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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2008

Автор: Сергеева О. С.

Why we need critical thinking as a part of educational process

The ability to think critically is essential if individuals are to live, work, and function effectively in our current and changing society. Harvey Siegel regards that critical thinking aims at producing a self-sufficient person, who is a liberate person, “free from the unwarranted and undesirable control of unjustified beliefs” (Seigel, 1988, 58).

Critical thinking has been specifically identified by colleges and universities, as well as by many employers, as a measure of how well an individual will perform at school and on the job. In fact, if you are applying to college or graduate school, or for a job, chances are your critical thinking skills will be tested. Standardized exams, such as the SAT and ACT, have sections on critical thinking. Employers such as federal and state governments, and many Fortune 500 companies, routinely test job applicants with exams such as the California Critical Thinking Test or the Cornell Critical Thinking Test.

If our students knew and used critical thinking skills, the whole process of studying would become easier and more effective. Students clearly feel the need for these skills when carrying out their own researches which are an essential part of their being a university student. According to Stella Cottrell, critical thinking as a student means:

- finding out where the best evidence lies for the subject you are discussing;

- evaluating the strength of the evidence to support different arguments;

- coming to an interim conclusion about where the available evidence appears to lead;

- constructing line of reasoning to guide your audience through the evidence and lead them towards your conclusion;

- selecting the best examples;

- providing evidence to illustrate your argument (Stella Cottrell, Critical Thinking Skill, 2005).

So if these skills are that much important, then they should be taught. And where can one learn something if not at school and further at university? While critical thinking has been successfully implemented in educational process in the USA and all world-wide known universities for years now, the importance of structured teaching these skills has been underestimated in our county. Although they are included in the educational standards, there are no clear directions of how to teach and evaluate them. I must say, though, that KAFU students of American track have a chance of shortly studying critical thinking as a part of their English class (the class is held in English).

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not an easy concept to define. Let us take a look at how different scientists understand it.

John Dewey defined the nature of reflective thought as "active, 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" (Richard R. Day, Teaching Critical Thinking and Discussion).

Beyer puts his definition of critical thinking in these terms: "Critical thinking . . . means making reasoned judgments". Thus a critical thinker uses criteria to judge the quality of something - anything, whether it be cooking or the conclusion of a research paper.

According to Richard R. Day, “critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought with which we assess the validity of things such as statements, news stories, arguments, research, etc., including the evaluation of the worth, accuracy, or authenticity of various statements or propositions; this evaluation then leads to a supportable decision or direction for action” (Richard R. Day, Teaching Critical Thinking and Discussion).

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." (Kathryn S. Carr, How Can We Teach Critical Thinking?)

Ennis (1987) suggests that "critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do." (Tama, M. Carrol, Critical Thinking: Promoting It in the Classroom)

Kathryn Carr says, that “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 forthcoming”.

Lauren Starkey in “Critical thinking skills success in 20 minutes a day” says that “a critical thinker approaches problems and complicated situations aware of his or her thoughts, beliefs, and viewpoints. Then, he or she can direct those thoughts, beliefs, and viewpoints to be more rational and accurate. A critical thinker is willing to explore, question, and search out answers and solutions. These skills not only mean greater success at school and at work, but they are the basis of better decisions and problem solving at home, too”.

Although there are plenty of definitions, generally speaking, to think critically about an issue is to consider that issue from various perspectives, to look at and challenge any possible assumptions that may underlie the issue and to explore its possible alternatives.

Now the question is: what are critical thinking skills exactly? Evidently, there is not a unique classification, and different scientists give different gradations. In this work we will stick to Stella Cottrell’s arrangement. According to her book “Critical thinking skills success in 20 minutes a day”, these skills include the ability to:

- make observations

- be curious, asking relevant questions and finding the resources you need

- challenge and examine beliefs, assumptions, and opinions against facts

- recognize and define problems

- assess the validity of statements and arguments

- make wise decisions and find valid solutions

- understand logic and logical argument

Not surprisingly, there are barriers to successful critical thinking. Stella Cottrell in her another similar book “Critical thinking skills – developing effective analysis and argument” names the following:

1) Misunderstanding of what is meant by criticism – many people think it means finding negative and unsatisfactory points of things, forgetting that positive sides are equally important.

2) Overestimating your own reasoning abilities – it might sound strange, but if you look closer you will see that humans like to think of themselves as rational beings; that beliefs that we hold are the best. However this is not always the case and our reasoning sometimes fails us.

3) Lack of methods, strategies or practice – although we sometimes are aware of the need to improve our critical thinking skills we do not know exactly what to do to improve them, what strategies to apply. Fortunately, critical thinking skills can be developed with practice.

4) Reluctance to critique experts – here writing a critique of an article/book/work is meant. Naturally enough, many students feel uneasy when they are asked to critique woks of famous and acknowledged authors, because they realize their knowledge is less profound than knowledge of those people they need to analyze. But this is how teaching in most English-speaking universities goes – students are expected to challenge and question even published works.

5) Affective reasons - to be able to critique means being able to acknowledge that there is more than one way of looking at an issue. In academic contexts, the implications of a theory can challenge deeply held beliefs and long-held assumptions. This can be difficult to accept, irrespective of how intelligent a student might be.

6) Mistaking information for understanding - however, students can misunderstand the purpose of those teaching methods that suggest activities aimed at developing expertise in methods used within the discipline, preferring facts and answers rather than learning the skills that help them to make well-founded judgments for themselves.

7) Insufficient focus and attention to detail - poor criticism can result from making judgments based on too general an overview of the subject matter.

Where and how to put in the curricula?

Now, there is not a single opinion about how to teach critical thinking – as a separate discipline or as a part of other subjects. Let us shortly examine both points of view.

Numerous researchers and teachers believe that thinking skills can and should be the focus of separate exercises, texts, and programs. They speak of the need to isolate specific cognitive skills and to design material appropriate for each skill. They say that like reading and writing, critical thinking is an enabling discipline and deserves separate attention. They argue that an independent course would prevent students from confining critical thinking to a specific subject matter, thereby inhibiting its development would avoid repetition of introductory principles in each subject; and would encourage the application of cognitive skills to other disciplines. Learning cognitive skills separately, however, may not necessarily facilitate their application to content-area studies or real-life situations. Research suggests the effectiveness of such courses depends on parallel efforts across the curriculum, including training all teachers in cognitive skills (Critical Thinking Skills and Teacher Education. ERIC Digest).

The opponents of this approach claim that ideally, training in thinking processes would be woven into subject area study. Two decades ago, much attention was given to Bruner's idea that the concepts central to each discipline can be taught through the discovery method. In recent years, specialists in mathematics, visual arts, music, and other subjects have claimed that unique aspects of their disciplines involve distinctive mental skills, requiring specially tailored strategies for learning (Charles Suhor, Thinking Skills in English--And across the Curriculum). Consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of each leads one to conclude the solution is not exclusively in either method, but in combination. Such a unified approach to critical thinking would provide a framework for instruction in any field (Critical Thinking Skills and Teacher Education, ERIC Digest).

Some other difficulties we need to know about

However, if we consider teaching critical thinking as a part of educational process, some other problems emerge. Let us see what Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan says about it.

In his opinion, the very important element that needs to be address is the change of teachers' attitudes towards of students (1), pedagogy (2), and themselves as teachers (3).

(1) There are teachers who regard learners as empty vessels, which need to be filled with knowledge. They thus ignore, whether they want to or not, the individuality of students. As a result their lessons are boring and unimaginative because of the minimal participation and involvement of learners. The learners feel left out and assume their opinions and beliefs as not relevant or important enough to be heard in the classroom. Eventually, this would be a cause to the detriment of creative and critical thinking. To avoid this, teachers should develop a mutual relationship with their learners, they need to consider learners as individuals who are equals in a situation of genuine two-way communication. More importantly, the learners learn from the teacher, and the teacher learns from the learners.

(2) The current situation is that teachers widely practice the pedagogy of answers, whereby teachers provide the answers and solutions to learners.

By giving answers, teachers deny the learners the opportunities and the right to question, to doubt and to reject. In addition, the learners will not be exposed to challenges and stimulation of thoughts. Freire added that teachers tend to adopt the pedagogy of answers because they are sometimes afraid of questions to which they are unsure of the answers, and also because maybe the questions do not correspond to the answers they already have. Thus, it is extremely vital that teachers have positive beliefs and attitudes towards questions. The right way to behave in this situation is to adopt the pedagogy of questions, which requires posing questions to learners and listening to learners' questions. This is a practice which forces and challenges the learners to think creatively and critically, and to adopt a critical attitude towards the world.

(3) Teachers need to believe that their major roles are to think, guide, initiate, facilitate and encourage the learners. This will put them in a right frame of mind and lead the learners into becoming a community of collaborative inquirers. Teachers are not providers but thinkers who constantly think of what could be done to encourage creative and critical thinking in their learners.

To add to the last point, Andy Halvorsen says that despite the fact virtually every language course book contains some form of "discussion questions" designed to give students some opportunity to practice language use, far too often they are “used simply as a tool, or even worse, as a kind of hurdle one needs to get over before moving on to the next grammar lecture or reading passage. It is true that these questions are often written in such a way as to almost discourage critical thought but teachers need to remember that they always have the ability to modify or adapt lessons to their own circumstances. Even the most overworked and underpaid of instructors, who claims to have no time for lesson planning, can make a difference here”.

It also must be said that students themselves have hard times adjusting to the fact new component is added to their learning. Thereto, when a teacher implements critical thinking oriented tasks, it is often associated with delays in the progress of a lesson, with lower success and completion rates (especially in the beginning). As a result some students even openly express their discontent with the tasks they are given. This reaction 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 calls "conspiracy for the least," an agreement by the teacher and students to do just enough to get by. But despite the difficulties, many teachers are now promoting critical thinking in the classroom. They are nurturing this change from ordinary thinking to good thinking (Tama, M. Carrol, Critical Thinking: Promoting It in the Classroom).

The National Research Center on Student Learning

The USA educational society has been long concerned with the critical thinking issue and decided to create a special organization that would research the field and work out necessary recommendations. Thus The National Research Center on Student Learning appeared. This center conducts interdisciplinary research that informs and supports thinking-oriented education in the United States. Modern cognitive research has shown that instruction must do more, even at elementary levels, than directly convey factual information. CSL studies how instruction can encourage students to ask questions about what they learn, to invent new ways of solving problems, to connect new knowledge to information they already have, and to apply their knowledge and reasoning skills in new situations.

Although CSL research projects share a theoretical base and many methods and implications for practice, they are organized into three broad programs. Each of the following programs encompasses several projects:

- Strategies for Thinking investigates the nature of potentially teachable thinking and reasoning strategies. Projects focus on strategies that apply broadly to learning, with special attention to how students monitor and manage their own learning from texts and to processes of dialectical reasoning and argumentation.

- Knowledge Foundations for Thinking focuses on several school disciplines, revealing their core knowledge structures. Projects examine students' prior knowledge and seek to identify powerful forms of instruction that take this knowledge into account.

- Thinking in the Classroom studies learning in various classroom settings. Projects analyze exemplary teaching, the structure of classroom activity and discourse, and learning outcomes. Projects also examine instruction from elementary grades through high school in science, history, and mathematics (Robert Glaser, Lauren Resnick, 1991).


The need for teaching critical thinking skills exists. And although we still do not have handbooks or instructional materials to use in our classrooms, there is a lot we can do as teachers. We should challenge our students, make them consider alternative opinions, require the reasons for their own opinions and decisions. Keep in mind that 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. Providing 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.


1. Richard R. Day Teaching Critical Thinking and Discussion The Language Teacher, July 2003

2. Carr, Kathryn S. How Can We Teach Critical Thinking? ERIC Digest (selected) (073) http://ericae.net/edo/ed326304.htm.

3. Critical Thinking Skills and Teacher Education. ERIC Digest 3-88, 1988 http://ericae.net/edo/ed297003.htm

4. Suhor, Charles Thinking Skills in English--And across the Curriculum ERIC Digest, 1984 http://ericae.net/edo/ed250693.htm

5. Muhammad Kamarul Kabilan Creative and Critical Thinking in Language Classrooms The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. VI, No. 6, June 2000 http://iteslj.org/

6. Andy Halvorsen Incorporating Critical Thinking Skills Development into ESL/EFL Courses The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 3, March 2005 http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Halvorsen-CriticalThinking.html

7. Glaser, Robert; Resnick, Lauren National Research Center on Student Learning ERIC/TM Digest, 1991 http://ericae.net/edo/ed338704.htm

8. Stella Cottrell Critical Thinking Skills Palgrave Mamillan Ltd, 2005

9. Lauren Starkey Critical Thinking Skills Success in 20 Minutes a Day LearningExpress, LLC., 2004

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