheless, Bloom’s Taxonomy has been and continues to be an influential model for those developing critical thinking programs, as its inclusion in the Dartmouth College Composition Center’s critical thinking web page attests (Gocsik).
Beyer’s evaluative thinking model
Barry Beyer, a prominent contemporary thinking skills theorist and teacher, interprets critical thinking as a more specifically evaluative activity than Bloom’s Taxonomy would imply:
Critical thinking is not making decisions or solving problems. It is not the same as reflective thinking, creative thinking, or conceptualizing. Each of these other types of thinking serves a specific purpose. We make decisions in order to choose among alternatives. We solve problems when we encounter an obstacle to a preferred condition. We engage in creative or conceptual thinking to invent or improve things. Critical thinking serves a purpose quite different from these other types of thinking. (Beyer 1995, 8)
For Beyer, the crux of critical thinking is criteria: “The word critical in critical thinking comes from the Greek word for criterion, kriterion, which means a benchmark for judging” (Beyer 1995, 8-9). Thus, critical (or, to use Beyer’s preferred term, evaluative) thinking provides the means to assess the “accuracy, authenticity, plausibility, or sufficiency of claims” (Beyer 1995, 10).
Beyer asserts that critical thinking involves 10 cognitive operations, which can be employed in any sequence or combination as needed for the thinking task at hand:
- Distinguishing between verifiable facts and value claims
- Distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, claims, or reasons
- Determining the factual accuracy of a statement
- Determining the credibility of a source
- Identifying ambiguous claims or arguments
- Identifying unstated assumptions
- Detecting bias
- Recognizing logical fallacies
- Recognizing logical inconsistencies in a line of reasoning
- Determining the strength of an argument or claim (Beyer 1988, 57)
Further, Beyer argues that successful critical thinking requires “complex and often simultaneous interaction” of the following six elements:
o Dispositions. Critical thinkers develop habits of mind that “guide and sustain critical thinking”, including skepticism, fairmindedness, openmindedness, respect for evidence and reasoning, respect for clarity and precision, ability to consider different points of view, and a willingness to alter one’s position when reason and evidence call for such a shift.
o Criteria. Critical thinkers know about and have the ability to construct appropriate benchmarks for judging the issue at hand.
o Argument—defined as “a proposition with its supporting evidence and reasoning.” Critical thinkers are skillful at constructing, identifying, and evaluating the strength of arguments.
o Reasoning—the “cement that holds an argument together.” Critical thinkers determine the strength and validity of a conclusion by examining the soundness of the inductive or deductive process through which the conclusion was reached.
o Point of View. Critical thinkers are aware of their own point of view and capable of examining other points of view in order to better evaluate an issue.
o Procedures for applying criteria and judging. Critical thinkers have a repertoire of strategies appropriate to the subject matter and type of judgment to be made (Beyer 1995, 10-20)
In other words, critical thinkers habitually question the authenticity of anything that confronts them to ascertain exactly the extent to which it is an authentic instance of what it purports to be. In addition, they make judgments based on certain standards or other measures that serve as criteria for plausibility and truthfulness. And they pay special attention to the reasons and reasoning that undergird conclusions and claims.” (Beyer 1995, 22)
Critical thinking as a divergent process
While Beyer depicts critical thinking as a “convergent,” narrowing process, others prefer to view it as a divergent, expanding, exploratory practice (French and Rhoder, 184-85) —a way to open up new solutions as well as evaluate those that have already been identified. For example, consider this statement from Peter Taylor of the UMass/Boston Graduate College of Education’s Critical and Creative Thinking Program. (In February, 2001, Taylor led a critical thinking workshop at OSU, sponsored jointly by the College of Liberal Arts’ Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Research, the Center for Water and Environmental Sustain-ability, and the Office of Academic Affairs; and organized by Anita Helle [English] and Denise Lach [CWest].)
My sense of critical thinking […] depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. I want students to see that they understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives. Critical thinking at this level should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts, but they do have to move through uncertainty. Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted.
This view suggests a much closer connection between critical and creative thinking than Beyer, for instance, would subscribe to. However, many of the concerns that underlie the current interest in furthering college students’ critical thinking skills recognize and affirm this connection.
Teaching Considerations and Strategies
. . . B. Lehman and D. Hayes propose the following strategies for promoting critical thinking in the classroom:
o Help students recognize what they already know about a topic. [For suggestions, see next section.]
o Help students learn to recognize their biases and keep an open mind about the topic. Have students list and share opinions on the subject, but postpone evaluation until more information is gathered.
o Formulate open-ended questions to help students analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the topic.
o Guide students in finding and using diverse sources to explain and support their ideas.
o Have students check the validity of sources and qualifications of authors.
o Help students see there is no single, final authority. By reading several sources on the same topic, students will discover that information is often conflicting and contradictory.
o Help students develop criteria for evaluation. As students learn to support their opinions with logical thinking and comparison of sources, they [develop] critical thinking skills. (Smith 350) . . . .
The Writing–Critical Thinking Connection
For centuries, the rhetorical assumption about language was that “one first finds knowledge and then puts it into words” (Bizzell, Herzberg, and Reynolds 1)—in other words, thinking always precedes writing or speaking. Today, however, we recognize that “knowledge is actually created by words” (Bizzell, Herzberg, and Reynolds 1) and that writing and thinking are recursive, interdependent processes that promote and enhance one another.
James Sheridan points out that “the act of generating written discourse is not merely a result of critical thinking but also a stimulus to new thinking and new discoveries” (52). This claim echoes Linda Flower’s assertion that “writing is a generative act—a process of not just ‘expressing’ but ‘making’ meaning” (193-94). The fact is that “when students write, they cannot remain passive players in the learning game” (Gocsik-source no longer available). As Peter Elbow suggests, “writing helps us achieve the perennially difficult task of standing outside our own thinking” (27). Hence, the concept of “writing to learn,” which has become so integral to Writing Across the Curriculum courses and programs.
Using writing to uncover knowledge
As well as using writing to reinforce and integrate new information, writing can be a way of discovering existing knowledge. Many critical thinking experts advocate beginning any new learning unit by identifying what students already know (but often don’t know they know) about the topic. This strategy promotes critical thinking and active learning by allowing students to “establish a context for new information and share ideas with others” (Smith 350). Two writing strategies that can assist in this discovery process are freewriting and the “write-and-pass” exercise:
Freewriting. Describing freewriting as an activity that “helps students break the writing-is-grammar chain [, which] stultifies the freedom and risk-taking necessary for innovative critical thinking” (53), James Sheridan suggests the process has only two requirements:
(1) “You cannot stop writing during the 10-minute exercise.” (2) “You are forbidden to think. [. . .] Write whatever comes into your right (or left) hand. You must keep on writing. Even if you say ‘I don’t know what to write,’ write that. You cannot scratch your head. You cannot gaze pensively at the ceiling. Just write. You are not responsible for what you say; your hand is doing it all. Say anything. Say ‘This is the worst exercise I ever heard of and I can’t believe they’re paying this guy good bucks to have us do it.’ Yell, scream, shout, kick (in written words). Say anything, but keep writing” (52)
With unfocused freewriting, students write about whatever they want. With focused, or directed, freewriting, students are given a topic or question to write on.
Write-and-pass. Another informal writing assignment that helps students discover what they already know is to ask them to spend a few minutes writing everything they can think of about a given topic or question (for example, “What is critical thinking?”). After several minutes, students pass what they’ve written to the person next to them, and that person reads and expands on the original response. The process is repeated a few more times; generally, with each pass, adding new information becomes more challenging.. The exercise provides a way both for students to focus their thoughts on a particular topic and to benefit from one another’s stores of knowledge.
Assessing Critical Thinking: Current Models
[A]n informed choice of an approach to assessing critical thinking can be made only after faculty have [asked and answered] these questions: What do we think critical thinking is? How do the critical thinking skills, processes, and strategies work together, and what aspects or combinations of them do we wish to assess? What are our students like? What are their motivations [and] environments? What are our assumptions relative to the knowledge and abilities that students need prior to engaging in college-level critical thinking? (Carpenter and Doig 34-35)
Carpenter and Doig’s observation comes from a 1988 review of assessment instruments developed for specific critical thinking courses and programs. Alternatively, the rubric developed in 2002 by Washington State University’s Critical Thinking Project can be used in subject-matter courses across the curriculum that focus on critical thinking. This rubric includes the following criteria for student writing:
- Identifies and summarizes the problem/question at issue.
- Identifies and presents the student’s own perspective and position as it is important to the analysis of the issue.
- Identifies and considers other salient perspectives and positions that are important to the analysis of the issue.
- Identifies and assesses the key assumptions.
- Identifies and assesses the quality of supporting data/evidence and provides additional data/evidence related to the issue.
- Identifies and considers the influence of the context (e.g. cultural/social, scientific, educational, economic, technological, ethical, political, personal, and so on) on the issue.
- Identifies and assesses conclusions, implications, and consequences. “Critical Thinking Rubric” no longer available online.
Each item in the rubric includes a description of what would be considered “scant” vs “substantially developed” coverage of that item. The Washington State Critical Thinking Project website is no longer available online.
A Final Note
In this article, we have focused on what Kerry S. Walters describes as the “logicistic” model of critical thinking—that is (according to Walters) “the unwarranted assumption that good thinking is reducible to logical thinking” (1). In Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking, Walters explores an alternative model being forwarded by an emerging “second-wave” of critical thinking research and pedagogy. Second-wave advocates argue that while “logical skills are essential functions of good thinking, […] so are non-analytic ones such as imagination and intuition, and the good thinker knows how to utilize both types” (2). This reconception of critical thinking is grounded in current scholarship in the fields of philosophy, psychology, education, feminist theory, and critical pedagogy; Walters’s book serves as an introduction to and dialogue among some of the proponents and practitioners of this alternative. While beyond the scope of this article, the second-wave perspective on critical thinking deserves our serious attention and consideration as well.
This article was previously published in entirety in Teaching with Writing, Winter 2004.
Works Cited (some sources no longer available)
Beyer, Barry K. Critical Thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1995.
________. Developing a Thinking Skills Program. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1988.
Bizzell, Patricia, Bruce Hertzberg, and Nedra Reynolds. The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing. 5th Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Carpenter, C. Blaine, and James C. Doig. “Assessing Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum.” Assessing Student’s Learning 34 (Summer 1988): 33-46.
“Critical Thinking and Broad Knowledge Meeting Notes.” 2 Nov. 2001. Center for Instructional Innovation, Western Washington University. 4 March 2003. http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/gened/dialogue/critical_notes_nov.htm Source no longer available.
Elbow, Peter. “Teaching Two Kinds of Thinking by Teaching Writing.” Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking. Ed. Kerry S. Walters. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994. 25-31.
Flower, Linda. “Taking Thought: The Role of Conscious Processing in the Making of Meaning.” Thinking, Reasoning, and Writing. Ed. Elaine P. Maimon, Barbara F. Nodine, and Finbarr W. O’Connor. NY: Longman, 1989. 185-212.
French, Joyce N. and Carol Rhoder. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. NY: Garland, 1992.
Gocsik, Karen. “Teaching Critical Thinking.: 1997 Dartmouth College Composition Center. Source no longer available.
Scriven, Michael and Richard Paul. “Defining Critical Thinking.” Draft Statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. Foundation for Critical Thinking. 27 Feb. 2003. <http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/definint-critical-thinking/766>
Sheridan, James J. “Skipping on the Brink of the Abyss: Teaching Thinking Through Writing.” Critical Thinking: Educational Imperative. Ed. Cynthia A. Barnes. New Directions for Community Colleges, No. 77. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992. 51-61.
Smith, Carl B. “Two Approaches to Critical Thinking.” The Reading Teacher 4.4 (Dec. 1990): 350-51.
Stewart, Ruth. “Teaching Critical Thinking in First-Year Composition: Sometimes More Is More.” Teaching English at the Two-Year College 29 (Dec. 2001): 162-171.
Taylor, Peter. “We Know More Than We Are, At First, Prepared To Acknowledge: Journeying to Develop Critical Thinking.” 12 March 2003 <http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html>
Walters, Kerry S. Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.