ERIC Identifier: ED306554
Publication Date: 1989-06-00
Author: Tama, M. Carrol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
Critical Thinking: Promoting It in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.
The NCTE Committee on Critical Thinking and the Language Arts defines
critical thinking as "a process which stresses an attitude of suspended
judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an
evaluative decision or action." In a new monograph copublished by the ERIC
Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, Siegel and Carey (1989)
emphasize the roles of signs, reflection, and skepticism in this process.
Ennis (1987) suggests that "critical thinking is reasonable, reflective
thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do." However defined,
critical thinking refers to a way of reasoning that demands adequate support for
one's beliefs and an unwillingness to be persuaded unless the support is
Why should we be concerned about critical thinking in our classrooms?
Obviously, we want to educate citizens whose decisions and choices will be based
on careful, critical thinking. Maintaining the right of free choice itself may
depend on the ability to think clearly. Yet, we have been bombarded with a
series of national reports which claim that "Johnny can't think" (Mullis, 1983;
Gardner, 1983; Action for Excellence, 1983). All of them call for schools to
guide students in developing the higher level thinking skills necessary for an
Skills needed to begin to think about issues and problems do not suddenly
appear in our students (Tama, 1986; 1989). Teachers who have attempted to
incorporate higher level questioning in their discussions or have administered
test items demanding some thought rather than just recall from their students
are usually dismayed at the preliminary results. Unless the students have been
prepared for the change in expectations, both the students and the teacher are
likely to experience frustration.
What is needed to cultivate these skills in the classroom? A number of
researchers claim that the classroom must nurture an environment providing
modeling, rehearsal, and coaching, for students and teachers alike, to develop a
capacity for informed judgments (Brown, 1984; Hayes and Alvermann, 1986).
Hayes and Alvermann found that coaching
teachers led to significant changes in students' discussion, including more
critical analysis. The supervision model that was used allowed teachers and
researchers to meet for preobservation conferences in order to set the purpose
for the observation. Then, each teacher's lessons were videotaped and observers
made field notes to supplement the videotape. After the lesson, the researchers
met to analyze the tape and notes and to develop strategies for coaching the
teachers. In another post-observation meeting, the teachers and supervisors
planned future lessons incorporating the changes they felt necessary to promote
and improve critical discussion in the classes.
Hayes and Alvermann report that this coaching led teachers to acknowledge
students' remarks more frequently and to respond to the students more
elaborately. It significantly increased the proportion of text-connected talk
students used as support for their ideas and/or as cited sources of their
information. In addition, students' talk became more inferential and analytical.
A summary of the literature on the role of "wait time," (the time a teacher
allows for a student to respond as well as the time an instructor waits after a
student replies) found that it had an impact on students' thinking (Tobin,
1987). In this review of studies, Tobin found that those teachers who allowed a
3-5 second pause between the question and response permitted students to produce
cognitively complex discourse. Teachers who consciously managed the duration of
pauses after their questioning and provided regular intervals of silence during
explanation created an environment where thinking was expected and practiced.
However, Tobin concludes that "wait time" in and of itself does not insure
critical thinking. A curriculum which provides students with the opportunity to
develop thinking skills must be in place. Interestingly, Tobin found that high
achievers consistently were permitted more wait time than were less skilled
students, ndicating that teachers need to monitor and evaluate their own
behavior while using such strategies.
Finally, teachers need to become more tolerant of "conflict," or
confrontation, in the classroom. They need to raise issues which create
dissonance and refrain from expressing their own bias, letting the students
debate and resolve problems. Although content area classroom which encourages
critical thinking can promote a kind of some psychological discomfort in some
students as conflicting accounts of information and ideas are argued and
debated, such feelings may motivate them to resolve an issue (Festinger, 1957).
They need to get a feel for the debate and the conflict it involves. Isn't there
ample everyday evidence of this: Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, USA Today?
Authors like Frager (1984) and Johnson and Johnson (1979) claim that to
really engage in critical thinking, students must encounter the dissonance of
conflicting ideas. Dissonance, as discussed by Festinger, 1957 promotes a
psychological discomfort which occurs in the presence of an inconsistency and
motivates students to resolve the issue.
To help students develop skills in resolving this dissonance, Frager (1984)
offers a model for conducting critical thinking classes and provides samples of
popular issues that promote it: for example, banning smoking in public places,
the bias infused in some sports accounts, and historical incidents written from
both American and Russian perspectives.
If teachers feel that their concept of thinking is instructionally useful, if
they develop the materials necessary for promoting this thinking, and if they
practice the procedures necessary, then the use of critical thinking activities
in the classroom will produce positive results.
Matthew Lipman (1988) writes, "The improvement of student thinking--from
ordinary thinking to good thinking--depends heavily upon students' ability to
identify and cite good reasons for their opinions."
Training students to do critical thinking is not an easy task. Teaching which
involves higher level cognitive processes, comprehension, inference, and
decision making often proves problematic for students. Such instruction is often
associated with delays in the progress of a lesson, with low success and
completion rates, and even with direct negotiations by students to alter the
demands of work (Doyle, 1985). This negotiation by students is understandable.
They have made a career of passive learning. When met by instructional
situations in which they may have to use some mental energies, some students
resist that intellectual effort. What emerges is what Sizer (1984) calls
"conspiracy for the least," an agreement by the teacher and students to do just
enough to get by.
Despite the difficulties, many teachers are now promoting critical thinking
in the classroom. They are nurturing this change from ordinary thinking to good
thinking admirably. They are 1) promoting critical thinking by infusing
instruction with opportunities for their students to read widely, to write, and
to discuss; 2) frequently using course tasks and assignments to focus on an
issue, question, or problem; and 3) promoting metacognitive attention to
thinking so that students develop a growing awareness of the relationship of
thinking to reading, writing, speaking, and listening. (See Tama, 1989.)
Another new ERIC/RCS and NCTE monograph (Neilsen, 1989) echoes similar
advice, urging teachers to allow learners to be actively involved in the
learning process, to provide consequential contexts for learning, to arrange a
supportive learning environment that respects student opinions while giving
enough direction to ensure their relevance to a topic, and to provide ample
opportunities for learners to collaborate.
Action for Excellence. A Comprehensive Plan to Improve Our Nation's Schools. Denver: Education Commission of the States, 1983. 60pp. [ED 235 588]
Brown, Ann L. "Teaching students to think as they
read: Implications for curriculum reform." Paper commissioned by the American Educational Research Association Task Force on Excellence in Education, October 1984. 42pp. [ED 273 567]
Doyle, Walter. "Recent
research on classroom management: Implications for teacher preparation." Journal of Teacher Education, 36 (3), 1985, pp. 31-35.
Ennis, Robert. "A taxonomy of critical
thinking dispositions and abilities." In Joan Baron and Robert Sternberg (Eds.) Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1987.
Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, Illinois: Row Peterson, 1957.
Frager, Alan. "Conflict: The key to
critical reading instruction." Paper presented at annual meeting of The Ohio Council of the International Reading Association Conference, Columbus, Ohio, October 1984. 18pp. [ED 251 806]
Gardner, David P., et al. A Nation at
Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. An Open Letter to the American People. A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education. Washington, DC: National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983. 72pp. [ED 226 006]
Hayes, David A., and Alvermann, Donna E. "Video
assisted coaching of textbook discussion skills: Its impact on critical reading behavior." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Research Association, San Francisco: April 1986. 11pp. [ED 271 734]
Johnson, David W., and Johnson, Roger T. "Conflict in the classroom: Controversy and learning," Review of Educational Research, 49, (1), Winter 1979, pp. 51-70.
Lipman, Matthew. "Critical
thinking--What can it be?" Educational Leadership, 46 (1), September 1988, pp. 38-43.
Mullis, Ina V. S.,
and Mead, Nancy. "How well can students read and write?" Issuegram 9. Denver: Education Commission of the States, 1983. 9pp. [ED 234 352]
Neilsen, Allan R., Critical Thinking
and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act. Monographs on Teaching Critical Thinking, Number 2. Bloomington, Indiana: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and The National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Illinois, 1989. [Available from ERIC/RCS and NCTE.]
Siegel, Marjorie, and Carey, Robert F. Critical
Thinking: A Semiotic Perspective. Monographs on Teaching Critical Thinking, Number 1. Bloomington, Indiana: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills and the National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Illinois, 1989. [Available from ERIC/RCS and NCTE.]
Sizer, Theodore. Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1984. [ED 264 171; not available from EDRS.]
Tama, M. Carrol. "Critical thinking has a place in
every classroom," Journal of Reading 33 (1), October 1989.
Tama, M. Carrol. "Thinking skills: A return to the content area classroom." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Reading Association, 1986. 19pp. [ED 271 737]
Kenneth. "The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning," Review of Educational Research, 57 (1), Spring 1987, pp. 69-95.