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Critical Thinking: The Missing Link in 21st Century Education
By: Juan A. Colon Norat
The purpose of education has been to create individuals which have a skillset that will
support their decisions on how they are going to become civic members of society. However, a
distinction between the purpose of this education, whether economical or cultural has been made
by Kanpol who argues “that historically the primary function of schools has been an economic
one--to prepare students for the work force”. The essence of Kanpol’s argument is that modern
education has defined the classroom space to the community of learners as a training camp
which prepares them to simply enter the work force like gears that oil a machine. The prevailing
notion behind this definition of the classroom space has in turn created a community of teachers
which rely on traditional schooling methods which do not encompass the different student
backgrounds which teachers will encounter in the classroom. Consequently, they are not taking
into consideration that modern students have different needs, desires and motivations. The
inclusion of critical thinking practices using literature as part of the classroom dynamics allows
students to develop a very crucial and essential skillset for their development as civic members
of society. In addition, a critical pedagogy approach in order to further class discussions would
benefit the complexity and depth of discussions which are stemmed from such an endeavor.
The classroom environment is one of the most dynamic spaces that exists due to its
flexible nature which accepts adjustments in order to make it more accessible to students with
different backgrounds. Student’s engagement with the classroom and the content presented to
them is one of the educator’s main concerns when reflecting about classroom management.
However, the current system of education faces a challenge with “only about one-half (52
percent) of students in the principal school systems… complete high school with a diploma”
(Swanson 8). Which means that the remaining 48 percent are dropping out of high school
education. According to a report on high school dropouts by Bridgeland et al. “nearly half (47
percent) [of students] said a major reason for dropping out was that classes were not interesting.
These young people reported being bored and disengaged from high school”. Taking into
consideration that half of the dropouts reported by Swanson are formulated by Bridgeland et al.
as being linked to lack of student motivation in the classroom we can make an argument that if
we improved student’s engagement with the classroom we could lower the dropout rate of
students by 25 percent. Taking into consideration these findings, one could notice a causal effect
from lack of engagement in classes to be connected with the student’s eventual drop out from
high school education. Another effect which stems from the lack of engagement in education is
that if the students are not committed in their education; this could suggest that students are
passing a class or a grade with a lower expected literacy than that of an average student.
Crumpler and Wedwick quote a study which suggests that a probable cause for lack of student
engagement has to do with their development of literacy in their institutional settings since
“almost all of the literature on adolescent literacy mentions the importance of motivation or
engagement” (65). In which case, developing student’s literacy in their academic environments
carries weight on student’s engagement with classes. In addition, Crumpler and Wedwick also
quote another study which poses that engagement results in eventual achievement as “keeping
students engaged in reading and learning might make it possible for them to overcome what
might otherwise be insuperable barriers to academic success” (66). Which suggests that despite
their socio-economic backgrounds; students that are engaged in their education have an
opportunity for achievement. Taking into account all of these findings, one could suggest a
causal trend between all of these factors in the following manner: Developing literacy boosts
engagement which in turn helps with the students’ academic success and development as a civic
member of society. However, in order to achieve this causal trend, modern educators have to take
into consideration there are different kinds of student readers in their classroom and they are not
necessarily engaged with the class because “reader identities are unique, multidimensional, and
contextualized” (65). Which implies that there is a need to revise whether current pedagogy has
the capability to perform a correct assessment of student’s capabilities as learners.
Howard Gardner describes standardized testing as a "scenario [that] is destined to be
repeated universally for the foreseeable future" and argues that current methods of assessment
are not sufficient to measure the intelligence of an individual who has attained skills that fall
outside of the scope of said assessment. Which leads him to identify that the root of the problem
"lies less in the technology of testing than in the ways in which we customarily think about the
intellect and in our ingrained views of intelligence" (4). This entails that perspectives of what
constitutes intelligence are a key issue when deciding how knowledgeable a student is when
considering their education and that current education assessment is evaluating students with the
incorrect criteria to do so.
In order to develop the engagement of different students in the classroom through
development of literacy educators need to be able to account for the different kinds of learners
that exist in their classroom while they motivate them to actively participate in their education.
The English classroom which makes use of literature as a tool of discussion is the perfect setting
for such an undertaking since the aim of literature discussions is “to provide students practice in
learning to formulate, develop, extend their responses and to help them learn how to interact with
their peers in a collaborative manner so that they are learning to mutually develop their responses
through their interaction” (Beach 186). In which case, literature discussions entail that students
form interpretation and/or judgments through their interactions with the text and their peers. A
Delphi report by Facione which made use of various professional scholars that specialize in
critical thinking reached a consensus that the inclusion of critical thinking practices are an
essential tool because it involves “purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in
interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential,
conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that
judgment is based” (2). Close reading of both Beach’s statement about the aim of literature
discussions and the consensus which defines the use of critical thinking reveals that both of these
statements echo towards each other in their aim to develop learners’ potential for development of
depth and complexity when they make judgements, evaluations and interpretations in their
academic settings. Even then, the report itself mentions that “the experts insist that ‘one cannot
overemphasize the value of a solid liberal education to supplement the honing of one’s CT
[Critical Thinking] skills and the cultivating of one’s CT dispositions” which strengthens the
relationship which the previous argument implies.
The report by Falcione also reached a consensus regarding the skillset which results from
adopting critical thinking practices. The experts involved in the Facione report categorized this
skillset into core skills and subskills as follows:
1.2. Decoding Significance
1.3. Clarifying Meaning
2.1. Examining Ideas
2.2. Identifying Arguments
2.3. Analyzing arguments
3.1. Assessing Claims
3.2. Assessing Arguments
4.1. Querying Evidence
4.2. Conjecturing Evidence
4.3. Drawing Conclusions
5.1. Stating Results
5.2. Justifying Procedures
5.3. Presenting Arguments
6.2. Self-correction (6)
Despite the fact that the whole skillset has a function in a pedagogical context, the
relevant skill which is critical to the literacy and engagement of students is “explanation” and its
subskills as their general tenet is “to present one’s reasoning in the form of cogent arguments”
(10). The reason being that in order for learners to be able to form the kind of arguments which
justify their “reasoning in terms of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological and
contextual considerations” that are expected out of them; development of academic
communication becomes a vital component in students’ literacy and engagement in their
education. Some studies even agree that development of academic communication is among the
factors that influence success in learners’ education (Francis, Lesaux, and Kieffer).
A study by Mari Haneda which is focused on the development of academic
communication reveals a few insights on the creation of a “classroom ecology which promotes
academic language”. She suggests that this environment may be constructed by the enactment of
the following pedagogical principles:
(a) honoring students’ lived experiences, engaging their interests, and proposing
goals for activities that have meaning for them beyond the classroom; (b) creating
opportunities for participation in social practices associated with different school
subjects through collaborative joint activities; (c) encouraging students to make
strategic use of the diversity of tools, material and semiotic, at their disposal,
including vernacular and academic registers as well as various other modes of
meaning-making; and (d) supporting students to take up, transform, and
appropriate the knowledgeable skills involved in joint activities in order to make
sense of or act on the world. (130)
It was through this that she made her argument that having learners participate in the
subject content, like the design experiment research she mentions where sixth graders learned the
basics of heat transfer by discussing amongst themselves and then going outside and
experiencing it and then coming back in, which developed their understanding of Newton’s Law
The most important aspect of these principles is that they echo Freirian critical pedagogy
which is defined by Ira Shor as:
"Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface
meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés,
received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social
context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process,
organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse."
(Empowering Education, 129)
This approach aims to empower disempowered individuals through the use of critical literacy
when engaging texts and takes into consideration learners’ different backgrounds and contexts
according to their interests by developing their voice as important contributions towards their
own education. In addition, critical pedagogy also takes into account the relevancy of the content
from the learner’s perspective. Hence, this educational approach becomes the perfect garment
with which the English classroom can don in order to design its literature discussions since its
main principles trigger learner’s use of critical thinking through the interpretation of literature in
the English classroom. Crumpler and Wedwick seem to confirm this argument since they call for
a focus on “what we [teachers] do in the classroom to motivate all students while accepting their
unique reader identities and preferences” (66).
In order to create a classroom space which is more in tune with the student’s development
of literacy, the educator must make use of literature which the students can find affinity with. It is
through the response to these texts that students will find meaning in their education and create a
mindset as Lankshear discusses in his research of classroom literacies. He also makes the
distinction that these new literacies are so distant from the scholarly environment that students
"at school they operate in one literacy ‘universe’, and out of school they operate in another”.
Another proponent of the use of critical thinking as part of learners development is James Paul
Gee, a professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University who states that “innovation-based
global age requires us to retool foundational literacy skills and link them with other
competencies—such as critical thinking, collaborative problem solving, and media literacy” (50).
Assembling all of the research exposed in these arguments, one could develop the earlier
causal trend into a more complete yet, not necessarily final, product. In which case, the causal
trend would work as follows: The English classroom setting as the essential space for literature
discussions through the approach of critical pedagogy, which furthers learners’ interest and their
inquiry about situations which affect them as individuals. The inclusion of critical thinking
processes through the discussion and interpretations of literature results in the development of
learners academic communication which in turn improves literacy; which leads to engagement in
their education and their academic success along with a consequential development as civic
members of society. The inclusion of critical thinking in current pedagogy provides the missing
link in order to address the solution to the challenges that modern education is currently
undergoing related to high school dropouts due to the lack of literacy and engagement with
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