Critical Thinking: Barriers and Opportunities

March 10, 2011
Larry Booi

There is consensus around fostering the growth of critical thinking in our students; virtually everyone in education says it’s an essential goal. In Alberta Education’s (1998) “Goals and Standards Applicable to the Provision of Basic Education in Alberta,” one of the 20 basic learning outcomes for students is to “demonstrate critical and creative thinking skills in problem solving and decision making.”

The mandate to foster critical- and creative-thinking skills is clearly intended to be a task for teachers across all subject areas and grades. However, some subject areas are given more specific responsibilities, and there are substantial expectations for social studies teachers in this regard in Alberta’s new social studies curriculum. The program of studies (Alberta Education 2005) stresses the importance of students becoming “active and responsible citizens, engaged in the democratic process and aware of their capacity to effect change in their communities, society and world”; the first point listed in the skills and processes category is the provision of learning opportunities for students to “engage in active inquiry and critical and creative thinking.”

Unfortunately, this agreement in principle on the fundamental importance of fostering critical thinking does not extend to the next step, which is how to accomplish these goals in our classrooms, and this is true of social studies as well as other subject areas. There is no consensus on how to do so, and not much confidence on the part of many teachers in what they are currently doing in this important area. In my work with preservice secondary social studies teachers at the University of Alberta, students consistently view fostering critical thinking as a top goal, and at the same time find it one of the most challenging aspects of their work—mirroring the view of the practising teachers they will soon be working with in classrooms.

Why does something so important and desirable present such difficulties? If we’re going to progress in this area, it’s important to understand what is hampering progress, before considering ways to improve the situation.

Barriers and Constraints

A cynical explanation would be that critical and creative thinking are examples of those fashionable or motherhood goals that everyone pays lip service to but doesn’t actually value, since our real tasks in education are to transmit knowledge and socialize students (in much the same way that we say we want to produce active and engaged citizens, but in the end we actually value compliance and order).

While that may be the underlying view of some people, based on my decades of working with social studies teachers I can say that it is definitely not the view of the majority, who want to do effective work in this important area but for other reasons are not doing so to their own satisfaction, despite good intentions.

One common explanation is that time constraints and pressure to cover curriculum prevent teachers from devoting energy to teaching critical- and creative-thinking skills. The obvious difficulty with this position is that, in making this choice, we are clearly communicating that critical thinking is much less important than these other objectives—so much less important that we rarely get to it.

Another explanation is that there is a degree of uncertainty on the part of many social studies teachers about how to effectively and systematically develop critical thinking in their classrooms, as well as confusion over what we mean by critical thinking.

Critical thinking in the past has often been confused with vague conceptions of higher-order thinking or with mental puzzles. In other cases, teachers were uncomfortable because being critical was associated with being negative. Obviously, how we conceive of important concepts has major implications for how we proceed, and teachers need to have a strong sense of what constitutes critical thinking before they can effectively foster its development in students.

Critical thinking as criterial thinking

I’ve found it helpful to have student teachers look at two terms: kriterion (the concept of criteria or standards) and kriticos (the concept of discerning judgment). This understanding leads to a view of critical thinking as making decisions based on criteria, with the goal of fostering a more discerning sense of judgment on the part of our students. We commonly use this sense of the term when we talk about critiques or critical reviews of movies; a critical review doesn’t mean that the review is negative but, rather, that it is based on judgments in terms of criteria (writing, character development, acting, plot, setting, cinematography, editing, tone, musical score and so on).

If we are guided by this understanding of critical thinking, then our task is to help students develop the skills to become better at making decisions by referring to criteria as they make judgments about events, actions, issues and policies, particularly in their emerging roles as citizens of a democratic society.

The work of educators Roland Case and Garfield Gini-Newman has assisted teachers in this approach to critical thinking and in outlining its principle elements. Alberta Education has included some of their material on the LearnAlberta.ca website. The authors have good suggestions about incorporating this approach into social studies classes in systematic and effective ways. In addition, Canada’s Media Awareness Network (MNet) has a wealth of online materials (at www.media-awareness.ca) to support teachers in helping students bring critical-thinking skills to bear on all media.

Critical thinking as a way of teaching

However, a continuing problem stems from a further misunderstanding of critical thinking, in the view that it is somehow an add-on to the many other things we already have to do in meeting the expectations of social studies curricula. In this regard, Case, Gini-Newman and others make a strong argument for viewing critical thinking not as a subject or topic but, rather, as a way of teaching social studies, which must be embedded in our daily practice. In other words, if we identify the main elements of critical thinking that we are trying to develop, and then integrate them systematically into our teaching on a regular basis, we can develop the important skills of critical thinking in the process of helping students work through the issues, topics and knowledge objectives in each grade. This is similar to the approach used by teachers integrating skills related to information technology into their daily practice, both as tools and outcomes. The LearnAlberta.ca website has material to help teachers with this approach; there is much more to be done by developing appropriate materials and activities to help teachers take advantage of the opportunities in each grade.

Critical thinking and critical questions

When we think of what we look for in citizens who are effective critical thinkers, one attribute is a habit of questioning things: holding ideas, assertions and policies up to the light of scrutiny that takes the form of critical questions. What can we do to better equip students with this tool kit of questions they should routinely call upon in thinking about issues? 

While working with practising and preservice social studies teachers, I have found that the following critical questions help:

  • What assumptions underlie this position/policy?
  • What ideology underlies this position?
  • Whose interests are served?
  • What are the gains/losses/costs/benefits/trade-offs—and for whom?
  • How are gender/race/class/ethnicity/sexual orientation involved?
  • How is power involved?
  • What problem does this policy solve? What is the evidence that this is indeed a serious problem? What evidence is there that this particular policy will help solve this problem?

Carl Sagan (1995) uses a similar approach from a science perspective when he offers “tools for sceptical thinking” (also referred to as his “Baloney Detection Kit”) in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The goal of these approaches is to find opportunities to help students use this tool kit regularly when working their way through topics, issues and materials in the course. The goal is to move them to the point where using critical questions becomes a habit, a part of the way they approach not only their course topics but the events, issues and policies that confront citizens on a daily basis in a democratic society.

Using the elements of critical thinking

A variety of approaches to describing the components or main elements of critical thinking exist so that we can better focus on the range of skills and dispositions we are striving to develop in students. I have found the type of approach used in some postsecondary institutions in the United States helpful in my work with teachers. The attempt is to identify the various components in the form of a general rubric, and then help instructors find ways to develop those elements in the specific setting of their own courses.

Figure 1 summarizes the critical-thinking rubric used at Washington State University (and in somewhat different forms at a number of other postsecondary institutions).

An important advantage of such an approach is that it identifies a common core of components (such as identifying and assessing key assumptions and the quality of supporting data/evidence, and identifying the influence of various settings on the issue), along with indicators of levels of development. The rubric encourages teachers to determine how best to integrate those skills and dispositions into their course or subject matter. In some institutions the approach has involved a common rubric used across all departments (history, biological sciences and English literature) so that the basic elements of critical thinking are constantly reinforced across subject areas.

There isn’t one absolutely distinct type of critical thinking for social studies, and a totally different one for language arts. There would seem to be a great deal of promise in this type of cooperative approach for Alberta schools; a decision could be made in the school on a core of critical-thinking components, and then teachers in various grades and subject areas could find ways to systematically develop and reinforce those skills and dispositions in the light of specific curricula. The potential benefits to students seem obvious, and we probably need to be doing much more of this cross-disciplinary work in our schools.

Although Alberta teachers are positive about the value of critical thinking in our classrooms, many of us are just beginning to struggle with how we can effectively and systematically approach critical thinking with our students. If we start with a clear concept of critical thinking and its components, if we view it as an approach to teaching rather than as a subject, if we embed it in our curricula, and above all if we make it a priority, there are enormous gains to be made, both for students and for democratic society.

References

Alberta Education. 1998. “Ministerial Order #004/98: Goals and Standards Applicable to the Provision of Basic Education in Alberta.” http://education.alberta.ca/media/311314/422.pdf (accessed February 2, 2011).

———. 2005. Social Studies Kindergarten to Grade 12. Edmonton, Alta.: Alberta Education. Also available at http://education.alberta.ca/media/773701/soc10_1.pdf (accessed February 2, 2011).

Sagan, C. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Random House.

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Larry Booi is president of Public Interest Alberta (PIA), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization focused on education and advocacy on public interest issues. He is the former president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and was also a member of the executive board of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. He has been involved in curriculum development, has written textbooks used in Alberta schools, and has acted as a consultant for publishers and NGOs. Booi has played a central role in the establishment and growth of PIA and is also chair of its Democracy Task Force.