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Critical Thinking Framework for any programme of study

- Minakshi Balkrishna

Critical thinking is, very simply stated, the ability to analyse and evaluate information. Critical thinkers raise vital questions and problems, formulate them clearly, gather and assess relevant information, use abstract ideas, think open-mindedly, and communicate effectively with others. It is an important and necessary skill because it is required in the workplace, it can help you deal with mental and spiritual questions, and it can be used to evaluate people, policies, and institutions. By and large, critical thinking can nurture a good thinker.

In other words, the primary goal of critical thinking is learning to examine assumptions and evidence put forth in support of a position before forming a conclusion.

Critical thinking is an important part of any educational programme for two reasons: it is an essential ‘life skill’ and it offers an effective and motivating way for students to learn subject matter. An example would be identifying a dilemma raised by a playground incident or by a story that students are reading, and then discussing the pros and cons of possible solutions before reaching a decision. Critical thinking is nurtured by encouraging students to experiment with various methods before deciding the best approach to an estimation problem in mathematics or science, or a design challenge in art or business. It is promoted by helping students recognise the criteria for a well-written paragraph or an effective speech, and then inviting students to critique and then to look for both the strengths and the shortcomings of their own work or that of fellow students before revising their written or oral presentation to make it even better. In short, critical thinking is an orientation or ‘way of life’ characterised by ongoing deliberation and careful assessment.

A simple 5- way framework can help in implementing in any discipline or in any programme. The 5-step framework can be implemented in virtually any teaching or training setting to effectively move learners toward critical thinking. This interdisciplinary model, which is built upon existing theory and best practices in cognitive development, effective learning environments, and outcomes-based assessment, provides teachers with a useful framework in which to move students and lecture-based courses toward an active-learning environment. The lecture format of learning is a respected and popular approach to content delivery in higher education. However, it does not encourage active learning or critical thinking on the part of students. Those new to the teaching profession often adopt the lecture format because it is both teacher-centered and comes with a strong academic tradition. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to increase a student’s critical thinking skills with the lecture format. Topics are discussed sequentially rather than critically, and students tend to memorise the material since the lecture method facilitates the delivery of large amounts of information. The student is placed in a passive rather than an active role since the teacher does the talking, the questioning, and, thus, most of the thinking.

There have been many definitions of critical thinking over the years. Norris (1985) theorised that critical thinking is deciding rationally what to or what not to believe.

Elder and Paul (1994) suggested that critical thinking is best understood as the ability of thinkers to take charge of their own thinking.

Harris and Hodges (1995) declared critical evaluation as the process of arriving at a judgment about the value or impact of a text by examining its quality.

However, the taxonomy offered by Benjamin Bloom, some 50 years ago, offers a straightforward way to classify instructional activities as they advance in difficulty (Bloom, 1956). The lower levels require less thinking skills while the higher levels require more. The theory of critical thinking began primarily with the works of Bloom (1956), who identified six levels within the cognitive domain, each of which related to a different level of cognitive ability.

Knowledge focused on remembering and reciting information.

Comprehension focused on relating and organising previously learned information.

Application focused on applying information according to a rule or principle in a specific situation.

Analysis was defined as critical thinking focused on parts and their functionality in the whole.

Synthesis was defined as critical thinking focused on putting parts together to form a new and original whole.

Evaluation was defined as critical thinking focused upon valuing and making judgments based upon information.

So how can we take this to our classroom? Here is a 5-step framework that can be implemented in any classroom or training setting to help students gain critical thinking skills.

5-Step Model to Move Students Toward Critical Thinking.

@Duron, Limbach, and Waugh

Step 1: Determine learning objectives. To make critical thinking happen, these learning objectives, as well as the activities and assessments, must include those tied to the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy. A well-written objective should include a behaviour that is appropriate for the chosen level of the taxonomy.

Bloom's Knowledge level requires an answer that demonstrates simple recall of facts. Questions at this level could ask students to answer who and what and to describe, state, and list.

  • Comprehension requires an answer that demonstrates an understanding of the information. Questions at this level might ask students to summarize, explain, paraphrase, compare, and contrast.

  • Application requires an answer that demonstrates an ability to use information, concepts and theories in new situations. Questions at this level may ask students to apply, construct, solve, discover, and show.

  • Analysis requires an answer that demonstrates an ability to see patterns and classify information, concepts, and theories into component parts. Questions at this level could ask students to examine, classify, categorise, differentiate, and analyse.

  • Synthesis requires an answer that demonstrates an ability to relate knowledge from several areas to create new or original work. Questions at this level might ask students to combine, construct, create, role-play, and suppose.

  • Finally, Evaluation requires an answer that demonstrates ability to judge evidence based on reasoned argument. Questions at this level may ask students to assess, criticize, recommend, predict, and evaluate.

Thus, a well-written lesson plan should target a specific behaviour, introduce and allow for practice of the desired behaviour, and end with the learner showing the behavioural response. The development of well-written questions will greatly accelerate a learner's movement into critical thinking.

Step 2: Teach through questioning. Questioning is a vital part of the teaching and learning process. It allows the teacher to establish what is already known and then to extend beyond that to develop new ideas and understandings. Questions can be used to stimulate interaction between teacher and learner and to challenge the learner to defend his or her position, (i.e., to think critically). Clasen and Bonk (1990) theorized that although there are many strategies that can impact student thinking, it is teacher questions that have the greatest impact. He went on to indicate that the level of student thinking is directly proportional to the level of questions asked. When teachers plan, they must consider the purpose of each question and then develop the appropriate level and type of question to accomplish the purpose. All students need experience with higher level questioning once they become familiar with a concept. Thoughtful preparation on the part of the teacher is essential in providing that experience. Questioning techniques can be used to foster the thinking ability of students. Questions can be categorised in a number of different ways. One simple method is to use the general categories of convergent and divergent questions. Convergent questions seek one or more very specific correct answers, while divergent questions seek a wide variety of correct answers. Convergent questions apply to Bloom's lower levels of Knowledge, Comprehension and Application and may include questions like “Define nutrition,” “Explain the concept of biodiversity,” and “Solve for the value of Y.” Divergent questions apply to Bloom's higher levels of Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation; are generally open-ended; and foster student-centered discussion, thereby encouraging critical thinking. For example, “Describe the qualities of a successful leader,” “Create a playground design to facilitate group interaction,” and “Describe how sun spots might affect tree growth” are all divergent questions.

Elder and Paul (1997) projected that the art of questioning is essential to the art of learning and that, to the extent that if they fail to ask genuine questions and seek answers to those questions, students are not likely taking the content seriously. Teachers can and should use questioning techniques to inspire critical thinking in the classroom.

Step 3: Practice before you assess. In the past decade, a major shift has taken place in education; that shift is toward active learning. Teachers that have used this approach generally find that the students learn more and that the courses are more enjoyable. Bonwell and Eison (1991) described active learning as involving the students in activities that cause them to think about what they are doing. Fink (2003) indicated that the concept of active learning supports research which shows that students learn more and retain knowledge longer if they acquire it in an active rather than passive manner. To make learning more active, we need to learn how to enhance the overall learning experience by adding some kind of experiential learning and opportunities for reflective dialog. According to Fink (2003), there are two guiding principles that should be considered when choosing learning activities. First, activities should be chosen from each of the following three components of active learning: Information and Ideas, Experience and Reflective Dialogue. Information and Ideas include primary and secondary sources accessed in class, outside class, or online; Experience includes doing, observing, and simulations; Reflective dialogue includes papers, portfolios and journaling. Second, whenever possible, direct kinds of learning activities should be used. Examples of direct activities include doing in an authentic setting, direct observation of a phenomenon, reflective thinking, service learning, journaling, and dialogue in or outside of class. One very important ingredient of active learning is in-depth reflective dialog. This provides students with the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of their learning experience. One can reflect with oneself, as in a journal, or with others, as in a class discussion. According to Fink (2003), in reflective writing, students should address the following questions: What am I learning? What is the value of what I am learning? How am I learning? What else do I need to learn? How will I use this in real life?

Step 4: Review, refine, and improve. Teachers should strive to continually refine their courses to ensure that their instructional techniques are in fact helping students develop critical thinking skills. To accomplish this, teachers should monitor the classroom activities very closely. To track student participation, a teaching diary can be kept that identifies the students that participated, describes the main class activities, and provides an assessment of their success. Other reflective comments can also be tracked in this journal and can be very useful when revising or updating instructional activities. Student feedback is also an important tool to be used in the improvement of a course. Suggested numerous methods for collecting key information related to student learning and response to instructional techniques. One such method, asks students to identify the most important point learned. Teachers can review the comments and use them in future classes to emphasise issues identified. Chain notes can be implemented with an envelope bearing a key question on it that students respond to by placing their answers in the envelope. Discussing the patterns of responses with the students can lead to better teaching and learning. Memory matrixes are also useful in the collection of student feedback; students are asked to fill in two-dimensional cells with labels related to a concept.

Step 5: Provide feedback and assessment of learning. Teacher feedback, like assessment, compares criteria and standards to student performance in an effort to evaluate the quality of work. However, the purpose of feedback is to enhance the quality of student learning and performance, rather than to grade the performance, and, importantly, it has the potential to help students learn how to assess their own performance in the future. Feedback allows the teacher and student(s) to engage in dialogue about what distinguishes successful performance from unsuccessful performance as they discuss criteria and standards. Teachers should provide good feedback to their students through frequent opportunities to practice whatever they are expected to do at assessment time. Teachers should spend ample time helping students to understand what the criteria and standards are and what they mean. Student peers may also provide feedback and evaluation. Each of these techniques help students learn to distinguish between satisfactory and unsatisfactory performance. When providing feedback, teachers should be both thoughtful and purposeful. According to Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995), teachers should provide feedback that is informational rather than controlling, based on agreed-upon standards, specific and constructive, quantitative, prompt, frequent, positive, personal, and differential (i.e., indicating personal improvement since the last performance).


It is important that teachers give thoughtful consideration to current instructional methods and to the personal beliefs that drive them prior to contemplating this particular approach to teaching and learning. Implementing critical thinking through this framework clearly requires a commitment to active, student centered learning. However, active/cooperative learning as a pedagogical approach to encouraging critical thinking can be very effectively used in conjunction with lectures. "When using active learning students are engaged in more activities than just listening. They are involved in dialogue, debate, writing, and problem solving,” as well as higher-order thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The encouragement of critical thinking can be accomplished in any content area by modification of lectures and the incorporation of simple active learning techniques. While the use of the 5-step framework to help students learn critical thinking skills may necessitate a fundamental change in instructional technique from that of the traditional lecture-based format, such efforts will likely result in learning experiences which are both more enjoyable and valuable to students and teachers a like.

The overriding mission of schools is to prepare our students for success in later life–—in higher education and also in their broader personal and professional lives. Critical thinking provides young people with the skills and attitudes they need to resolve in a disciplined manner the myriad of challenges they will face in school, at work and in their home. In other words, the ability to think critically is an essential life-skill adequately preparing students to face the world.

Let’s think about this critically!


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