Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

Edited by Daniel Schugurensky

This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.


What is critical thinking, and how can it be promoted by adult educators?

By Shenaz Damji, Mary Dell'Anno, Mary McGrath and Joanna Warden (OISE/UT)

Towards a Definition of Critical Thinking: A Historical Perspective

     Although the principles of Critical Thinking underpin much of Western Philosophy, it did not come to the fore as a specific concept until the late Nineteenth Century.  Philosophical discussion of critical inquiry surfaced in the 1870's in the United States, when Charles Sanders Peirce, who believed that logic is the scientific method that will lead us to truth, originated the concept of pragmatism. Pragmatism stresses the relation of theory to practice (or what Paulo Freire called ‘praxis,’ meaning reflection and action upon the world in order to change it).

Peirce’s social emphasis grew in the hands of George Herbert Mead, and became important to John Dewey, who argued for a model of critical thinking based on a theory of knowing that is continuous. He adopted Peirce’s notion of meaning, and focused on the connection that thinking has with experience, doing, and the consequences of action. Dewey subscribed to the philosophical school known as pragmatism, and described his approach to inquiry as “reflective thinking,” to distinguish it from ordinary thinking.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Antigonish Movement launched discussion of critical thinking in Canada. During the same period, Edward Glaser wrote An Experiment in the Development of Critical thinking (1941) and developed the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Test (1940), which is credited by Richard Paul for stirring renewed interest in critical thinking in the U.S. 

Harvey Seigel, however, credits the renewed interest in critical thinking to Robert Ennis’  article “A Concept of Critical Thinking”, published in 1962. Ennis, who developed Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, defined critical thinking as “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to do or believe.” He pointed to issues of evaluating critical thinking skills, through the development of critical thinking tests, and issues concerning the instruction of critical thinking.

Matthew Lipman, who had developed a Philosophy for Children program in the late 1960s, criticized Ennis’ definition of critical thinking as focused on the outcomes rather than its essential characteristics. Lipman defined critical thinking as “skilful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgement because it (1) relies upon criteria, (2) is self-correcting, and (3) is sensitive to context.”

Richard Paul devised the concept of ‘weak sense’ and ‘strong sense’ critical thinking to signify quality and depth of thinking. Paul pointed out the need for a critical thinker to have a certain disposition and character traits; he helps us see the role of self in critical thinking. Paul’s definition of critical thinking includes aspects of Ennis, McPeck, Lipman, Glaser and Black, as well as aspects of critical thinking that have not been included before.

     John McPeck, a Canadian philosopher following in the steps of Max Black, published in 1981 a text entitled Critical Thinking and Education. For McPeck, critical thinking is a subset of rational thinking, and rational thinking is “the intelligent use of all available evidence for the solution of some problem.” His approach set up a debate between theorists such as Robert Ennis and Richard Paul, who argued that critical thinking is a general skill, not necessarily subject-specific. Harvey Seigel (1988) in Educating Reason, argued that the two schools of thought (McPeck and Ennis/Paul) were correct, because critical thinking was both a general and specific skill. Seigel, who placed an emphasis on principles, argued that the two dimensions of critical thinking are the ‘reason assessment’ and the ‘critical spirit’ components. More than knowing how to assess reasons, a person must also be disposed to do so; and more than having critical thinking skills, a person must use them. Like Ennis and Paul, Siegel is concerned that the character of a person may interfere with the execution of critical thought.

Freire’s (1970) concept of critical thinking contrasts with that of most North American philosophers. Freire’s conscientisation (which can be translated as “critical unerstanding of reality”) shares with Ennis, McPeck, Siegel, Paul, and Lipman the belief that critical thinking should be taught through dialogue, and that critical thinkers must think for themselves to arrive at Truth. However, Freire’s concept is historical. He points out two distinct layers of critical thought: respectful dialogue between participants in the learning process, and ‘structural perception’ (understanding the oppressive social system). Paul’s ‘strong sense’ critical thinking tries to address exactly what Freire addresses. However, while Paul begins with an assumption that human nature is egocentric, Freire assumes that people become the way they are through a transaction between themselves and their environment.

     Most recently, Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon (2000), has added a  gender analysis to critical thinking. Using an analogy of a quilting bee, she maintains that the disagreements between Ennis, Paul,Siegel, and McPeck help point to what distinguishes constructive thinking theory from critical thinking theory. Unlike these theorists, she attempts to avoid seeing critical thinkers as ‘individual, disembodied minds,’ and instead envisions a community of thinkers (quilters) using tools to critique our information (pins and scissors), and intuition (needle and thread) to put our ideas (the fabric) together, using imagination to decide the pattern.

Putting it into Context --The Principles of Critical Thinking

To assess the value of critical thinking in adult education it is useful to compare the fundamental principles of critical thinking with those of the dominant philosophies of adult learning.  When we juxtapose the methods and objectives of critical thinking with those of the community movement, self-directed learning, and transformative learning, we find some points of conflict but many moments of convergence. On the whole, then, we can say that critical thinking is consistent with the values of adult education, with one small caveat.

     A convenient starting point in our investigation was the website of Walker Teaching Resource Centre at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (http://www.utc.edu/Teaching-Resource-Centre/critical.html).  On this site,  critical thinking is conceptualized as “a process which involves analyzing assumptions and being aware of one’s own thinking”;  the thinker then “use[s] this awareness to correct what [he or she] is doing.”  In general terms, critical thinking is a discipline which favours reason over emotion.  Critical thinkers acquire portable skills which can be applied to other tasks at a later date.  The site also discusses several classroom techniques, many of which feature cooperative or group learning.  Equipped with this information, we undertook the task of comparing these precepts with those outlined in several chapters of one of the readings that we used in the course Outline of Adult Education, namely the book Learning for Life: Canadian Readings in Adult Education, edited by Scott, Spencer and Thomas (1998).

     The community adult education movement, as exemplified by the Antigonish Movement, used small group practical education to improve skills and raise consciousness. Critical thinking can be seen as useful in two ways. First, the villagers of Antigonish were hidebound by their unthinking allegiance to the big bosses and the corporate structure. Critical thinking would have taught them to imagine a different situation. Furthermore, the Antigonish movement sought to educate its members so that they would be able to continue learning outside the educational structure; critical thinking also attempts to teach strategies which the learner can adapt to use beyond the formal learning situation. Finally, the Antigonish form of education, the use of small cooperative groups is a technique employed frequently by Critical Thinking educators (Cooper 1995).

     Self-directed Learning has many forms and interpretations, but if we see it in terms of P.C. Candy’s objective of self-management we can observe that critical thinking can help to achieve this goal. Just as in the Antigonish Movement, critical thinking can be used to change the student’s learning, qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Thus, by acquiring the tools of critical thinking, the student gains the ability to set his or her own educational agenda, thereby developing educational autonomy. On the other hand, the development of critical thinking still requires an instructor to be in the classroom, although his or her role is less autocratic than that of a traditional teacher.  This would clash with the most radical forms of Self-Directed Learning, which see the learner as truly independent of education workers.

     Transformative Learning requires structural change, a re-evaluation of learning, a vision of the future, and a grounding in conflict theory. Critical Thinking definitely encourages students to question their received knowledge.  It often works according to a Conflict Theory model, when learners experience a situation which defies their expectations and are forced to modify their unspoken assumptions. While Critical Thinking does not explicitly require structural change, or a renewed future vision, these two objectives are eminently possible in a Critical Thinking situation.

     One small concern arises when we compare Critical Thinking to established Adult Education Practices. In her chapter in the book, Dorothy MacKeracher writes of how senior learners fare less well in exercises grounded in cognitive learning, and better in those which work more on the affective and impressionistic level. This may also be true of other learner groups, especially those who are already vulnerable in some respect. Critical Thinking privileges analytical thinking, and many of its proponents reject work that is based on subjectivity or personal impressions.  In such situations, the educator would have to use sensitivity and discretion when working with Critical Thinking models.

Practical Value. The Benefits of Critical Thinking 

     Life poses a variety of problems that individuals must solve independently.  Critical thinking skills are nothing more than problem solving skills that result in reliable knowledge. Humans constantly process information. Critical thinking can be understood as the practice of processing this information in the most skillful, accurate, and rigorous manner possible, in such a way that it leads to the most reliable, logical, and trustworthy conclusions, based upon which one can make responsible decisions about one's life, behavior, and actions with full knowledge of  the consequences and underlying assumptions of those decisions.

The value of critical thinking to individuals at least four dimensions:

The value of critical thinking to society is twofold:

1. protection from political exploitation:  an electorate that considers the pros and cons of issues; judges and juries that do not let their biases govern their decisions.

2. protection from economic exploitation: people who are able to analyze and interpret market trends, evaluate the implications of interest fluctuations, and explain the potential impact of those factors which influence large scale production and distribution of goods and services

How to Use it -- Critical Thinking Tools

     A search on the Internet under ‘critical thinking tools’ resulted in 752 sites. Generally the sites fall into two categories: strategies for teachers, and guides for adult learners. Three authors whose names appear frequently and whose works are located in the OISE/UT Library are Stephen Brookfield, Richard Paul, and Marilyn Cairns. All three authors clearly envision a need for the redesigning of the way teachers model their lessons. In Paul's view, "a paradigm shift from a didactic to a critical model of education to make higher order thinking a classroom reality" is necessary. (Paul, 1990, p. 233)

     Richard Paul in Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World, argues that students learn best in dialogical and dialectical situations and advises educators to use the following strategies (Paul 1990:245).

1.  Socratic questioning

2.  Critical vocabulary

3.  Co-operative learning

4.  Multilogical issues

5.  Reasoned judgment

6.  Recognizing bias (in media)

7.  Reflective self-criticism

8.  Reasoning 'empathetically ' or within the perspective of others

In a subsequent chapter, Paul recommends that the critical thinking educator focus on the higher order sections of Bloom's Taxonomy: Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation (Paul 1009:423). Finally, in Chapter 21, Paul outlines 35 Dimensions of Critical Thinking.  Here he not only lists these strategies, but also indicates how each of these critical thinking principles can be specifically applied as a teaching strategy.

     Marilyn Cairns, in a text suggestively entitled Which Should I Teach: Critical Thinking or the Facts? Can I do Both?”, offers the critical thinking educator some useful questions to ask herself when designing instruction for students. In effect, she is telling educators to apply the strategies of critical thinking to their own practice.


Brookfield, Stephen D. (1988) Developing Critical Thinking. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Cairns, Marilyn A. Which Should I Teach: Critical Thinking or the Facts? Can I do Both? http://www.cast.uark.edu/local/tatew/CriticalThinking.html.

Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. Seabury Press, New York, 1973.

Paul, Richard. (1990) Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World. Binker, A.J.A. (Ed.). Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA.

Thayer-Bacon, Barbara J. Transforming Critical Thinking: Thinking Constructively. Teachers College Press, New York, 2000.

December 2001

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Last updated on January 01, 2003.