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.

Articles on Assessment of Critical Thinking 4

This is the last in this series of annotated bibs about articles on CT assessment, but I would like to revisit it soon. It is, after all, a huge topic and not at all settled. These last two items are by the same people, Richard Paul and Linda Elder. Please let me know if you find these postings helpful or would like me to add one of your choosing.

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2007). Critical thinking competency standards: Standards, principles, performance indicators, and outcomes with a critical thinking master rubric. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

This book is from a series about critical thinking that the Foundation for Critical Thinking writes and publishes. All of Paul and Elder’s books are based on eights elements of reasoning, nine intellectual standards, and eight intellectual traits.

Their rubric for assessing critical thinking is a combination of these 25 competencies. The authors recommend assigning 0-4 points per standard in their grading rubric. Each standard lists several outcomes. For instance, Standard Four: Inferences and Interpretations lists this as one of the nine outcomes: “Students distinguish between assumptions and inferences; they uncover and accurately assess the assumptions underlying inferences,” (p. 20). It doesn’t give any instructions on how to go about assessing assumptions and inferences, just that you should do it.

There is a wealth of information in this and all their booklets on different aspects of critical thinking, but many are not easily navigated without some instruction and practice. They are also fairly dense and somewhat repetitive from book to book, probably so one can read any of them as a stand-alone document. The Foundation has made a name for itself by identifying and expanding the elements of critical thinking, although it can be fairly said that Richard Paul brought a sterling reputation to the Foundation from his years as a philosopher. Their booklets are more informational than pedagogically suited. Useful for those wanting to appreciate how complex critical thinking can be, the information can be tailored to address individual teaching needs, albeit with some difficulty.


Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2006). The international critical thinking reading & writing test. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

As with the other booklet annotated above, this one also draws upon seven “symbiotic skills” of disciplined thought: 1. Clarify purpose, 2. Formulate clear questions, 3. Distinguish accurate and relevant information from inaccurate and irrelevant information, 4. Reach logical inferences or conclusions, 5. Identify significant and deep concepts, 6. Distinguish justifiable from unjustifiable assumptions, and 7. Trace logical implications. Outcomes are provided.

The authors break down the processes of close reading and substantive writing into five levels: paraphrasing, explicating, analysis, evaluation, and role-playing. For each level, they provide very useful exercises as well as sample responses. They use fairly high level texts, e.g., Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience and Fromm’s The Art of Loving. The method, however, is applicable to any text. This book is much more teacher-friendly because it goes carefully through the steps of close reading and substantive writing. [Much of the method is also covered in their booklet titled A Thinkers Guide to How to Read a Paragraph and Beyond: The Art of Close Reading (2003)]. Their method really shows how to put critical thinking into action and prevent students from zooming through readings with little understanding. It is the antidote to fast-food thinking, which is, of course, their point.

This booklet does not teach how to design or conduct the test but rather provides examples of how to examine a particular component of critical thinking. Grading, they caution, should be done only by someone who is familiar with the tenets of critical thinking if reliability is to be achieved.

While the efforts of the Foundation are admirable and an invaluable contribution to the field, I find their explanations dense and at times inaccessible, even to someone who has studied critical thinking a lot and even attended several of their conferences. For my money, critical thinking is already mysterious enough, and those who come to this and other booklets uninitiated in their canon may find them tough sledding but worth the effort for the trying.


Defining critical thinking

Lots of people toss around the term critical thinking, assuming a shared definition. But even the experts can’t agree on one, and believe me, they can get pretty convoluted. Here are my two (short) favorites: Richard Paul’s1

Critical thinking is the art of thinking while thinking to make thinking better. It involves three interwoven phases: It analyzes thinking, it evaluates thinking, and it improves thinking.

And Matthew Lipman’s2

Critical thinking is skillful, responsible thinking that is conducive to good judgment because it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting.”

For me, critical thinking is a promise to doggedly question, weigh, measure, compare everything that’s presented to us. That includes, radio shows, photos, podcasts, newscasts, even what our cat says. Facts and figures and opinions come at us at a furious pace. We have a choice. We can either swallow them whole or construct some sort of filter, i.e., a habit of mind, i.e., critical thinking, to slow our thinking down and consider the information in a dispassionate manner since emotion and critical thinking don’t mix. We must commit to persistently questioning our conclusions and assumptions, regardless of the context or subject. It’s a forever apprenticeship.

Speaking about emotion undoing critical thinking, I am especially vulnerable when I go to the doctor. White coats, diplomas, strange-looking equipment—it’s all very intimidating that can easily shut down my critical thinking mechanism. Just the other day, I went in to get a sore foot X-rayed. The doctor showed me the films as he announced, with that tone of certainty docs always use, that I’d have to have two bones fused. I was suddenly immobilized, imagining dragging a lame foot behind me for the rest of my life. I completely disengaged from my critical thinking skills and never asked crucial questions. A few days later, I came to and solved the problem without surgery, at least for now. Lesson learned about critical thinking being a rather fragile skill that can be upended by circumstances. As I said, it’s a lifelong pursuit.

What’s your definition?

For more definitions and information, you will find a lot to read and cogitate over at the Foundation for Critical Thinking’s website: Lots to see and think about there. Remember – don’t swallow that whole either!

Nosich (2012, p. 2). Thinking things through. Boston: Pearson. He reports this is the definition Dr. Paul uses in informal settings.

2 As quoted in Nosich, p. 2.