ERIC Identifier: ED436007
Publication Date: 1999-11-00
Author: Shermis, S. Samuel
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Reflective Thought, Critical Thinking. ERIC Digest D143.
This digest concerns itself with the origin of reflective thought, the
application of theories about reflective thought to classrooms, conflicts and
issues, and a synthesis of the essential ideas.
ORIGIN OF THE IDEA OF REFLECTIVE THOUGHT
The concept "reflective thought" was introduced by John Dewey in 1910 in his "How We Think",
a work designed for teachers. Dewey admitted a debt to both his contemporaries
in philosophy, William James, and Charles S. Peirce. Dewey's most basic
assumption was that learning improves to the degree that it arises out of the
process of reflection. As time went on, terminology concerning reflection
proliferated, spawning a host of synonyms, such as "critical thinking," "problem
solving," and " higher level thought."
Dewey's definition of reflective thinking
repeated over the years was:
persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of
knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion
to which it tends". (Dewey, 1933)
However, other researchers added to this definition and modified it. Thus,
purpose of Socratic Seminars is to enlarge understanding of ideas, issues, and
values. The intent is to create dialogue that gives voice to rigorous thinking
about possible meaning... Seminars are structured to take the student thought
from the unclear to the clear, from the unreasoned to the reasoned. . . from the
unexamined to the examined." (Lambright, 1995)
Many other definitions exist, but what all have in common is conviction. Some
are of a more generalized nature, such as the two above. Others assume that true
reflective thinking can only be derived from the application of the various
For the last four decades, consensus thinking
is that reflection in a classroom can take place only when a questioning
strategy promotes it. Paradigms and models of questioning have proliferated
endlessly. All begin with the assumption that there are unproductive, sterile
questions that throttle student thought. Thus, Wasserman (1992) talks about "stupid questions" which ignore student ideas, are "insensitive to the feelings
or ideas being expressed," or are irrelevant and disrespectful.
Dead-end questions may be too complex for student experience, may not provide
sufficient "wait time" for students to process the question, may involve trick
questions or those which ask a question whose answer can be found in the text or
lecture of the teacher.
Questions which promote thought begin with the assumption that students do
not think unless they have something to think about. Dewey, Hullfish and Smith,
Hunt and Metcalf, Bigge, and Bayles argued that this "something" can only be a
problem. But the problem must be real, i.e., internalized, felt by students.
"Pseudo problems" occur when the importance of the problem is ignored or when a
problem is assumed to exist because the teacher or text defines it as a problem.
Thus, "What were the causes of the Civil War?" has been a problem to historians
for many years. It is unlikely to be one to students.
Many authors (Simpson, 1996) have attempted to create paradigms of
questioning, including Simpson, Weast, Hauser and Wasserman. What all of these
different paradigms have in common is the strongly held conviction that the
traditional, text bound, information coverage, low-level questioning must be
replaced by a more fruitful approach that stimulates students to reflect on
How to Generate Problems. A problem exists when a
student is curious, puzzled, confused, or unable to resolve an issue. A
situation which was clear and untroubled has now become clouded or obstructed.
In recent years, scholars have attempted to come up with useful, generic models
of problem setting:
asking students to devise alternative ways of presenting information, i.e.,
alternative to text or teacher
comparing different accounts of the same events, ideas, phenomena
supplying alternative endings, writing different outcomes
role-playing, role reversal, attempting to discern what was left out, what was
inserting ideas that do not appear to "belong" in a text
deleting or omitting information
playing "what if"
examining the social context of a given statement
attempting to identify the assumption
The notion that very young children cannot deal
with problems is simply false. Here is an example of problem-setting in a
kindergarten or first-grade class discussing Jack and the Beanstalk:
Q. What did Jack do when he got to the giant's castle?"
A. Jack hid from the giant, found the goose that lays the golden eggs, was
discovered by the giant, fled, reached the bottom of the vine, and then chopped
it down. The giant, of course, tumbles down, breaks his neck, and Jack lives
happily every after with his mother and his newly found wealth.
Q. Did Jack trespass illegally? (In kindergarten terms, "Did Jack go into
someone's house where he did not belong?"
Q. Did Jack steal the goose that lays golden eggs?"
Q. Did Jack, then, refuse to give back what did not belong to him?
Q. Then did Jack escape down the bean vine and cause the giant to be killed?"
Q. If Jack trespassed, stole, and murdered the giant, why is the giant the
villain of this story?
The twist at the end of this questioning strategy takes a very old story,
with a comfortable conclusion designed to make everything turn out just right,
and turns it on its head: why, in light of the admitted crimes that Jack
committed, isn't he the baddie? (Shermis, 1992).
There is no course, age, or grade where reflective theory cannot be applied.
Reflective theory simply says that if you wish to generate a problem, enter the
thinking and knowing patterns of your students. And then ask them questions
which create conflict and confusion. And then help them reach an answer. And
attempt to recognize a 24 carat gold question when you hear it. For example, if
a student who has been paying attention to the usual information on animal and
fish camouflage asks, "How come the Monarch butterfly is so colorful when this
makes it easier for a predator to see?" has just asked precisely such a
question. There is an infinite number of such questions, just waiting for
teachers to recognize or ask. These questions promote the reflection that
provides the best kind of learning that human beings have so far invented.
Any educational evaluation stems from the
educational purposes specified in advance of teaching. If one wishes to teach
reflectively and hold reflective discussions, then the purposes, goals, or
objectives must mandate such discussion. This necessarily precludes evaluation
that emphasizes memorization. Memorization is what is ordinarily measured by
conventional objective tests--true false, fill in, matching, and completion.
What evaluation is mandated? Lambright cites Cross who maintains that, "If
you want to teach critical thinking . . .,we suggest that you devise an exercise
that requires students to practice critical thinking and simultaneously
demonstrate their progress in achieving that complex skill." Some researchers
have insisted that appropriate evaluation "must go beyond acquiring facts and
learning theories -- they must apply knowledge." (Lambright) However,
application of knowledge, in terms of the Bloom Taxonomy, is technically Level
III, which is not especially reflective. Reflective thought involves acquisition
of facts, understanding of ideas, application of principles, analysis, synthesis
and evaluation. In short, reflective thought and reflective teaching involve all
levels of the Bloom Taxonomy.
Perhaps the most complete listing of reflective skills may be found in Weast
identifying the author's conclusion;
identifying the reasons and the evidence
identifying vague and ambiguous language
identifying value assumptions and value conflicts
identifying descriptive assumptions
evaluating statistical reasoning
evaluating sampling and measurements
evaluating logical reasoning
identifying omitted information
articulating one's own values in thoughtful, fair-minded way.
These skills are the ones which, over the last six or seven decades, have
tended to be emphasized by advocates of reflective thought and teaching. They
continue to be emphasized. The continuing emphasis is a valid index to the fact
that they are still not in schools.
Dewey, J. (1993). How we think: A restatement of
the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: Houghton
Hauser, J. (1992). Dialogic classrooms: Tactics, projects, and attitude
conversions. Paper presented at the National Council of Teachers of English
convention, Louisville, KY. [ED 353 232]
Hunt, M. P., & Metcalf, L. E. (1968). Teaching high school social
studies: Problems in reflective thinking and social understanding. New York:
Harper and Row.
Lambright, L. (1995). Creating a dialogue Socratic seminars and educational
reform. Community College Journal, 65, 30-34.
Shermis, S. S. (1992). Critical thinking: Helping students learn
reflectively. Bloomington, Indiana: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and
Communication Skills. [ED 341 954]
Simpson, A. (1996). Critical questions: Whose questions? The Reading Teacher,
50, 118-126. [EJ 540 595]
Wasserman, S. (1992). Asking the right question: The essence of teaching. Phi
Delta Kappa Fastback 343. Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa Educational
Weast, D. (1996). Alternative teaching strategies: The case for critical
thinking. Teaching Sociology,24, 189-194.
Digest #143 is EDO-CS-99-04 and was published in November 1999 by the ERIC
Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication, 2805 E 10th Street,
Bloomington, IN 47408-2698, Telephone (812) 855-5847 or (800) 759-4723.