Programs - 1999
Thinking and Citizenship
A Pedagogy for an Informed Democracy
by Dennis Parker, Administrator
California Department of Education
Critical Thinking, Citizenship,
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 andon
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"
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