The Institute of Critical Thinking

By Dr. Fazal Ali

Unthinking Classrooms as an Unfreedom

Within the new geographies of power advantage may be judged in terms of the abilities and dispositions which the individual state serves to foster and to nurture among its citizens; in particular the ability to evaluate the probative strength of judgments and the disposition to do so. The removal of those ‘unfreedoms’ that debilitate both our ability to reason well and the disposition to do so is not only constitutive of development but is at the core of any development strategy which envisions the creation of intellectual capital as the basis for economic advantage in a knowledge economy. From this perspective definitions of poverty need to depart from a strict adherence to the standard criteria of lowness of income as an indicator of poverty and be enlarged to include any institution that fosters or perpetuates the deprivation of capabilities. The logocentrism of the Cartesian epistemological foundations of modern curriculum theory is one such institution.

The Descartes/Tyler nexus allows only one type of knowing – a rational definition knowing. This frame gives pedagogic priority to calculative rationality, which has led to the subordination of other rationalities as well as other styles of reasoning which conjointly produce ‘another nature’ through the dialogic relationship between the heuristics of metaphor and the cannons of logic. Poverty of minds – a novel index of human capital development is a strategic research site and nexus in my examination of capability deprivation and the impact of economic globalisation. This form of capability deprivation is epistemic. The production of minds with the capability to produce ideas that are useful, powerful and beautiful is ensconced within the curriculum dimension of the ecology of schooling. Brains are biological. Minds, on the other hand, are cultural. Curriculum is therefore a mind-altering device since it is through curriculum that we are able to use our actual minds to create our possible worlds.

If development is constitutive of the removal of these ‘unfreedoms’ that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising this reasoned agency then development strategies must take into account those epistemic forms of capability deprivation that culminate in the poverty of minds. Reasoned agency is therefore defined here as the ability to reason well and the disposition to do so, that is, the ability to engage in critical thinking. The second criterion described above has both an analytical and a generative dimension. The analytical dimension of the disposition involves:

    • Valuing good reasons
    • Being disposed to seek good reasons
    • Assessing reasons
    • And governing actions and beliefs on the basis of such assessments


The generative dimension of this disposition on the other hand encompasses:

    • Fair-mindedness
    • An inquiring attitude
    • Nuanced judgement
    • Analysis of complex frames from multiple points of view and shifting criteria
    • The exploration of solutions for which the paths are not specifiable in advance
    • And the ability to use a gamut of semiotic resources to construct meaning and impose structure on situations rather than to find them already apparent.

There is a persistent tendency to pit critical thinking against creative thinking by arguing that critical thinking is strictly analytical and evaluative, an algorithmic process that focuses on arriving at the correct evaluation of ideas, arguments and products. It is therefore considered non-creative since it is seen as involving the mechanical application of rules and is not concerned with transcending frameworks or positions to arrive at new views.

Creative thinking on the other hand is seen as generative, allowing for the breaking of rules, the transcending of frameworks and the creation of novel products of thought or artefacts. As such it is considered to be non-critical, since criticism must take place according to prevailing criteria even if it sets out to be ampliative in positing alternatives. Some theorists view critical thinking and creative thinking as distinct but complementary while others believe that they are antagonistic – that the generation of new ideas requires the abandonment of logic and criteria assessment characteristic of critical thinking. These polarised positions fall short into account that there are evaluative, analytic and logical aspects to creating new ideas or products as well as imaginative, constructive dimensions to their assessment. A conceptualising of two discrete types of thinking is lamentably problematic. Critical judgement is central to the problem identification, the recognition of inadequacies in existing solutions, the decisions that a novel approach is required, the determination of directions for investigations, and the recognition of possible solutions.  The thinking that leads to creative achievement can best be seem then, not in terms of unconstrained generation, but in terms of a reasonable and critical response to a problem frame by someone free to use this reasoned agency. Releasing reasoned agency is therefore the removal of those ‘unfreedoms’ that may alleviate epistemic poverty.

Similarly the characterization of critical thinking as strictly selective and analytic is problematic. Thinking that is directed primarily toward the evaluation or criticism of ideas or products has a generative, imaginative component. It involves imaginative judgement as to the applicability of criteria in different circumstances. Similarly formulating hypotheses, generating counterexamples, constructing counterarguments and envisioning potential problems in solution designs are all significant parts of critical thinking that have a generative dimension. Finally, arriving at an overall assessment in any complex circumstance requires constructing a view based on questioning, weighing, rejecting, reconciling, and integrating numerous and divergent points of view, and may lead to the questioning of assumptions and the redefinition of a problem. Critical deliberation leads to the questioning of assumptions, the breaking of rules, and the reconfiguration of parts to create new wholes and therefore results in products of thought that exhibit considerable novelty.  Both the constraints of logic and the inventiveness of imagination are evident in all instances of serious thought, and therefore critical thinking and creative thinking cannot be considered as two distinct types of thinking.

The following cycle shows a process teachers can use with their students to help them engage in critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing.


1. Identifying an issue

When the students themselves identify the issue that they wish to take action about, the issue is one that they find relevant and meaningful and they have a sense of ownership in the project.


2. Clarifying the issue

The students clarify the issue, discussing how it originated, how they think and feel about it, who is affected by it, and how those people are affected.

Question the students to help them share their thoughts and feelings, making sure that they understand that there are no ‘right’ answers and therefore no wrong ones – all answers are accepted. Questions could include:

    • How do you know?
    • What are your reasons for saying that?
    • What might happen as a result of that?

Encourage the students to elaborate on short answers. For example, say:

    • I’m not sure what you mean.
    • Could you give an example?
    • Tell me more.

Allow time after asking each question for the students to think about their answers. Encourage other students to respond to what has been said. For example, ask:

    • Who else feels like that/thinks the same way?
    • Has anyone had a different experience?

After discussion, the students may need to gather further information to help them understand the issue better.


3. Developing a vision

Creative thinking can enable students to construct (individually or jointly) a vision of how things could be different. Teachers can help their students to develop their own vision by further careful, open questioning.


4. Exploring possible solutions

With their vision in mind, the students go on to identify what might help to achieve their goal and what could hinder achievement. Brainstorming encourages creative thinking because it provides a safe way for the students to ‘think outside the square’ as they search for solutions to problems. When all the suggested ideas have been recorded, the students can work in small groups to consider them and select those that could work. The groups share their results with the class.

The students may need more information. They could form subcommittees to research particular aspects. When all the information has been collected, the students share and analyze it to decide what action they will take. During this stage, the teacher may need to help the students to develop and use negotiation and conflict-resolution skills.


5. Planning a strategy

The students now create a plan for action to achieve their goal. This may involve further collaboration with people in the school and the community and will provide opportunities for the students to develop or practice the skills of decision-making and problem solving. They should record their strategy, noting who will do each task and in what order.


6. Taking critical action

The students implement their strategic intent by acting individually or collectively. Sometimes the action that they want to take may not be practicable within a class, school, or community setting. In this case, the students will need to negotiate adaptations to their plan so that they can carry through at least part of it effectively.


7. Reflecting on the results

Actions are rarely carried out exactly in the way they are planned. The students need to identify what they have learned and analyze reasons for the results of the action they have taken (especially if they seem to have made little or no progress towards their goal). It is important to allocate adequate time, during the classroom programme, for the students to analyze their results and reflect on their learning. Such an analysis can highlight power relationships or other factors that need to be addressed if change is to occur.

The students will have some successes – partial or complete – to celebrate. At the conclusion of the action cycle, the students should have a sense of achievement and increased confidence in their own ability to influence aspects of the world around them.


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