Why you Might not be Teaching FOR or WITH Critical Thinking

I surveyed fifty teachers (mixed grade levels) with the question:  
 Are you familiar with the Universal Intellectual Standards?  

Here's what they said:
  • 42 out of 50:  I've never heard of them.
  • 7 out of 50:   We did something with those in my university courses, but not much else.
  • 1 out of 50:   Yes, I am familiar with them, but I don't explicitly teach or refer to them in my professional  setting.
  • 0 out of 50:   Yes, and I use them as the basis for my planning and practice.
  • 0 out of 50:   Yes, and I use them as the basis for my planning and practice as well as teach them to students/share them with others in my professional setting.
So what's the big deal with those Universal Intellectual Standards?

These standards must be applied to our thinking whenever we're "interested in checking the QUALITY of reasoning about a problem, issue, or situation. To think critically entails having command of these standards"[emphasis added] (Paul & Elder, 2013).

If we don't know what they are, we may or may not be teaching with critical thinking. If we're not teaching them to students, we may or may not be teaching for critical thinking.

In other words, we need these standards in order to figure out what the heck we're doing with critical thinking and how well we're doing it. Let's see what happens when we apply them to a typical language arts lesson. They are:


Let's take a look at a typical language arts lesson.  A student-inquiry discussion on Turgenev's short story, "The Watch," has a three-question focus. This is one of them:

          Why does David throw Alexey's watch into the river?

The question offered to students about "The Watch" will elicit some reasoning in the response. They will need to provide evidence for their claims. Sure.

But THAT is not the critical thinking. That is THINKING. To be fair, it is on the edge of analysis (higher-order thinking), but it is not, nor should we consider it, evidence of critical thinking.  That's where the problem lies.

Simply asking "how" and "why" questions or having students do stuff at the upper-level of Bloom's is NOT critical thinking.

Because the thinking stops.

Generally, we're asking these questions to determine that the student has (a) read the material and, possibly, (b) comprehended a significant event in the story. The student has not been asked to evaluate the quality of his/her response. That's because there's no meaningful purpose for the question. Thus, there's no reason to evaluate the quality of the response. Thus, there's no critical thinking to see here.  Move along.
Meaningless higher-order thinking is still meaningless. 

(Further, consider that if there is a generally-accepted or "correct" answer to the question, then the evaluation of the thinking is going to be severely limited.) 

Scriven and Paul (1987) provided this definition of the critical thinking process at the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. (as cited by Critical Thinking Foundation, 2013).

More simply put:
Critical thinking is the process of DOING all that upper-level Bloom's thinking stuff and figuring out HOW WELL we've done all that upper-level Bloom's thinking stuff, for a really good REASON--to guide belief and action.

So, it's NOT THIS:

It's THIS:

We have students doing some thinking. We just don't have them doing the critical thinking. And it's often without a clear purpose. We have them doing it, but the FOCUS of the learning is extremely basic. We might even have them doing some metacognition, but without a reason  to evaluate their thinking in order to guide their beliefs or actions, they will not embrace the principle.  They will simply complete the assignment.

That's where we're missing the mark. That's why students aren't transferring these skills. That's why they are doing so poorly on assessments designed to assess critical thinking.

There's no action or belief to consider with that question, above. I know that we have to make sure the students have read them material, but we can also move them forward and give them a reason to evaluate their thinking--a reason to bother with understanding why David throws Alexey's watch into the river and understanding for a reason.

So, where does the belief and action part fit in? To do that, we need to have students think LIKE...
like authors
like researchers
like philosophers  (thinking philosophically)                                                                  
like journalists (thinking journalistically)
like biographers
like historians (thinking historically)
like literary critics
like poets (thinking poetically)
What kind of person, in what field or discipline, wonders about the reasons that characters do what they do in a story? Imagine how a philosopher would attack the question about the watch. How would he/she evaluate the thinking behind the question and-- if determining the question had sufficient significance, relevance, and meaning-- the thinking behind his/her response?

That's potentially part of the problem, too, I think, is that the question was provided as opposed to developed by the student. And we haven't (necessarily) offered students the opportunity to evaluate the question posed. And if they question the question, what do we (often) tell them to do?
Just answer the question.
Is there a place for these kinds of questions about literature? I guess so. Maybe for a homework check? But not as the FOCUS for the learning.

If we want students to think critically, we're going to have to let them determine the questions because that's what journalists, biographers, poets, researchers, etc. usually DO.

Or at the very least, the questions offered need to be sufficiently open and broad so as to allow students to develop more meaningful ones from it.

Unless there is a reason for them to evaluate their thinking...why should they bother? And unless we're asking them to evaluate their thinking, they are not thinking critically.


Critical Thinking Foundation. (2013). Defining critical thinking. Retrieved from

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Universal intellectual standards. Retrieved from https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/universal-intellectual-standards/527

You'll find more strategies for teaching for and with critical thinking in our book, Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!