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What Examples Have You Seen That Reflect Poor Critical Thinking Skills

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Episode 3

With four quintels aboard, we were now ready to leave. The skipper saw mares’ tails in the north.


I wonder what quintels are? I think maybe it’s a sea term, a word that means perhaps the weight aboard. Yes maybe it’s how much fish they had aboard. [So you think it was fish?] I think fish or maybe something they had found in the water but I think fish more because of the word “catch.” [Why were they worried about the mares’ tails?] I’m not sure. Mares’ tails, let me see, mares are horses but horses are not going to be in the water. The mares’ tails are in the north. Here farmers watch the north for bad weather, so maybe the fishermen do the same thing. Yeah, I think that’s it, it’s a cloud formation which could mean strong winds and hail or something which I think could be dangerous if you were in a boat and had a lot of weight aboard. [Any questions?] No.


They were finished with their shopping and were ready to go home. [What did they have aboard?] Quintels. [What are quintels?] I don’t know. [Why were they worried about the mares’ tails?] There were a group of horses on the street and they were afraid they would attack the car. [Any questions?] No.


Stephen is successful in his efforts to incorporate the new information into an evolving interpretation. From the outset Stephen acknowledges that he does not know the meaning of quintel and seeks a resolution of this unknown. He derives a meaning consistent with his evolving interpretations and with the textual evidence. In his attempt to understand the expression mares’ tails he first acknowledges that he does not know the meaning of the expression. Thence, he establishes what he does know from the background knowledge (mares are horses, horses are not going to be in the water, there is nothing around except sky and water, farmers watch the north for bad weather) and textual information (the men are on the bay, they have things aboard, the mares’ tails are in the north) and inferences he has previously made (the men are in a boat, they are fishing). He integrates this knowledge into a comparison between the concerns of Alberta farmers with which he is familiar, and what he takes to be analogous concerns of fishermen. On seeing the pertinence of this analogy he draws the conclusion that the mares’ tails must be a cloud formation foreboding inclement weather. He claims support for his conclusion in the fact that it would explain the skipper’s concern for the mares’ tails, indicating that he did not lose sight of the overall task of understanding the story.

Colleen maintains her original interpretation but does not incorporate all the new textual information into it. She works with the information on the men’s leaving and the mares’ tails, but appears to ignore or remain vague about other information. For example, she says the cargo was comprised of quintels but indicates no effort to determine what these things are. She cites the fact that the men were ready to leave and suggests that they have finished their shopping, but does not attempt to explain the use of such words as skipper, cargo, and aboard in the context for shopping for clothes. She interprets mares’ tails as a group of horses the possibly would attack the men, but gives no account of what the horses might be doing on the street. Basically, she appears to grow tolerant of ambiguity and incompleteness in her interpretation.

Interestingly, each student believes that he or she has read the passage. The question becomes, what does it mean “to read” something? Comprehensive, legitimate critical thinking enables us to explore the meaning of the concept “to read” and to come to understand that there is a spectrum of quality of readings, some superficial and mechanical, some deep and thorough. Specifically, Colleen has scrambled to piece together meanings that have little relationship to the writer’s ideas. Colleen has “read” the passage but we can quickly see that the quality of her thinking lacks characteristics that we equate with sound reasoning, with critical thinking. She has been ineffective in thinking within the system of meanings inherent in what was said in the passage she tried to read. That her responses were inconsistent did not seem to disturb her, almost as if she had no sense of how to figure out what she was reading. The consequences for Colleen in this episode of thinking are minimal.

However, consider how vulnerable she will be outside school, when much more than grades or teacher approval is riding on her ability to think effectively in other systems, such as health care, parenting, upgrading job skills or becoming a proficient consumer.

On the other hand, Stephen has “read” the passage by means of critical reasoning, effectively decoding not only the words but the writer’s thoughts. He has taken the initiative to reconstruct in his mind as much as he can of the logic of the images and concepts that the writer conveyed through the system of language. Stephen also explored the implications of his ideas and was clear about what he understood and failed to understand. He demonstrated intellectual perseverance in striving to make sense when struggling with difficult passages. He expected to make sense of the passage, to grasp the author’s ideas, and finally he did. These habits, traits and abilities are among those we find in individuals for whom critical thinking is a comprehensive, substantial system of thought embedded, ideally, in every aspect of their lives. Although Colleen and Stephen have each “read” the passage, a useful distinction can be drawn between “critical reading” and “uncritical reading.”

Most reading is performed at the lower end of the spectrum in school today. Very little instruction is given in the thinking skills that critical readers use. Colleen will only be able to improve with professional assistance, that is, with instruction that helps her assess her thinking using intellectual standards and a sense of the elements of thought. She needs help in learning how to think through the elements of a problem. Of course, instruction alone is insufficient. She will also need to apply her will and acquire self-discipline. She will need extensive practice and expectations placed on her effort.

As we stretch ourselves to develop our bodies we naturally feel some physical stress. So, too, do we feel intellectual stress as we stretch our minds to develop our thinking. Students must learn intellectual perseverance, intellectual responsibility, intellectual integrity to develop true intellectual “fitness.” This is a lifetime process that merely begins in school. Most students are not well informed about the consequences of their uncritical thinking habits. It is likely that no one has presented these ideas to them so that they realistically grasp the possibility of intellectual development. Let’s now look at two student written responses and examine the quality of the thinking displayed, keeping in mind the implications for the students’ future effectiveness.

Are We Hitting the Target,
Assessing Student Thinking in Writing?

The Assignment: The students in Ms. Tamari’s 8th grade class were asked to write a paragraph in which they were to explain what the most important characteristics of a “friend” are and why they are most important. Here are the written responses of two students, Susan and Carl.


A friend is someone who cares a lot about you, who likes to be with you, and who helps you out when you get in trouble. The most important characteristics of a friend are loyalty, helpfulness, and honesty. First, it’s important for a friend to be loyal because you want to depend on your friend. If someone is not loyal that person may turn against you, especially if she meets someone he or she likes better than you. Second, it’s important for a friend to be helpful, because often a person needs help and if you have no friends it can be real hard to feel so alone. And finally, it’s important for a friend to be honest because very few people will tell you something about yourself that you don’t want to hear. An honest friend will try to help you improve, even though she knows it may hurt your feelings. It’s okay to hear some things from a friend because you know that she isn’t trying to hurt you.


Susan is basically doing a good job critically analyzing which characteristics are desirable in a friend. First of all, it is clear that she understands the issue. First she clarifies the concept of a friend. Then she asserts three characteristics of a good friend. Then she takes each one in order and gives good reasons in support of each of them. Her writing is clear, relevant to the issue, systematic, well-reasoned, and reflects deep thinking for her age.

Now let’s look at the writing of Carl.


The most important thing is to have a lot of friends who like to do the things you like to do. Then you can go places and have fun. I mostly like other boys for my friends because they like sports like me. Girls sometimes play sports too but not as good as boys. I like to play baseball, football, and basketball. Sometimes I like to play Hockey. There are no good places to play in my neighborhood and sometimes my mother makes me come in too early. She sometimes makes me very mad because she screws up my life. All she ever wants me to do is work around the house. I don’t think she knows anything about having friends. Maybe if she had played sports when she was little she’d let me play more and not just think about work, work, and more work.


Almost all of Carl’s writing is irrelevant to the issue of what are the most desirable characteristics of a friend. He seems simply to be writing thoughts down as they occur to him in a stream of consciousness, in an associational way. Carl begins by confusing the question “What are the most important characteristics in a friend?” with “Is it important to know a lot of people who share pleasures with you?” He then moves to the question “Who do I like?” Then he moves to the question “What do I like to do?” and then on to “What’s wrong with my neighborhood?” The final question, “Why doesn’t my mother let me do what I want to do?” indicates that he has ended up far off course, yet it is unlikely that he realizes it. Until Carl learns to discipline his mind to stick to the question at hand, he will have trouble doing any quality thinking.

Learning to write out our thinking is one of the best ways to improve it. It goes without saying that excellence in writing requires excellence in thinking.

Writing requires that one systematize one’s thinking, arranging thought in a progression that makes the system of one’s thought accessible to others. When the writer’s thinking lacks a clear purpose, lacks focus, lacks documentation and logic, and standards by which to judge the merit of the ideas, these flaws are revealed in the written work.

Writing, then, which is excellent is excellently thought through and is produced by someone with definite standards for both thinking and writing. (See the chapters: “Why Students and Teachers Don’t Reason Well” and “Pseudo Critical Thinking in the Educational Establishment.”) It is obvious as we read the responses of Carl and Susan that each has a very different understanding of what is well-thought-out thinking and writing, critical and uncritical thinking and writing. The consequences for Carl’s uncritical thinking are minimal in 8th grade, but how will he be affected when he demonstrates the same confusions on the job?

School instruction is focused on “subject matter.” We usually, but wrongfully, think of school subjects as little more than masses of facts and definitions to be memorized. We don’t often recognize that what is really important about school subjects is that they—when properly learned provide us raw materials upon which to practice thinking in a more proficient and insightful manner. They introduce us to new “systems” in which to think. As you read the next section, see if you can think of school subjects in this more illuminating and penetrating way.

Are We Hitting the Target?
Assessing Student Thinking in Academic Subjects.

Subject Matter, Especially in High School and College Courses

Though we often do not think of it this way, all subject matter — history, literature, geography, biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics — is part of a system of logically ordered parts. A historian studies a period and creates a “story” that puts events into meaningful patterns. In literature we study periods with their distinctive visions, their distinctive values, their distinctive modes of expression. One period is “romantic,” one is “classic,” one is “realist,” and so forth. Or we study the outlook of an author, the way he or she sees the world: Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Faulkner. In geography we develop systems for dividing up the surface of the earth into continents, countries, climates. We develop organized, logical ways to look at the surface, especially the physical surface, of the earth. In geology, we use a system to arrange time into geological time periods, and correlate principal physical and biological features with those periods. In biology, we develop systems for making sense of multiple forms of living and pre-living things. In math, we develop systems — arithmetic, geometry, algebra, calculus — for dealing with the quantitative dimensions of the world.

Everywhere there are systems inherent in subject matter, networks of logically ordered parts functioning in relation to each other for a definite human purpose. Critical thinking, with its system-unlocking orientation, is the perfect set of tools to take command of the systems inherent in subject matter. It is perfect, that is, only if we understand what it is and how to use it. Most students, unfortunately, have never been introduced to critical thinking, so cannot systematically use it to guide and empower their learning. Most students try to learn what is in fact systematized, by randomly memorizing fragments of the system as if they had no relation to each other. Compare the two following students talking about studying history.

Anna: “I don’t really like history too much. There is too much to try to remember. And it’s all about olden times, with a lot of dates and different wars and people doing things we don’t do anymore. You learn about presidents and kings and what they did and about when things happened. History is all about the past. It’s boring and I never use it. How could you? Things are really different now. “

Carra: “We do it differently in Mrs Brown’s class. Do you know that we’re all part of history? For example, in my mind I remember all of my past as a kind of story I tell myself. That’s how I remember things and that’s also how I figure things out. Think about it. Whenever you talk about yourself, you’re like a historian trying to help people figure things out about you. Everyone is really interested in their own history and in the history of the people they know. That’s what gossip is all about. Also the news. It’s like the history of yesterday. In her class we talk about how the history writer puts together the story he writes.

We also look at how the story might be told differently, I mean ‘cause what we read is only a tiny part of what the writer knows, and what the writer knows is only a tiny part of what actually happened. You have to look at it from different points of view or else you don’t have a chance of figuring out what most likely really happened. We are learning how to tell the difference between “facts” and how different people filter and interpret the facts depending on their own interests. We also try to notice what is left out of the history stories we read. Mrs. Brown says we are learning to think like history writers do and face the problems that they face. I think its fun to try to figure out history . . . how to tell a story in the most honest way, and how to see when people twist a story to make themselves look good.”


Anna and Carra, in their reactions to history, model the distinction between the way subjects have traditionally been taught ( as a lot of stuff to remember for a test) and the way they should be taught (as a way to figure things out). The traditional student never gets the real point of the subject and hence does not transfer what she learns to the “real” world. By teaching history in a critical manner students can readily transfer what they learn to “life-centered” situations. They can improve their own everyday historical thinking.

Critical thinking is valuable, of course, not only in school but in the world beyond school as well. If we are teaching properly, our students not only learn how to apply critical thinking effectively to their reading, writing, and subject-matter learning, they also begin to apply it to their everyday lives. The wonderful result is they not only reason historically about what is in their history textbook, for example, they also begin to reason much better about the “historical” issues in their daily life, as Carra is doing above. They not only reason scientifically about what is in their science textbook, they also begin to reason scientifically about the ‘scientific” questions in their daily life. They not only hear about ethical principles when talking about characters in stories in their literature class, they also begin to use ethical reasoning when dealing with the ethical issues embedded in their lives.

Indeed, if we do our job correctly, students begin to discover that all the kinds of reasoning that they learn to do at school have application in the “real” world. They not only start to talk about and value reasoning in school, they also begin to discover how actually to do it, how to realistically and effectively to apply intellectual standards to their own thought in virtually every context of their lives. The result is that students, for the first time in their lives, begin to evaluate their own thinking and do so in a way that is increasingly disciplined and objective. Let’s look at three examples of college students beginning to discover the value of applying intellectual standards to their own work and thinking.

Mandy: “I am often inconsistent. The most difficult aspect of my weakness is my attempt at achieving consistency between that of word and deed. That is, I use a double standard. I often say one thing and do another.”

Kristin: “This semester I have learned how to organize my thinking through critical thinking. In organizing my thinking logically I have learned to break down my thought processes down into specific parts. By breaking my thought process down into specific parts I can see some of my strengths and weaknesses. When I do not organize my thought logically, my writing often becomes trivial, irrelevant and vague.”

Laurie: “It is important to recognize key concepts when one thinks. If I need to figure out a problem and do not understand the key concepts, I will not be able to come to a logical conclusion. I am more and more aware of the need to pay attention to key concepts. One particular example occurred this winter when I went snowboarding for the first time.

The relevant concepts of snowboarding are: one needs to torque the body, the back leg is your anchor, and the edges of the board are used to slow down and in turn control the speed of the board. My friend explained to me that it usually takes a whole day to learn to snowboard, but because I paid close attention to the concepts and kept them carefully in mind, I was able to learn quickly. Most students do not realize that concepts are important in learning. In fact, I think that most students don’t know what concepts are. I certainly didn’t.”

These examples demonstrate that some students are prepared to take advantage of critical thinking instruction, though others are less ready. The teacher’s challenge, however, is to meet the student’s needs and respond effectively with appropriate instruction.

Identifying the Target:
Critical Thinking in the Workplace

With accelerating change and the increasing complexity of problems facing us at the dawn of the 21st Century, we are striving to compete within the new global economic realities. John Sculley, CEO of Apple Computer, Inc. reported to President-elect Clinton in December of 1992: