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Teachers facilitating critical thinking in students: the search for a model and a method

Irene Y.Y. Fung1, Michael A.R. Townsend and Judy M. Parr
Faculty of Education, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Crete, 22-25 September 2004

*This paper is a draft for discussion only, please do not quote or cite without contacting the authors first


The aim of this paper is to search for a model and a method that can help teachers facilitate critical thinking in school children. Many critical thinking texts fail to delineate the scope of their individual approaches to critical thinking or neglect to review their conceptual foundations before offering insights or formulations of their critical thinking programs. To avoid this shortcoming, the paper first addresses three core issues in educating for critical thinking by a critical review of the literature: The need for critical thinking; the definitive characteristics; what a critical thinking programme should aim to teach, and how teachers might stimulate critical thinking. Having established a deeper understanding of these core issues, the paper presents a synthesized model that aims to coherently guide student, curriculum, and professional development. Justification of the selected components and their relationships central to the model will be discussed. The feasibility of translating this model into classroom practice has been examined via a university-school collaborative action research project conducted in a primary school in Auckland, New Zealand. The final part of the paper discusses the findings and implications derived from the project.


In recent years there has been a shift in many countries in their national educational curriculum policy statements from an emphasis on knowledge to an emphasis on higher order thinking skills. Particularly, in North America, critical thinking is considered to be an important educational goal at all levels of schooling. However, while there may be agreement about the importance of increasing critical thinking ability, there appears to be little agreement in what it is, how it should be done, and how to facilitate it in students. In fact, the major difficulty in educating for critical thinking is lack of a synthesised understanding about what is meant by the term, and what an effective critical thinking program should involve. To date, there is still little research that links conceptual analysis and classroom practice. Many studies stop short at the conceptual and theoretical level and seldom go further to pursue their empirical support or to examine their feasibility of translating into everyday classroom practice. On the other hand, as Halonen has observed, many studies fail to delineate the scope of their individual approaches to critical thinking or neglect to review their conceptual foundations before offering insights or formulations of their critical thinking programs. This was the dilemma faced by the authors when embarking on a university-school collaborative project to develop critical thinking in primary school children in response to recent New Zealand Ministry of Education policy initiatives.

The aim of this paper is to outline the rationale for a model and a method that can effectively enhance teachers to facilitate critical thinking in school children. To avoid the shortcoming pointed out by Halonen , the paper first addresses four cores issues in educating for critical thinking by a critical review of the literature on critical thinking and critical thinking education: Why do we need critical thinking? What are the definitive characteristics of critical thinking? What should a critical thinking program aim to teach? What could/should teachers do to stimulate student thinking and encourage them to think critically about their thinking and learning? After developing a deeper understanding of these core issues, the paper presents a synthesized model that aims to provide a coherent guide to student, curriculum, and professional development. Justification of the selected components and their relationships central to the model will be discussed.

1. Critical thinking: Who needs it and why

The question of who needs critical thinking appears simple and straightforward if critical thinking is considered to be a kind of thinking that helps our students to think better, so that they can learn better and solve their problems in and out of school more effectively. It is a general view that the thinking of our students often tends to be inadequate and faulty. In learning to think in a better way, students will be better prepared to cope with challenges in their lives, both in and out of school. However, the authors consider that this applies not only to students. The complexity and the rapidly changing nature of the contemporary world contribute to the fact that even adults may be unsure about beliefs and actions. Very often we find what adults believe or do is based on faulty thinking, and the consequences are often costly for individuals or for community and society. For this reason, we believe it is of great practical importance for every member of a community and society to learn to think better so that they become more capable in responding to challenges and opportunities. If critical thinking is a tool to help us do this, then everyone should need it and learn how to use it.

In the literature, a corpus of work on critical thinking is predicated on the assumptions that we humans can think in a better or worse way, and that we can all develop our mind more fully by learning how to improve the quality of our thinking. Critical thinking has been conceived of as a kind of thinking which is different from spontaneous thinking in many ways. One major difference is that when we engage in critical thinking, we are aware of the fallible nature of human thinking. We recognize our natural tendency to err as we think, so we wish to guard against or to counteract this. Critical thinking, in a broad sense, is the thinking that alerts and guides us to examine the quality of our thinking as well as that of others so that we become more certain of whether we are making a good choice of what to believe and do. In a strict sense, when we engage in critical thinking we want to put ourselves in a position to distinguish good thinking from faulty thinking, and also in a position to identify what has made it good or faulty. Through critical thinking we want to enhance our thinking ability so that we can respond to problems and opportunities in ways that facilitate our individual and collective well being and growth.

Much of the work on critical thinking alerts us the usual sources of faulty thinking and suggests ways to overcome our natural tendencies to err as we think. In particular, there are two well-known accounts of the fallible nature of human thinking. One is Francis Bacon’s Four Idols of Truth, and the other is Herbert Simon’s Bounded Rationality. Regardless of our age, gender, ethnicity, culture, nationality, life experiences or level of education, we are more or less susceptible to produce one kind or another of the faulty thinking. A quick review of these sources as described in the two accounts may explain better why learning to think critically about the quality of the thinking of our own and other should concern not only students but everyone.

Francis Bacon used "four idols of truth" to represent four potential sources of faulty thinking that all humans tend to have. He alerted his readers that these are limitations for humans to strive to overcome or compensate for. The idols of the tribe cover the limitations and tendencies common to human nature . For example, we tend to rely very much on our senses to give meanings to the world and our experiences, yet our senses inherently have their limitations and are easily deceived. The idols of the cave have to do with the belief system and worldview we adopt as a result of our individual interactions with the particular environments in which that we are raised. Bacon explained that each of us lives in a world of our own, confined, as it were, to a cave, lacking reliable knowledge of what exists outside it. With our own frame of reference, we tend to see things not as they are but shaped by our individual and cultural idiosyncrasies and specialties. The idols of the market place represent all types of faulty thinking that are caused by the semantic problem of words used in everyday language. Bacon observed that everyday words are often ambiguous, vague, and misleading; hence entangle and pervert our judgment. We are often confused when we think in terms of words whose meanings are unclear or not commonly shared. The idols of the theatre refer to all kinds of dogmas that have been created with little or no regard to truth or realities, yet appear to be authoritative and may deeply influence people’s mind into excesses of dogmatism and denial. Bacon dismissed this kind of dogmatic truth as fictions of stage plays, which distract audience from what is, to illusory worlds.

In Herbert Simon’s account of the fallible nature of human thinking, human rationality is inevitably bounded. It shows us that our everyday reasoning may seem to be rational, but in fact, is fallible because we are rational only within our simplified mental representation of the world. Simon explains that human rationality is bounded because human rationality is limited by the intrinsic characteristics of human perception and cognition, especially when humans are required to make reasoned choice in conditions of considerable uncertainty and complexity. Because of the complexity in the environment, which is beyond the information-processing capacities of humans as decision makers, in most decision-making situations, humans are seldom able to consider all possible alternatives, or to be certain about the consequences of adopting each of the available alternatives . In order to cope with this limitation, humans construct simplified mental representations of the real situations in order to deal with them. However, what guides those representations is their prior knowledge, the information coded into schemata, scripts, frames, and the like, which guides their cognitive functioning . Consequently, their decisions and actions are rational only with respect to those simplified mental representations of the world they have created, but certainly not with respect to some objective portrayal of the full complexity of the task environment itself .

If we appreciate Bacon and Simon’s points, and if we want to enhance our ability to respond to problems and opportunities so that we can better facilitate the quality of our lives, clearly it is a mistake to treat critical thinking as something only for students to learn in school. Understanding that the quality of our thinking has a direct impact on the quality of our lives, we should see the value of making deliberate efforts to push the boundaries of our bounded rationality, to overcome or counteract our idols of truth.

2. What are the definitive characteristics of critical thinking?

It is generally agreed that that there no single definition available in the literature can fully capture the complexity of this construct. Yet, for effective teaching and learning of critical thinking, it is crucial for teachers and students to be able to identify it and distinguish it from other kinds of thinking. From the earlier discussion, we can roughly distinguish critical thinking from other kinds of thinking by its functional characteristic. That is, it serves to deliberately direct one’s thinking to examine the quality of the thinking of one’s own as well as of others in order to make a good choice of what to believe and do. This functional characteristic is captured in a widely cited definition of critical thinking offered by Ennis – "Critical thinking roughly means reasonable and reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do" (p. 10).

However, by using this functional characteristic, one can only roughly distinguish critical thinking from other kinds thinking, for example, intuitive thinking, daydreaming, associative thinking, offering opinions or judgments without providing good reasons or justifications – none of these falls into the category of critical thinking. By using this functional characteristic, one still cannot specifically distinguish critical thinking from a cluster of other types of thinking that are closely related to it, for example, the concepts of metacognition, problem solving, decision-making, reflective thinking, and higher order thinking. To establish more precision in distinguishing critical thinking from other related types of thinking, the three characteristics described in Matthew Lipman’s definition of critical thinking are more helpful. These three characteristics specify the requirements of how critical thinking should operate so as to ensure that the thinking process will produce a well-reasoned judgment of whether certain beliefs or actions should be taken or rejected. A review of a number of contemporary critical thinking theorists’ discussion of each of them suggests that the three requirements are not only individually justified but also inter-related.

Lipman defines critical thinking as "skilful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgment because it (i) relies upon criteria, (ii) is self-correcting, and (iii) is sensitive to context." From this definition, the first criterion for critical thinking is that it relies on external criteria and standards for judging the reasonableness of one’s own, and others’ claim of certain beliefs and actions. Second, it demands the thinker’s responsibility to self-correct when a certain part of his or her reasoning is found failing to meet the criteria and standards of reasonableness. Third, the criteria and standards employed for facilitating judgment of reasonableness must have the universal normative force but at the same time must be sensitive to the specific context where the judgment is made.

Without meeting the first requirement, the judgment of the merits of certain beliefs and actions produced by the thinking process will be arbitrary, undisciplined, unreliable, and hence, cannot be justified . A thinking process that may involve problem solving, decision making, reflective thinking, metacognition, or higher order thinking cannot be qualified as critical thinking if it does not employ external criteria and standards to facilitate judgment of the merits of certain beliefs and action. As Paul argues, responsible critical thinking requires one not merely to be engaged in the mental processes but demands that one "do these mental processes well, that is, in accord with the appropriate standards and criteria."

Without meeting the second requirement, the judgment of the merits of certain beliefs and actions produced by the thinking process will not be accurate. When errors are identified but not rectified in thinking process, the judgement generated from the thinking process will inevitably be faulty. Further, according to Richard Paul , it can only be called weak sense critical thinking, if the thinker only self-corrects those neutral, procedural, or technical errors, but not those arising from his or her deep-seated egocentric thinking, feelings, and desires. Strong sense critical thinkers aim to identify and self-correct both types of thinking errors.

Without meeting the third requirement, the judgment of the merits of certain beliefs and actions resulting from the thinking process cannot be a good one because the criteria and standards employed are treated as absolute, without regard to whether they are appropriate and responsive to the purpose and needs of a particular context. By including the requirement that criteria and standards that have universal normative force and are sensitive to the specific context be employed, the judgment made can avoid dogmatic, absolutist thinking errors as well as subjective, relativist thinking errors. As Burbules argues, the person who wants to make a reasoned judgment of beliefs and actions has a practical problem to solve in a specific social context in which the person is related to other persons. The person needs to make sense, to be fair to alternative points of view, to be careful and prudent in the taking important stances, as well as to be willing to admit when he or she has made a mistake.

These three criterial characteristics make critical thinking unique because, as Lipman says, "it both employs criteria and can be assessed by appeal to criteria." Failing to meet any one of the three requirements, means a thinking process would not be adequate enough to be qualified as critical thinking. By using these three criterial characteristics in addition to the functional characteristic, teachers and students should be more able to distinguish critical thinking from a cluster of other types of thinking that are closely related to it. They should also become more able to tell whether they are, in fact, teaching and learning critical thinking.

3. What should a critical thinking program aim to teach?

It is generally agreed that critical thinking cannot operate unless it rests upon some proficient abilities and skills that can assure competency. Hence, many standard critical thinking programs focus on developing thinking abilities and skills in students. However, controversies arise not only in the justification of the kind of thinking abilities and skills that should be taught in a critical thinking program, or assessed in a critical thinking assessment but also in the justification of a "skills-only" approach per se. Critics of the "skills-only" critical thinking programs argue that apart from having certain required abilities and skills for critical thinking, one also needs certain desirable dispositions to accomplish critical thinking. Yet, controversies arise at the conceptual level with regard to how critical thinking dispositions should be conceived, as well as at the practical level of how to teach and assess them. This section analyses how theorists, researchers, and scholars address these issues.

3.1 Critical thinking abilities and skills

Many theorists realize that it is impossible to form a comprehensive list of the mental abilities and skills required to accomplish critical thinking because critical thinking involves both first order and second order thinking (as can be seen from its definitive characteristics discussed above). Further, it can be called for in a wide range of domains and situations, so a variety of background knowledge is needed. As Lipman comments, the list can consist of nothing less than an inventory of all possible kinds of intellectual powers. To facilitate development of critical thinking curriculum and assessment tools, many theorists tend to identify sets of generic skills for good reasoning, assuming that students who have mastered these skills will be able to put them to use in various domains and contexts . Therefore, it is the standard practice that only general principles and skills of good reasoning (for example, formal logic, informal logic, and argumentation) are taught and assessed.

However, research has shown that students’ ability to transfer is weak when standard stand-alone critical thinking programs focus only on training and drilling discrete generic thinking skills, engaging students in solving context- and content-free thinking tasks . One major problem of this approach is that students are unable to see the wood for the trees. That is, they are unable to understand how the discrete skills can be orchestrated and used as an integrated whole critical reasoning process . Another problem of this approach is that it leads students to view learning critical thinking and learning other content knowledge as unrelated to one another, rather than see them as complementary, with their integration interacting to the advantage of each .

To promote transfer, many theorists argue, students need both to understand the general critical thinking principles, criteria, and standards, and have the opportunity to use them to think critically in all curriculum areas as they acquire domain-specific knowledge. Moreover, classroom experience of teaching and learning of critical thinking has to be made relevant to students’ lives outside of the classroom setting so as to create a correspondence between what is required for critical thinking in real-world situations and what is taught in school programs intended to develop critical thinking). Most importantly, students should be equipped with self-assessment and self-correction abilities so that they can think for themselves and render prudent –right, sound, just, and fair – judgments in dealing with problems and issues in the course of their everyday life .

3.2 Critical thinking dispositions

Many theorists argue that to accomplish critical thinking, having abilities and skills is not enough. It also takes certain desirable dispositions. Hence, they offer and delineate sets of thinking dispositions that serve to alert one to think critically about the problem or issue at hand, and to strive to raise ordinary thinking and reasoning to a higher level of quality . However, the term "dispositions" has complex meaning when it is used in the context of promoting critical thinking. A standard account of critical thinking dispositions focuses on whether a person has the willingness and spontaneity to apply critical thinking abilities and skills in situations where they are called for . A more substantive account of critical thinking dispositions focuses on whether the value, attitude, and purpose the person holds are desirable when he or she uses (or does not use) his or her abilities and skills .

Although both the standard account and a more substantive account argue for a skills-plus-dispositions conception of critical thinking and pedagogical approaches to developing critical thinking in students, they consider the importance of developing critical thinking dispositions in different ways. In a standard account, developing in students critical thinking dispositions is important because it facilitates students’ critical thinking skills transfer to other contexts . In a more substantive account, developing critical thinking dispositions is important because it enhances students’ simultaneous development of intellectual capacities and intellectual character. Its underlying assumption is that when students become more intellectually efficacious and more intellectually virtuous in thinking for themselves, they are more able to make reasonable and responsible judgment of what values, beliefs, and actions to take. They then also have greater agency to take charge of the nature and quality of their public and private lives, and to contribute to their community and society .

A standard account of the dispositional dimension of critical thinking has been criticised as too narrow, contributing only to explanations of episodes of thinking. It fails to distinguish meaningfully the formal rules to which critical thinking skills must conform from dispositions of the thinkers that support their rational and reasonable capacities. Proponents of a more substantive account consider that it is the values and the ethical stance that the thinker upholds that dispose him/her to think critically and reasonably, in an enduring way, contributing to genuine explanations not only of episodes of thinking, but also of long-term patterns of thinking that guide one’s beliefs and actions .

4. A synthesized model and method for facilitating students’ simultaneous development of critical thinking abilities and dispositions

A synthesized model and method for teachers to facilitate critical thinking in students proposed in this paper is entitled Collaborative Reasoning: Critical Thinking Based Learning and Instruction (henceforth the model is called "CR-CT" for short). The synthesized model and method has three key features. First, it espouses a substantive conception of critical thinking and critical thinking education. Second, its pedagogical approach is predicated on the current educational theories of effective teaching and learning. Third, it aims to guide student, curriculum, and teacher development in a consistent manner.

As shown in Figure 1, the CR-CT model includes both macro- and micro-goals. Its macro goal is to develop students into better thinkers, learners, and persons. Its micro-goals include (1) developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, language abilities, and content knowledge simultaneously so that they reinforce one another and enhance deep learning; (2) establishing instructional coherence for students so that they can make sense of and see connection and order among the seeming randomness of various achievement objectives; and (3) communicating clearly performance expectations and standards to students so as to enable students to assess their own and their peers’ performance. Student development towards both micro and macro goals is likely to be facilitated by a synthesized instructional approach. The instructional approach adopted in the model is an integration of three components: (1) an infusion approach, (2) an enculturation approach, and (3) collaborative reasoning discussion as an interface for the integration of the first two components. An infusion approach emphasizes embedding critical thinking in content learning. An enculturation approach emphasizes creating and sustaining a social learning environment to instantiate the norms of language, values, expectations, dispositions, and skills of good thinking within the classroom and school. Learners are initiated into the culture, and supported to advance to their successful participation in the reasoned discourse and inquiry practices of the learning community. Collaborative reasoning discussions are important learning activities that provide participants the opportunities and platforms to engage in dialogical and dialectical thinking. This component acts as an interface for the integration of the first two components.

4.1 Infusion Approach

An infusion approach aims to restructure the traditional way of curriculum instruction by embedding teaching of thinking and teaching for thinking into regular classroom content teaching and learning . When critical thinking instruction is infused in subject-matter instruction, students are explicitly taught the general principles, skills and dispositions of critical thinking. Simultaneously, students are encouraged to apply to use the principles and skills to think critically as they learn the subject matter. The aim of this approach is to enhance deep, thoughtful, well understood subject-matter instruction . Weinstein argues that critical thinking is most expediently introduced when it is embedded in school subjects already taught because "whatever the dispositions, skills, and strategies used, they need to be identified, contextualised, and exercised within the regular curriculum if critical thinking is to take a secure place in teaching and learning in the schools" (p. 40).

The infusion component in the CR-CT model is based, in large part, on the version developed by Paul and his colleagues at the Foundation for Critical Thinking . This version is selected because it is grounded in more substantive conception of critical thinking principles, skills and dispositions when compared with other versions articulated in the literature. A brief summary of Paul’s critical thinking principles, skills and dispositions is in order. Paul strongly emphasizes that good reasoning should meet some basic universal intellectual standards, for example, clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, logical reasons, depth, breadth, fairness, etc. Paul argues that these intellectual values, among others, are universal because they are embedded not only in the history of the intellectual and scientific communities but also in the self-assessing behaviour of reasonable persons in everyday life. Hence, these intellectual standards should be reasonable, defensible, objective, and appropriate to use to assess all kinds of reasoning .

Figure 1 Collaborative reasoning: Critical thinking based learning & instruction.

For analysing and assessing the quality of a reasoning process, Paul suggests we examine the eight elements of reasoning, which he considers to be universal because they are present in all reasoning of all subjects in all cultures for all time . These eight elements of reasoning work together to shape reasoning and provide a general logic to the use of reason: (1) purpose, goal, or end in view, since all reasoning has a purpose; (2) question at issue or problem to be solved, since all reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, settle some question, or solve some problem; (3) point of view or frame of reference, since all reasoning is done from some viewpoint; (4) the empirical dimension of reasoning, since all reasoning is based on data, information, and/or evidence; (5) the conceptual dimension of reasoning, since all reasoning is expressed through and shaped by concepts and ideas; (6) assumptions, since all reasoning is based on assumptions; (7) implications and consequences, since all reasoning leads somewhere and has implications and consequences; and (8) inferences, since all reasoning contains inferences by which conclusions are drawn and meaning is given to data .

Paul argues that we can slip into faulty reasoning just by one of the eight elements failing to meet the required intellectual standards. For example, if the reasoning is based on a faulty assumption, the whole reasoning process will only lead to a faulty conclusion, no matter how good the quality of the other elements of reasoning is. Similarly, the quality of the whole reasoning process is wanting if one fails to make it clear the purpose of his or her reasoning, or if one adopts an unrealistic or unfair goal. Hence, Paul recommends the use of intellectual standards to examine the quality of each of these eight elements of reasoning to enhance one’s ability to analyse and assess one’s own and other’s reasoning .

Paul emphasizes that critical thinkers should be able to recognize the fallible nature of human thinking, and that strong-sense critical thinkers would consciously develop in themselves a set of intellectual traits: intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, intellectual empathy, and intellectual self-discipline, among others. These intellectual traits are interdependent. Take the trait of intellectual humility as an example. To become aware of the limits of one’s knowledge, one needs the intellectual courage to face one’s own prejudices and ignorance. To discover one’s own prejudices, one must intellectually empathize with the reason within points of view with which one fundamentally disagrees. And one, typically, must persevere intellectually over a period of time, for reasoning within a point of view against which one is biased takes time and significant effort. One will not make that effort and time unless one both sees their justification and has the necessary confidence in reason to discern what is well-reasoned from what is not in the opposing viewpoint. Further, one must recognize an intellectual responsibility to be fair to views that one opposes. One must feel obliged to hear them in their strongest form to ensure that one is not condemning them out of ignorance or bias. At this point, one comes full circle back to where one began: the need for intellectual humility .

Instead of giving teachers a pre-package program, Paul et al.’s version of infusion approach encourages the teacher himself or herself to develop into a critical thinker by learning and using the principles and skills to enhance teaching practice . To do this, the teacher remodels his or her existing content lesson/curriculum plans to incorporate critical thinking principles and skills into everyday classroom learning and instruction . There are four steps to remodel a lesson/curriculum plan. First, the teacher reconceptualizes content learning as the learning of a distinctive mode of thinking that apprehends and assents to intellectual standards and values inherent in a specific discipline of inquiry. Second, the teacher examines his or her existing lesson/curriculum plans in terms of the topics and how they are covered, including questions and activities in which students are engaged. Third, the teacher critiques the original lesson/curriculum plans on the basis of his or her best understanding of the mode of thinking in that content area in terms of the eight elements of reasoning and their intellectual standard requirement as well as his or her best understanding of critical thinking principles and skills. Fourth, the teacher remodels the lesson/curriculum plans on the basis of his or her critique so that the learning activities and tasks can engage students in thinking and reasoning according to intellectual standings, and foster students’ self-assessment in their reasoning and exercising of judgment; so that they can master domain-specific content more proficiently, better produce and assess intellectual work, and act more reasonably and effectively.

The first author tried out this version of an infusion approach in her pilot study conducted in 2001 in a primary school in Auckland with a group of three teachers. She found that this approach relied too heavily on the individual teacher’s commitment to self-direct development of critical thinking in terms of its application to classroom practice. Without a sustained school-based professional development and support from a working environment within the school that valued critical-thinking-driven self-correction and self-improvement in teaching and learning, this approach was found to be extremely difficult to implement.

To address this issue, two modifications to Paul et al.’s infusion approach have been made. First, the modified version has incorporated two other components – enculturation approach and collaborative reasoning discussion. These are two well-researched methods for teaching thinking and learning. Second, it has turned teacher’s individual and haphazard remodelling work into a university-school collaborative action research project so the remodelled curriculum plans become more principle-driven, evidence-based, and more responsive to the constraints and affordances inherent in the school’s particular context. The authors agree that this modified version of infusion approach is more able to accommodate the third precondition for achieving our macro-goals, namely, promoting participation and contribution in the reasoned discourse of communities of critical inquiry and critical practice.

4.2 Enculturation Approach

An enculturation approach emphasizes creating and sustaining a positive social learning environment where the norms of language, values, expectations, habits, and skills of good thinking are expressed, transmitted, and reinforced . When people become enculturated, they become socialized into the language, values, beliefs, norms, and practices from the culture that surrounds them . An enculturation approach aims to facilitate learners to become more effective participants in social practices of inquiry and sense-making, wherein individuals gradually develop their identities as competent learners and knowers .

Many recent thinking programs that adopt an enculturation approach are predicated on social constructivist perspectives of teaching and learning. Social constructivist perspectives view human cognition and learning as social in nature , situated in particular physical and social contexts , and distributed across the individual, other persons, and tools . Particularly, social constructivists consider that human knowledge is initially developed not as "general and abstract," but as embedded in social, cultural, and material contexts. Further, human knowledge is initially developed as part and parcel of collaborative interactions with others of diverse skills, backgrounds, and perspectives joined together in a particular epistemic community, that is, a community of learners engaged in common practices centred around a specific domain of knowledge .

The central notion of adopting an enculturation approach to teaching good thinking is to reclaim the classroom or school culture (or what we call the hidden curriculum), and make it work in accordance with our espoused formal thinking curriculum, rather than leaving it unattended, unexamined when in fact it may be subversive to our intended educational goal of teaching for good thinking. As Perkins points out that culture is inevitably everywhere, yet the social forces can either foster or undermine the development of thinking. In a classroom or school, students tend to be more easily enculturated into the hidden curriculum - the enacted rules, beliefs, attitudes, and expectation that actually characterize the culture of that classroom or school – rather than the formal curriculum. Problems arise if what the hidden curriculum conveys, values, and reinforces is something different or contradictory to the formal curriculum. To adopt an enculturation approach for teaching critical thinking implies that good thinking has to be genuinely valued, practised, and reinforced within the classroom and school community.

We see infusion and enculturation approaches complementary to one another, so it seems logical and reasonable to integrate the two approaches to teach a thinking curriculum. The former emphasizes individual students’ acquisition thinking skills in the context of content knowledge learning and instruction. The latter emphasizes the social and cultural dimension so that teaching and learning of thinking and content are situated within a community of learners where the norms and value of good thinking are transmitted, shared and upheld. With respect to teaching a critical thinking curriculum, however, we note that one may argue that it would seem contradictory to integrate an infusion approach with an enculturation approach. Specifically, it seems absurd to put together the notion of critical thinking which emphasizes independent and autonomous thinking in the process of learning and the notion of enculturation which emphasizes knowledge transmission, socialization, conformity, and habituation to norms of traditional practices in the process of learning.

In considering the ultimate goal of education we see this as a false dilemma. Education is generally accepted as aiming to enculturate our younger generation into the intellectual, social, ethical, cultural norms that have been developed by a long tradition of different practices within our society and seen as our best means of survival and flourishing, and as conducive to meaningful living. However, if we recognize the fallible nature of human thinking and knowledge (as most critical thinkers do), we should recognize as well there are at least three levels of fallibility in the enculturation process: the fallibility of human inquiries in every discipline and domain, the fallibility of those who practice them, and the fallibility of students aspiring to competence within those disciplines and domains. If the ultimate goal of education is to help our younger generation to be proficient in the forms of norms and practices we have found to be necessary and useful for meaningful living, as Gregory argues, we should help them to be aware of these three levels of fallibility and to cultivate habits of inquisitiveness and inquiry that will enable them to adapt and reconstruct the norms they learn from us. To maintain their warrantability and viability, the norms of practice inherent in the inquiry of every discipline and community need to be adaptable (i.e., susceptible to critique and to being made stronger) and more reliable for coping with current problems and opportunities. Indeed, most disciplines and communities of practices recognize and value their members’ alertness to relevant new challenges that require their norms of practices to be reconstructed. In other words, members of the community of inquiry in most disciplines need to exercise critical thinking to assess and maintain the warrantability and viability of the knowledge, believes, norms and values that they create, adopt, and transmit .

With this clarification, incorporating the notion of critical thinking which emphasizes independent thinking and the notion of knowledge transmission which emphasizes socialization and conformity to norms and standards of community practices in the CR-CT model should be complementary rather than contradictory. Nevertheless, we also note that the third component – collaborative reasoning discussion – as an interface for integrating the two approaches.

4.3 Collaborative reasoning discussion

Collaborative reasoning is an instructional strategy that aims to stimulate students’ thinking and to engage students in the process of reasoning process with others (in peer-led or teacher-led group discussion) to figure things out, or to solve complex problems. A body of empirical studies has been conducted to test the effect of this instructional strategy on promoting thinking and learning in curriculum areas. For example, in reading instruction , in social studies , mathematics , and science . These studies generally report positive results and conclude that students show improved problem-solving performance when their internalization of ways for clear formulation and communication of ideas, critical evaluation of knowledge claims, and consideration of alternatives are simultaneously facilitated. However, there are also some studies which report negative results in using this instructional strategy to improve students’ problem solving performance .

Collaborative reasoning is proposed mostly because of the criticism of the traditional form of classroom discussion. Traditional classroom discussion is often dominated by the teacher’s talk, and is often characterized by teacher’s questions that aim to elicit recall in format or initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) pattern – teacher initiation, student response, followed by teacher evaluation . This pattern of classroom discussion has been used dismissed as not real discussion because it is "monologic" rather than dialogic.

Wells argues that a dialogic context is conducive to the process of knowledge building. "Thinking when verbalised becomes a knowledge object for others, to which they can respond in various ways – by extending, questioning, or agreeing or rejecting it." One’s thinking when verbalised also becomes a knowledge object for the speaker, who is thus able to contemplate his/her own current understanding in externalised form and to respond to it in the same way as do other participants.

Perkins argues that if private thinking is, in significant part, an internalisation of more public verbal and other interactions, then by making important patterns of thinking public, by forcing them to occur in public, this begins to teach the person something about possible patterns of thinking. Such practice encourages the person to view patterns of thinking that have been made explicit as objects that he or she can adopt or not adopt, choose among, revise, and so forth.

An often repeated claim is that it is only by exposure to collaborative or conversational dialogue that students learn to think critically and independently about important issues and contested values . Adler described the pedagogical importance of collaborative discussion in the humanities as nothing less than the enlargement of ideas and values, claiming that a "disciplined discussion" will facilitate critical and reflective thinking. McPeck argues that a more discursive or argumentative rather than a didactic mode of teaching can encourage student participation in learning and in using critical thinking skills. However, we note that many studies that use this instructional strategy focus mostly on engaging students in discussion with peers or teachers about controversial issues or solving complex tasks. Few of them explicitly teach students the principles, skills, and dispositions of critical thinking and then encourage students to apply them to their collaborative reasoning discussion for resolving conflicting ideas or solving complex problems. Perhaps, this is the reason why studies report mixed results with regard to effectiveness. As Paul warns, without explicitly teaching students how to think critically, cooperative learning, and collaborative reasoning will have the danger of ending up in cooperative mis-learning and collaborative mis-reasoning.

We incorporated this instructional strategy into the CR-CT model because firstly, we note its potential strength in facilitating students’ development in thinking and communication of their thinking. As the works of Piaget and Vygotsky have shown thought and language are intimately related. Secondly, we see the potential strength of collaborative reasoning in facilitating professional development when it is used for collaborative action by the research team to accomplish the lesson/curriculum plans remodelling, evaluation, and problem solving together.

5. Can the CR-CT model be practically feasible?

The feasibility of translating this model was examined via a university-school collaborative action research project conducted in a New Zealand primary school with three classroom teachers in 2002 . In brief, in the collaborative action research, researchers and teachers worked collaboratively to redesign learning tasks and school curriculum unit plans, and to develop rubrics for assessing student performance in critical thinking and content learning. Integral to this work was the "think ahead" planning of activities on the basis of critical reflection and discussion around shared insights and problems in teaching and in the evaluation of student learning. Central to the instructional programme was that students were (i) explicitly taught the language of critical thinking, as well as the principles and skills of critical thinking; and (ii) encouraged to apply these in their learning. Consistent with current practices in curriculum compacting or working across curricula, the programme integrated language learning with other content learning. Children were and engaged in a range of thinking tasks which involved teacher-led or peer-led collaborative reasoning discussions before individual writing. A feature of the programme was the encouragement of self-assessment and peer-assessment for performance improvement.

Late in the programme, the children were given a writing task. It asked them to write an ending for an incomplete story (The selected story was Jenny Wagner’s John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat). They had to answer four questions to explain in writing: (i) why they chose to make their character (John Brown) think and act the way they did in their story ending; (ii) whether the character’s decision was good; (iii) why they preferred to have the story ended in this way; and (iv) what message they were trying to get across to their readers. The same task was given to two classes of Year 6 students in a non-participating school, but of the same socio-economic-status ranking in Auckland. Writing samples collected from both schools were analysed and assessed in terms of their language skill and reasoning ability.

Table 1 Criteria for Assessing Students’ Reasoning & Language Abilities

Criteria and standards for assessing the writing of the final part (resolution) of this story

A. Continuity achieved: This writing shows a logical link to the storyline established in the given part of the story because:

a. The writing of what JB decided to do or actually did is relevant to his attempt to solve his problem.

b. The writing of whether J.B. eventually solved the problem by doing what he did is clear.

B. Closure accomplished: This story ending makes the story complete by:

a. Writing clearly whether JB was able to move on from or would triumph over his primary emotional conflict;

b. Showing there is a theme or the moral of the story;

c. Creating an effect (or mood) that helps make the story theme clear to the reader.

C. Effective language use shown

a. Language use for explaining cause/effect or sequencing actions/events is effective.

b. Language devices (e.g., imagery; action words; emotional words; direct speech/dialogue) are effective in developing characters, actions and settings.

c. Grammar is correct.

d. Punctuation is correct.

e. Spelling is correct.

The task of writing an end to an incomplete story aimed to assess students’ language abilities and reasoning abilities in their creative/critical writing. For scoring these abilities, a set of criteria and standards was created by the researcher (see Table 1). Students’ reasoning abilities were assessed by the extent to which they met five criteria that were considered essential for achieving continuity of the story and for bringing a closure to the story. Students’ language abilities were assessed by meeting five criteria that were considered essential for effective writing. Students’ performance were scored according to a 4-point scale with 30 as the maximum total score: 0 point for failing to meet the criterion; 1 point for only partially meeting the criterion; 2 points for mainly rather than fully meeting of this criterion; and 3 points for fully meeting the criterion.

Table 2 Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Students’ Analysis of JB’s Reasoning in his Decision Making

The student’s analysis of JB’s reasoning is thorough if the student is able to show in his/her answer as well as in his/her story the following:

1. JB noticed he had some problems to solve.

2. JB was able to identify the plausible causes of these problems from different points of view.

3. JB was able to figure out the thinking, feelings, and wanting of himself, of Rose, and of the Midnight Cat.

4. In deciding what to do, JB was able to consider the well being of Rose (and/or the Midnight Cat) while he was in great concern of the well being of his own.

5. JB was clear about what he wanted to achieve by making this decision or taking the actions.

Table 3 Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Students’ Evaluative Judgment of JB’s Decision/Actions

The student’s judgement of JB’s decision/action is based on these criteria:

1. The criterion that JB’s decision/action should help not only himself but also Rose (and the cat) to feel better.

2. The criterion that JB’s decision/action was the best choice to achieve (i) when compared with other choices he might have.

3. The criterion that JB was able to self-correct his selfish thinking (which was the major cause of the problem).

4. The criterion that what JB did is ethically desirable or acceptable to all the people concerned in that situation.

5. The student’s judgment is supported by evidence.

The set of four questions were to examine how students think as a story writer. The first question aimed to assess students’ ability to analyse the main character’s behaviour in relation to his thinking, feeling, and desires. A set of five criteria was created for scoring student performance (see Table 2). Again a 4-point scale was used. The maximum total score on this measure was 15. The second question aimed to assess students’ ability to evaluate the quality of the main character’s decision making. Performance on this measure was assessed against a set of five criteria (see Table 3) using a 4-point scale. The maximum total score on this measure was 15. The last two questions aimed to cross check whether the student had a theme for his/her story, and whether the student had deliberate intension to create an effect (mood) for the story.

An analysis of variance was used to compare student performance in the CR-CT program and standard program. As shown in Table 4, when students’ writing performance was assessed in terms of language abilities, children in standard program demonstrated significantly higher performance (F =4.92 df=1, p<0.05). However, when the criterion of reasoning abilities was included in the writing assessment, students in the CR-CT program did significantly better than students in the standard program (F =43.90 df=1, p<0.05). In addition, students in the CR-CT program also performed higher on the analytical reasoning measure (F =15.73 df=1, p<0.05), and higher on the evaluative reasoning measure (F =42.61 df=1, p<0.05). Students in the CR-CT program generally were more able to explain the relationship between thinking, emotions, and desires behind the character’s decision and actions. Further, these students were more able to judge, as well as to justify their judgment of, whether the main character’s decision was a good one or a bad one. Overall, these students were more able to think deeper and better as they wrote the story.

Table 4 Student Performance in CR-CT Program and Standard Program on Four Measures


CR-CT Program (n = 60)

Standard Program (n = 31)


24.02 (4.41)

18.77 (5.80)

Language abilities*

11.27 (1.9)

12.16 (1.56)

Reasoning abilities*

12.60 (3.51)

6.65 (4.98)

Analytical reasoning abilities*

11.86 (4.11)

8.16 (4.39)

Evaluative reasoning abilities*

11.68 (5.04)

4.68 (4.30)

* p<0.05


The purpose of this paper is to search for a model and a method that can help teachers facilitate critical thinking in school children. Before presenting the conceptual model, we clarified three cores issues in educating for critical thinking by a critical review of the literature, namely, Why do we need critical thinking? What are the definitive characteristics of critical thinking? What should a critical thinking program aim to teach? The conceptual model presented in this paper is entitled Collaborative Reasoning: Critical Thinking Based Learning and Instruction. It is derived from our critical review of the literatures on critical thinking, critical thinking education, as well as on theoretical and empirical studies on effective teaching and learning. It espouses a macro educational goal to develop students into better thinkers, learners, and persons. It adopts a pedagogical approach that enhances Paul et al.’s (1995) version of an infusion approach by incorporating an enculturation approach using an interface of collaborative reasoning discussion. The model also has three explicit micro-goals to achieve: (1) developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, language abilities, and content knowledge simultaneously so that they reinforce one another and enhance deep learning; (2) establishing instructional coherence for students so that they can make sense of and see connection and order among the seeming randomness of various achievement objectives; and (3) communicating clearly performance expectations and standards to students so as to enable students to think critically about their thinking and learning as they assess their own and their peers’ performance. These three micro-goals serve to guide teachers’ work in remodelling their existing curriculum/lesson plans into ones that critical thinking principles and skills are incorporated into everyday classroom learning and instruction.

The feasibility of translating the conceptual model into daily classroom practices has been examined by a collaborative action research. Different sources of empirical evidence suggest that it is practically possible to implement the CR-CT program, although supports (in terms of time, efforts, and commitment) from the students, teachers, principals, and researchers are needed. Thanks to all these supports, implementation of the program in the present study was not only possible, but also largely successful. Not only students learned how to think more deeply and better, as shown in their written work, but also the teachers and the researcher involved in the action research project learned, in theory and in practice, how to enrich and enhance teaching and learning thinking critically in language arts. We have realized teaching students to think critically should go beyond thinking critically about the quality of the form of the text, to the quality of the meaning and reasoning of the author behind the text. Further, the research team also learned that simple, picture stories available in schools and public libraries are, in fact, valuable resources (i) for guiding children to think critically about conflicting ideas, values, and beliefs that make people do what they do and say what the say in the stories; and (ii) for guiding children to analyse and evaluate the thinking, feeling, and desires behind the characters’ actions or reaction to problems and opportunities. The team believed that these learning experiences when internalized will become students’ inner voice to guide their own thinking about their thinking, feelings, desires, actions, and reactions to problems and opportunities.

The authors note that because of the exploratory nature of this collaborative action research, the findings cannot be directly generalised to other school contexts. However, we want to emphasize that the CR-CT conceptual model and method is theoretically sound because first, it is grounded in a substantive conception of critical thinking and critical thinking education. Second, its pedagogical approach is predicated on the current educational theories of effective teaching and learning. Third, it can be used to coherently guide student, curriculum, and professional development. Nevertheless, the authors also note that developing critical thinking abilities and dispositions takes time, which implies that a longitudinal study is needed if stronger claims about the feasibility and the impact of translating the conceptual model into everyday classroom practice.


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