The ability to think critically is essential if individuals are to live,
work, and function effectively in our current and changing society.
Students must make choices, evaluations, and judgments every day regarding
(1) information to obtain, use and believe, (2) plans to make, and (3)
actions to take. As adults they will be living in a complex world and in
a democracy where both individual and collective actions will require effective
selection, processing, and use of information.
State and local curriculum guides contain goal and objective statements
regarding the importance of critical thinking skills. National, state association,
business and industry reports on education produced since 1983 have called
for increased emphasis on higher-order learning skills, including critical
At the same time national and state evaluations have indicated a high
percentage of students in American schools are not able to use critical
thinking skills effectively. Business and industry continue to report that
many employees are not able to think critically in job situations.
There is a profound difference between goals, objectives, and expectations
and demonstrated achievement. Schools need to review what they are doing,
what they are achieving, and ways to improve students' thinking abilities.
WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING?
Many definitions of critical thinking have been published. Ennis (1987)
stated that it is the process and skills involved in rationally deciding
what to do or what to believe.
Educational researchers and program developers (Costa, 1985; Keating,
1988) have tended to include four elements in reports and writings on critical
thinking. These include (1) content knowledge (knowledge of the discipline),
(2) procedural knowledge (knowledge of thinking skills), (3) ability to
monitor, use and control thinking skills (metacognition), and (4) an attitude
to use thinking skills and knowledge.
Critical thinking skills identified as important for various disciplines
may differ, but skills common to most lists are identified by Winocut (Costa,
1985) and by the California State Department of Education.
Winocut's listing of skills (Costa, 1985) includes three categories:
(1) enabling skills, (2) processes, and (3) operations. Enabling skills
include observing, comparing/contrasting, grouping/labeling, categorizing/classifying,
ordering, patterning, and prioritizing. Processes include skills related
to analyzing questions, facts/opinion, relevancy of information, and reliability
of information . Processes also include skills necessary for inferring,
understanding meanings, cause/effect, making predictions, analyzing assumptions,
and identifying points of view. Operations include logical reasoning, creative
thinking, and problem solving skills.
The California State Department of Education model (Costa, 1985) includes
most of the same skills organized into three categories: (1) Defining and
clarifying the problem, (2) Judging information related to the problem,
and (3) Solving problems/drawing conclusions.
WHAT DOES RESEARCH INDICATE REGARDING TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING?
In general, data indicate that critical thinking skills are not learned
well unless schools emphasize critical thinking and the use of critical
thinking skills on a continuing basis .
Whether critical thinking is a generalized and a transferable skill,
or whether it is bound up in the particulars of a specific content domain
is still an issue to be resolved (Keating,1988). Glaser (1984) contends
the latter is true and, further, that the former perspective is based on
an early and ultimately less useful model of human cognitive activity.
Kuhn et al. (1988), while recognizing strong evidence for domain-specificity,
argue that mastery in some topic areas may lead to a subsequent ability
to think critically in related areas. The necessity of integrating different
sources of knowledge (Keating, 1988) is being recognized in most current
Based on research results in the science fields related to reasoning
(Glaser, 1984; Carey, 1986; Kuhn, 1985), developing an understanding of
knowledge and the ability to retrieve useful knowledge is important for
effective thinking. Analyses of items from tests using Bloom's Taxonomy
have produced similar conclusions; students are generally not able to effectively
use thinking skills without appropriate knowledge.
Focusing directly on thinking skills and the development and use of
thinking skills over time tends to produce more effective thinking than
unplanned emphasis on skill development or short term emphasis. State education
programs such as those in California emphasize the development of thinking
skills throughout the curriculum and over time. Emphasis should be given
to critical questioning, reading, writing, listening, and planning and
carrying out activities in all curriculum areas.
There are many reasons to believe that the development of higher order
reasoning rests squarely on the availability of ample amounts of relevant
discourse (Glaser, 1984, Keating, 1988). This has not occurred on any regular
basis in most middle, junior high, and senior high schools due to lack
of teacher knowledge, lack of materials, class size and competing demands
such as emphasis of tests, coverage of textbook content, and required academic
content. Organizational rearrangements which would dramatically reduce
class size, at least for some proportion of the school day, would likely
enhance the development of higher order thinking skills (Bennett, 1987).
The quality of discourse and the amount of student interaction are also
important. There needs to be a shift in many classes, from a teacher-centered
classroom to a student-centered classroom in which students can be involved
in collecting and analyzing information, paired problem solving, cooperative
learning settings, simulations, debates, and critical reporting sessions.
Providing experiences in real-life situations or situations that simulate
real-life situations increases the probability that skills will be used.
Providing modeling of the skills, ample opportunities for practice, and
feedback on the effectiveness of the student's thinking are also important
considerations. Selection of experiences should be based on the developmental
levels of the students.
WHY IS ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION AN IMPORTANT FOCUS FOR CRITICAL THINKING
AND AN EFFECTIVE MECHANISM TO ENHANCE CRITICAL THINKING?
Current and anticipated environmental problems are receiving increased
attention in the media, by all levels of government, by citizen groups,
and by individuals concerned with the potential implications for humans
and other life on Earth. These problems are local, regional, national,
and international in scope. Developing workable solutions to environmental
problems will require choices and decisions based on a critical examination
of information and opinions.
Environmental education provides a good mechanism for developing critical
thinking skills by (1) providing topics and problems that cut across the
school curriculum and can enhance the integration of knowledge, (2) providing
real problems that can be studied or simulated, and (3) by providing topics
and problems that can be adjusted to the developmental levels of students..
WHAT MATERIALS ARE AVAILABLE FOR ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION THAT EMPHASIZE
CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS?
While there are many environmental education materials available that
include critical thinking skill development, there are several that provide
for both a structure and a variety of activities and experiences. Examples
of materials with many activities include Aquatic Project Wild, Project
Wild, Project Learning Tree, Class, Science-Technology-Society: Preparing
for Tomorrow's World, and SuperSaver Investigators.
An activity manual produced by ERIC/SMEAC (Howe and Disinger, 1990)
includes examples of these and other materials. The manual also includes
examples of activities you can design related to various environmental
topics and problems. The activities provide a variety of effective instructional
procedures (debates, simulations, critical analyses of materials and presentations,
case studies, etc.), and focus on specific or combinations of critical
HOW CAN A TEACHER GET HELP TO MODIFY INSTRUCTION TO EMPHASIZE THINKING
There are a variety of experiences and materials available to help teachers
learn to teach critical thinking skills more effectively. PROJECT WILD
offers workshops for teachers to help them use materials more effectively.
The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) has produced
some very useful materials to help teachers design a classroom structure
and activities that are effective for teaching thinking skills. The book
by Costa and others (1985) has been very helpful for many teachers and
contains useful ideas for teaching thinking skills. ASCD also offers workshops
that emphasize teaching thinking skills.
The Alliance for Environmental Education has established a Network of
Centers for Environmental Education. These centers are located throughout
the United States and are available to assist local schools and teachers
in modifying curricula and instruction. For information regarding centers
in your area contact the Alliance for Environmental Education, 10751 Ambassador
Dr., Suite 201, Manassas, VA 22110, (703) 631-6754.
Bennett, S. New Dimensions in Research on Class Size and Academic Achievement.
National Center on Effective Secondary Schools, University of Wisconsin,
Madison, WI, 1987. ED 288 854.
Carey, S. "Cognitive Science and Science Education." American Psychologist,
41, p 1123-1130, 1986.
Costa, A. (ed). Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking.
Association for Curriculum and Supervision, Arlington, VA, 1985. ED 262
Ennis, Robert. "A Taxonomy of Critical Thinking Dispositions and Abilities."
In Joan Baron and Robert Sternberg (Eds.) Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory
and Practice. W. H. Freeman, New York, 1987.
Glaser, R. E. "Education and Thinking: The Role of Knowledge," American
Psychologist, 39, 93-104, 1984.
Howe, Robert W. and John F. Disinger. Environmental Activities for Teaching
Critical Thinking. ERIC/SMEAC, Columbus, OH, 1990 (in press).
Iozzi, Louis A. Science-Technology-Society: Preparing for Tomorrow's
World. Sopris West, Longmont, CO, 1987. ED 289 737.
Keating, Daniel. Adolescents' Ability To Engage in Critical Thinking,
National Center for Effective Secondary Schools, Madison, WI, November,
1988. ED 307 508.
Kuhn, D., E. Amsel, and M. O'Loughlin. The Development of Scientific
Thinking Skills, Academic Press, San Diego, CA, 1988.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources. SuperSaver Investigators, Ohio
Department of Natural Resources, Columbus, OH, 1988. SE 051 286.
Project Learning Tree: Supplementary Activity Guide for Grades K through
6. The American Forest Institute, Inc., Washington, DC, 1975. ED 290 612.
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