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.

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.

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.