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.

Watch What You’re Thinking, or Others Will Do It for You

Worried that your government might be controlling your thoughts? News flash: it already is.

Schooling affects cognition. We all learn various ways of thinking no matter what kind of classroom we are in. The final product, that is, what cognitive skills we acquire, can vary widely depending on the classroom, state, even country—and (and here is my point) who is running the joint.

You might think teachers are the ones who “teach” us and that’s the end of the story, but you would be wrong. Yes, teachers deliver the “product,” so to say. But what that product (read: education) is, is also determined by the administration running the school. If the administration wants you to be one of many sheep and turn out to be just like your parents and grandparents (and the administrators themselves), then teachers teach you using rote learning and multiple-choice tests. If the school wants you to be an independent thinker, then it employs instructors and chooses books that accomplish that goal. Teachers teach how the institution expects (or tells) them to teach.

But we’re not done climbing that educational food chain to determine who controls your thinking. Many educational institutions can be centralized or decentralized. In the extreme, governmental control can be absolute. Examples of highly centralized systems include North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the (now defunct) Soviet Union, and Cuba; less centralized systems would include those of the U.S. and Finland. In the highly centralized systems, the government controls who gets government funding, what to teach, how and how often to test, which books to use, how to train teachers, whom to hire, and so forth. In the U.S. many of these decisions are left to states. This control happens not just at K-12 levels: state colleges and universities also have to dance to the tune of their government’s policies if they receive federal or state dollars. If those policies say you should memorize everything or paint by numbers or imitate the great writers by copying their work, then that’s what you learn to do. That is your cognitive training.

I call it the educational system that Jack built: governmental officials write policies that inform educational institutions, who train teachers, who in turn teach our students to memorize or critically think or whatever they are told to do. So, beware of your government officials because they’ve got their hands on your brain!

Jean Piaget quote

Tilling Our Children’s Mental Soil

One of the most mind-blowing ideas I learned in grad school was in a seminar on anthropology and education. We read about how societies educate their children in order to replicate their society, not to change it. Status quo, baby. This cultural tendency means we teach our children how we were taught.

This sounds like a benign problem until we consider cultures that teach memorizing and regurgitation of facts. We need facts, of course. However, unless we’re taught how to evaluate their veracity or how they fit into a larger context, we’re missing the boat—and a big one at that—for two reasons. First, even if we could keep pace with memorizing all the information stacking up at breakneck speed, it’s not a sustainable approach to education, because facts are, in a sense, history—they have already occurred—whereas critical thinking affords the ability to address the future.

Take technology, for instance. We already know how to build computer chips and solar panels. But how do we teach our children to take that information and create the next big idea in technology? That’s where critical and creative thinking come in. We need to give them those skills too. Do you think Steve Jobs would have come up with the Apple computer if he’d merely memorized how to make the kind of computers that already existed? Hardly. Yes, he was a genius, but he also grew up in a society that encourages critical and creative thinking. He was taught to ask open-ended questions and synthesize all the information about computers, consider what we want or need them to do, and then look at what is possible with today’s technology. He asked that all-important what-if question a lot.

The second reason that memorizing facts is a dead end has to do with what it does to a student’s cognition. If you are busy memorizing the fact that in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, you are not learning the significance of that fact. For example, how did his landing affect Native Americans or change Spain’s maritime might or alter mapmaking? And if you’re not learning to ask those questions, you are not learning to think critically.

Memorizing is one way to train one’s brain. Bards of yore were masters at memorizing and recited poetry for hours. But is that what we want for our children? Do we want to till their mental soil, so to speak, to memorize facts and stay in the past, or do we want to launch them into the future by teaching them to analyze those facts, apply them to other situations, and think about them from various perspectives?

I’ll take the latter, please.

Getting in the Mood to Critically Think: The Seven Dispositions of a Critical Thinker

I just finished reading a very important article about critical thinking. It’s titled “Teaching thinking dispositions: from transmission to enculturation” by Shari Tishman, Eileen Jay and D.N. Perkins, a 1993 article still relevant today (Theory into Practice, 32(3), pp.147-53). I found an excerpt on Yahoo! Finance (, published Oct. 10, 2014).

The Tishman et al. article is noteworthy because people don’t usually think of someone’s disposition – i.e., tendency to do something – as a part of critical thinking. But I believe it is a crucial aspect and easily overlooked. Here are the seven dispositions:

  1. The disposition to be broad and adventurous: The tendency to be open-minded, to explore alternative views; an alertness to narrow thinking; the ability to generate multiple options.
  2. The disposition toward sustained intellectual curiosity: The tendency to wonder, probe, find problems, a zest for inquiry; an alertness for anomalies; the ability to observe closely and formulate questions.
  3. The disposition to clarify and seek understanding: A desire to understand clearly, to seek connections and explanations; an alertness to unclarity and need for focus; an ability to build conceptualizations.
  4. The disposition to be planful and strategic: The drive to set goals, to make and execute plans, to envision outcomes; alertness to lack of direction; the ability to formulate goals and plans.
  5. The disposition to be intellectually careful: The urge for precision, organization, thoroughness; an alertness to possible error or inaccuracy; the ability to process information precisely.
  6. The disposition to seek and evaluate reasons: The tendency to question the given, to demand justification; an alertness to the need for evidence; the ability to weigh and assess reasons.
  7. The disposition be metacognitive: The tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one’s own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective.

Interestingly, even if you have the ability to think critically but fail to do so, then you cannot rightly call yourself a critical thinker. That is because you don’t just turn them on and off. They should be used at all times in what are called “uncued conditions” (p. 5 of This means you are a critical thinker not only at test time or during class but also when you read about a dangerous epidemic in the newspaper, hear a report about Afghanistan on TV, play a fun video game, listen to a sermon, or even read this article about dispositions – all the time and everywhere.

The authors also explain why dispositions cannot be taught through the transmission model, i.e., memorization. One cannot memorize one’s way into critical thinking. Critical thinking is a process that requires actively examining claims, scrutinizing support, and weighing data. We must never swallow anything whole, as is often the case when teachers lecture and students take notes. This teaching/learning model will not stand if a culture is to progress and make informed decisions.

I plan to write more about this, especially about cultures that may teach critical thinking but lack these critical dispositions.

Questioning Oneself

One of the best graduate school midterms I ever took was given by my mentor and dissertation advisor, Dr. Vera John-Steiner. She is one of four Vygotskian scholars who edited Mind in Society* (1978) and has written extensively about his sociocultural approach to education. In keeping with his philosophy – that acquiring knowledge is acquired through shared activities – she asked for pairs of students to develop a question for each other about anything they might have about Vygotsky’s work. We would then research our question and report the findings orally to each other and written (two pages max) for her perusal. It’s been 25 years since I took that exam, and I still remember my question and the answer. But that exam also taught me how powerful posing one’s own questions can be.

And even though I have superciliously tagged by blog the who, what, where, when, and why of critical thinking, I mean that I intend to seek answers to all those questions about critical thinking. So in that spirit, here are a few questions that have been rattling around in my brain:

  1.  How do the Common Core standards promote CT?
  2. How soon is too soon to start teaching CT and how should we do it?
  3. Do people from various educational traditions think critically in the same way?
  4. Why can’t we agree on a definition of CT?
  5. Do I have to accumulate a certain number of facts about a topic before I can critically think about it and if so, what is the tipping point?
  6. How can two intelligent people both be critical thinkers and yet come to different conclusions?
  7. Can everyone be a critical thinker regardless of IQ?
  8. Why is CT such a vague concept (“I think I know what it is, but I’m not sure”) and is there a better way or term we could use to explain and clarify its meaning?
  9. What are the best practices for teaching CT?
  10. Is there a textbook that teaches CT?
  11. What is Design Thinking and how does it comport with CT?

If you would like to add your own questions—and I hope you do!—or suggest resources to help answer them, I would be so grateful and will try my best to formulate a reply. Please post them on this blog or contact me at nancy . burkhalter @

*Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Great Resources

I am so impressed with these three websites, especially the first one. It is a Canadian organization that gives terrific ideas on how to teach, create, and share ideas on CT.

The Critical Thinking Consortium

Critical Thinking Consortium

Just today I received an email from them with this information about more resources at this URL (under Join heading):

tc2- Join

“If you are in a position to help implement critical thinking, here are three resources you might use to introduce the Tools for Thought to teachers during a short meeting. This online collection of ready to use lesson plans introduces students to a wide range of intellectual tools for effective thinking. “

There are lots of easy to use ideas for all levels, including lesson plans. What could be easier? (

Written by one of the fathers of critical thinking, Robert Ennis provides “Twenty-One Strategies and Tactics for Teaching Critical Thinking.” Subheads include Underlying and Fundamental Strategies, Tactics, and Mid-Level Strategies. It’s a bit condensed, but it provides a great bird’s-eye view of what CT consists of and how to teach it.

Critical Thinking Pathways (Critical Thinking Pathways)

Edutopia, where this article appears, has a lot to recommend it on many issues educational, but this posting by blogger Todd Finley really sent me over the moon. It has everything from definitions of CT ideas for project-based learning to the formulation of questions. It’s a collection of resources (including Ennis’s from above) that you could spend a day looking over. Be sure to look at the other articles in the series.