Still Questioning!

Two more wonderful articles about questions: what to ask and why they’re important. No one mentions critical thinking. That’s OK. You and I still know they are the engine behind most of it. Oh – and the second article appeared in the business section! Another reminder that critical thinking is for everyone.

From Edutopia


5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students by Rebecca Alber

From New York Times

The Power of ‘Why?’ and ‘What If?’ by Warren Berger

Foundation for Critical Thinking Offers Certification in Paul-Elder Method

The Foundation for Critical Thinking is offering certification in its method for understanding and teaching critical thinking. I’ve attended and presented at several of its conferences and think it’s really necessary to see how the method in action to really understand how to do it. It’s billed as an approach to reason through a problem or issue, applicable to any field–business, academia, life, etc. (as any method should be).

However, I find it a bit difficult to wade through or internalize the steps of the method and don’t think it is very intuitive. That said, I have relied on Richard Paul’s rich insights and classification system in my own forthcoming book, Critical Thinking Now: Practical Teaching Methods for Classrooms around the World. For me, the Paul-Elder method just doesn’t translate into a fluid teaching method.

I know of at least one university (U of Louisville) that has implemented their method throughout the entire campus. Not without struggles, mind you. But it can be done. I find that effort heartening since faculty everywhere bemoan students’ lack of CT skills. The U of L decided to do something about it. Hats off, profs.

The Foundation offers lots of books for sale (their information is fairly repetitive) and have a definite point of view, but many are quite useful. Give the sites below a look. If you don’t know what the Foundation is doing, you really don’t know what one of the major players in the field is all about.

Go to for info about the certification program.

Visit for the Foundation’s home page.

See for info about their upcoming conference July 25-29, 2016.

Site Sightings

For all my research and reading and writing about critical thinking, I was surprised I hadn’t heard about the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking (AILACT). It works in conjunction with the American Psychological Association and at times the Canadian Philosophical Association. It’s a very low-key group but recently put out a plan to ramp up their profile and extend their audience. The proposal is very comprehensive and, to me, exciting, since they deserve more attention by the field. Most members approach the academic end of critical thinking and research areas such as the theory of fallacies, argument diagramming, and the meaning and nature of critical thinking. Some are more practically bent toward curriculum development and the teaching. All good stuff. They offer information about textbooks, teaching, and meetings, even consultants who will help develop curricula and business plans. Go to for more info and to pay your $10 for access to the members’ area and other goodies.

I may have mentioned The Consortium for Critical Thinking ( on this site before, but it bears repeating. It’s a Canadian outfit and is going through a few leadership changes, but is one of the best sites I know of for practical information on teaching critical thinking. You can join, but there is still a generous amount of information accessible for free. The resources are skewed a bit toward elementary and middle and even high school students. But it’s easily adaptable for other types of students and situations. Worth a look-see to freshen your ideas about teaching and topics.





Again with the MOOCs!

Froma Harrop wrote an article in her syndicated column about how Massive Open Online Courses are the answer to the high cost of higher education ( – Apr 18, 2016, Higher education needs major disruption ).

Here is my comment.

While I cannot argue that pay for university administrators is way out of kilter, I think you are using that as an excuse to pawn off MOOCs onto poorer students as the solution. That to me is another rip off of that very population. MOOCs may provide opportunities for certifications, but they are the worst possible way to educate. A MOOC is NOT equivalent to learning in a brick and mortar classroom. It is lonely, reductive, narrow, and done by means of software that never allows for teachable moments or free-ranging discussions or Socratic questioning. And I’m just getting started. Would you ever hire, say, an accountant that had learned solely through online courses? MOOCs and all online courses are the worst idea to come along in education in many decades. You should be lobbying for a more equitable distribution of the wealth on campuses, not fobbing off crappy teaching methods onto the poor just because they’re cheap.

Critical Thinking and Active Learning–A Happy Marriage!

I said to a colleague the other day that teachers should know more about active learning since that approach is integral to teaching critical thinking. He just looked at me,  incredulous that this information would be news to any teacher. Well, just click on

Stanford Physicist Embarks On Mission To Improve Undergraduate Teaching

(All Things Considered 4/13/16) to hear/read Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman’s interview about how active learning “can dramatically boost learning” and why so many teachers still cling to lecturing. Why do you think they do?

Now Back to Blogging

My long absence from this blog can be blamed 100% on the book I am writing about critical thinking titled Critical Thinking Now: Practical Teaching Methods for Classrooms around the World. It will be published by Rowan & Littlefield later this year.

I don’t want to talk about what’s in it so much (I will later on) as the process of writing it. I’ve thought about critical thinking for over 25 years, and, because of that immersion in the field, I didn’t think it would take too much heavy lifting. Boy, was I wrong. I ran into two problems: Organizing my thoughts and massive self-doubt.

I don’t care how practiced you are at writing, organizing your thoughts is a tough slog, . But a book especially unwieldy. It demands layer upon layer of organization that sews all the paragraphs, sections, chapters, theme, and title together. It’s a hearty exercise in critical thinking if you are going to be precise, logical, and clear throughout. It took constant vigilance and frequent reconsideration of what I was trying to say at every step. This challenge, I expected.

The other problem came out of left field: imaginary people who came in, uninvited and unannounced, and taunted me with comments such as, “Who do you think you are to write a book about critical thinking?” “Stop this! You’re embarrassing yourself.” “You have no idea what you’re talking about!” I almost bought their siren’s song and dumped the project. Self-doubt is a powerful deterrent to us writers.

I decided to handle those voices with a two-pronged approach. First, I wrote down everything they “said” so I could get some distance from them and not feel as if I were going crazy. And second, I kept saying to myself, Who else is going to write this book if I don’t? After all, the main reason I wrote it was to provide a new perspective on the issues that I hadn’t read anywhere else.

In the end, I succeeded in slaying those two evil dragons and finished the manuscript. The voices are gone, but what lingers is a lot greater appreciation of the amount of critical thinking and fortitude it takes to write a book about critical thinking.


The Dialectics of Writing: How the Magic Arrives

Gail Godwin justifies her struggle with the demons of writing by stating, “What is produced is a little bit different from anything I planned. There is always a surprise, a revelation. During the act of writing I have told myself something that I didn’t know I know I knew.”

“…something that I didn’t know I knew.” Wow. That constitutes magic, by my standards. The outcome, if we are to believe Godwin, and I do because it happens to me all the time, is impossible to predict or control. But how is that possible? It’s our mind, after all. What is happening in there that we can’t/don’t see? What mysterious alchemy is catalyzing that change, and most important, how can we harness it?

To hear Godwin talk about it, the whole enterprise is like a rogue drone that sets out on a journey but makes an unscheduled landing. Interestingly, we plan to write a paper or book, poem or article, but we can’t really plan the ending. Surprise! I’ve told myself something I didn’t know I knew. A powerful, invisible transformation, and we have no say at all.

We at least have a word for this process: dialectics, where A + B = C, with the outcome retaining characteristics of A and B, but being fundamentally altered at the same time, like a child of two parents who can’t predict its eye color or femur length. All they know is that the baby is related.

We do have some tools that aid in this magic. The first is the practice of giving room for this newborn to appear, such as free writing and reflections. They give the mind a playground to stretch its legs and get out of the box we typically assign it to, what with our obsession with outlines and demand for early thesis statements. These crimp thoughts and tell them where to go rather than letting them lead the way.

But I have found another, more structured method on the spectrum of control vs. anarchy. It involves a dance—a dialectical one—between the thesis and the rest of the piece. Rather than prescribing a rigid order of creation of elements—first your thesis, then topic sentences, etc. etc., this playground of thought can be given a push by having all the elements of an essay interact. It offers writers a chance to enter their thinking process anywhere, whether it be the thesis straightaway, or the support, or a quote they want to include, and then build the structure from there, with each part calling out for its own needs, and in doing so, arriving at the end result so everybody’s happy—even if it’s a new idea not contemplated at the outset.

So, I’m saying we can orchestrate this discover process up to a point, but we cannot determine the outcome. Again, like parents, we can accompany the child into adulthood, but we cannot determine that offspring’s future.

To answer my question—Can we predict or control how Godwin arrived at a totally unexpected and novel piece of information she didn’t know she knew?—the answer is, sadly, no. But we can chum the waters with reflections and keen interplay among rhetorical demands and devices. A backdoor entrance, to be sure, but as a parent, I’m all for giving my kid every available opportunity.

For those who need more control, you are sorely out of luck because that control will choke off this precious voice and preclude any magic at all.

Critical Thinking on the Hoof

This posting is a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s an issue that’s been on my mind lately. The more I write about critical thinking, the more I think it needs rebranding. Here are three reasons for my call to action.

  1. It’s an opaque term. No one could ever guess what it means without already knowing what it means. That’s called the COIK factor—Clear Only If Known. So it already has a transparency problem. It’s like trying to market a black box. What’s inside?, people would ask. The only people who know are the ones who already know. That opacity problem is closely related to the fact that . . .
  2. . . . it also sounds inert, like ‘photograph’ or ‘tree,’ when in fact, critical thinking occurs and can only occur as one is thinking, hence the title of this blog. There’s no verb for it. Yes we have to think critically,’ but what does that mean? To think critically is the result of a lot of mental activity. For example, students must reflect on their understanding of the material, ask questions of each other, write dialogs between two characters discussing both sides of an issue—and on and on, i.e., it means you must be active mentally. As philosopher Richard Paul put it, critical thinking is “the awakening the mind to the study of itself.” You don’t awaken your mind by sitting around eating Ho Hos. Gotta dig and dig deep for that to go on. I think it would be helpful to coin a term that captures that action. The noun phrase critical thinking sounds as if it arises out of nowhere,like the answers on an 8-ball. Consider how a movie director would direct a scene to show someone critically thinking. Hmmm… biting on a pencil? Scratching one’s head? I’d probably show Einstein writing formulas on a chalkboard and then stepping back to ponder the implications while rubbing his chin. I think you can see the problem here.
  3. The third reason for rebranding is that as yet there is no agreed-upon definition. Critical thinking is like pornography—everyone knows it when they see it, but most people can’t define it. Is that because the term itself is too opaque? Too inert?

My Rx—let’s create a new verb! Something that’s more descriptive and that kids will think is cool. How about ‘to power think’ or ‘to kaboom’ or ‘to brain bust’?

Teacher: OK, kids. Let’s bust our brains over this problem of global warming.

Kids: Yay!!!!!

What about ‘to hots’ (from Higher Order Thinking Skills—HOTS):

        I HOTS

        You HOTS

        S/He HOTSES . . .

It would be the first verb that is all caps. That would make people sit up and take note.

Language changes slowly, but I think this term is ripe for a makeover. It’s just begging to become a transparent term describing the dynamic process that it is, not just the end result. Maybe then the definition won’t be so hard to agree on.

Common Core Standards – Bad Policy or Scapegoat?

One can hardly read a paper or click a link without seeing something about the Common Core Standards (CCS) and the standardized tests aligned with them. Many are usually quite negative. Some positive comments sneak in there, too, but those favoring the standards don’t seem to counteract the juggernaut of bad press: Schools want to opt out of testing, teachers rebel against the curriculum, parents complain the tests are too hard and use vocabulary way above grade level, and on and on. There are myriad issues tangled together here, not the least of which is the complaint that students are tested too often to the exclusion of solid teaching time. These complaints all deserve attention, but I want in this posting to look at the standards themselves and see how they intersect with critical thinking.

First off, I want to say I’m no fan of the government micromanaging educational institutions, as I have stated earlier on this blog. So when the CCS came out, I was dubious. Here’s another ham-fisted governmental attempt, I thought, at controlling schools by mandating rigid, watered-down standards that mean nothing.

I saw this kind of control in the extreme when I taught in Kazakhstan and Russia, both systems that were, and still are, under very tightly controlled, authoritarian Soviet and post-Soviet regimes, where most teachers are harassed into teaching the state-sanctioned curriculum. Instructors are forbidden to amend the curriculum to address their students’ needs and there is no hint of critical thinking going on, what with the copious amounts of memorization on the menu. Sadly, there is no shortage of similar situations in the U.S. either. But I do think the CCS got something right, which is the focus on critical thinking.

In a March 17th, 2015, article titled “What are the most challenging Common Core Standards?” (, I found the following quote. (Note: The author, Rob Waldron, is the CEO of Curriculum Associates, which sells a program to help teachers deal with the new standards. But I think his points are still valid.)

Findings show that, among students whose data is included in the research, in reading, students need extra support with informational vs. literary text, as well as increasingly complex texts.

The most challenging standards are those that require synthesis skills, including those related to:
• Determining central ideas or themes and summarizing details
• Analyzing text structure
• Integrating and evaluating content in diverse media and formats
• Analyzing similar topics and themes across texts

Whamo. These skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are right smack dab at the top of Bloom’s critical thinking hierarchy. (See previous post on this.) What’s not to like, then, about these standards?

Plenty, as many point out. But what’s behind these complaints? Here’s what I think. Teachers may have difficulty teaching to the CCS either because they are not critical thinkers themselves (maybe in some cases) or they have never been shown how to teach these skills (more likely). Next, students are frustrated because they have never been taught these skills and feel out of their depth being asked such questions on exams. Too, with a poor performance on the standardized tests, students fear they won’t get into a good college. So it makes sense to blame the test itself. Third, some parents may condemn the CCS because they may see them as a threat: “I don’t know how to help my kids with their homework” or “The way I learned was good enough for me. Let’s go back to the basics.” Finally, some may feel threatened by this approach to education because it would mean students are taught to think independently, and that is not good for those wanting to control others, such as highly authoritarian groups, governments, and educational systems mentioned above. They have a vested interest in keeping people busy with memorizing and eschewing critical thinking.

Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote titled “Teacher Education and Educational Lending: A Cautionary Tale” that gives one reason for maintaining status quo in highly authoritarian Russia:

According to Stephen Webber (2000) in his book School, Reform and Society in the New Russia, the Soviet teacher-education system remained remarkably constant from the 1930s to the 1980s and beyond, when the focus was on the lesson, not the child (Long & Long 1999). That way, lessons could be used in any school in any part of the country. This focus on the lesson led to teaching that was often “uninspired,” state Long and Long (1999), and led to an emphasis on memorization and repeating back on exams, often verbatim. This dull approach to education was intentional because “[i]nspired teaching could prompt young people to think in unpredictable ways” (p. 102).

Pretty depressing, huh? Some readers might be thinking, Hey, we’re not the USSR, never have been, and won’t ever be. I agree; however, if we don’t want to be the USSR, then let’s get going on critical thinking and stop trying to stuff those old standards down students’ throats. Let’s upgrade, which is what the CCS are trying to do.

In the end, we can hypothesize all we want about the reasons for any resistance to training in critical thinking and the Common Core Standards in the US, but the sad truth is that students are not getting the training they should in critical thinking. Consequently, if they are tested on those skills, they will do poorly and end up blaming the test and the CCS, when we should be providing proper teaching training. (To be clear, I’m emphatically not blaming teachers. I am one myself and I chafe at being the scapegoat for all the ills of the educational system.) While I think maintaining the status quo may be seductive to many, I think we are killing the messenger (i.e., the Common Core Standards) when we have not had enough time to build the infrastructure to support such a change in the cognitive development of our students.

Long, D., & Long, R. (1990). Education of teachers in Russia. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press.

Webber, S. (2000). School, reform and society in the new Russia. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Combatting assumptions

We all make assumptions. Life wouldn’t go very smoothly if we didn’t. But we get in trouble when our assumptions lead us to incorrect conclusions, i.e., females cannot do hard, physical labor, or that guy is a dullard just because his expression is lifeless. But when my husband is watching a football game, I know from the School of Hard Knocks that he will not hear what I am saying. Making this assumption saves me time, frustration, and our marriage.

Assumptions come from habit or behavior verified by past experience. My Freshmen international students come with loads of assumptions about Americans, professors, and of course, their country and all the habits/beliefs they’ve learned there. Often these assumptions are regarded as The Truth and may not even register as an assumption until it’s challenged. For instance, my Saudi Arabian students were shocked when their Asian classmates showed disapproval at their custom of polygamy. Having several wives is just a fact of life in Saudi Arabia. It is neither good nor bad to them. It just is, and no one questions it.

To shake them out of that stupor, I use a technique from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (a super-duper book, by the way). This method works well when people assume they understand both sides of an issue, say, arranged marriages. I ask them to write a conversation between two people, Persons A and B, who hold opposing views. In that dialog, they must state what A thinks B believes and vice versa. This step is crucial because they need to be certain they can articulate what the other thinks. Each side then explains why the other is wrong. This technique helps them be more dispassionate, clear, and intellectually honest about the issue. Works every time.