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Programs - 1999

Critical Thinking and Citizenship
A Pedagogy for an Informed Democracy

by Dennis Parker, Administrator
California Department of Education

Critical Thinking, Citizenship, And Humanity

The characteristics of citizenship in the US were initially forged in the fires of critical thinking as demonstrated by the Founding Fathers. Witness the intellectual exploits of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, to name a few. The intellectual tradition represented by these men is carried on in print and in speech to this day, sometimes at high levels over back fences, at dinner tables, or in taverns and—on a "good day—
even in the more formal institutions of the press or the halls of government. More significantly, the kind of critical thinking that underlies our form government is the responsibility of every citizen. Why? At a minimum, because of two features of our democracy: the right to vote and the right to trial by jury.

Both of these pillars of democracy have been bought and paid for with the lives of our citizens. The absence of the opportunity for jury duty or to vote for or against a person or proposition is conspicuous in governments that elevate dictators and cronies over the common good. On the other hand, the strength and longevity of these features in our society allow us to almost take them for granted. It should go without saying, however, that without informed citizens capable of higher order thinking, our democracy can easily be threatened by demagogues in the voting booth and by snap judgments and personal prejudice in the jury box.

The capacity for critical thinking, however, is not just a foundation for citizenship or for its stepchild, politics. It is an essentially human capacity necessary for survival and a life worth living beyond the level of dumb luck. Literacy is obviously not a prerequisite for this capacity, although work with the printed word can, if conducted in specific ways, facilitate its development. More importantly, however, critical thinking is the essence of making personal sense of things, of solving problems, of weighing alternatives, of making judgments, and of not necessarily taking things at face value. In short, it is the ability to take information and turn it into knowledge for the purpose of doing work.

Although apparently "necessary" for exercising citizenship and surviving as a human being, critical thinking is certainly not a "sufficient" ability. At a minimum, values play an indispensable role in our conduct. That is, the critical thought behind "the work" referred to above might result in good or evil, solving important problems or trivial ones, or producing art or junk. The Nazis in World War II, for example, might be said to have used their collective powers of critical thinking to promote certain standards of citizenship in the Third Reich that was devastating to millions not valued as members of the "in group." Tragically, the application of critical thinking during this period in Germany supported an insidious "final solution" to a "problem" founded
on values most of us would reject out of hand. The critical thinking capacities and contrasting values of the Allies, of course, supported the downfall of such an evil regime.

A second "minimum" with regard to critical thinking is the disposition even to apply such an ability. What does it matter to have a skill and not use it or withhold it when it does not suit one's personal agenda or interests. The disposition to employ critical thinking skills, especially when one is engaged in what is
considered the exercise of one's citizenship in a democracy, is as important as having developed such intellectual skills in the first place. For society to fail to establish a standard for the development of critical thinking is to set the stage for the exacerbation of the gap between have's and have not's. But to set up and address such standards without including an education in the ethic and habit of using critical thinking skills, especially in the exercise of one's citizenship, is to provide seeds but no water to grow them.

Critical Thinking And Pedagogy

Critical thinking should be a natural feature of the language arts curriculum. Many current writings and legislative initiatives emphasize reading as fluent and accurate decoding. Some would add that decoding is not reading unless accompanied at least by literal comprehension. However, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the SAT 9, a popular national norm-referenced test, require that students show a high command of both of these features as well as inferential comprehension /critical thinking in order to score as "proficient readers." Thus, the bar has been raised in the Information Age. Reading now means decode, understand, and think.

The first consideration for teaching critical thinking is to define it in teachable ways. Ennis (1987) has provided not only one of simplest definitions but also one of the most well-developed taxonomies of critical thinking available. To Ennis, "Critical thinking is the reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do." Such a definition lends itself to both kindergarten as well as secondary school students' capacities and sensibilities. He goes on to provide a two-part taxonomy. Part one outlines 14 dispositions to use critical thinking skills, while part two enumerates and elaborates on 12 critical thinking abilities.

Both Pearson et al (1990) and Pressley et al (1994) provide sum-maries of strong evidence that literal and inferential comprehension skills as well as critical thinking can be effectively nurtured, supported, and taught explicitly in the classroom. They support six families of strategies that consistently do the job: (1) extensive opportunities to read; (2) teaching comprehension, thinking, and text-handling strategies; (3) helping students understand the structure of the topic; (4) helping students to connect text with background knowledge; (5) student collaboration around text; and (6) time to talk about what was read.


This session focuses on three areas. The first is an argument for the essential nature of critical thinking as a necessary although not sufficient feature of citizenship. The second is a definition of critical thinking and references to the scope of this ability including the disposition to use it. The third is an outline of research-based evidence for effectively teaching comprehension and critical thinking within the context of literacy development.

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