Critical thinking principles that enhance
comprehension of expository texts in an online course
This literature review was conducted for three reasons. First I needed to better understand what critical thinking was and how it might influence the design of an online course in reading of expository texts. Second, I needed to determine what components could be part of the online instructional process and which ones were more dependent on a face-to-face (F-2-F) classroom situation. Third, I wanted an awareness of the difficulties and frustrations that might accompany integrating critical thinking features in the online course. Answers to these three questions would help me construct a context for teaching reading strategies associated with information texts to 9th grade students.
Importance of critical thinking
This review of the literature on critical thinking is important because of the changing and evolving literacy requirements in our global economy and education. Beyer (as cited in ???Critical thinking,??? 2002) states that critical thinking is essential in maintaining and strengthening the democratic principles of our country and making informed personal and civic decisions. ???If students learn to think critically, then they can use good thinking as the guide by which they live their lives.???
Paul (2002a) characterizes the world we and our students are entering as one where we must deal with massive amounts of information from multiple sources, where the facts of yesterday soon become as obsolete as last week??™s news. To be effective and competitive in this world, we must be accurate, precise, and meticulous and ready to upgrade our job skills continually. Paul concludes with this challenge, ???Education has never before had to prepare students for such dynamic flux, unpredictability, and complexity, for such ferment, tumult, and disarray.???
Paul??™s characterization of the world is continued in an article by Leu, Donald, Kinzer and Charles (2000). They assert that a convergence is taking place between literacy instruction and the Internet. This convergence is driven by three forces: a) global economy, b) education initiatives by governments around the world, and c) melding of technology and literacy. They assert that we will succeed according to our abilities to access the most pertinent information in the shortest time to identify and solve problems, which we must then communicate and implement faster than our global competitors. In his 1995 book, The Road Ahead, Gates describes the reality of this convergence. ???One thing is clear. We don??™t have an option of turning away from the future. No one gets to vote on whether technology is going to change our lives??? (1995, p. 74).
The role of critical thinking is gaining importance in education. Orndorff (1987, as cited in Rings, 1994) argues,
???the inability of many students to read critically may be the single most important problem in postsecondary education. Not only do students have difficulty selecting authors major points and seeing how they have been developed into a coherent whole, but they also are unable to “synthesize and restructure” ideas, especially from complex text.???
The image of the teacher-centered classroom, along with one or two primary text books, which serve the needs of multiple classes and is restricted to classroom use, who dispenses information to passive students, (Oliver & Utermohlen, 1995) stands in stark contrast to the information and electronic literacy demands of our society today. Nielsen (as cited in Rings, 1994) concurs, by stating, ???critical reading is unlikely to take place in an artificially-contrived context created by a school that is irrelevant to students contexts and the problems within them.???
How well are our 8th grade students doing nationally According to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 74 percent of eighth graders have not reached a proficient level in their reading, and 26 percent of those students have not reached a basic level (National Association of Educational Statistics, 1999, p. 6, as cited in Ash, 2002). This lack of proficiency applies primarily to expository texts found in secondary content area textbooks. Carr (1990) furthers the criticism of the current model of reading education by stating this lack of proficiency is reflected in inadequate problem-solving skills at all levels of education.
In Content is thinking, thinking is content, Paul (2002a) talks about the design of instruction and curriculum, especially as it relates to expository texts:
There are many ways to begin to grasp the profound truth that all content is nothing more nor less than a mode of thinking, a way of figuring something out, a way of understanding something through thought. . . . There is no way to figure out something without thinking. There is no way to learn how to figure something out without learning how to think it through.
Having linked content, especially expository in structure, to thinking, Paul then clarifies and describes the nature of this thinking as an integrated form of critical metacognition.
Critical thinking, in contrast, approaches all content explicitly as thinking. It takes thinking apart. It weaves new thinking into old. It assesses thinking. It applies thinking. It is thinking about thinking while thinking in order to make thinking better: more clear, more accurate, more relevant, more deep, more broad, and more effective (Paul 2002a).
The idea of thinking about thinking or metacognition is central to our definitions of critical thinking.
Definitions of critical thinking
Many of the essential components of critical thinking are described in Halpern:
Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned and goal directed – the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions when the thinker is using skills that are thoughtful and effective for the particular context and type of thinking task. Critical thinking also involves evaluating the thinking process – the reasoning that went into the conclusion weve arrived at and the kinds of factors considered in making a decision. Critical thinking is sometimes called directed thinking because it focuses on a desired outcome (Halpern, 1996).
In Kurland??™s book, I Know What It Says . . . What does it Mean, he provides this insightful definition of critical thinking:
Broadly speaking, critical thinking is concerned with reason, intellectual honesty, and open-mindedness, as opposed to emotionalism, intellectual laziness, and close-mindedness. Thus, critical thinking involves: following evidence where it leads; considering all possibilities; relying on reason rather than emotion; being precise; considering a variety of possible viewpoints and explanations; weighing the effects of motives and biases; being concerned more with finding the truth than with being right; not rejecting unpopular views out of hand; being aware of ones own prejudices and biases, and not allowing them to sway ones judgment (Kurland, 1995).
A third definition of critical thinking comes from an excellent online source, An educator??™s guide to critical thinking terms and concepts (2002), prepared by the Foundations of Critical Thinking (
1) Disciplined, self-directed thinking which exemplifies the perfections of thinking appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thinking. 2) Thinking that displays mastery of intellectual skills and abilities. 3) The art of thinking about your thinking while you are thinking in order to make your thinking better: more clear, more accurate, or more defensible. Critical thinking can be distinguished into two forms: “selfish” or “sophistic”, on the one hand, and “fairminded”, on the other. In thinking critically we use our command of the elements of thinking to adjust our thinking successfully to the logical demands of a type or mode of thinking (???Educator??™s Guide,??? 2002).
There are a number of themes central to each of these definitions and those of many other authors (Ferrett, 1997; Harris & Hodges, 1991; Schumm & Post, 1997; Scriven, 1986; Wade, 1995). The main theme appears to be metacognition, the reader??™s ability to think about his or her thinking and to refine and adjust it according to the purpose, context and desired outcomes of the person or task. Metacognition implies that learning is not transmitted as Oliver and Utermohlen (1995) described, but is a complex construction that is fluid, flexible, adapting, changing, and self-correcting according to the needs of the individual and the social, cultural, and economic context. But the reader must ask, as does Coiro (2001a), ???How does it all fit together???
In order to determine what components of critical thinking might be part of an online reading course, I organized critical thinking into five domains. These domains should not be considered as sequential, or as a ranking in importance. Critical thinking is a holistic, engaging process that responds to and is bound to evolving literacies.
1. Critical thinking environment
2. Critical thinking mind
3. Critical reading strategies
4. Critical thinking tasks
5. Critical thinking outcomes
Organizing critical thinking into five domains will allow us to identify the associated components and measure the efficacy of each in two environments, physical space and cyberspace.
Domain 1: Critical thinking environment
In order to establish a critical thinking environment, nine practices or components need to be considered. They are not ranked, but should be considered prerequisites to the critical thinking environment.
1.1 Survey learner interests and identify the independent, instructional, and frustration reading level of each student that is not reading at grade level. Reading research indicates that there is a greater difference in reading levels within a class than between grades (Rosier, Fielding & Kerr, 1998). This means that a 9th grade history class may have students reading anywhere between the 5th and 12 grades. Providing a single text for all levels of readers will guarantee a mismatch that frustrates reader and teacher alike.
1.2 Provide age/topic-appropriate materials (Fielding & Pearson, 1994; Underwood & Wald, 1995). With our age-based grade levels this is less of a problem. With an online class that accepts students according to readiness rather than age, this is a necessary accommodation.
1.3 Select instructional level texts that are in the student??™s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). If the texts are too easy, students will not be challenged to apply the critical reading strategies associated with expository texts. If the texts are too difficult, at the learner??™s frustration level, then the student??™s focus will be on decoding rather the target strategies.
1.4 In the argument process versus content, (???Critical Thinking,??? 2002; Nielsen, 1989) process wins out in the critical thinking environment. The teacher and a single expensive voluminous tome is no longer the primary dispenser of knowledge. Today??™s challenge for the 21st century requires that our students process a massive amount of data and information, as well as the associated discoveries, that in the critical thinking environment is designed to discipline and transform the thoughts, words and actions of the critical thinker.
1.5 Don??™t divorce process from content. Avoid teaching skills in isolation, separate from the context in which they might be meaningful.
1.6 Provide information texts that contain case studies or issues (McDade, 1995) related to social, moral, personal, religious or war concerns from which a problem element can be derived. Strohm and Baukus (1995) advocate providing texts with conflicting information and that allows some ambiguity in the environment which students must sort out.
1.7 Strive to overcome the restrictions of the teacher-student interaction pattern (Fielding & Pearson, 1994). Teachers have indicated that they continue in this format for two reasons. First, they use it to maintain control and second, to be certain the vital points of the lesson are all covered. Alvermann & Hayes (1989, cited in Fielding & Pearson, 1994) observed that teachers found it most difficult to change this interactive pattern, but were more successful in providing more time for learner voices and asking higher level questions that were not fact driven, but invited prior knowledge types of responses.
1.8 Identify, model and emulate good reader practices, processes and strategies (Harste, 1986, as cited in Rings, 1994). Research has provided extensive qualitative information about what good readers do. Introducing students to these models and showing them when and how to use these strategies is a major step in helping students who lack the strategic tools in their content area classes.
A description of good reader practices is offered in the Educator??™s Guide (2002):
Critical reading is an active, intellectually engaged process in which the reader participates in an inner dialogue with the writer. Most people read uncritically and so miss some part of what is expressed while distorting other parts. A critical reader realizes the way in which reading, by its very nature, means entering into a point of view other than our own, the point of view of the writer. A critical reader actively looks for assumptions, key concepts and ideas, reasons and justifications, supporting examples, parallel experiences, implications and consequences, and any other structural features of the written text, to interpret and assess it accurately and fairly.
1.9 Establish limits on the number of information sources your students can use and the duration of the problem-solving process. From my own experiences as student and teacher, I have found it difficult to stop the research process, forced myself to act with the information thus far collected and propose solutions based upon what I know now. In this area of proposing solutions, one seldom feels that all the available pertinent information has been collected.
Online considerations. Knowing your students well enough to provide instructional level materials may be the most difficult and time consuming to accomplish. I believe this can be accomplished more easily online because of the prerequisites that can be associated with a 9th grade reading class. Breaking the student-teacher exchange process appears too difficult for most teachers, whereas this type of synchronous exchange is not a problem online. Providing individualized online materials to cyber students is much easier with infinite resources. More pre-class preparation is required but that is already the nature of online classes. Identifying good reader practices is not difficult for either environment, but modeling such practices is more advantageous in the F-2-F situation. Users of a Windows operating system will have Windows Media Player to play visual teacher presentations from the Internet, but this is more easily accomplished by sending each student a CD with the Media files. The weakest link seems to be the teacher-student interaction pattern, whereas this is one of the stronger attributes of an online class.
Domain 2: Critical thinking mind
What is the mindset that characterizes the critical thinker Are there any commonalities to which we can anchor Can these attributes be imparted to our students These types of questions have led me to select seven characteristics.
Purpose (Coiro, 2001b; Paul & Elder, 2002) is the most important trait that must precede this domain as well as each domain. Where there is no purpose, there is no critical thinking, no emotional engagement, no outcome that produces resolution, settlement, change and/or finality.
What kinds of purposes are we talking about Problem-solving. This means settling issues, big and small, resolving conflicts between individuals, families, communities, states, countries and peoples of diverse backgrounds and cultures. There is no lack of issues that bring people into conflict. So why does purpose seem to be lacking in so much that is done in the classroom and which occurs in the thoughts of our students Perhaps each of us should look at the classroom culture that has robbed our students of this essential authenticity and emotional involvement.
The Educator??™s guide to critical thinking terms and concepts (2002) expands our appreciation of this problem-solving purpose:
Extensive practice in independent problem-solving is essential to developing critical thought. Problem-solving is rarely best approached procedurally or as a series of rigidly followed steps. For example, problem-solving schemas typically begin, “State the problem.” Rarely can problems be precisely and fairly stated prior to analysis, gathering of evidence, and dialogical or dialectical thought wherein several provisional descriptions of the problem are proposed, assessed, and revised.
Open-mindedness (Schumm & Post, 1997; Strohm & Baukus, 1995) is the second attribute. This means the critical thinker is willing and able to suspend judgment, permit multiple and alternate viewpoints to be expressed and presented. Toleration of ambiguity also accompanies this mindset. A healthy curiosity drives the engaged learner, which Paul (2002b) so elegantly describes:
To flourish, curiosity must evolve into disciplined inquiry and reflection. Left to itself it will soar like a kite without a tail, that is, right into the ground! Intellectual curiosity is an important trait of mind, but it requires a family of other traits to fulfill it. It requires intellectual humility, intellectual courage, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, and faith in reason. After all, intellectual curiosity is not a thing in itself ??” valuable in itself and for itself. It is valuable because it can lead to knowledge, understanding, and insight, because it can help broaden, deepen, sharpen our minds, making us better, more humane, more richly endowed persons (Paul, 2002b).
Judgment capable identifies our third characteristic. This implies that there are consequences to everything one does. The consequences may be positive or negative, depending on whose viewpoint. They may be immediate or delayed, but consequences do follow. Judgment seeks truth, judgment requires that we take a position based on values and criteria, not personalities. Judgment goes beyond opinion. It is sensitive to the principle of choice and to the accountability associated with that choice.
We must use our judgment to evaluate the information sources and texts we encounter. Harris and Hodges (1981) expound on this point:
Critical Reading is ???(1) the process of making judgments in reading: evaluating relevancy and adequacy of what is read . . .??? (2) an act of reading in which a questioning attitude, logical analysis, and inference are used to judge the worth of what is read according to an established standard… Among the identified skills of critical reading involved in making judgments are those having to do with the authors intent or purpose; with the accuracy, logic, reliability and authenticity of writing; and the literary forms, components, and devices identified through literary analysis.
Beyer (1995, as cited in ???Critical thinking,??? 2002) suggests that making judgments is an essential part of the daily decision making process, from cooking to selecting which criteria to use in judging the quality a research paper.
Exercising judgment cannot be separated from critical thinking, which is reflected in the Educator??™s guide to critical thinking terms and concepts (2002):
Whenever we form a belief or opinion, make a decision, or act, we do so on the basis of implicit or explicit judgments. All thought presupposes making judgments concerning what is so and what is not so, what is true and what is not. To cultivate peoples ability to think critically is to foster their judgment, to help them to develop the habit of judging on the basis of reason, evidence, logic, and good sense. Good judgment is developed, not by merely learning about principles of good judgment, but by frequent practice judging and assessing judgments.
Critical thinking encourages each of us to exercise our judgment and then to introspectively review, challenge and appreciate the mental process we have traveled. This type of internal evaluation is a significant part of our next characteristic.
Metacognition, our fourth characteristic, is thinking about ones own thinking. More specifically, “metacognition is being aware of ones thinking as one performs specific tasks and then using this awareness to control what one is doing??? (Jones & Ratcliff, 1993).
Metacognition is a cognitive process and as such attends every aspect of critical thinking by the critical reader. But one might ask, is all reading critical The answer is no, but within that answer is the question why! From the ideas already presented, we can review conditions that hinder and thwart our students??™ efforts at critical thinking.
Critical thinking tends not to take place when 1) there is no purpose, 2) there are no compelling, probing questions, 3) an issue or problem has not been identified and incorporated, 4) there is no emotional involvement (Gaskins, 1996), such as stakeholder would have, 5) there is the absence of an authentic desirable outcome that gives voice to the opinions of the participants, and last, 6) students lack a strategy, process or model to overcome these deficits.
Reflection over time is our fifth characteristic. How might this characteristic be implemented in the classroom In Ash??™s article (2002), Teaching readers who struggle: A pragmatic middle school framework, she suggests discussing with the students what they would like to do for the next week??™s assignment, which helps set the purpose for reading, reflecting on that reading and how the students will demonstrate their reflections. She describes one strategy the students need to use after the reading and before the assignment is due as making text-to-self connections.
What types of activities require reflection over time Students can reflect on the reading strategies they are using, different, even contradictory points of view, whether something is relevant, consistent or inconsistent and how they might display the thoughts of their mind graphically. When students have a model, process, and/or group roles (???Student roles,??? 2002), this invites them to consider how they will interact, what positions they will take, how they might support that position, and what kinds of questions they still need to ask. These and many more probing questions will empower the user who can reflect and sets aside time outside of class and especially after reading texts to make meaning and to understand how that meaning is being made. Students reflect when they have a purpose, a goal, and the opportunity to be heard, when their voice has impact in the critical thinking environment.
Intellectual traits. The last characteristic focuses on intellectual traits associated with the critical thinking mind. I found little attention paid to this topic, which when overlooked, limits the ability and mental mindset of students to discuss, argue, support and defend an opinion or position that is emotionally charged, which can happen when discussing abortion, politics, religion and international conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
Seven traits are detailed by Foundations of Critical Thinking in the online article, Valuable intellectual traits (2002) at Five of the seven traits, with a brief description from this site are:
1. Intellectual Humility: Having a consciousness of the limits of ones knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which ones native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice and limitations of ones viewpoint.
2. Intellectual Courage: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing
3. Intellectual Empathy: Having a consciousness of the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, which requires the consciousness of our egocentric tendency to identify truth with our immediate perceptions of long-standing thought or belief.
4. Intellectual Integrity: Recognition of the need to be true to ones own thinking; to be consistent in the intellectual standards one applies; to hold ones self to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds ones antagonists; to practice what one advocates for others; and to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in ones own thought and action.
5. Intellectual Perseverance: Having a consciousness of the need to use intellectual insights and truths in spite of difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations; firm adherence to rational principles despite the irrational opposition of others; a sense of the need to struggle with confusion and unsettled questions over an extended period of time to achieve deeper understanding or insight (???Valuable intellectual traits,??? 2002).
Some serious thought has been put into these traits that mankind will spend a life time working on. I believe some teachers and students will not readily embrace all of these traits, but if they can begin with one, that is a beginning. How and when an individual trait is introduced to the class and what attending activities might help young minds mature and become more introspective, needs to be carefully thought out. This is something that might be preceded by determining the position of the school administration and/or departmental faculty prior to introducing these traits.
Online considerations. Now what might be implemented and work in an online course None of these components presents a greater difficulty to an online class. Reflection over time is a major strength of online courses. The user is able to choose the time for communicating the reflective thoughts, which can be sent to the entire class via email simultaneously.
Domain 3: Critical reading strategies (expository texts)
In the domain of critical reading strategies, our focus will be on four concerns. First, we will review the current state of expository text instruction. Second, basic instructional procedures will be briefly presented. Third, I will introduce five major skills required of students to process the information texts they find in the content area classes and in authentic texts. Last, I will share some observations made during my graduate field experiences at Boise State University.
Can critical reading strategies, especially of expository texts, be uniformly taught across the content area curriculum Rhoder (2002) states, ???We can teach students to deliberately use strategies to read and understand text and to do so across a wide variety of texts and disciplines.??? Simic (2002) also says we should utilize these strategies to all areas of the curriculum. There are many books (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000; Tovani, 2000; Wilhelm, Baker & Dube, 2001) designed specifically to address strategy instruction.
On the surface, this appears encouraging, but the question that must be asked is what kind of strategies is being taught Based upon my observations and conversations with secondary teachers and current research, generic strategies are being taught such as KWL, Reciprocal Teaching, jigsaw, prediction journals, think-pair-share, SQ3R and think aloud (Sadler, 2001). Strategy instruction of expository (information) text structure, the overall focus of this research project, is largely absent. It is absent especially where it is needed most, in the classrooms of content area teachers.
The absence of instruction in expository texts is confirmed in the Pattern Guides section of the Reading Instructional Handbook from Commodore Perry School District in Pennsylvania (as cited in Corio, 2001a):
Although most students are aware of text structure in narratives, that is not true necessarily for informational text. This is because informational text is structurally more complex and because students have not been exposed to nearly as many good examples of it.
Confirmation of the lack of instruction in expository text structure instruction is found in the article, Text Organization and Its Relation to Reading Comprehension: A Synthesis of the Research (Dickson, Simmons, Kameenui, 2001 ): ???First, text structure and student awareness of text structure are highly related to comprehension. Second, explicit instruction in text presentation and structures facilitates comprehension.??? The message is that this type of instruction is not commonly practiced and thus, students are not comprehending much of the text that they read in their content area courses.
In a synthesis of the research on text organization and reading comprehension, Dickson, Simmons and Kameenui (2001) find that student awareness of structural patterns in expository writing, such as process, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, facilitated recall of more text information and more main ideas. Two consistent findings were reported. ???Students who are knowledgeable about and/or follow the authors structure in their attempts to recall a text remember more than those who do not. Second, more good than poor readers follow the authors structure in their attempt to recall a text.???
To clarify the process in expository text instruction, Reading Matters has posted the website, Using text structure with information text (2002), suggested for grades 3 to 8. It can be found at It outlines some specific steps.
1. Introduce text structure by explaining that an expository text structure is a name given to the organization of paragraphs that gives the reader specific information about a topic.
2. Introduce the label and define it. Show the graphic organizer.
3. Show examples of paragraphs that correspond to the graphic organizer. Locate signal words.
4. Examine topic sentences that clue the reader to a specific structure.
5. Model the writing of a paragraph that follows a graphic organizer. Use the signal words.
6. Have students try writing paragraphs of their own that resemble a specific structure found in their social studies or science books (???Using text structure,??? 2002).
There are five skills (a composite) that challenge the critical reader.
Manage multiple texts. First, the reader must learn how to manage multiple texts and resources. For what reasons you might ask
? Notes that analyze the information that can be contradictory, misleading, biased;
? Notes that evaluate the information source;
? Citation of references in APA, MLA, or Chicago for preparing your reports;
? Questions you need to ask, were answered, weren??™t answered, and more;
? Connections you make to the text, the author and the issues;
? Arguments, defenses, proofs, resources and quotes that support your position;
? Notes from oral and written dialogs with yourself and task team;
? Additional articles you find, copy or format and print beyond the initial texts.
? Gather online newspaper articles from around the world, journal articles, web reports, we are part of the information age and the information is massive.
Expository text structures. Second, learn, recognize and graphically describe the expository text structures of the texts you are reading and analyzing. The emphasis is not on what you think you know, but on what you can demonstrate that you know, to yourself, your group and the entire class. Each stage allows the learner to clarify and refine their position, ideas and thoughts, while increasing the challenges they will face from others with conflicting or opposite views.
Key words. Third, be able to identify the key words, ideas and issues that support your efforts to resolve a conflict, settle a dispute or solve a problem. These key words are essential in creating spatial representations or graphic organizers of what you have read. They are the links that constitute your synthesis reports and which support your interpretation and position to others.
Relevant and irrelevant. Fourth, learn to discern the relevant from the irrelevant, the consistent from the inconsistent. Your goal is not to know or understand everything, but to understand everything that supports your goal to solve a problem or find a solution. Here is where you begin to establish a personal link to the text and the author, where you make connections that are part of your world, issues and concerns. Time to reflect allows your thoughts to grow, to mature and help you prepare to share your thoughts aloud and with others.
Synthesis. Fifth, synthesize the main points, key issues, possible solutions, outstanding and unresolved questions within and beyond the organization of the text. A synthesis melds together the various elements that you, the author, and the context bring to the text. A synthesis is enhanced, clarified and embedded in the mind when it is accompanied by a spatial or graphic representation (Pearson & Fielding, 1996) of the main and supporting ideas of the texts. Students prepare themselves for this step by practicing oral and written summaries of the texts they read and the experiences they share. A summary describes what happened, a synthesis explains why and how something happened and what is significant about it.
Field observations. There is definitely a need for instruction in expository text structures. Whether we talk about 4, 5 or 7 basic structures (Coiro, 2001b), students at the secondary level lack an essential skill for critical thinking and reading. Reading specialists abound at the elementary level. Programs like America Reads, every child reads 20 minutes a day and The 90% reading goal (Rosier, Fielding & Kerr, 1998), are extremely successful. Pupils learn discipline and how to keep a reading record, which parents sign. Similar programs need to be instituted at the middle and high school level with a greater emphasis on expository texts.
During my graduate field experience in the Meridian School District, I discussed their reading program and observed the teacher with her classes. The teacher informed me that she was a social studies teacher, had no formal instruction in reading for her certification program, but these classes were assigned to her. During my student-teaching assignment in another Treasure Valley high school, the reading teacher was an English teacher, but with no idea how to teach reading, other than silent reading time with assigned reports on what they were reading. I tried to speak to the previous reading teacher, who had been moved to the district office. I had the head of the English Department contact her in my behalf. She had been so frustrated while at that high school, having taught the same class I was then assigned to, that she would not agree to speak to me.
I wish my experiences were isolated cases, but that does not seem to be the case. Online courses in expository text instruction that implement the critical thinking components we have thus far discussed offer a path for many whose needs are currently not being met.
Online considerations. Each of these skills are natural components of online classes. Online classes typically require the students to deal with multiple information sources and genres, as opposed to reliance on a single information source. Students learn to download, format, print and identify the source as a natural procedure. In addition to the hardcopies they must organize, they must organize where they go on the Internet by setting up folders and filing their favorites where they can routinely be found again. Using programs like Inspiration, they can give life and interpretation to the key words, issues and solutions they seek and share more readily and quickly than within the regular classroom. Students work individually and then test their interpretations against the insights of their task teams, learning to negotiate, defend, support and resolve differences in a common cause??”solution of a problem.
Domain 4: Critical thinking tasks
Thus far we have defined critical thinking, established need and enumerated practices and preparations necessary for the critical thinking environment. Next we suggested how we might establish the critical mindset along with the intellectual possibilities our students might aspire to. We have emphasized the need to establish, spell out, repeat and re-establish a purpose at the domain level and at the component level of each domain.
In the third domain, critical reading, we have identified again the need for such instruction and five critical skills essential to individual mindful learning. All of the skills, strategies and preparations have led to preparing the individual for engagement in the group, social and academic environment.
There are five components that establish the interactive task process.
1. Establish groups and negotiate group roles for each member.
2. Teach, model and help students learn how to ask higher level, probing questions.
3. Analyze the data and continue to identify solutions to the issues and/or problem.
4. Evaluate the information source, and
5. Establish the criteria, standards and values that will support your position and solutions.
Groups and roles. What does current research say about the connection between critical thinking and cooperative learning groups In Cooper??™s article (1995), Cooperative learning and critical thinking, he argues, ???In properly structured cooperative learning environments, students perform more of the active, critical thinking with continuous support and feedback from other students and the teacher??? (p. 8). Group interaction provides the opportunity for students to share what they know, what they would like to learn, to take positions in a supportive environment that gives voice to emerging interpretations of texts, issues and glimpses of how they might solve the problems before them. Group interaction fosters the environment that takes individualized learning and analysis a step further. But without careful preparation, this may not always be the case.
Ellis, Worthington and Larkin (2002) noted that there is a distinct difference between high-achieving and low achieving students. High achievers tended to be more attentive in their daily tasks because they practiced the skills and strategies successfully and were able to talk through their tasks; whereas, low-achievers developed different strategies that did not promote practice and learning. They relied more on guessing, were more careless and generally unable to discern the relevant from the irrelevant. They were not as flexible in their thought and strategy selection as the high-achieving students.
Comparing the insights of Cooper and Ellis suggests that before groups can be effective, they have to learn how to interact together, to learn about different roles that can balance the duties and responsibilities of each member. In the article, Using collaborative strategic reading (Klingner & Vaughn, 1998), the authors suggest six roles and duties that are somewhat different from that commonly found in the reading research.
1. Leader. This student leads the group in the implementation of Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR) by saying what to read next and what strategy to apply next. The leader asks the teacher for assistance, if necessary.
2. Clunk Expert. This student uses clunk cards to remind the group of the steps to follow when trying to figure out a difficult word or concept.
3. Announcer. This student calls on different group members to read or share an idea. He or she makes sure everyone participates and only one person talks at a time.
4. Encourager This student watches the group and gives feedback. He or she looks for behaviors to praise. The student encourages all group members to participate in the discussion and assist one another. He or she evaluates how well the group has worked together and gives suggestions for improvement.
5. Reporter. During the whole-class wrap-up, this student reports to the class the main ideas the group learned and shares a favorite question the group has generated.
6. Time Keeper. This student sets the timer for each portion of CSR and lets the group know when it is time to move on (the teacher might do this instead of students) (Klingner & Vaughn, 1998).
Klingner and Vaughn recommend that roles should rotate on a regular basis. Because there is so much information to manage, questions to ask, I argue that roles should not be changed for the duration of the problem-solving task. Too often students have been thrown together into groups without role assignments and training in how to work together, lacking procedures for balancing the tempo and contributions of the highly and less highly motivated. Changing the roles regularly also diminishes the contribution each person can make in a given capacity, suggesting little skill development for that role. Depth of learning and probing questions come to life and take form in the groups. Performing group roles is seldom easy because of the differing personalities and varied contributions. It takes time for a team to develop the trust, engagement and confidence to accomplish major problem-solving tasks.
Peer-generated questions. A web site by the University of Tennessee indicates the importance of teaching students to ask probing, thought-provoking questions ???for it is such types of questions that promote advancement in the very fields we are teaching. Every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously??? (???Critical thinking,??? 2002).
Whether in small groups or during reciprocal teaching, learning and thinking is founded on questions. Little and Richards (2000) suggest that all students write questions to the materials they have just read. This allows them to find out what others in the group understood and how they might have interpreted various ideas. Student-generated questions also give the learners a stake in the critical thinking and problem-solving process. Little and Richards provided these observations:
I practiced with them how to create thought-provoking questions by using how and why. Still, I found that the students created mostly literal kinds of questions, probably because they were lower level readers. However, I found that this did not really matter. Once discussions emerged, the students were able to expand on what had been asked. This expansion caused them to think about the text on higher levels. They came up with ideas about what they thought the author meant and what kind of message the readers should take from the reading. I found that this active dialogue with the group was most beneficial (Little & Richards, 2000).
What kinds of questions dominate in many of our classrooms today Are they thought-provoking, do they encourage critical thinking Badger and Thomas (2002) address this question. They state that multiple-choice, true false and questions with only a single correct answer are not acceptable. This suggests that if we teach to critical thinking, we cannot test to lower-level questions that dominate teacher-student interaction. They emphasize the importance of open-ended questions:
Open-ended questions address the essential concepts, processes, and skills that go beyond the specifics of instruction to define a subject area. In general, they require complex thinking and yield multiple solutions. Open-ended questions require teachers or evaluators to interpret and use multiple criteria in evaluating responses. Such questions also require more from students than simply memorizing facts (Badger & Thomas, 2002).
The Foundations of Critical Thinking (2002) website clarifies the significance of questioning:
The key to powerful thinking is powerful questioning. When we ask the right questions, we succeed as a thinker, for questions are the force that powers our thinking. Thinking, at any point in time, can go off in thousands of different directions, some of which, by the way, are dead-ends. Questions define the agenda of our thinking. They determine what information we seek. They lead us in one direction rather than another. They are, therefore, a crucial part of our thinking (???Critical mind,??? 2002).
Having described the necessity and importance of students asking questions, what questions can the teacher model that will encourage students Question stems that encourage and generate higher-level questions might include:
??? How were ____ and _____ the same Different
??? What do you think would happen if _____
??? What do you think caused _____ to happen
??? What other solution can you think of for the problem of ____
??? What might have prevented the problem of ____ from happening
??? What are the strengths (or weaknesses) of ____ (Klingner & Vaughn, 1998)
Analyze and interpret data. This component of critical task processing has probably received more attention in the research and been described by a greater variety of terms than any other component. A definition of analyze can be found on the Internet at the Educator??™s Guide to critical thinking terms and concepts, which states:
To break up a whole into its parts, to examine in detail so as to determine the nature of, to look more deeply into an issue or situation. All learning presupposes some analysis of what we are learning, if only by categorizing or labeling things in one way rather than another. Students should continually be asked to analyze their ideas, claims, experiences, interpretations, judgments, and theories and those they hear and read (???Educator??™s Guide,??? 2002).
In How can we teach critical thinking, Carr (2002) expands on the mental processes we hope to observe during the analysis phase:
[We] must look for biases, presence or exclusion of important evidence, alternative interpretations, misstatement of facts, and errors in reasoning. Each group must decide which view is the most reasonable. After coming to a conclusion, each group acts out their dialogue and explains their analysis of it (Carr, 2002).
But where is the analysis of data and the group??™s collaboration headed The analysis process allows the critical thinker to be securely grounded in the supporting details, evidence, examples and concepts that lead to the interpretation, which supports one??™s position. Again we turn to the Educator??™s guide (2002) for a detailed explanation of interpretation:
To give ones own conception of, to place in the context of ones own experience, perspective, point of view, or philosophy. Interpretations should be distinguished from the facts, the evidence, the situation. The best interpretations take the most evidence into account. Critical thinkers recognize their interpretations, distinguish them from evidence, consider alternative interpretations, and reconsider their interpretations in the light of new evidence. All learning involves personal interpretation, since whatever we learn we must integrate into our own thinking and action. What we learn must be given a meaning by us, must be meaningful to us, and hence involves interpretive acts on our part. Didactic instruction, in attempting to directly implant knowledge in students minds, typically ignores the role of personal interpretation in learning (???Educator??™s Guide,??? 2002).
Analysis of data investigates the accuracy, depth, superficiality, breadth, clarity, logic, consistency, reliability and validity of the text in order that we can create an informed opinion, an interpretation that has taken us far beyond our initial beliefs and biases. This is done during the group interaction process, which Fowler (2002) describes in yet greater detail:
Critical thinking includes the ability to respond to material by distinguishing between facts and opinions or personal feelings, judgments and inferences, inductive and deductive arguments, and the objective and subjective. It also includes the ability to generate questions, construct, and recognize the structure of arguments, and adequately support arguments; define, analyze, and devise solutions for problems and issues; sort, organize, classify, correlate, and analyze materials and data; integrate information and see relationships; evaluate information, materials, and data by drawing inferences, arriving at reasonable and informed conclusions, applying understanding and knowledge to new and different problems, developing rational and reasonable interpretations, suspending beliefs and remaining open to new information, methods, cultural systems, values and beliefs and by assimilating information (Fowler, 2002).
Evaluate author and sources. One of the challenges of going beyond the publisher-designed, state board of education accepted, content area textbooks, is that these multiple sources have not uniformly been checked out and verified. There is extensive self-publishing and authoring over the Internet that the meek, passively accepting of all text in print student can no longer unquestionably rely on. In the research, much less attention has been given to evaluating authors and Internet sources. Some authors (Kurland, 2002; Langer, 2002; Wade, 1995) have recognized the importance of this evaluation.
Our arguments, premises, positions, opinions and interpretations are no stronger than our resources. Rumors, myths, urban legends, political, and environmental deceits abound, which the average citizen must wade through in order to make informed choices and discern that which is of value and that which lacks merits or is harmful.
Establish criteria, standards and values.
Several authors (Ferrett, 1993; Halpern & Nummedal, 1995) have recommended the need for criteria, standards and values, but seldom identify which ones they are referring to. Applying standards to our thinking is necessary because it allows us to check the quality of reasoning behind a problem, issue or situation. Teachers can help their students learn these standards by posing questions that hold the students accountable for their thinking, reasoning and answers. The Foundations of Critical Thinking (???Critical mind,??? 2002) has posted universal intellectual standards at their website toward which each of us should strive.
1. Clarity: Could you elaborate further on that point Could you express that point in another way Could you give me an illustration Could you give me an example Clarity is a gateway standard. If a statement is unclear, we cannot determine whether it is accurate or relevant. In fact, we cannot tell anything about it because we dont yet know what it is saying.
2. Accuracy: Is that really true How could we check that How could we find out if that is true A statement can be clear but not accurate, as in ???Most dogs are over 300 pounds in weight.???
3. Precision: Could you give me more details Could you be more specific A statement can be both clear and accurate, but not precise, as in “Jack is overweight” (We dont know how overweight Jack is, one pound or 500 pounds.).
4. Relevance: How is that connected to the question How does that bear on the issue A statement can be clear, accurate, and precise, but not relevant to the question at issue. For example, students often think that the amount of effort they put into a course should be used in raising their grade in a course. Often, however, “effort” does not measure the quality of student learning, and when that is so, effort is irrelevant to their appropriate grade.
5. Depth: How does your answer address the complexities in the question How are you taking into account the problems in the question Is that dealing with the most significant factors
6. Breadth: Do we need to consider another point of view Is there another way to look at this question What would this look like from a conservative standpoint What would this look like from the point of view of…
7. Logic: Does this really make sense Does that follow from what you said How does that follow But before you implied this and now you are saying that, I dont see how both can be true (???Critical mind,??? 2002).
Online considerations. Having discussed the five components of critical task processing, what special advantages or disadvantages might be found in an online class First, most online instructional models emphasize interactive, engaging group activities. There is a general lack of role assignments at the post-secondary level, but that is easily remedied for the secondary level. Numerous online sites provide descriptions of group roles and duties.
Instruction in powerful, thought-provoking peer-generated questions is probably as difficult in the classroom as online. Teacher guidance and encouragement during the analysis and author evaluation phases can be more specific and timely in an online class, especially when individual emails and questions can be sent as easily to the teacher as to all of the students in the group or class. This is advantageous because frustrations, confusion and questions in one group can often be found in the other groups as well.
In an online class, there is a feeling of more isolation, but this is gradually overcome as each student learns how easy it is to contact the teacher, even instantly with MSN Messenger, and engage him or her in a private discussion, that when completed, portions of the transcript can then be sent to others, as student or teacher deems appropriate. This goes far beyond the type of question-answer-response of teacher-student interaction. This communication can be more specific, less embarrassing and available during a larger segment of the day.
Domain 5: Critical thinking outcomes
Presentation of problem and solution. Thus far we have:
1. Defined critical thinking and the need for such instruction
2. Established the critical thinking environment
3. Described the critical thinking mind
4. Reviewed the need and skills that support critical reading
5. Outlined the components of group critical task processing, which have led us to
6. Demonstrating the outcome, the presentation of the problem and solution.
There are two instructional models that may serve as a guide for student demonstrations of learning in the presentation of the problem and solution. The first is Universal Design Learning (UDL) and the second is Problem-Based Learning. Both of these models encourage multiple means by which learning may be demonstrated.
Support and defend position and solution. A well-thought out solution should represent the consideration of many alternatives, yet the selection of one or two that best represent the desirable outcome and the sound selection of supporting ideas and details. Justification is the process of spelling out the details, facts, evidence that support a position. This is further explained in the Educator??™s Guide (2002):
The act of showing a belief, opinion, action, or policy to be in accord with reason and evidence, to be ethically acceptable, or both. Education should foster reasonability in students. This requires that both teachers and students develop the disposition to ask for and give justifications for beliefs, opinions, actions, and policies. Asking for a justification should not, then, be viewed as an insult or attack, but rather as a normal act of a rational person.
Another term often used is to argue one??™s position. This represents a real challenge to young learners. They are more familiar with argue, meaning to fight or emotionally disagree. Our intent is that they will argue in the critical thinking manner, which means to give reasons to support one??™s views, to use logic, reason and patient persuasion in a spirit of cooperation and good will, without the often-distracting influence of the ego.
This component of critical thinking can be the most intriguing, interesting and challenging to monitor, direct and guide. It is here that closure comes about, a sense of completing a struggle in learning and as such, should take special position in the syllabus and permit sufficient time for student presentations.
Incorporate position and principles into personal life. Having reached the final stages of a critical thinking project, presented and supported one??™s position and/or solution, there is one final link to be made??”obedience to the principles we have identified, supported, defended and now strive to embrace. A greater appreciation of what this obedience entails and why it is so important to critical thinking can be found in Palmer??™s book, To know as we are known (1993). From chapter 6, I quote:
The consensual process of truth seeking is based on the simple assumption that all of us thinking together are smarter than any one of us thinking alone??”as the scores often demonstrate. Through consensus we transform the fragmentary knowledge of individuals into a knowledge more complete, a transformation that occurs as students enter into obedience to each other and to the subject at hand. The knowledge of the group as a whole is not merely additive; it is always potentially greater than the sum of its parts (p. 94).
Online considerations. Three components have been described in this last domain, critical thinking outcomes. Of the three, presentation of the problem and solution provides many opportunities online, much in the format of a business or sales presentation. Lacking is the presence of students prepared to listen, ask questions and determine if the solution has been adequately justified. This can partially be overcome through a synchronous online presentation where students can submit their questions and responses so that everyone can see simultaneously.
The personal reflection required in the third component of incorporating the principles and position one espouses into his or her personal life remains equally difficult in the online environment and in the F-2-F classroom. Identifying, planning, modeling and encouraging such transformation is not a semester or secondary endeavor, but an endeavor of a lifetime. And, is not that our challenge, to develop life-long learners
This research project became my personal experience in critical thinking with the attending struggles, frustrations, dead-ends and fulfillment I hope each of us can experience individually and with our students. In my readings of more than sixty sources, never did I see the features of critical thinking organized and combined as I here have presented them.
The first question is, ???In what ways will a better understanding of critical thinking guide me in introducing individual components in my classes??? The second question is, ???How might I incorporate these domains and components into an online class focusing on expository text instruction??? The efficacy of this endeavor will be demonstrated in the design of the online course, a forth-coming project.

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