ERIC Identifier: ED272432
Publication Date: 1986-06-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Critical Thinking in the Social Studies. ERIC Digest No. 30.
Critical thinking has been a long-standing major goal of education in
the social studies. It was the theme of the 1942 Yearbook of the National
Council for the Social Studies. It is highlighted today in various statements
and publications of state education departments, local school districts, and
professional associations. Research and commentary on critical thinking have
increased greatly during the last ten years. But it has not been taught
extensively or satisfactorily in most social studies classrooms. Goodlad's
nationwide study of schooling found little evidence of critical thinking and
concluded that "preoccupation with the lower intellectual processes pervades
social studies and science as well" (1984, 236).
Current efforts to promote critical thinking in the social studies will fail
unless teachers know what it is, why it is important, and how to use it in the
classroom. This ERIC digest treats the (1) meaning of critical thinking, (2)
primacy of critical thinking as a social studies goal, (3) inclusion of critical
thinking in the social studies curriculum, and (4) means of teaching critical
thinking to social studies students.
WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING?
Definitions of critical thinking vary in breadth or inclusiveness. Broad
definitions equate critical thinking with the cognitive processes and strategies
involved in decision making, problem solving, or inquiry. According to Robert H.
Ennis (1985, 45), "Critical thinking is reflective and reasonable thinking that
is focused on deciding what to believe or do."
Limited definitions focus on evaluation or appraisal; critical thinking is
formulation and use of criteria to make warranted judgments about knowledge
claims, normative statements, methods of inquiry, policy decisions, alternative
positions on public issues, or any other object of concern. Critical thinking,
defined narrowly, is an essential element of general cognitive processes, such
as problem solving or decision making, but is not synonymous with them.
Critical thinking, whether conceived broadly or narrowly, implies curiosity,
skepticism, reflection, and rationality. Critical thinkers have a propensity to
raise and explore questions about beliefs, claims, evidence, definitions,
conclusions, and actions.
Many proponents of critical thinking stop short of evaluating the most basic
criteria, or values, by which they or their students make judgments. They would
teach critical thinking only within conventional frames of reference of a
society. A more profound view encourages appraisal of frameworks or sets of
criteria by which judgments are made. This deeper level of critical thinking
counteracts egocentric, ethnocentric, or doctrinaire judgments, which result
when thinkers fail to appraise fundamental assumptions or standards.
WHY IS CRITICAL THINKING A MAJOR GOAL OF EDUCATION IN A FREE SOCIETY?
Critical thinking is necessary to achievement of good citizenship and
scholarship in a free society, two major aims of education in the social
studies. A basic value of the American heritage is freedom to think and express
ideas--even if they are unusual, unpopular, or critical of prevailing practices
and beliefs. The Constitution guarantees civil liberties of individuals and
minority groups against the tyranny of ruling elites and the tyranny of majority
rule. Good citizenship in the American republic involves responsibility to be an
informed and rational participant in civic affairs, which implies capability to
think critically about public issues, candidates for public office, and
decisions of government officials.
Lessons that stimulate questions and criticism in pursuit of truth, which are
commensurate with the cognitive and personal development of students, should be
encouraged in the schools of a free society. In contrast, a closed or
totalitarian society never permits critical examination of prevailing and
sanctioned ideas. Ability to think critically can free students from the fetters
of ignorance, confusion, and unjustified claims about ideals and reality. It can
contribute to dissatisfaction with tyrants or totalitarian societies and to the
improvement of democratic government and free societies.
Strategies and skills in critical thinking are keys to independent judgment
and learning, which can be transferred to subjects and objects of inquiry within
and outside of school. Students gain enduring intellectual abilities, which can
be used long after particular facts have been forgotten. They are empowered as
learners and as citizens to think and act more effectively.
HOW CAN CRITICAL THINKING BE INCLUDED EFFECTIVELY IN THE CURRICULUM?
All students, regardless of social class or presumed limitations in ambition
or ability, have some degree of potential to think critically. This potential
can be developed to the fullest by embedding critical thinking in the core
curriculum, school subjects required of all students. Thus, critical thinking
would become an essential element in the general education of citizens rather
than the privilege of intellectual or social elites. If so, opportunities for
academic achievement, socioeconomic advancement, and effective citizenship will
be spread more widely and equitably in our society.
Students' capabilities to think critically are likely to be increased if they
practice strategies and skills systematically and extensively in all subjects of
the social studies curriculum, and in a manner that is consistent with their
cognitive development and prior learning experiences. Subject-specific teaching
of critical thinking may be the most effective means to develop students'
abilities to transfer strategies and skills to similar subjects in school and
problems in life outside of school. By contrast, separate courses on critical
thinking seem to be a rather weak means of developing cognitive strategies and
HOW CAN CRITICAL THINKING BE TAUGHT EFFECTIVELY?
Effective lessons on critical thinking interrelate subject matter and
cognitive strategies and skills, because critical thinking cannot be done
meaningfully unless the student knows certain concepts and facts related
fundamentally to the question under consideration. A successful critical thinker
is also aware of differences in criteria and evidence used to justify
propositions in different subjects, such as history, economics, and geography.
Effective teaching and learning of critical thinking involves practice of
skills with recognition of how they fit together as part of a strategy or
process. By contrast, practice of discrete skills is a relatively ineffective
means of developing capability in critical thinking.
Development of critical thinking strategies or processes requires continuous
practice under the direction of a skillful teacher. Direct or didactic teaching
is a useful means to introduce strategies and skills, but reliance on this
method is insufficient. Students must be stimulated to think critically on their
own to resolve dilemmas, take stands on issues, judge propositions about
knowledge or ideals, etc.
Learning to think critically involves multi-faceted intellectual activity
involved in complex processes, such as decision making. Effective teachers
challenge students to apply interrelated knowledge and skills to decisions about
what to believe and what to do. In the process of justifying and evaluating
knowledge claims and value judgments involved in decision making, students are
able to develop propensity for and capability in critical thinking.
Teacher modeling of critical thinking and expressions of support for it are
effective classroom behaviors. Teachers who promote and practice critical
thinking in the classroom contribute strongly to their students' intellectual
development. Furthermore, they are likely to engender a critical spirit, or
positive attitude toward critical thinking, among their students.
Certain procedures in management of classroom discussions appear to foster
critical thinking. Teachers who ask challenging questions and require students
to give evidence or reasons for their conclusions and opinions are likely to
develop critical thinking abilities and a critical spirit.
There is a strong relationship between an open, supportive, and structured
classroom climate, where opinions on issues may be explored and expressed in a
free and disciplined manner, and development of critical thinking and attitudes
supportive of it. Effective teachers challenge students to examine alternative
positions on controversial topics or public issues, require justification for
beliefs about what is true or good, and insist on orderly classroom discourse.
In this manner, they provide powerful lessons on responsible scholarship and
citizenship in a free society.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Browne, M. Neil and Stuart Keeley. ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: A GUIDE TO
CRITICAL THINKING. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Cornbleth, Catherine. "Critical Thinking and Cognitive Processes." In REVIEW
OF RESEARCH IN SOCIAL STUDIES EDUCATION : 1976-1983, ed. William B. Stanley.
Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1985. ED 255 469.
Ennis, Robert H. "A Logical Basis for Measuring Critical Thinking Skills."
EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 43 (October 1985): 45-48.
Goodlad, John I. A PLACE CALLED SCHOOL. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.
Moore, W. Edgar, Hugh McCann, and Janet McCann. CREATIVE AND CRITICAL
THINKING. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
Parker, Walter and John Jarolimek. CITIZENSHIP AND THE CRITICAL ROLE OF THE
SOCIAL STUDIES. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1984.
ED 244 880.
Paul, Richard W. CRITICAL THINKING AND THE CRITICAL PERSON. 1986. ED number
to be assigned.
Sullivan, David. "Using A Textbook for Critical Thinking." NEW ENGLAND SOCIAL
STUDIES BULLETIN 43 (Winter 1985-86): 31-33.
Wright, D. P. INSTRUCTION IN CRITICAL THINKING: A THREE-PART INVESTIGATION.
1977. ED 138 518.