Surviving in a post-truth world


In the January issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, wrote “When Facts Backfire,” (p. 69)( The article discusses the power of belief over evidence and methods to use when talking to someone taken in by false information. Shermer suggests these six approaches:

  1. Keep emotions tucked away.
  2. Discuss, don’t pounce.
  3. Try to restate what the other’s position.
  4. Show respect.
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone would think that.
  6. Assure the listener that changing facts does not necessarily changing their worldview.

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.





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.

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.

Critical Thinking in the Literature Classroom

Dear readers:

Hiner and Bird-Critical Thinking in the Literature Classroom is a PowerPoint that Dr. Amanda Hiner and Dr. John Bird presented at the 34th International Conference on Critical Thinking and Educational Reform (July 2014). Dr. Hiner has published extensively about this topic and has distilled many of her idea in this presentation, which contains many links and helpful resources. Please contact Dr. Hiner with questions and comments, or include them here and I will forward them

Amanda L. Hiner, PhD

Assistant Professor of English

Coordinator, Critical Reading, Thinking, and Writing

Winthrop University

241 Bancroft Hall

Rock Hill, SC 29733




What Do You Know?: Assessing Critical Thinking

Here’s what I know for sure about assessing critical thinking: There are several ways to go about it. It sure is tricky though, mostly because critical thinking is not a skill that builds the same way we acquire vocabulary or learn to vault a high bar. It’s a protracted, nonlinear process that takes months, maybe even years, before significant progress can be measured.

I learned that the hard way. When I wrote my dissertation about critical thinking and persuasive writing, I hypothesized that persuasive writing would increase 4th graders’ ability to think critically. Among the data I collected were the results of a pre and post test on the Cornell Critical Thinking Test X that bookended a three-week unit on how to write persuasive essays. My results showed no significance. Duh! Critical thinking needs to be practiced–and practiced a lot over time and across domains–for it to become a habit of mind, a recurring method of inquiry, and a way of calibrating one’s ideas. So, no, three weeks in terms of learning to think critically is not enough time. Ah, live and learn.

So if it takes a long time to acquire those skills, when and how can we reliably measure them? To complicate things, critical thinking skills can differ from field to field. For instance, I may be a very good critical thinker when it comes to linguistic theory but a total bust when it comes to aviation or sociology. Some disagree, saying there are elements of critical thinking that carry over from one task to the next. (See Ennis, 1989, and Halpern, 1998, for thorough discussions about this still unsettled matter.) So should I just test their skill to think critically in math, or can I give them a generalized test that examines if they use those same skills in, say, English literature?

In the end, the question ends up being this: exactly how do we appraise students’ critical thinking and audit their progress? My next few postings will take up those issues with an annotated bibliography of several articles on the topic. (Hint: none of these methods includes multiple choice tests.) Feel free to suggest other articles for analysis.

Ennis, R. (1989). Critical thinking and subject specificity: clarification and needed research. Educational Researcher, 18(3), 4-10.

Halpern, D. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains. American Psychologist, 53(4), 449-455.