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The Evidence Base for Social Studies: Critical Thinking
The Evidence Base for Social Studies: Critical Thinking

What We Know

Critical thinking is reflective and involves the use of reasoning. Nosich identifies three parts of critical thinking: asking questions, trying to answer those questions by reasoning them out and believing the results of one’s reasoning (2001, p. 5). Nosich, using the research of others in the field, identifies eight elements, or filters, of the reasoning process: purpose, question at issue, assumptions, implications and consequences, information, concepts, conclusions and interpretations, and point of view (2001, p. 87). The developed critical thinker filters information and questions using these elements. Nosich notes that there is no order to using these filters.

Critical thinking is often associated with discussions or problem-solving, yet these may not be critical thinking methods (Nosich 2001, p. 10). Discussion and problem-solving are critical thinking opportunities when students:
  • Listen to what others are saying;
  • Attempt to understand the reasoning being used;
  • Identify the strong and weak points of views being presented; and
  • Identify the problem to be solved, rather than having that information given to them.
Students enter school not as blank slates, but with experiences and a schema structure (a way of looking at and interpreting the world.) The schema that students make are useful and necessary. It is the way students understand the world around them. The drawback to schema-building is that it often precludes students from other ways of thinking. Critical thinking allows students to identify issues that do not seem to fit with their established schema and to find a way to modify their schema to fit in the new information or reject the information using a reasoning process (Selwyn and Maher 2003, p. 42).

What role does critical thinking play in student learning?

One of the goals of social studies education is to help students make significant connections and be able to apply knowledge learned to the real world. Douglas Selwyn and Jan Maher state, "if we study isolated facts and don’t make connections, those facts go in one neuron and out the other, never causing enough of a stir to be sent into long-term memory" (2003, p. 11). The way students learn is through a mix of direct instruction, demonstration, practice, rote-learning and problem-solving (Wallace 2002, p. 3).

In Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Vygotsky identifies that students learn when they can recall what is already learned, and extend their existing schema to accommodate new information (Wallace 2002, p. 9). Selwyn and Maher reflect this concept when they state that, in order for students to learn new concepts, they have to let go of old notions and see the world with fresh eyes (2003, p. 42). Students have then created new paradigms.

Another goal of social studies learning is to provide students with new perspectives and new points of view and to allow them to see the world in a way they have never seen it before (Nosich 2001, p. 95). To achieve this, researchers note that students need to be introduced to the vocabulary of critical thinking. Students need critical thinking instruction across the curriculum by way of the introduction and practice of vocabulary associated with critical thinking (i.e., arguments, assumptions, cause and effect, compare and contrast) (Wright 2002, p. 257). James Leming identifies six criteria for the development of critical thinking in the classroom (1998). They are as follows:
  1. Focus on helping students learn important organizing ideas, not just sets of facts.
  2. Strive for depth of understanding, not just coverage of content.
  3. Set high expectations for students.
  4. Divide students into groups or work with small numbers of students.
  5. Plan critical thinking time into lessons;
  6. work with other teachers to develop a culture of critical thinking for the students.

What does critical thinking look like in the social studies classroom?

Children begin to think philosophically when they begin to ask "why?" (Wilks 1995, p. 2). The ability to think critically is acquired by practice. Wilks identifies classroom dialogue as the mode for obtaining such practice by encouraging students to ask, "Are you saying you think …" or "I think you are saying … but I disagree" (1995, p. 4). Using Piaget’s model, Wilks expands classroom dialogue to include critical thinking concepts. Piaget identifies language as a facilitator and guide of thought processes. Critical thinking dialogues can be used to provide students ample opportunity to verbally interact with the teacher and one another. In the social studies classroom, students could discuss current events and debate various aspects of social issues. Piaget notes that concepts arise from exploring the environment and students should be involved in real and relevant activities. Students could hold a mock election and follow the process from voter registration, through party conventions, to voting. Students could interview area residents about a local issue and present the information in a public forum. A third Piaget component of critical thinking is that development proceeds from concrete to symbolic. To aid the critical thinking development process, the curriculum could be written to have students move from manipulation of the concrete to the symbolic. Once students have mastered the basic concepts, they could identify a problem, research components of the problem, take a position for solving the problem and defend that position. Finally, Piaget’s critical thinking model provides teachers with an understanding of how students progress in their logical thoughts. Students could be provided with activities and challenges appropriate to developmental levels (Wilks 1995, p. 1). An example in the social studies classroom could include assisting students to clarify the meaning of what they say and write when they are asked to take a position on an issue or hold a specific point of view (Wilks 1995, p. 5).

Researchers offer a variety of approaches for teaching critical thinking: establishing a separate course, infusion of critical thinking methods where they fit in a course and embedding critical thinking methods into a course (Doolittle and Hicks 2003; Levstik and Barton 2001; Nosich 2001; Wright 2002). Wright identifies a number of positive results that occur when critical thinking is embedded into the social studies curriculum. He found that embedding critical thinking competencies in social studies lessens the risk of teaching "inert" knowledge or knowledge that is never used outside the classroom (Wright 2002, p. 257). Nosich suggests having students begin to think in the "field," to look at the identified "question" from the point of view of other related disciplines (2001, p. 95). He suggests students consider many of the following contexts when reasoning through a particular question: historic, economic, cultural, linguistic, scientific, personal and social (Nosich 2001, p. 98).

Levstik and Barton state that for students to know something, they have to understand that knowledge is fundamentally different from either faith or blind opinion (2001, p. 83). Nosich finds that many students’ experiences with social studies courses involve learning lists of events, dates, facts, people, definition of terms, and sometimes learning about the relations among them. He notes that the students have little idea of what the time and place of a concept is as a whole. They know the parts, but not the whole (2001, p. 54). Providing students with primary sources, databases, speeches, media sources and discussion of past issues offers students a broader view of events of the past and current concerns (Doolittle and Hicks 2003, p. 89). Critical thinking allows the parts to become whole. Based on an analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Citizenship tests, Patrick adds that critical thinking is necessary for the achievement of good citizenship in a free society (1996). Expanding on this, Patrick states that good citizenship in the American republic involves the responsibility to be an informed and rational participant in civic affairs and that thinking critically about public issues, candidates for public office and governmental decisions is essential in maintaining a free society (1996).

In his book Up and Out, Andrew Johnson stresses the need for social studies to be given as much attention as reading and writing (2000, p. 30). Wilks agrees with Johnson and both find that the conceptual knowledge from social studies makes reading and writing easier for students. Johnson suggests having students create a poem, give a speech or perform a newscast as an alternative to simply writing a report or answering end of chapter questions for homework (2000, p. 39). This is especially important if critical thinking skills are a part of the curriculum. Johnson cautions educators to identify four to 10 thinking skills they wish to integrate each year, doing so one at a time in a variety of situations (2000, p. 26). However, with younger students, fewer critical thinking skills should be introduced and practiced during the year. Wilks further suggests that teachers should assist students in clarifying meaning of what they say and write (1995, p. 5). Teacher modeling of the questioning process facilitates students to incorporate critical thinking skills into their own lives.

Campbell suggests introducing specific critical thinking strategies in the following grade levels:
  • In grades K-2 have students group and categorize.
  • In grades 3-6 integrate lessons on evidence, cause and effect, stereotyping.
  • In grades 6-8 have students identify a problem, suggest alternative solutions, implement the preferred alternative, evaluate the outcome and give presentations using the best identified mode for the material.
  • In grades 9-12 have students consider omissions, assumptions, the effect of considering a particular point of view (2000, p. 241).
Critical thinking development relies on the use of scaffolding in the early grades. Scaffolding, as defined by Levstik and Barton, is a joint activity between teacher and student that assists the students in learning skills and contextual knowledge (2001). Verenikina, in a study of scaffolding, identifies three characteristics a teaching and learning event needs to qualify as scaffolding:
  • It enables the learners to carry out tasks which they would not have been able to manage on their own.
  • It intends to bring the learners to a state of competence which will enable them to eventually complete such a task on their own.
  • It is followed by evidence of the learners having achieved some greater level of independent competence as a result of the scaffolding experience (2004).
Levstik and Barton identify several ways for teachers to assist students through scaffolding: encourage a student’s interest in accomplishing the task; actively support and encourage student work on the task; provide students experience in developing questions; identify resources and planning tools; and provide critical feedback (2001, p. 15). Verenikina identifies a concern researchers have noted about scaffolding: The metaphor of scaffolding can lead to viewing the adult-child interaction in the classroom as predominantly adult-driven and one-sided in nature (2004). Verenikina adds that researchers do not want to abandon the metaphor, but stress that teachers should view the child as an active self-explorer in the scaffolding process (2004).

Critical thinking does not consist of following a set pattern of procedures. Critical thinking processes offer an array of options for students and teachers to incorporate into their daily lives. Options for assisting critical thinking are decision-making, inquiry, cooperative learning, list- making, asking experts, graphic organizers, analogies, models or applying principle tests to moral judgments. Key to developing critical thinking skills in the social studies is engaging kindergarten through grade 12 students in situations with open-ended solutions (Sunal 1990, p. 22; Wilks 1995, p. 258).
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