Critical Thinking Sounds

One of the reasons that instructors tend to overemphasize “coverage” over “engaged thinking” is that they do not fully appreciate the role of questions in teaching content. Consequently, they assume that answers can be taught separate from questions. Indeed, so buried are questions in established instruction that the fact that all assertions — all statements that this or that is so — are implicit answers to questions is virtually never recognized. For example, the statement that water boils at 100 degrees centigrade is an answer to the question “At what temperature centigrade does water boil?” Hence every declarative statement in the textbook is an answer to a question. Hence, every textbook could be rewritten in the interrogative mode by translating every statement into a question. To our knowledge this has never been done. That it has not is testimony to the privileged status of answers over questions in instruction and the misunderstanding of teachers about the significance of questions in the learning (and thinking) process. Instruction at all levels now keeps most questions buried in a torrent of obscured “answers.”

Thinking is Driven by Questions

But thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field — for example, Physics or Biology — the field would never have been developed in the first place. In fact, every intellectual field is born out of a cluster of questions to which answers are either needed or highly desirable. Furthermore, every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously as the driving force in a process of thinking. To think through or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate thought.

Questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such. This is why it is true that only students who have questions are really thinking and learning. Moreover, the quality of the questions students ask determines the quality of the thinking they are doing. It is possible to give students an examination on any subject by just asking them to list all of the questions that they have about a subject, including all questions generated by their first list of questions. That we do not test students by asking them to list questions and explain their significance is again evidence of the privileged status we give to answers isolated from questions. That is, we ask questions only to get thought-stopping answers, not to generate further questions.

Feeding Students Endless Content to Remember

Feeding students endless content to remember (that is, declarative sentences or “facts” to remember) is akin to repeatedly stepping on the brakes in a vehicle that is, unfortunately, already at rest. Instead, students need questions to turn on their intellectual engines and they must themselves generate questions from our questions to get their thinking to go somewhere. Thinking is of no use unless it goes somewhere, and again, the questions we ask determine where our thinking goes. It is only when our thinking goes somewhere that we learn anything of value to us.

Deep questions drive our thought underneath the surface of things, force us to deal with complexity. Questions of purpose force us to define our task. Questions of information force us to look at our sources of information as well as at the quality of our information. Questions of interpretation force us to examine how we are organizing or giving meaning to information and to consider alternative ways of giving meaning. Questions of assumption force us to examine what we are taking for granted. Questions of implication force us to follow out where our thinking is going. Questions of point of view force us to examine our point of view and to consider other relevant points of view. Questions of relevance force us to discriminate what does and what does not bear on a question. Questions of accuracy force us to evaluate and test for truth and correctness. Questions of precision force us to give details and be specific. Questions of consistency force us to examine our thinking for contradictions. Questions of logic force us to consider how we are putting the whole of our thought together, to make sure that it all adds up and makes sense within a reasonable system of some kind.

Dead Questions Reflect Dead Minds

Unfortunately, most students ask virtually none of these thought-stimulating types of questions. They tend to stick to dead questions like “Is this going to be on the test?” questions that imply the desire not to think. Most teachers in turn are not themselves generators of questions and answers of their own, that is, are not seriously engaged in thinking through or rethinking through their own subjects. Rather, they are purveyors of the questions and answers of others — usually those of a textbook.

We must continually remind ourselves that thinking begins within some content only when questions are generated by both teachers and students. No questions equals no understanding. Superficial questions equals superficial understanding. Most students typically have no intellectual questions. They not only sit in silence; their minds are silent at well. Hence, the questions they do have tend to be superficial, ill-formed and self-serving. This demonstrates that most of the time they are not thinking through the content; they are presumed to be learning. 

If we want to engage students in thinking through our content we must stimulate their thinking with questions that lead them to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called “artificial cogitation” (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration).

The Art of Socratic Questioning

The art of Socratic questioning is important for the critical thinker because the art of questioning is important to excellence of thought. What the word ‘Socratic’ adds is “systematicity”, “depth”, and a keen interest in assessing the truth or plausibility of things.

There is a special relationship between critical thinking and Socratic Questioning because both share a common end. Critical thinking gives one a comprehensive view of how the mind functions (in its pursuit of meaning and truth), and Socratic Questioning takes advantage of that overview to frame questions essential to the quality of that pursuit.

The goal of critical thinking is to establish a disciplined “executive” level of thinking to our thinking, a powerful inner voice of reason, to monitor, assess, and re-constitute — in a more rational direction — our thinking, feeling, and action. Socratic discussion cultivates that inner voice by providing a public model for it.

The Spirit and Principles of Socratic Questioning

While there are numerous ways in which Socratic Questioning can be effectively executed in the classroom, there are a set of principles, which guide a Socratic dialog. In this section, these principles are laid out in the form of directives.

Teachers Engaged in a Socratic Dialog Should:

  • Respond to all answers with a further question (that calls upon the respondent to develop his/her thinking in a fuller and deeper way)

  • Seek to understand–where possible–the ultimate foundations for what is said or believed and follow the implications of those foundations through further questions

  • Treat all assertions as a connecting point to further thoughts

  • Treat all thoughts as in need of development

  • Recognize that any thought can only exist fully in a network of connected thoughts. Stimulate students — through your questions — to pursue those connections

  • Recognize that all questions presuppose prior questions and all thinking presupposes prior thinking. When raising questions, be open to the questions they presuppose. (See the section on logically-prior questions.)

Teachers engaged in Socratic dialog should systematically raise questions based on the following recognitions and assumptions:

Focusing on The Elements of Thought

  • Recognize that all thought reflects an agenda. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the agenda behind it. (What are you trying to accomplish in saying this? What is your central aim in this line of thought?)

  • Recognize that all thoughts presuppose an information base. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the background information that supports or informs it. (What information are you basing that comment on? What experience convinced you of this? How do we know this information is accurate?)

  • Recognize that all thought requires the making of inferences, the drawing of conclusions, the creation of meaning. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the inferences that have shaped it. (How did you reach that conclusion? Could you explain your reasoning? Is there an alternative plausible conclusion?)

  • Recognize that all thought involves the application of concepts. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the concepts that define and shape it. (What is the main idea you are putting forth? Could you explain that idea?)

  • Recognize that all thought rests upon other thoughts (which are taken for granted or assumed). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand what it takes for granted. (What exactly are you taking for granted here? Why are you assuming that?)

  • Recognize that all thought is headed in a direction. It not only rests upon something (assumptions), it is also going somewhere (implications and consequences). Assume that you do not fully understand a thought unless you know the implications and consequences that follow from it. (What are you implying when you say that? Are you implying that . . . ?)

  • Recognize that all thought takes place within a point of view or frame of reference. Assume that you do not fully understand a thought until you understand the point of view or frame of reference which places it on an intellectual map. (From what point of view are you looking at this? Is there another point of view we should consider?)

  • Recognize that all thought is responsive to a question. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the question that gives rise to it. (I am not sure exactly what question you are raising. Could you explain it?)

Systems and Contexts For Thought

  • Recognize that all thought has three possible functions: to express a subjective preference, to establish an objective fact (within a well-defined system), or to come up with the best of competing answers (generated by competing systems). Assume that you do not fully understand thinking until you know which of the three is involved. (Is the question calling for a subjective or personal choice? If so, let’s make that choice in terms of our personal preferences. If not, then, is there a way to come up with one correct answer to this question (a definite system in which to find the answer)? Or, finally, are we dealing with a question that would be answered differently within different points of view? If the latter, what is the best answer to the question, all things considered?)

  • Recognize that all thought has emerged within a human context. Assume that you do not fully understand the thought until you understand the context which has given rise to it. (Tell us more about the situation that has given rise to this problem. What was going on in this situation?)

How To Prepare To Lead a Socratic Discussion

One of the best ways to prepare to lead a Socratic discussion is by pre-thinking the main question to be discussed using the approach of developing prior questions. Prior questions are questions presupposed by another question. Hence, to settle the question “What is multi-culturalism?” I should be able to first settle the question, “What is culture?” and, to settle that question, I should be able to settle the question “What is the basis of culture?” that is, “What are the factors about a person which determine what culture he/she belongs to?"

Construct A List of Prior Questions

To construct a list of prior questions, simply write down the main question which you are going to focus your discussion on and then pose a question you would have to be able to answer before you could answer the first. Then take the second question and do the same for it (i.e., determine what question you would have to answer to answer it). Then, continue on, following the same procedure for every new question on your list.

As you proceed to construct your list keep your attention focused on the first question on the list as well as on the last. If you do this well, you should end up with a list of questions which probe the logic of the first question, and hence, a list of questions which are relevant to a Socratic discussion of your first question. During the Socratic dialog, you should loosely follow your list of logically prior questions, using it primarily as a guide for deeply probing the issue at hand.

A Sample List

As an example of how to construct logically prior questions, consider this list of questions that we developed in thinking through a key question intended for use in conducting a Socratic discussion on the question, “What is history?”

  • What is history?

  • What do historians write about?

  • What is the past?

  • Is it possible to include all of the past in a history book?

  • How many of the events during a given time period are left out in a history of that time period?

  • Is more left out than is included?

  • How does a historian know what to emphasize or focus on?

  • Do historians make value judgments in deciding what to include and what to leave out?

  • Is it possible to simply list facts in a history book or does all history writing involve interpretations as well as facts?

  • Is it possible to decide what to include and exclude and how to interpret facts without adopting a historical point of view?

  • How can we begin to judge a historical interpretation?

  • How can we begin to judge a historical point of view?

Sample Socratic Dialogue

In this final section, we provide a sample high school Socratic questioning dialog:

Teacher (T): This is a course in Biology. What kind of a subject is that? What do you know about Biology already? Kathleen, what do you know about it?

Kathleen: It’s a science.

T: And what’s a science?

Kathleen: Me? A science is very exact. They do experiments and measure things and test things.

T: Right, and what other sciences are there besides Biology? Marisa, could you name some?

Marisa: Sure, there’s Chemistry and Physics.

T: What else?

Blake: There’s Botany and Math?

T: Math...math is a little different from the others, isn’t it? How is math different from Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Botany? Blake, what would you say?

Blake: You don’t do experiments in math.

T: And why not?

Blake: I guess cause numbers are different.

T: Yes, studying numbers and other mathematical things is different from studying chemicals or laws in the physical world or living things and so forth. You might ask your math teacher about why numbers are different or do some reading about that, but let’s focus our attention here on what are called the life sciences. Why are Biology and Botany called life sciences?

Peter: Because they both study living things.

T: How are they different? How is Biology different from Botany? Jennifer, what do you think?

Jennifer: I don’t know.

T: Well, let’s all of us look up the words in our dictionaries and see what is said about them.
(Students look up the words.)

T: Jennifer, what did you find for Biology?

Jennifer: It says: "The science that deals with the origin, history, physical characteristics, life processes, habits, etc . . . of plants and animals: It includes Botany and Zoology."

T: So what do we know about the relationship of Botany to Biology? Rick?

Rick: Botany is just a part of Biology.

T: Right, and what can we tell about Biology from just looking at its etymology. What does it literally mean? If you break the word into two parts "bio" and "logy". Blake, what does it tell us?

Blake: The science of life or the study of life.

T: So, do you see how etymology can help us get an insight into the meaning of a word? Do you see how the longer definition spells out the etymological meaning in greater detail? Well, why do you think experiments are so important to biologists and other scientists? Have humans always done experiments do you think? Marisa.

Marisa: I guess not, not before there was any science.

T: Right. That’s an excellent point. Science didn’t always exist. What did people do before science existed? How did they get their information? How did they form their beliefs? Peter.

Peter: From religion.

T: Yes, religion often shaped a lot of what people thought. Why don’t we use religion today to decide, for example, what is true of the origin, history, and physical characteristics of life?

Peter: Some people still do. Some people believe that the Bible explains the origin of life and that the theory of evolution is wrong.

T: What is the theory of evolution, Jose?

Jose: I don’t know.

T: Well, why don’t we all look up the name Darwin in our dictionaries and see if there is anything there about Darwinian theory. (Students look up the words.)

T: Jose, read aloud what you have found.

Jose: It says "Darwin’s theory of evolution holds that all species of plants and animals developed from earlier forms by hereditary transmission of slight variations in successive generations and that the forms which survive are those that are best adapted to the environment."

T: What does that mean to ordinary language? How would you explain that? Jose.

Jose: It means the stronger survive and the weaker die?

T: Well, if that’s true why do you think the dinosaurs died out? I thought dinosaurs were very strong?

Shannon: They died because of the ice age, I think.

T: So I guess it’s not enough to be strong, you must also fit in with the changes in the environment. Perhaps fitness or adaptability is more important than strength. Well, in any case why do you think that many people today look to science to provide answers to questions about the origin and nature of life rather than to the Bible or other religious teachings?

Shannon: Nowadays most people believe that science and religion deal with different things and that scientific questions cannot be answered by religion.

T: And by the same token, I suppose, we recognize that religious questions cannot be answered by science. In any case, how were scientists able to convince people to consider their way of finding answers to questions about the nature of life and life processes. Kathleen, you’ve been quiet for a while, what do you think?

Kathleen: To me science can be proved. When scientists say something we can ask for proof and they can show us, and if we want we can try it out for ourselves.

T: Could you explain that further?

Kathleen: Sure, in my chemistry class we did experiments in which we tested out some of the things that were said in our chemistry books. We could see for ourselves.

T: That’s right, science is based on the notion that when we claim things to be true about the world we should be able to test them to see if, objectively, they are true. Marisa, you have a question?

Marisa: Yes, but don’t we all test things. We test our parents and our friends. We try out ideas to see if they work.

T: That’s true. But is there any difference between the way you and I test our friends and the way a chemist might test a solution to see if it is acidic?

Marisa: Sure, … but I’m not sure how to explain it.

T: Blake, what do you think?

Blake: Scientists have laboratories; we don’t.

T: They also do precise measurements and use precise instruments, don’t they? Why don’t we do that with our friends, parents, and children? Adrian, do you have an idea why not?

Adrian: We don’t need to measure our friends. We need to find out whether they really care about us.

T: Yes, finding out about caring is a different matter than finding out about acids and bases, or even than finding out about animal behavior. You might say that there are two different kinds of realities in the world, the qualitative and the quantitative, and that science is mostly concerned with the quantitative, while we are often concerned with the qualitative. Could you name some qualitative ideas that all of us are concerned with? Rick, what do you think?

Rick: I don’t know what you mean.

T: Well, the word qualitative is connected to the word quality. If I were to ask you to describe your own qualities in comparison to your brother or sister, would you know the sort of thing I was asking you?

Rick: I guess so.

T: Could you, for example, take your father and describe to us some of his best and some of his worst qualities as you see them?

Rick: I guess so.

T: OK, why don’t you do it. What do you think some of your father’s best qualities are?

Rick: To me he is generous. He likes to help people out when they are in trouble.

T: And what science studies generosity?

Rick: I don’t know. None, I guess.

T: That’s right, generosity is a human quality; it can’t be measured scientifically. There is no such thing as generosity units. So science is not the only way we can find things out. We can also experience qualities in the world. We can experience kindness, generosity, fear, love, hate, jealousy, self-satisfaction, friendship, and many, many other things as well. In this class we are concerned mainly with what we can find out about life quantitatively or scientifically. For next time, I want you to read the first chapter in your text book and I want you to be prepared to explain what the first chapter says. I will be dividing you up into groups of four and each group of four will develop a short summary of the first chapter (without looking at it, of course) and then we will have a spokesperson from each group explain your summary to the class. After that, we will have a discussion of the ideas mentioned. Don’t forget today’s discussion, because I’ll be asking you some questions that will see if you can relate what we talked about today with what was said in your first chapter. Any questions? . . .  OK, . . .  See you next time.

This article was adapted from the Critical Thinking Handbook: High School

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Episode 3

With four quintels aboard, we were now ready to leave. The skipper saw mares’ tails in the north.


I wonder what quintels are? I think maybe it’s a sea term, a word that means perhaps the weight aboard. Yes maybe it’s how much fish they had aboard. [So you think it was fish?] I think fish or maybe something they had found in the water but I think fish more because of the word “catch.” [Why were they worried about the mares’ tails?] I’m not sure. Mares’ tails, let me see, mares are horses but horses are not going to be in the water. The mares’ tails are in the north. Here farmers watch the north for bad weather, so maybe the fishermen do the same thing. Yeah, I think that’s it, it’s a cloud formation which could mean strong winds and hail or something which I think could be dangerous if you were in a boat and had a lot of weight aboard. [Any questions?] No.


They were finished with their shopping and were ready to go home. [What did they have aboard?] Quintels. [What are quintels?] I don’t know. [Why were they worried about the mares’ tails?] There were a group of horses on the street and they were afraid they would attack the car. [Any questions?] No.


Stephen is successful in his efforts to incorporate the new information into an evolving interpretation. From the outset Stephen acknowledges that he does not know the meaning of quintel and seeks a resolution of this unknown. He derives a meaning consistent with his evolving interpretations and with the textual evidence. In his attempt to understand the expression mares’ tails he first acknowledges that he does not know the meaning of the expression. Thence, he establishes what he does know from the background knowledge (mares are horses, horses are not going to be in the water, there is nothing around except sky and water, farmers watch the north for bad weather) and textual information (the men are on the bay, they have things aboard, the mares’ tails are in the north) and inferences he has previously made (the men are in a boat, they are fishing). He integrates this knowledge into a comparison between the concerns of Alberta farmers with which he is familiar, and what he takes to be analogous concerns of fishermen. On seeing the pertinence of this analogy he draws the conclusion that the mares’ tails must be a cloud formation foreboding inclement weather. He claims support for his conclusion in the fact that it would explain the skipper’s concern for the mares’ tails, indicating that he did not lose sight of the overall task of understanding the story.

Colleen maintains her original interpretation but does not incorporate all the new textual information into it. She works with the information on the men’s leaving and the mares’ tails, but appears to ignore or remain vague about other information. For example, she says the cargo was comprised of quintels but indicates no effort to determine what these things are. She cites the fact that the men were ready to leave and suggests that they have finished their shopping, but does not attempt to explain the use of such words as skipper, cargo, and aboard in the context for shopping for clothes. She interprets mares’ tails as a group of horses the possibly would attack the men, but gives no account of what the horses might be doing on the street. Basically, she appears to grow tolerant of ambiguity and incompleteness in her interpretation.

Interestingly, each student believes that he or she has read the passage. The question becomes, what does it mean “to read” something? Comprehensive, legitimate critical thinking enables us to explore the meaning of the concept “to read” and to come to understand that there is a spectrum of quality of readings, some superficial and mechanical, some deep and thorough. Specifically, Colleen has scrambled to piece together meanings that have little relationship to the writer’s ideas. Colleen has “read” the passage but we can quickly see that the quality of her thinking lacks characteristics that we equate with sound reasoning, with critical thinking. She has been ineffective in thinking within the system of meanings inherent in what was said in the passage she tried to read. That her responses were inconsistent did not seem to disturb her, almost as if she had no sense of how to figure out what she was reading. The consequences for Colleen in this episode of thinking are minimal.

However, consider how vulnerable she will be outside school, when much more than grades or teacher approval is riding on her ability to think effectively in other systems, such as health care, parenting, upgrading job skills or becoming a proficient consumer.

On the other hand, Stephen has “read” the passage by means of critical reasoning, effectively decoding not only the words but the writer’s thoughts. He has taken the initiative to reconstruct in his mind as much as he can of the logic of the images and concepts that the writer conveyed through the system of language. Stephen also explored the implications of his ideas and was clear about what he understood and failed to understand. He demonstrated intellectual perseverance in striving to make sense when struggling with difficult passages. He expected to make sense of the passage, to grasp the author’s ideas, and finally he did. These habits, traits and abilities are among those we find in individuals for whom critical thinking is a comprehensive, substantial system of thought embedded, ideally, in every aspect of their lives. Although Colleen and Stephen have each “read” the passage, a useful distinction can be drawn between “critical reading” and “uncritical reading.”

Most reading is performed at the lower end of the spectrum in school today. Very little instruction is given in the thinking skills that critical readers use. Colleen will only be able to improve with professional assistance, that is, with instruction that helps her assess her thinking using intellectual standards and a sense of the elements of thought. She needs help in learning how to think through the elements of a problem. Of course, instruction alone is insufficient. She will also need to apply her will and acquire self-discipline. She will need extensive practice and expectations placed on her effort.

As we stretch ourselves to develop our bodies we naturally feel some physical stress. So, too, do we feel intellectual stress as we stretch our minds to develop our thinking. Students must learn intellectual perseverance, intellectual responsibility, intellectual integrity to develop true intellectual “fitness.” This is a lifetime process that merely begins in school. Most students are not well informed about the consequences of their uncritical thinking habits. It is likely that no one has presented these ideas to them so that they realistically grasp the possibility of intellectual development. Let’s now look at two student written responses and examine the quality of the thinking displayed, keeping in mind the implications for the students’ future effectiveness.

Are We Hitting the Target,
Assessing Student Thinking in Writing?

The Assignment: The students in Ms. Tamari’s 8th grade class were asked to write a paragraph in which they were to explain what the most important characteristics of a “friend” are and why they are most important. Here are the written responses of two students, Susan and Carl.


A friend is someone who cares a lot about you, who likes to be with you, and who helps you out when you get in trouble. The most important characteristics of a friend are loyalty, helpfulness, and honesty. First, it’s important for a friend to be loyal because you want to depend on your friend. If someone is not loyal that person may turn against you, especially if she meets someone he or she likes better than you. Second, it’s important for a friend to be helpful, because often a person needs help and if you have no friends it can be real hard to feel so alone. And finally, it’s important for a friend to be honest because very few people will tell you something about yourself that you don’t want to hear. An honest friend will try to help you improve, even though she knows it may hurt your feelings. It’s okay to hear some things from a friend because you know that she isn’t trying to hurt you.


Susan is basically doing a good job critically analyzing which characteristics are desirable in a friend. First of all, it is clear that she understands the issue. First she clarifies the concept of a friend. Then she asserts three characteristics of a good friend. Then she takes each one in order and gives good reasons in support of each of them. Her writing is clear, relevant to the issue, systematic, well-reasoned, and reflects deep thinking for her age.

Now let’s look at the writing of Carl.


The most important thing is to have a lot of friends who like to do the things you like to do. Then you can go places and have fun. I mostly like other boys for my friends because they like sports like me. Girls sometimes play sports too but not as good as boys. I like to play baseball, football, and basketball. Sometimes I like to play Hockey. There are no good places to play in my neighborhood and sometimes my mother makes me come in too early. She sometimes makes me very mad because she screws up my life. All she ever wants me to do is work around the house. I don’t think she knows anything about having friends. Maybe if she had played sports when she was little she’d let me play more and not just think about work, work, and more work.


Almost all of Carl’s writing is irrelevant to the issue of what are the most desirable characteristics of a friend. He seems simply to be writing thoughts down as they occur to him in a stream of consciousness, in an associational way. Carl begins by confusing the question “What are the most important characteristics in a friend?” with “Is it important to know a lot of people who share pleasures with you?” He then moves to the question “Who do I like?” Then he moves to the question “What do I like to do?” and then on to “What’s wrong with my neighborhood?” The final question, “Why doesn’t my mother let me do what I want to do?” indicates that he has ended up far off course, yet it is unlikely that he realizes it. Until Carl learns to discipline his mind to stick to the question at hand, he will have trouble doing any quality thinking.

Learning to write out our thinking is one of the best ways to improve it. It goes without saying that excellence in writing requires excellence in thinking.

Writing requires that one systematize one’s thinking, arranging thought in a progression that makes the system of one’s thought accessible to others. When the writer’s thinking lacks a clear purpose, lacks focus, lacks documentation and logic, and standards by which to judge the merit of the ideas, these flaws are revealed in the written work.

Writing, then, which is excellent is excellently thought through and is produced by someone with definite standards for both thinking and writing. (See the chapters: “Why Students and Teachers Don’t Reason Well” and “Pseudo Critical Thinking in the Educational Establishment.”) It is obvious as we read the responses of Carl and Susan that each has a very different understanding of what is well-thought-out thinking and writing, critical and uncritical thinking and writing. The consequences for Carl’s uncritical thinking are minimal in 8th grade, but how will he be affected when he demonstrates the same confusions on the job?

School instruction is focused on “subject matter.” We usually, but wrongfully, think of school subjects as little more than masses of facts and definitions to be memorized. We don’t often recognize that what is really important about school subjects is that they—when properly learned provide us raw materials upon which to practice thinking in a more proficient and insightful manner. They introduce us to new “systems” in which to think. As you read the next section, see if you can think of school subjects in this more illuminating and penetrating way.

Are We Hitting the Target?
Assessing Student Thinking in Academic Subjects.

Subject Matter, Especially in High School and College Courses

Though we often do not think of it this way, all subject matter — history, literature, geography, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics — is part of a system of logically ordered parts. A historian studies a period and creates a “story” that puts events into meaningful patterns. In literature we study periods with their distinctive visions, their distinctive values, their distinctive modes of expression. One period is “romantic,” one is “classic,” one is “realist,” and so forth. Or we study the outlook of an author, the way he or she sees the world: Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Faulkner. In geography we develop systems for dividing up the surface of the earth into continents, countries, climates. We develop organized, logical ways to look at the surface, especially the physical surface, of the earth. In geology, we use a system to arrange time into geological time periods, and correlate principal physical and biological features with those periods. In biology, we develop systems for making sense of multiple forms of living and pre-living things. In math, we develop systems — arithmetic, geometry, algebra, calculus — for dealing with the quantitative dimensions of the world.

Everywhere there are systems inherent in subject matter, networks of logically ordered parts functioning in relation to each other for a definite human purpose. Critical thinking, with its system-unlocking orientation, is the perfect set of tools to take command of the systems inherent in subject matter. It is perfect, that is, only if we understand what it is and how to use it. Most students, unfortunately, have never been introduced to critical thinking, so cannot systematically use it to guide and empower their learning. Most students try to learn what is in fact systematized, by randomly memorizing fragments of the system as if they had no relation to each other. Compare the two following students talking about studying history.

Anna: “I don’t really like history too much. There is too much to try to remember. And it’s all about olden times, with a lot of dates and different wars and people doing things we don’t do anymore. You learn about presidents and kings and what they did and about when things happened. History is all about the past. It’s boring and I never use it. How could you? Things are really different now. “

Carra: “We do it differently in Mrs Brown’s class. Do you know that we’re all part of history? For example, in my mind I remember all of my past as a kind of story I tell myself. That’s how I remember things and that’s also how I figure things out. Think about it. Whenever you talk about yourself, you’re like a historian trying to help people figure things out about you. Everyone is really interested in their own history and in the history of the people they know. That’s what gossip is all about. Also the news. It’s like the history of yesterday. In her class we talk about how the history writer puts together the story he writes.

We also look at how the story might be told differently, I mean ‘cause what we read is only a tiny part of what the writer knows, and what the writer knows is only a tiny part of what actually happened. You have to look at it from different points of view or else you don’t have a chance of figuring out what most likely really happened. We are learning how to tell the difference between “facts” and how different people filter and interpret the facts depending on their own interests. We also try to notice what is left out of the history stories we read. Mrs. Brown says we are learning to think like history writers do and face the problems that they face. I think its fun to try to figure out history . . . how to tell a story in the most honest way, and how to see when people twist a story to make themselves look good.”


Anna and Carra, in their reactions to history, model the distinction between the way subjects have traditionally been taught ( as a lot of stuff to remember for a test) and the way they should be taught (as a way to figure things out). The traditional student never gets the real point of the subject and hence does not transfer what she learns to the “real” world. By teaching history in a critical manner students can readily transfer what they learn to “life-centered” situations. They can improve their own everyday historical thinking.

Critical thinking is valuable, of course, not only in school but in the world beyond school as well. If we are teaching properly, our students not only learn how to apply critical thinking effectively to their reading, writing, and subject-matter learning, they also begin to apply it to their everyday lives. The wonderful result is they not only reason historically about what is in their history textbook, for example, they also begin to reason much better about the “historical” issues in their daily life, as Carra is doing above. They not only reason scientifically about what is in their science textbook, they also begin to reason scientifically about the ‘scientific” questions in their daily life. They not only hear about ethical principles when talking about characters in stories in their literature class, they also begin to use ethical reasoning when dealing with the ethical issues embedded in their lives.

Indeed, if we do our job correctly, students begin to discover that all the kinds of reasoning that they learn to do at school have application in the “real” world. They not only start to talk about and value reasoning in school, they also begin to discover how actually to do it, how to realistically and effectively to apply intellectual standards to their own thought in virtually every context of their lives. The result is that students, for the first time in their lives, begin to evaluate their own thinking and do so in a way that is increasingly disciplined and objective. Let’s look at three examples of college students beginning to discover the value of applying intellectual standards to their own work and thinking.

Mandy: “I am often inconsistent. The most difficult aspect of my weakness is my attempt at achieving consistency between that of word and deed. That is, I use a double standard. I often say one thing and do another.”

Kristin: “This semester I have learned how to organize my thinking through critical thinking. In organizing my thinking logically I have learned to break down my thought processes down into specific parts. By breaking my thought process down into specific parts I can see some of my strengths and weaknesses. When I do not organize my thought logically, my writing often becomes trivial, irrelevant and vague.”

Laurie: “It is important to recognize key concepts when one thinks. If I need to figure out a problem and do not understand the key concepts, I will not be able to come to a logical conclusion. I am more and more aware of the need to pay attention to key concepts. One particular example occurred this winter when I went snowboarding for the first time.

The relevant concepts of snowboarding are: one needs to torque the body, the back leg is your anchor, and the edges of the board are used to slow down and in turn control the speed of the board. My friend explained to me that it usually takes a whole day to learn to snowboard, but because I paid close attention to the concepts and kept them carefully in mind, I was able to learn quickly. Most students do not realize that concepts are important in learning. In fact, I think that most students don’t know what concepts are. I certainly didn’t.”

These examples demonstrate that some students are prepared to take advantage of critical thinking instruction, though others are less ready. The teacher’s challenge, however, is to meet the student’s needs and respond effectively with appropriate instruction.

Identifying the Target:
Critical Thinking in the Workplace

With accelerating change and the increasing complexity of problems facing us at the dawn of the 21st Century, we are striving to compete within the new global economic realities. John Sculley, CEO of Apple Computer, Inc. reported to President-elect Clinton in December of 1992:

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