Social Studies And Critical Thinking

ERIC Identifier: ED272432
Publication Date: 1986-06-00
Author: Patrick, John J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.

Critical Thinking in the Social Studies. ERIC Digest No. 30.

Critical thinking has been a long-standing major goal of education in the social studies. It was the theme of the 1942 Yearbook of the National Council for the Social Studies. It is highlighted today in various statements and publications of state education departments, local school districts, and professional associations. Research and commentary on critical thinking have increased greatly during the last ten years. But it has not been taught extensively or satisfactorily in most social studies classrooms. Goodlad's nationwide study of schooling found little evidence of critical thinking and concluded that "preoccupation with the lower intellectual processes pervades social studies and science as well" (1984, 236).

Current efforts to promote critical thinking in the social studies will fail unless teachers know what it is, why it is important, and how to use it in the classroom. This ERIC digest treats the (1) meaning of critical thinking, (2) primacy of critical thinking as a social studies goal, (3) inclusion of critical thinking in the social studies curriculum, and (4) means of teaching critical thinking to social studies students.


Definitions of critical thinking vary in breadth or inclusiveness. Broad definitions equate critical thinking with the cognitive processes and strategies involved in decision making, problem solving, or inquiry. According to Robert H. Ennis (1985, 45), "Critical thinking is reflective and reasonable thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do."

Limited definitions focus on evaluation or appraisal; critical thinking is formulation and use of criteria to make warranted judgments about knowledge claims, normative statements, methods of inquiry, policy decisions, alternative positions on public issues, or any other object of concern. Critical thinking, defined narrowly, is an essential element of general cognitive processes, such as problem solving or decision making, but is not synonymous with them.

Critical thinking, whether conceived broadly or narrowly, implies curiosity, skepticism, reflection, and rationality. Critical thinkers have a propensity to raise and explore questions about beliefs, claims, evidence, definitions, conclusions, and actions.

Many proponents of critical thinking stop short of evaluating the most basic criteria, or values, by which they or their students make judgments. They would teach critical thinking only within conventional frames of reference of a society. A more profound view encourages appraisal of frameworks or sets of criteria by which judgments are made. This deeper level of critical thinking counteracts egocentric, ethnocentric, or doctrinaire judgments, which result when thinkers fail to appraise fundamental assumptions or standards.


Critical thinking is necessary to achievement of good citizenship and scholarship in a free society, two major aims of education in the social studies. A basic value of the American heritage is freedom to think and express ideas--even if they are unusual, unpopular, or critical of prevailing practices and beliefs. The Constitution guarantees civil liberties of individuals and minority groups against the tyranny of ruling elites and the tyranny of majority rule. Good citizenship in the American republic involves responsibility to be an informed and rational participant in civic affairs, which implies capability to think critically about public issues, candidates for public office, and decisions of government officials.

Lessons that stimulate questions and criticism in pursuit of truth, which are commensurate with the cognitive and personal development of students, should be encouraged in the schools of a free society. In contrast, a closed or totalitarian society never permits critical examination of prevailing and sanctioned ideas. Ability to think critically can free students from the fetters of ignorance, confusion, and unjustified claims about ideals and reality. It can contribute to dissatisfaction with tyrants or totalitarian societies and to the improvement of democratic government and free societies.

Strategies and skills in critical thinking are keys to independent judgment and learning, which can be transferred to subjects and objects of inquiry within and outside of school. Students gain enduring intellectual abilities, which can be used long after particular facts have been forgotten. They are empowered as learners and as citizens to think and act more effectively.


All students, regardless of social class or presumed limitations in ambition or ability, have some degree of potential to think critically. This potential can be developed to the fullest by embedding critical thinking in the core curriculum, school subjects required of all students. Thus, critical thinking would become an essential element in the general education of citizens rather than the privilege of intellectual or social elites. If so, opportunities for academic achievement, socioeconomic advancement, and effective citizenship will be spread more widely and equitably in our society.

Students' capabilities to think critically are likely to be increased if they practice strategies and skills systematically and extensively in all subjects of the social studies curriculum, and in a manner that is consistent with their cognitive development and prior learning experiences. Subject-specific teaching of critical thinking may be the most effective means to develop students' abilities to transfer strategies and skills to similar subjects in school and problems in life outside of school. By contrast, separate courses on critical thinking seem to be a rather weak means of developing cognitive strategies and skills.


Effective lessons on critical thinking interrelate subject matter and cognitive strategies and skills, because critical thinking cannot be done meaningfully unless the student knows certain concepts and facts related fundamentally to the question under consideration. A successful critical thinker is also aware of differences in criteria and evidence used to justify propositions in different subjects, such as history, economics, and geography.

Effective teaching and learning of critical thinking involves practice of skills with recognition of how they fit together as part of a strategy or process. By contrast, practice of discrete skills is a relatively ineffective means of developing capability in critical thinking.

Development of critical thinking strategies or processes requires continuous practice under the direction of a skillful teacher. Direct or didactic teaching is a useful means to introduce strategies and skills, but reliance on this method is insufficient. Students must be stimulated to think critically on their own to resolve dilemmas, take stands on issues, judge propositions about knowledge or ideals, etc.

Learning to think critically involves multi-faceted intellectual activity involved in complex processes, such as decision making. Effective teachers challenge students to apply interrelated knowledge and skills to decisions about what to believe and what to do. In the process of justifying and evaluating knowledge claims and value judgments involved in decision making, students are able to develop propensity for and capability in critical thinking.

Teacher modeling of critical thinking and expressions of support for it are effective classroom behaviors. Teachers who promote and practice critical thinking in the classroom contribute strongly to their students' intellectual development. Furthermore, they are likely to engender a critical spirit, or positive attitude toward critical thinking, among their students.

Certain procedures in management of classroom discussions appear to foster critical thinking. Teachers who ask challenging questions and require students to give evidence or reasons for their conclusions and opinions are likely to develop critical thinking abilities and a critical spirit.

There is a strong relationship between an open, supportive, and structured classroom climate, where opinions on issues may be explored and expressed in a free and disciplined manner, and development of critical thinking and attitudes supportive of it. Effective teachers challenge students to examine alternative positions on controversial topics or public issues, require justification for beliefs about what is true or good, and insist on orderly classroom discourse. In this manner, they provide powerful lessons on responsible scholarship and citizenship in a free society.


Browne, M. Neil and Stuart Keeley. ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS: A GUIDE TO CRITICAL THINKING. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Cornbleth, Catherine. "Critical Thinking and Cognitive Processes." In REVIEW OF RESEARCH IN SOCIAL STUDIES EDUCATION : 1976-1983, ed. William B. Stanley. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1985. ED 255 469.

Ennis, Robert H. "A Logical Basis for Measuring Critical Thinking Skills." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 43 (October 1985): 45-48.

Goodlad, John I. A PLACE CALLED SCHOOL. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Moore, W. Edgar, Hugh McCann, and Janet McCann. CREATIVE AND CRITICAL THINKING. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Parker, Walter and John Jarolimek. CITIZENSHIP AND THE CRITICAL ROLE OF THE SOCIAL STUDIES. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies, 1984. ED 244 880.

Paul, Richard W. CRITICAL THINKING AND THE CRITICAL PERSON. 1986. ED number to be assigned.

Sullivan, David. "Using A Textbook for Critical Thinking." NEW ENGLAND SOCIAL STUDIES BULLETIN 43 (Winter 1985-86): 31-33.


  • Page Menu
  • Home
  • Begin Here
  • College and University Faculty
  • College and University Students
  • High School Teachers
  • Junior High School Teachers (6-9)
  • Elementary Educators (4-6)
  • Elementary Educators (K-3)
  • Science and Engineering
  • Professional and Personal Development
  • Nursing and Health Care
  • Home School (Grades K-12)
  • Learn the Elements and Standards
  • About Us
  • International Center for the Assessment of Higher Order Thinking
  • Our Team of Presenters
  • Fellows of the Foundation
  • Dr. Richard Paul
  • Dr. Linda Elder
  • Dr. Gerald Nosich
  • Permission to Use Our Work
  • The Critical Thinking Community
  • Contributions to the Foundation for Critical Thinking
  • Contact Us - Office Information
  • Testimonials
  • Site Map
  • Center for Critical Thinking
  • The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking
  • Library
  • Main Library of Critical Thinking Resources
  • About Critical Thinking
  • Defining Critical Thinking
  • A Brief History of the Idea of Critical Thinking
  • Critical Thinking: Basic Questions & Answers
  • Our Conception of Critical Thinking
  • Sumner’s Definition of Critical Thinking
  • Research in Critical Thinking
  • Critical Societies: Thoughts from the Past
  • Fundamentals of Critical Thinking
  • Content Is Thinking, Thinking is Content
  • Critical Thinking in Every Domain of Knowledge and Belief
  • Using Intellectual Standards to Assess Student Reasoning
  • Open-minded inquiry
  • Valuable Intellectual Traits
  • Universal Intellectual Standards
  • Thinking With Concepts
  • The Analysis & Assessment of Thinking
  • Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms
  • Distinguishing Between Inert Information, Activated Ignorance, Activated Knowledge
  • Critical Thinking: Identifying the Targets
  • Distinguishing Between Inferences and Assumptions
  • Critical Thinking Development: A Stage Theory
  • Becoming a Critic Of Your Thinking
  • Bertrand Russell on Critical Thinking
  • Richard Paul Anthology Classic
  • Documenting the Problem
  • Intellectual Foundations: The Key Missing Piece in School Restructuring
  • Pseudo Critical Thinking in the Educational Establishment
  • Research Findings and Policy Recommendations
  • Why Students and Teachers Don’t Reason Well
  • Critical Thinking in the Engineering Enterprise: Novices typically don't even know what questions to ask
  • Critical Thinking Movement: 3 Waves
  • Higher Education Instruction
  • An Overview of How to Design Instruction Using Critical Thinking Concepts
  • Recommendations for Departmental Self-Evaluation
  • College-Wide Grading Standards
  • Sample Course: American History: 1600 to 1800
  • CT Class Syllabus
  • Syllabus - Psychology I
  • A Sample Assignment Format
  • Grade Profiles
  • Critical Thinking Class: Student Understandings
  • Structures for Student Self-Assessment
  • Critical Thinking Class: Grading Policies
  • Socratic Teaching
  • John Stuart Mill: On Instruction, Intellectual Development, and Disciplined Learning
  • Critical Thinking and Nursing
  • K-12 Instruction Strategies & Samples
  • Tactical and Structural Recommendations
  • Teaching Tactics that Encourage Active Learning
  • Using Intellectual Standards to Assess Student Reasoning
  • The Art of Redesigning Instruction
  • Making Critical Thinking Intuitive
  • Remodelled Lessons: K-3
  • Remodelled Lessons: 4-6
  • Remodelled Lessons: 6-9
  • Remodelled Lessons: High School
  • John Stuart Mill: On Instruction, Intellectual Development, and Disciplined Learning
  • Socratic Teaching
  • Introduction to Remodelling: Components of Remodels and Their Functions
  • Strategy List: 35 Dimensions of Critical Thought
  • For Students
  • Critical Thinking in Everyday Life: 9 Strategies
  • Developing as Rational Persons: Viewing Our Development in Stages
  • How to Study and Learn (Part One)
  • How to Study and Learn (Part Two)
  • How to Study and Learn (Part Three)
  • How to Study and Learn (Part Four)
  • The Art of Close Reading (Part One)
  • The Art of Close Reading (Part Two)
  • The Art of Close Reading (Part Three)
  • Looking To The Future With a Critical Eye: A Message for High School Graduates
  • Becoming a Critic Of Your Thinking
  • For Young Students (Elementary/K-6)
  • Issues in Critical Thinking
  • Critical Thinking and the Social Studies Teacher
  • Ethical Reasoning Essential to Education
  • Ethics Without Indoctrination
  • Engineering Reasoning
  • Accelerating Change
  • Applied Disciplines: A Critical Thinking Model for Engineering
  • Global Change: Why C.T. is Essential To the Community College Mission
  • Natural Egocentric Dispositions
  • Diversity: Making Sense of It Through Critical Thinking
  • Critical Thinking, Moral Integrity and Citizenship
  • Critical Thinking and Emotional Intelligence
  • The Questioning Mind
  • Newton, Darwin, & Einstein
  • The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching, & Learning
  • The Critical Mind is A Questioning Mind
  • Three Categories of Questions: Crucial Distinctions
  • A History of Freedom of Thought
  • Reading Backwards: Classic Books Online
  • Professional Development
  • Certification in the Paul-Elder Approach to Critical Thinking
  • Institutions Using Our Approach to Critical Thinking
  • K-12 Instruction
  • Higher Education
  • Business & Professional Groups
  • Online Courses for Instructors
  • The State of Critical Thinking Today
  • Professional Development Model for K-12
  • Professional Development Model - College and University
  • Workshop Descriptions
  • Mentor Program
  • Inservice Information Request Form
  • Research
  • Effect of a Model for Critical Thinking on Student Achievement...
  • The Effect of Richard Paul's Universal Elements and Standards of Reasoning on Twelfth Grade Composition
  • Study of 38 Public Universities and 28 Private Universities To Determine Faculty Emphasis on Critical Thinking In Instruction
  • Substantive Critical Thinking as Developed by the Foundation for Critical Thinking Proves Effective in Raising SAT and ACT Test Scores...
  • Teaching Critical Thinking Skills to Fourth Grade Students Identified as Gifted and Talented
  • Critical Thinking in the Oxford Tutorial Abstract
  • Critical Thinking Instruction in Greater Los Angeles Area High Schools
  • Critical Thinking: Lessons from a Continuing Professional Development Initiative in a London Comprehensive Secondary School
  • Conferences & Events
  • 38th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking
  • Call for Ambassadors for Critical Thinking
  • Conference Focal Session Descriptions
  • Conference Announcements and FAQ
  • Conference Daily Schedule
  • Conference Hotel Information
  • Conference Presuppositions
  • What Participants Have Said About the Conference
  • Conference Archives
  • 37th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking
  • Daily Schedule
  • Registration & Fees
  • FAQ and Announcements
  • Conference Presenters
  • 37th Conference Flyer
  • Program and Proceedings of the 37th Conference
  • 36th International Conference
  • Conference Sessions
  • Conference Presenters
  • Conference Flyer
  • Program and Proceedings
  • Academic Credit
  • 35th International Conference
  • Conference Session Descriptions
  • Available Online Sessions
  • Conference Presenters
  • Bertrand Russell Distinguished Scholar - Daniel Ellsberg
  • 35th International Conference Program
  • Concurrent Sessions
  • Posthumous Bertrand Russell Scholar
  • Registration & Fees
  • Conference Flyer
  • Hotel Information
  • Conference FAQs
  • Visiting UC Berkeley
  • Conference Sessions
  • Conference Presenters
  • Bertrand Russell Distinguished Scholar - Ralph Nader
  • Conference Concurrent Presenters
  • Conference Program
  • Conference Theme
  • Conference Hotel Information
  • Roundtable Discussions
  • Conference FAQs
  • Visiting UC Berkeley
  • Flyer for Bulletin Boards
  • 33rd International Conference Program
  • 33rd International Conference Sessions
  • 33rd International Conference Presenters
  • The Bertrand Russell Distinguished Scholars Critical Thinking Conversations
  • 33rd International Conference - Fees & Registration
  • 33rd International Conference Concurrent Presenters
  • 33rd International Conference - Hotel Information
  • 33rd International Conference Flyer
  • Conference FAQs
  • 32nd Annual Conference Sessions


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *