How Can We Teach Critical Thinking?
Kathryn S. Carr

Source: Carr, K. (1990). How can we teach critical thinking? Urbana, IL. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. [ED326304]

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The need to teach higher order thinking skills is not a recent one.

Education pundits have called for renewed interest in problem solving

for years. As far back as 1967, Raths, Jonas, Rothstein and Wassermann

(1967) decried the lack of emphasis on thinking in the schools. They

noted that "...memorization, drill, homework, the three Rs and the

quiet classroom" were rewarded, while "...inquiry, reflection and

the consideration of alternatives were frowned upon."

That students are lagging in problem-solving and thinking skills is

apparent at all levels of education. However, critical thinking

courses and texts, in particular, may result in fragmentation of

thinking skills. Thinking cannot be divorced from content; in fact,

thinking is a way of learning content (Raths and others, 1967). In

every course, and especially in content subjects, students should be

taught to think logically, analyze and compare, question and evaluate.

Skills taught in isolation do little more than prepare students for

tests of isolated skills (Spache and Spache, 1986). The same criticism

may be made with regard to commercial thinking skills materials.

However, when such materials are integrated with content, they may

become effective tools for attacking real issues.


At each educational level, thinking must be practiced in each content

field. This means hard work for the teacher. It's much easier to teach

students to memorize facts and then assess them with multiple-choice

tests. In a course that emphasizes thinking, objectives must include

application and analysis, divergent thinking, and opportunities to

organize ideas and support value judgments. When more teachers

recognize that the facts they teach today will be replaced by the

discoveries of tomorrow, the content-versus-process controversy may be

resolved (Gallagher, 1975). As McMillen (1986) noted, "It really boils

down to whether teachers are creating an environment that stimulates

critical inquiry."

The following is a review of various types of thinking skills

activities applied to content areas. While different disciplines

frequently require different types of thinking, some techniques are

effective across disciplines.


The topic of teaching students to think while reading--critical

reading--should be central to any discussion of thinking skills, in

part because the reading of textbooks plays such a prominent role in

the content fields. Critical reading has been defined as learning to

evaluate, draw inferences and arrive at conclusions based on the

evidence (Zintz and Maggart, 1984).

One method that promotes critical reading involves the use of news

media in the class. Newspapers, magazines, television, and radio can

motivate students to develop critical listening and reading skills.

Differing accounts and editorials can be compared as a way of helping

students read with a questioning attitude. Students can construct

their own arguments for discussion or publication in student

newspapers. In the process, they become more discriminating consumers

of news media, advertising, and entertainment.

Children's literature is another powerful tool for teaching thinking.

Somers and Worthington (1979) noted that "...literature offers

children more opportunities than any other area of the curriculum to

consider ideas, values, and ethical questions." Furthermore,

literature that inspires and challenges helps students learn how to

engage and interact with a book.


In keeping with the current emphasis on writing across the curriculum,

composition and rhetoric scholars stress the teaching of thinking

through writing. Elbow (1983) has presented a two-step writing process

called first-order and second-order thinking. For first-order

thinking, he recommends freewriting--an unplanned, free-association

type of heuristic writing designed to help students discover what they

think about a topic. The freewriting technique produces conceptual

insights. Elbow asked students to write a few incidents that came to

mind without careful thinking. This resulted in more intuitive,

creative thinking. Elbow cautions that the reflective scrutiny of

second-order thinking is a necessary follow-up of freewriting. In this

stage, the writer examines inferences and prejudices and strives for

logic and control.


Classification plays a significant role in the development of logical

thinking and abstract concepts from early childhood to adulthood.

Classification skill is integral to vocabulary-concept development

and, therefore, to reading and retention of information (Gerhard,

1975). For example, young children group concrete objects or pictures

in their efforts to form abstract concepts such as "vegetables,"

"vehicles" or "wild animals" (Gerhard, 1975).

All classification tasks require the identification of attributes and

sorting into categories according to some rule (Furth and Wachs,

1974). While the sorting of concrete objects is an appropriate

activity for the young child, verbal analogies (e.g., "How are a

diamond and an egg alike?") are appropriate for a learner of any age.

A number of commercial materials contain verbal analogies, logic

puzzles, figural and symbolic problem-solving, and attribute games.

However, application to a wide variety of environmental objects must

follow (Furth and Wachs). Integration of classification activities

into content areas is crucial to their value. Applications to

mathematics and science, especially the inquiry approach to science,

are readily apparent.

What may not be obvious are the applications of classification to

reading in the content fields (for example, social studies) and the

retention of information read. Schema theory holds that information,

if it is to be retained, must be categorized with something already

stored in memory (Tonjes and Zintz, 1987). Brainstorming techniques

that aid comprehension are recommended to help students access their

prior knowledge about a topic to be read, and thus classify and retain

the new information.

Devine (1986) pointed out that it may be necessary to restructure

students' schemata when prior experiences that are limited to a

different context interfere with gaining a new concept. Devine used

the example of students who were having difficulty seeing

relationships between the concepts of social class and caste system.

In a word association task, the students were asked to list everything

they knew about each term separately. Then they were asked to find

similarities--for example, classify related facts and events, identify

the common thread among them, and label them--thus forming new

concepts or schemata.


The urgent need to teach thinking skills at all levels of education

continues. But we should not rely on special courses and texts to do

the job. Instead, every teacher should create an atmosphere where

students are encouraged to read deeply, question, engage in divergent

thinking, look for relationships among ideas, and grapple with real

life issues.

This digest was adapted from an article titled, "How Can We Teach

Critical Thinking?" by Kathryn S. Carr, which appeared in CHILDHOOD

EDUCATION (Winter, 1988): 69-73.


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

Education (Winter, 1988): 69-73.

Devine, T.G. Teaching Reading Comprehension: From Theory to Practice.

Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1986.

Elbow, P. "Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing." Change (September,

1983): 37-40.

Furth, H.G., and Wachs, H. Thinking Goes to School. Piaget's Theory in

Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Gallagher, J.J. Teaching the Gifted Child. Boston: Allyn and Bacon,


Gerhard, C. Making Sense: Reading Comprehension Improved through

Categorizing. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1975.

McMillen, L. "Many Professors Now Start at the Beginning by Teaching

Their Students How to Think." Chronicle of Higher Education (March 5,

1986): 23-25.

Raths, L.E., Jonas, A., Rothstein, A., and Wassermann, S. Teaching for

Thinking, Theory and Application. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill,


Somers, A.B., and Worthington, J.E. Response Guides for Teaching

Children's Books. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English,


Spache, G.D., and Spache, E.B. Reading in the Elementary School.

Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1986.

Tonjes, M.J., and Zintz, M.V. Teaching Reading, Thinking, Study Skills

in Content Classrooms. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1987.

Zintz, M.V., and Maggart, Z.R. The Reading Process, The Teacher and

the Learner. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown, 1984.




This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of

Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education,

under OERI contract no. RI88062012. The opinions expressed in this

report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or

the Department of Education.