Critical Thinking Learning Theories

ePooki 14/2015

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Critical Thinking: From Theory to Teaching


Nimeke: Critical Thinking: From Theory to Teaching

Tekijä: Alatalo Sari

Aihe, asiasanat: koulutus, kriittinen ajattelu, oppiminen, opetus, Oulun ammattikorkeakoulu

Tiivistelmä: Thinking, including critical thinking, is indispensable to a person so that a person can base his or her decisions on solid reasoning and facts. Even so, to think critically requires more than just being critical; it requires skills and aptitude for applying the skills in practice. In addition, to become an advanced thinker, the skills need to be practiced, and for that classroom offers a natural venue.

Among numerous alternatives, Bloom’s taxonomy and Paul’s model provide two applicable frameworks for thinking. They can be consciously employed to practice critical thinking. The first one is a method for classifying the outcome of a thinking process. In turn, the second framework refers to a model of the elements of a thinking process.

The frameworks for thinking are examples of teachers’ tools to formulate instructional objectives involving critical thinking. With the help of these frameworks, well-designed questions and the ABCD model, a teacher can strive to ensure students engage themselves in critical thinking during lessons.

Julkaisija: Oulun ammattikorkeakoulu, Oamk

Aikamääre: Julkaistu 2015-06-02

Pysyvä osoite:

Kieli: englanti

Suhde:, ePooki - Oulun ammattikorkeakoulun tutkimus- ja kehitystyön julkaisut

Oikeudet: Julkaisu on tekijänoikeussäännösten alainen. Teosta voi lukea ja tulostaa henkilökohtaista käyttöä varten. Käyttö kaupallisiin tarkoituksiin on kielletty.

Näin viittaat tähän julkaisuun

Alatalo, S. 2015. Critical Thinking: From Theory to Teaching. ePooki. Oulun ammattikorkeakoulun tutkimus- ja kehitystyön julkaisut 14. Hakupäivä 13.3.2018.

We all think. It’s an essential part of us being human beings. But critical thinking – why should we be concerned with it? Don’t we have enough people happy to criticize just about anything and everything? And how does critical thinking relate to teaching and learning? Relevant questions which will be discussed here. 

Given the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of critical thinking (from now on referred to as CT) by the U.S. Department of State, I was happy to take on the challenge. The E-Teacher Scholarship Program provided me with an opportunity to explore the concept of CT, a couple of frameworks for thinking, and the application of them to teaching. The process took the best part of my summer but the insights I had during the stifling summer days – and some nights – next to compensated anything I missed out while contemplating the art of questioning, or the incorporation of CT to lessons.

In the course, it became evident that rather than being about criticizing, critical thinking refers to fair-minded thinking which is aimed at reasoning at the highest level of quality . This fair-mindedness entails a thinking process in which the strengths and weaknesses of different points are considered . Without this ability, our thinking would be biased or, possibly, downright flawed. Thus, the skill of critical thinking is of great importance for everyone. Effectively, there are two components to CT: skills and habit of applying the skills .

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Paul’s Model: Brief Overview

Critical thinking is about skills but the core question is which skills. To this, various scientists offer various solutions. Some of them are offered in a form of a framework for thinking. After a thorough literature research, Mosley et al.  ended up introducing 41 frameworks of this nature. For practical reasons, it’s appropriate to focus on some of them even if it were highly beneficial to acquire some knowledge of all of them. In the E-Teacher Scholarship Program, two were selected to be more closely reviewed, namely Bloom’s revised taxonomy of educational objectives , and Paul’s model of critical thinking. 

For many teachers Bloom’s revised taxonomy with its six cognitive levels from simple to more complex (see Figure 1) is somewhat well-known as it has provided them with a tool for measuring thinking. There is also an older model of the taxonomy presented in figure 1. The taxonomy is a model of classifying thinking according to six cognitive levels of complexity. This taxonomy can be helpful for a teacher attempting to move students through a learning process. After all, it has been employed in the design of lesson plans to make them effective in terms of learning.

FIGURE 1. Six major categories in Bloom’s Taxonomy: old and revised versions Forehand, M. 2014. Bloom’s Taxonomy. Retrieved October 5, 2014.

As for Paul’s model of critical thinking, it’s possibly not as renowned as Bloom’s taxonomy but it could offer just as functional a tool as Bloom’s taxonomy (see Figure 1). These two frameworks seem to take two differing approaches to thinking. Bloom’s taxonomy is about classifying the level of thinking behavior, for example thinking can be classified as being about remembering facts or about applying these facts into practice. On the other hand, Paul’s model illustrates the process of thinking behavior. 

Bloom’s taxonomy can be portrayed as a hierarchical system whereas Paul’s model can be depicted as a wheel. In this wheel the eight elements of thought, which are present in all thinking, are placed as in Figure 2. The idea is that a thinker can move back and forth between the elements . This is a model of a process that can be consciously employed in decision making to guide one’s thinking into a direction of CT.

FIGURE 2. Elements of thought as presented by Paul & Elder Paul, R. & Elder, L. 2012. Critical Thinking. Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Even though Bloom’s taxonomy and Paul’s model appear to represent different approaches to thinking, they have some features in common as both include cognitive and affective aspects. The cognitive aspect is related to knowledge, and the affective aspect is concerned with attitudes, emotions and feelings (see Table 1).

TABLE 1. Cognitive and affective aspects in Bloom’s Taxonomy and Paul’s Model

Aspect / FrameworkBloom's Taxonomy

Paul's Model


levels of thinking


24 cognitive strategies (e.g. evaluating the credibility of sources of information)


five categories: receiving, responding, valuing, organizing and characterizing 

nine affective strategies (e.g. developing intellectual humility and suspending judgement)

In Bloom’s taxonomy, the levels of thinking are related to the cognitive aspect. When it comes to Paul’s model, the concept of critical thinking is broken down into a list of 24 cognitive and nine affective strategies . These strategies seem to address the elements of thinking (see Figure 2) from the viewpoint of action, i.e. what is to be learned or practiced, for example strategy 16 states: evaluating the credibility of source of information.

As for Bloom’s taxonomy , there is an affective domain with pertinent levels of behavior, and these levels depict the way people relate themselves to the phenomena they encounter. The levels encompass five categories starting with the simplest (receiving) and gradually moving towards more complex (responding, valuing, organizing and characterizing) behavior. In effect, the constant effort to improve critical thinking refers to an advancement to a higher level in Bloom’s taxonomy and to a refinement of the thinking process depicted for example by Paul’s model.

Some Implications of Critical Thinking for Lessons 

Bloom’s taxonomy and Paul’s elements of thought might suggest the frameworks being rather theoretical. The challenge here is to translate these somewhat academic thoughts into instructional practice. In addition to the frameworks, there are some tools to do this, though. 

In his book Chuska claims that well-designed questions will initiate higher-level thinking. He favors, for example, the idea of teachers posing students fewer, yet higher-quality questions with more than one viable answer. The aim would be to solicit higher-level thinking in forms of students applying, reacting to, or reflecting on the content, or the topic of the lesson.

Still another applicable tool to form instructional objectives with at least some critical thinking is the ABCD model. This model can be helpful in forming well-structured objectives in classrooms. The letters in this abbreviation stand for the following elements : 

A for the intended audience, i.e. students, of this particular objective, 

B for the new behavior or capability the audience will possess after the task, 

C for the conditions under which the audience is going to carry out the task, and 

D for the degree, i.e. the criteria against which the success of the task will be assessed. 

All of the elements above should be embodied in a concise description of an instructional objective for a specific lesson.

In order for an objective to be a CT objective, all of the elements above should be included in a concise description of an instructional objective for a specific lesson.

The following example of an instructional objective relates to a lesson topic of work motivation and constitutes only a part of the 90-minute lesson. Albeit important, the cognitive objective is set aside for now and the focus is on the affective objective. Employing the ABCD model, an instructional objective could be formulated in the following way: 


Condition          Audience          Behavior          Degree

Discussing in pairs, studentswill be able to co-operate in order to determine the distinct features and viewpoints behind them fairly incorporating the relevant and justified ideas of participants into a joint analysis.

In the example of an affective objective, the audience is the students in the class. The behavior in this case refers to the capabilities the students will possess after the exercise, i.e. they will be able to co-operate with another person and incorporate differing ideas into one. This they will do in pairs which is the way they work and thus constitutes the condition. Students’ success will be assessed based on whether in their analysis they demonstrate any distinct features and viewpoints of the theories as well as both participants’ ideas to make it truly a joint analysis.

To be able to analyze an objective in this way makes it a critical thinking objective. An objective of this kind can also be analyzed in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy and Paul’s model. In this example, the objective targets some of Paul’s critical thinking strategies and some of the levels in Bloom’s taxonomy. In this case the affective strategies targeted in this objective were S-3 Exercising Fairmindedness and S-5 Developing Intellectual Humility and Suspending Judgement. In Bloom’s taxonomy, the affective levels targeted in this objective were responding to others’ thoughts and organizing ideas.

There is obviously a lot more to designing this kind of teaching.  Firstly, to relate this to the frameworks for thinking, the following factors need to be determined: levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and CT strategies the activity aims to target. And secondly, assessment of the activity is yet another dimension to be thought out prior to the lesson. 


Picture References

There is a narrative which says that ICTs offer unique affordances for critical thinking in the classroom. This argument sees the introduction of new technologies in the classroom as a prerequisite for a new emphasis on critical thinking. The 21st Century Skills Movement sees change itself as a rationale for the need for critical thinking, and technology as a central skill set for success in a changing world.

Now, this blog is dedicated to exploring how ICTs and Critical Thinking intersect, so I have rehearsed elements of this narrative many times. I do believe that ICTs have affordances which can be leveraged to achieve greater critical thinking, but the relationship is not simple or direct, and I have been around long enough to remember when teachers sought to foster critical thinking quite independently of digital technologies. As one who considers himself a champion of ICTs and Critical Thinking I believe it is important to have a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between critical thinking and technology adoption which helps us to understand better how we can use technology to build better critical thinking.

Thinking around what critical thinking means is often somewhat woolly. For some students it appears to come naturally. Their arguments are well structured, well supported, with greater nuance and generative power. Other students struggle to present or analyze ideas effectively, and teachers are often unsure exactly what to do to help improve thinking. What exactly does effective thinking look like anyway?

Many teachers are using particular thinking strategies to foster critical thinking. Tools such as De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps, Harvard’s Visible Thinking or Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys are designed to provide particular pathways to better thinking. These strategies represent pedagogies claiming to offer affordances for critical thinking in much the same way as claims are made that ICTs afford critical thinking. The claims for these strategies rest on the affordances of specific thought processes. For example the Thinking Maps offer scaffolding for promoting defining, describing, comparing and contrasting, classifying, sequencing, analyzing cause and effect, identifying part/whole relationships and seeing analogies. The Thinking Hats are said to maximise and organize thoughts and ideas by deploying parallel thinking techniques. The Visible Thinking routines represent attempts to increase metacognitive awareness, for example to draw on previous knowledge, explore diverse perspectives or deploy active reasoning or explanation. These cognitive strategies represent something of a toolbox. Much as a DIY handyman reaches for a specific tool to tighten a bolt or screw, remove a nail or fill a hole, particular cognitive tools can be used for different cognitive purposes. The teacher’s job becomes that of modelling and scaffolding student’s thinking, helping students recognise which tools are appropriate for what purpose and how to use them effectively to improve their thinking so that increasingly students are able to use these tools appropriately without prompting.

This way of looking at critical thinking is not the only way to conceive of it, but it is a useful metaphor for teachers and offers a focused approach which teachers can apply in their classrooms. The question is, is there a similar way we can think about how ICTs may be used as tools for cognitive education?

Similar approaches have been tried. For example Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy represents an attempt to map digital tools to Lower Order and Higher Order Thinking Skills. So, for example podcasting is seen as a Higher Order Thinking Skill of Creating, while Social Bookmarking is seen as a Lower Order Thinking Skill of Remembering. What this model lacks, however, is a nuanced understanding that tools in themselves do not mean much, it is how they are used, and for what purpose, that is important. One can use twitter, for example, at every level of Bloom’s taxonomy. One-to-one mapping of tools to a taxonomy of thinking regardless of purpose and use does not make much sense. Digital tools are not, therefore, the same as the cognitive tools described above. Any framework for digital cognitive tools needs to include their use and purpose.

For example, Google docs carry massive affordances for collaborative thinking. Students can collaborate on writing or problem solving tasks, using comment and joint editing to develop ideas collaboratively. But twitter can also be used in this way, and so can Skype, and many other tools. Google docs can also be used in ways which do not display collaborative thinking at all! Over the course of the last few decades teachers have identified uses of technology which can be used to aid cognitive processes such as collaborative thinking. It seems to me that any framework of cognitive digital tools needs to focus on the cognitive purpose rather than the technology. A useful approach would be to look at teaching practice and try to map cognitive digital tools to thinking processes. In order to do this, however, we need a much less woolly framework for understanding cognitive processes.

There are many different frameworks for critical thinking. I would like to detail just a few below, and then suggest a way forward.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy of the cognitive domain remains the standard framework for thinking about thinking in the classroom. It establishes six levels of cognitive processes which are seen as moving from simpler to more complex skills. The model has been revised by Anderson, Krathwohl, et al (2001), and both models are widely taught in pre-service teacher education and represent something of a lingua franca in the educational world. This is a considerable strength in that it is already the most commonly used framework by teachers concerned with cognitive education. However, I have to say that it is not a particularly generative model, and in my estimation is often used simply, and mechanistically to rationalise what is done in the classroom rather than to drive critical thinking. Because categories of cognition are not in reality discrete, the exercise of identifying levels is somewhat meaningless, and the pedagogical purpose of doing so unclear.

The model does not drill down to thinking routines themselves. Analysis, for example implies an ability to differentiate between premise and conclusion, what constitutes evidence, how to expose logical flaws, and so on. But the model tends to obscure this rather than highlight it. To my mind Bloom’s model ends up being a limiting factor in promoting critical thinking in the classroom. The taxonomy emerged as part of a movement to clearly define educational objectives and remove woolly thinking, but is in fact far more obscurational than the liberal tradition it replaced.

As we have seen with Bloom’s digital taxonomy, this woolliness both in the cognitive domain and how they map to digital tools renders the framework somewhat vague. What does it really mean when a teacher says, for example, that they are using blogs to enhance student capacity for creating?

The Paul – Elder Approach

The Paul-Elder framework attempts to draw up a three-tiered model for Critical Thinking, defined as “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.” (Scriven & Paul, 2003). The model is based on the structures of thought, universal intellectual standards and intellectual traits exhibited by critical thinkers.

The strength of the model is that it does not focus on discrete thinking routines alone, but integrates the habits and dispositions of successful thinkers into the framework, and that it does manage to drill down to the elements of reasoning directly. Its major downside is its very complexity. For all its faults, Bloom’s taxonomy can be summarized in six words. the Paul-Elder model is more difficult for teachers to navigate. This limits its ability to be adopted more widely. Nevertheless, this complexity does hold out the promise for a more meaningful mapping of digital tools to thinking routines in the classroom. If a teacher were to say that they were using blogs to explore Fairness applied to Points of View to develop Intellectual Empathy, one can appreciate that the model is leading to a clearer notion of how digital tools can be used to sharpen critical thinking in the classroom.

Semantic Waves
Another way of looking at the problem is to try to drill down to how meaning is constructed and deconstructed in the classroom. A new framework (Semantic Waves) for thinking about knowledge practices in the classroom, derived from the work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu allows us to bring powerful concepts to bear on semantic practices in the classroom. Maton (2014) has described how the concepts of semantic gravity and semantic density can be used to describe pedagogical practice in ways which allow us to think about the critical thinking implicated in classroom talk.

Semantic waves are descriptions over time of the relative semantic gravity or density of the ideas contained in classroom talk or student essays. Semantic Gravity refers to how concrete or how abstract an idea is, and is represented as SG+ a very concrete, grounded, contextualized idea, or SG- a very abstract, rarified concept, and of course all points in between. The word Revolution in History, for example, is an abstract idea, relatively free of particular contexts. A particular incident from the Russian Revolution, however, is more contextualized and concrete. One thing that teachers tend to do is to take abstract ideas (SG-) and help explain and contextualize those ideas by giving examples and instances (SG+), they help unpack concepts so that students can understand them better. They then help students take more concrete instances and everyday knowledge, and package in terms of the more academic language and understandings of the discipline they are studying, as shown in the diagram.

Semantic Density refers to how condensed an idea is. A symbol or metaphor conveys far denser meaning (SD+) than the everyday meanings of words (SD-). Poetry, for example is generally more dense than prose.

From the idea of the semantic wave, or how semantic gravity and density changes over time, Maton has described semantic profiles, or typical scenarios. Often discussion, or a student essay will remain generalised and abstract, never exploring examples, supporting evidence or anecdote to develop an idea or argument. This represents a high semantic flatline, as shown in the illustration. Often the discussion will remain at a concrete level, without any conclusions being drawn. This is a low semantic flatline. More usual in any kind of constructive meaning making is a much wider range and flow between abstraction and the concrete as arguments are made and supported by evidence. Seeing critical thinking in terms of creating semantic profiles opens up new ways of looking at both ICT usage in the classroom, something which I explored in my own research (Love, 2016), and how Thinking Strategies offer pedagogical affordances for meaning making – see the video below, which is an idea which needs to be explored.

I believe that the Semantic Wave framework offers a way of understanding how pedagogical approaches and technologies afford the construction and deconstruction of meaning in the classroom in detailed and powerful ways. It is, however, under-researched and must remain somewhat tentative at this stage. It represents both a pedagogy in its own right and a research framework. The ideas are somewhat abstract and may be off-putting to many teachers. To me as a teacher, the framework instantly made sense, but it is an idea that needs some explaining!


Putting it together

The three frameworks discussed all represent somewhat different ways of approaching critical thinking in the classroom, all with strengths and weaknesses. In many ways there needs to be synthesis of all three types of approaches to create a model which both explains and informs practice; allows for critical thinking learning objectives to be realised, and for tools and pedagogies to be integrated within any particular lesson.

In the next blog post I will try to unpack how I believe this might be achieved and to begin to suggest a tentative framework which meets these requirements.



Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Love, D. A. S. (2016). Any Tool Works If You Are Using The Language: The Role of Knowledge in ICT integration in a Johannesburg private school (Masters dissertation, School of Education, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).

Maton, K. (2014). Building powerful knowledge: The significance of semantic waves. In Knowledge and the Future of the Curriculum (pp. 181-197). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Scriven, M & Paul, R, (2003), Defining Critical Thinking,, accessed 12/12/2016.



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