Thought, Critical Thinking
S. Samuel Shermis
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication
concerns itself with the origin of reflective thought, the application
of theories about reflective thought to classrooms, conflicts and
issues, and a synthesis of the essential ideas.
the Idea of Reflective Thought
"reflective thought" was introduced by John Dewey in 1910
in his How We Think, a work designed for teachers. Dewey admitted
a debt to both his contemporaries in philosophy, William James,
and Charles S. Peirce. Dewey's most basic assumption was that learning
improves to the degree that it arises out of the process of reflection.
As time went on, terminology concerning reflection proliferated,
spawning a host of synonyms, such as "critical thinking,"
"problem solving," and " higher level thought."
of reflective thinking repeated over the years was
persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed
form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it
and the further conclusion to which it tends". (Dewey, 1933)
researchers added to this definition and modified it. Thus,
purpose of Socratic Seminars is to enlarge understanding of ideas,
issues, and values. The intent is to create dialogue that gives
voice to rigorous thinking about possible meaning· Seminars
are structured to take the student thought from the unclear to
the clear, from the unreasoned to the reasoned. . . from the unexamined
to the examined." (Lambright, 1995)
Many other definitions
exist, but what all have in common is conviction. Some are of the
more generalized nature, such as the two above. Others assume that
true reflective thinking can only be derived from the application
of the various intellectual disciplines.
For the last
four decades consensus thinking is that reflection in a classroom
can take place only when a questioning strategy promotes it. Paradigms
and models of questioning have proliferated endlessly. All begin
with the assumption that there are unproductive, sterile questions
that throttle student thought. Thus, Wasserman (1992) talks about
"stupid questions" which ignore student ideas, are "insensitive
to the feelings or ideas being expressed," or are irrelevant
may be too complex for student experience, may not provide sufficient
"wait time" for students to process the question, may
involve trick questions or those which ask a question whose answer
can be found in the text or lecture of the teacher.
promote thought begin with the assumption that students do not think
unless they have something to think about. Dewey, Hullfish and Smith,
Hunt and Metcalf, Bigge, and Bayles argued that this "something"
can only be a problem. But the problem must be real, i.e., internalized,
felt by students. "Pseudo problems" occur when the importance
of the problem is ignored or when a problem is assumed to exist
because the teacher or text defines it as a problem. Thus, "What
were the causes of the Civil War?" has been a problem to historians
for many years. It is unlikely to be one to students.
(Simpson, 1996) have attempted to create paradigms of questioning,
including Simpson, Weast, Hauser and Wasserman. What all of these
different paradigms have in common is the strongly held conviction
that the traditional, text bound, information coverage, low-level
questioning must be replaced by a more fruitful approach that stimulates
students to reflect on problems.
How to Generate
Problems. A problem exists when a student is curious, puzzled,
confused, or unable to resolve an issue. A situation which was clear
and untroubled has now become clouded or obstructed. In recent years,
scholars have attempted to come up with useful, generic models of
- asking students
to devise alternative ways of presenting information, i.e., alternative
to text or teacher
different accounts of the same events, ideas, phenomena
alternative endings, writing different outcomes
role reversal, attempting to discern what was left out, what was
ideas that do not appear to "belong" in a text
deleting or omitting information
- playing "what
the social context of a given statement
to identify the assumption
The notion that
very young children cannot deal with problems is simply false. Here
is an example of problem-setting in a kindergarten or first-grade
class discussing Jack and the Beanstalk:
- Q. What did
Jack do when he got to the giant's castle?"
- A. Jack hid
from the giant, found the goose that lays the golden eggs, was
discovered by the giant, fled, reached the bottom of the vine,
and then chopped it down. The giant, of course, tumbles down,
breaks his neck, and Jack lives happily every after with his mother
and his newly found wealth.
- Q. Did Jack
trespass illegally? (In kindergarten terms, "Did Jack go
into someone's house where he did not belong?"
- A. Yes!
- Q. Did Jack
steal the goose that lays golden eggs?"
- A. Yes!
- Q. Did Jack,
then, refuse to give back what did not belong to him?
- A. Yes!
- Q. Then did
Jack escape down the bean vine and cause the giant to be killed?"
- A. Yes!
- Q. If Jack
trespassed, stole, and murdered the giant, why is the giant the
villain of this story?
The twist at
the end of this questioning strategy takes a very old story, with
a comfortable conclusion designed to make everything turn out just
right, and turns it on its head: why, in light of the admitted crimes
that Jack committed, isn't he the baddie? (Shermis, 1992).
There is no
course, age, or grade where reflective theory cannot be applied.
Reflective theory simply says that if you wish to generate a problem,
enter the thinking and knowing patterns of your students. And then
ask them questions which create conflict and confusion. And then
help them reach an answer. And attempt to recognize a 24 carat gold
question when you hear it. For example, if a student who has been
paying attention to the usual information on animal and fish camouflage
asks, "How come the Monarch butterfly is so colorful when this
makes it easier for a predator to see?" has just asked precisely
such a question. There is an infinite number of such questions,
just waiting for teachers to recognize or ask. These questions promote
the reflection that provides the best kind of learning that human
beings have so far invented.
evaluation stems from the educational purposes specified in advance
of teaching. If one wishes to teach reflectively and hold reflective
discussions, then the purposes, goals, or objectives must mandate
such discussion. This necessarily precludes evaluation that emphasizes
memorization. Memorization is what is ordinarily measured by conventional
objective tests--true false, fill in, matching, and completion.
is mandated? Lambright cites Cross who maintains that, "If
you want to teach critical thinking . . .,we suggest that you devise
an exercise that requires students to practice critical thinking
and simultaneously demonstrate their progress in achieving that
complex skill." Some researchers have insisted that appropriate
evaluation "must go beyond acquiring facts and learning theories
-- they must apply knowledge." (Lambright) However, application
of knowledge, in terms of the Bloom Taxonomy, is technically Level
III, which is not especially reflective. Reflective thought involves
acquisition of facts, understanding of ideas, application of principles,
analysis, synthesis and evaluation. In short, reflective thought
and reflective teaching involve all levels of the Bloom Taxonomy.
most complete listing of reflective skills may be found in Weast
the author's conclusion;
the reasons and the evidence
vague and ambiguous language
value assumptions and value conflicts
sampling and measurements
one's own values in thoughtful, fair-minded way.
are the ones which, over the last six or seven decades, have tended
to be emphasized by advocates of reflective thought and teaching.
They continue to be emphasized. The continuing emphasis is a valid
index to the fact that they are still not in schools.
Dewey, J. (1993).
How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking
to the educative process. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Hauser, J. (1992).
Dialogic classrooms: Tactics, projects, and attitude conversions.
Paper presented at the National Council of Teachers of English convention,
Louisville, KY. [ED353232]
Hunt, M. P.,
& Metcalf, L. E. (1968). Teaching high school social studies:
Problems in reflective thinking and social understanding. New York:
Harper and Row.
(1995). Creating a dialogue Socratic seminars and educational reform.
Community College Journal, 65, 30-34.
S. (1992). Critical thinking: Helping students learn reflectively.
Bloomington, Indiana: ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication
(1996). Critical questions: Whose questions? The Reading Teacher,
50, 118-126. [EJ540595]
(1992). Asking the right question: The essence of teaching. Phi
Delta Kappa Fastback 343. Bloomington, Indiana: Phi Delta Kappa
Weast, D. (1996).
Alternative teaching strategies: The case for critical thinking.
Teaching Sociology,24, 189-194.
was prepared (Digest #143, EDO-CS-99-04, November 1999) with funding
from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number ED-99-CO-0028,
and published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions
or policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial
products, or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.