Saturday, October 24, 2015

Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Similarities, Differences and Critiques

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Snea Thinsan
Language Education Department,
School of Education, Indiana University
New to the critical literacy field, I was overwhelmed by the diverse uses of the word ‘critical’ in different contexts. However, I did not see it used much at all in the hardcore TESOL literature, or even in the CALL community, to which I assume I belong. The major phrases that struck me the most often include critical thinking, critical pedagogy, critical reading and writing, critical education, critical media literacy, critical discourse analysis, just to name a few. Among which, I also saw other phrases that share similar concepts with critical literacy such as critical media literacy, empowering education, multicultural education, liberation education, etc. I had simply thought the word ‘critical,’ added to any context of use, would lead to critical literacy. Then, my confidence about whether I truly understand the conceptions of critical literacy was shaken, particularly when I proposed a project to Professor Harste and he replied, writing that ‘critical literacy’ is not ‘critical reading’! So, I decided to read more to gain a sense of what critical literacy means in a wider context.
Overwhelmed by the body of literature, I decided to use a web concordancer to help detect how the word ‘critical’ has been used in the educational literature. Based on the data, now available at, two terms appear very frequently: Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy. I suspected that they are not the same, but that there are both similarities and differences between them. I also thought that there must be some critiques against them. An initial consultation with the literature informed me that not much at all has been said about the relationships between and the limitations of these two traditions. Thus, this paper will briefly define these terms, highlight the similarities and differences between them, and point out some limitations and critiques against them. It was hoped that this investigation would enable me to see critical literacy more clearly.  My discovery results in the following notes:

Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Definitions
The body of literature shows that Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy are two different traditions. “Each has its textual reference points, its favored authors, and its desired audiences” (Hatcher, 2000). There are websites and departments clearly labeled with either of the two terms. See, for examples of the Critical Thinking tradition, Baker University, Center for Critical Thinking at Center for Critical Thinking at, which was founded by Richard Paul at Sonoma State University; and The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, chaired also by Richard Paul at For Critical Pedagogy, there are prominent websites such as 21st Century Schools( was created by Anne Shaw to provide information for teachers, principals and curriculum specialists involved with the K-12 classrooms; and Possibilities: Critical Pedagogy Web Site(, which is a collaborative project to analyze society from the perspective of the Frankfurt School of critical theory.
How are these two terms defined by their prominent thinkers? Too many definitions and details are provided by people of the two sides, so it is not possible to mention all of them. For the purpose of this paper, definitions by a few prominent thinkers of each tradition should suffice.
A draft statement prepared for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinkingby Scriven and Paul, available at its website at, offer a most comprehensive scope of Critical Thinking as follows:
Critical Thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue, assumptions, concepts, empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions, implications and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frame of reference. Critical Thinking – in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes – is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.
Harvey Siegel regards that Critical Thinking aims at producing a self-sufficient person, who is a liberate person, “free from the unwarranted and undesirable control of unjustified beliefs” (Seigel, 1988, 58). Ennis (1996) thinks that critical persons should not only be able to seek reasons, truth and evidence, but should also be able to do such things.
Other Critical Thinking theorists include Israel Scheffler, John Meck, etc. Their definitions are thoroughly analyzed by Hatcher (2000) and made available online at: His observation about the confusion caused by the many definitions is interesting:
For many years, teachers of critical thinking have been faced with a problem: there are numerous definitions of critical thinking. Some are long and tedious, others are short and succinct; some emphasize skills, some dispositions; some emphasize context and world views, some focus on arguments and evidence.
On the Critical Pedagogy camp, the word ‘critical’ is used based on a different fundamental conception. The idea of Critical Pedagogy began with the neo-Marxian literature on Critical Theory (Stanley 1992), but the most influential authors in this field nowadays include Paolo Freire, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, and Ira Shor (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Paulo Freire, considered the Father of this tradition, is widely known and admired for his work in adult literacy, education and fighting oppression.  His best known work is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he sees Critical Pedagogy as concerned with the development of conscienticizao, or often translated as critical consciousness. He thinks that, for people to gain freedom, they need to understand the system of oppressive relations and know where they are situated in that system. Influenced largely by Freire, Critical Pedagogy therefore aims at bringing members of an oppressed group to a critical consciousness of their situation so that they can move on to praxis, or social action that leads to desirable transformation. Essentially, Freire considers an ingrained, fatalistic belief in the inevitability and necessity of an unjust status quo as a great single barrier.
Another definition is offered by Giroux, who interestingly raises a point about schools teaching a “language of critique” but failing to encourage a “language of possibility” (Giroux 1983, 1988). He, therefore, thinks that critical educators should work hard in order to “raise ambitious, desires, and real hope for those who wish to take seriously the issue of educational struggle and social justice” (Giroux 1988, 177). In his later work, Giroux adds that Critical Pedagogy . . . “signals how questions of audience, voice, power, and evaluation actively work to construct particular relations between teachers and students, institutions and society, and classrooms and communities. . . . Pedagogy in the critical sense illuminates the relationship among knowledge, authority, and power” (Giroux, 1994: 30).
In essence, Critical Pedagogy theorists agree that it is not enough to reform the habits of thoughts of thinkers without challenging and transforming the institutions, ideologies, and relations that engender distorted, oppressed thinking in the first place, and that the reform needs to go hand in hand with efforts to challenge the institutional policy and practices and all that causes distorted, oppressed thinking (Burbules & Berk, 1999). These similar points are also stressed or exemplified in work by other prominent authors including Henry Giroux, Douglas Kellner, Peter McLaren, Carlos Torres,  Angela Valenzuela,  and Lev Vygotsky.

Similarities and Differences
While approaching work by the authors of the two fields, many may feel confused which tradition they belong. I believe knowing the natures of the two camps will help us understand the work by their authors more easily.
By and large, the two traditions share some common concerns. Fundamentally, they both assume that people in the society are generally deficient in the abilities or dispositions that would allow them to discern certain kinds of inaccuracies, distortions, and falsehoods (Burbules & Berk, 1999). These flaws are seen in both fields as a barrier to freedom, though they are more explicitly addressed in the Critical Pedagogy tradition. However, Critical Thinking authors, in their more recent work, tend to make their concerns about social actions that lead to humanizing effects across all social groups/ classes more explicit (see Ennis, 1996, Paul & Elder, 2002). A statement by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking also reflects such a scenario:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. — (National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1996).
A closer look at the literature from both fields reflects some further distinctions. Whereas the Critical Thinking tradition is focused predominantly on criteria of epistemic adequacy, the Critical Pedagogy tradition regards “specific belief claims, not primarily as propositions to be assessed for their truth content, but as parts of systems of belief and action that have aggregate effects within the power structures of society” (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Paul (1990), a prominent Critical Thinking author, sees irrational, illogical and unexamined living as the basic problem, and thus people need to learn how to express and criticize the logic of arguments that underpin our everyday activity, saying, “The art of explicating, analyzing, and assessing these ‘arguments’ and ‘logic’ is essential to leading an examined life” (66). In a higher note, critical pedagogues are preoccupied with social injustice and how to change inequitable, undemocratic, or oppressive institutions and social relations (Burbules,1992/1995). However, it is important to note that these two endeavors can be seen as interconnected because, as Burbules and Berk (1999) put, the standards of epistemic adequacy themselves (valid argument, supporting evidence, conceptual clarity, and so on) and the particular ways in which these standards are invoked and interpreted in particular settings inevitably involve the very same considerations of who, where, when, and why that any other social belief claims raise. In practice, I think these foci, if adopted differently in different situations, can lead to different results. For example, Critical Thinking, if seen as a system of searching truth and knowledge as in research training, may be limited to certain skills that are not necessarily conducive to social actions, or even a discussion of social issues. In addition, in classrooms, different mindsets will also yield different effects on the students. For instance, if teachers see classroom activities as a way to think critically without bearing in mind why they should be critical and about what to be critical, they may not encourage the students to challenge the status quo, and even may, instead, produce critical students who support the status quo that is, as Nieto (1999) argues, already deeply embedded in any given educational institution.
While the Critical Thinking tradition increasingly embraces the conception about social actions as promoted by Critical Pedagogy, Burbules and Berk (1999) also interestingly present how the fundamental philosophies of these two traditions crash.
From the perspective of Critical Thinking, Critical Pedagogy crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating. Teaching students to think critically must include allowing them to come to their own conclusions; yet Critical Pedagogy seems to come dangerously close to prejudging what those conclusions must be. Critical Pedagogy see this threshold problem conversely: indoctrination is the case already; students must be brought to criticality, and this can only be done by alerting them to the social conditions that have brought this about. In short, we can restate the problem as follows: Critical Thinking’s claim is, at heart, to teach how to think critically, not how to think politically; for Critical Pedagogy, this is a false distinction. (No page number).
For details of debates surrounding the issue of different nature of the two traditions, please see Burbules and Berk (1999). Although the debates seem lengthy, the main story is about whether and how Critical Thinking can lead to the transformations that Critical Pedagogy tries to promote. Due to page limit, I will move on to critiques on these two traditions.

Limitations & Critiques
Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking is open and thus problematic by nature, so it is critiqued in the following ways. First, although efforts by people in the field are made to bring Critical Thinking from a skill-only status to skill-plus-dispositions, which pays more attention to contextual and institutional factors, Burbules and Berk (1999) see that it is still limited for several reasons: ambiguity of what dispositions part of Critical Thinking entails; the potential lack of enough attention to institutional contexts and social relations; and the focus on the individual person (which goes against a general concept that associating with people is an integral part of learning to be critically literate in Critical Pedagogy’s views). Paul and Elder (2002), however, may disagree and argue that critical thinking can and should move in the same directions.
Second, there has been a doubt with regard to “the extent to which Critical Thinking can be characterized as a set of generalized abilities and dispositions, as opposed to content-specific abilities and dispositions that are learned and expressed differently in different areas of investigation” (Burbules & Berk, 1999). Applying Critical Thinking in different contexts becomes problematic because, for example, in the engineering and literature courses may not require the same set of abilities and dispositions. This inevitably leads to a problem in the question of both how to teach and how/whether we can test for a general facility in Critical Thinking (Ennis, 1984). In fact, the question of what to test in Critical Thinking courses is a dominant area of discussion among people in this field (see, for example,  Paul, R., Elder, L. & Bartell, T., 1995).
Third, as many may expect, Critical Thinking has been accused of being culturally biased in favor of a particular masculine and/or Western mode of thinking, which implicitly devalues other ways of knowing (see Warren, 1994). Nieto (1999) emphasizes the influence of educational institutions in shaping the classroom practices, which implies that educational practices that promote critical thinking may not necessarily be justifiable. It is therefore easy to understand how Critical Thinking activities that do not take into account feministic views or multicultural education views (including the role of students’ background cultures in their learning) may only serve to maintain the status quo. This critique has, as I see, encouraged the authors of the Critical Thinking camp to consider the contextual and social factors more seriously. A problem I can foresee is the gap that this movement shall bring into classroom practices. Teachers can no longer rely on the old guideline of what to teach. Critical Thinking is both a subject in itself and/or part of the subject they are teaching; that is, they have to look into how to help people think critically with the purpose of moving toward, for example, social justice and a more democratic world, while still trying to make sure that the subject contents are well covered.

This paper would lack a substantial dimension if I did not mention the problems in practicing Critical Thinking. A lot of problems among teachers implementing Critical Thinking are found in study titled “Study of 38 Public Universities and 28 Private Universities To Determine Faculty Emphasis on Critical Thinking In Instruction,” by Dr. Richard Paul, Dr. Linda Elder, and Dr. Ted Bartell, who found that the teachers in their studies:
  • do not understand the connection of critical thinking to intellectual standards.
  • are not able to clarify major intellectual criteria and standards.
  • inadvertently confuse the active involvement of students in classroom activities with critical thinking in those activities.
  • are unable to give an elaborated articulation of their concept of critical thinking.
  • cannot provide plausible examples of how they foster critical thinking in the classroom.
  • are not able to name specific critical thinking skills they think are important for students to learn.
  • are not able to plausibly explain how to reconcile covering content with fostering critical thinking
  • do not consider reasoning as a significant focus of critical thinking.
  • do not think of reasoning within disciplines as a major focus of instruction.
  • cannot specify basic structures essential to the analysis of reasoning.
  • cannot give an intelligible explanation of basic abilities either in critical thinking or in reasoning .
  • do not distinguish the psychological dimension of thought from the intellectual dimension.
  •  have had no involvement in research into critical thinking and have not attended any conferences on the subject.
  • are unable to name a particular theory or theorist that has shaped their concept of critical thinking.
(Source:, retrieved November 6, 2002. )

Critical Pedagogy
Critical Pedagogy does not go without criticisms, of course. A very interesting one has to do with the missing of female voices among the top authors in this tradition, as well as in the Critical Thinking side. There are certainly celebrated women writing within each tradition, but the chief spokespersons, and the most visible figures in the debates between these traditions, have been men (Burbules & Berk,1999).
In the same light, Critical Pedagogy is accused of being, in my words, an evil in a smiling face. Burbules and Berk (1999) summarize the scenario very well:
Claims that Critical Pedagogy is “rationalistic,” that its purported reliance on “open dialogue” in fact masks a closed and paternal conversation, that it excludes issues and voices that other groups bring to educational encounters, have been asserted with some force (Ellsworth 1989; Gore 1993). In this case, the sting of irony is especially strong. After all, advocates of Critical Thinking would hardly feel the accusation of being called “rationalistic” as much of an insult; but for Critical Pedagogy, given its discourse of emancipation, to be accused of being yet another medium of oppression is a sharp rebuke. (No page #).
The accusation is of course defended by the prominent thinkers of the attacked fields (see, for instance, Siegel,1996; Wheary, & Ennis,1995), but I like Burbules and Berk’s (1999) observation below:
We find it impossible to avoid such a conclusion: that if the continued and well-intended defense and rearticulation of the reasons for a Critical Thinking or a Critical Pedagogy approach cannot themselves succeed in persuading those who are skeptical toward them, then this is prima facie evidence that something stands beyond them — that their aspirations toward a universal liberation, whether a liberation of the intellect first and foremost, or a liberation of a political consciousness and praxis, patently do not touch all of the felt concerns and needs of certain audiences, and that a renewed call for “more of the same,” as if this might eventually win others over, simply pushes such audiences further away.

My Reflections
Having learned about the relations, conflicts, and weak points of both Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy, I am pushed to think about how they can fit in the Thai educational context. One thing that Burbules & Berk (1999), my primary source for this paper, do not mentioned is how these traditions may be viewed differently in different cultures around the globe and how that can complicate the issues even further.
Perhaps, Thai educators have to start with a clear definition of what kind of education they want for the Thai citizens. I know that social justice and equity among diversities in any given country should be an ultimate aim, meaning that Thais also should be educated to become critical thinkers when solving daily life problems and to have critically fair minds at the same time so as to serve as the world’s civilized citizens.
A further question is, though, whether all subjects in the school systems and courses/learning opportunities outside school fences should be taught with the same foci. This has been a question I constantly ask myself. A math teacher, in my opinion, may be able to promote social actions less frequently than a social studies teacher. If this makes sense, the way the objectives of each course/ subject/ activity are planned can be different in terms of priority. Despite this, my feeling is that Critical Pedagogy conceptions should be introduced to and encouraged among all teachers, new or experienced, because they promote qualities that people in all corners of the world should possess. In that light, I see Critical Pedagogy as a vein in the body of knowledge; it is not always seen, but it is there, inevitably.
With regards to EFL teaching, I see the need for adopting conceptions of critical thinking, critical literacy/ pedagogy, critical media literacy, critical feminism, etc. The issues and methods these diverse views involve will at least increase motivation among students because language is about life and I am sure that issues about lives that deserve attention in their society will interest them or at least provoke their conscience. In addition, I agree that language is never neutral, so I think Thai students should not just learn about the English language itself, but also about the hidden features such as power relations, biases, assumptions, and social issues. I have realized that to teach students to be proficient in English is not enough; I need to empower them with the ability to unpack what comes with and hides between the lines of the language they hear, read, speak and write. To this end, let me present what I was kindly shared by Professor Harste while I was struggling to find the interrelations of these two terms that had lingered in my head. I like the last two sentences—Professor Harste’s playful but often profound trademark:
Critical literacy is about examining issues surrounding language and power and language and access.  Whereas critical thinking is psychological, critical literacy is sociological, interested in interrogating the systems of meaning that operate to position language learners in particular ways in particular contexts.  From an instructional perspective, critical literacy is also about redesign and taking new social action but these later components need to be built on an understanding of the systems of power that are in play on language speakers and learners.  Having said all this, no topic, it seems to me, is more appropriate for study by EFL teachers and their students than what it means to be critically literate and how the language they are learning impacts their identity.

I see Critical Pedagogy as focused on helping students understand what differences make a difference as well as who benefits with particular differences in place and to what ends. I don’t know.  These are too hard questions!

(Harste, personal contact, November 6, 2002)


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