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.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING
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
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.
WRITING TO LEARN
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
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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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,
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,
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.
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