Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Stages in the Development of Critical Thinking

A miniature, black and white scale model of "The Thinker."
The Nano Thinker, Image by Frank E.  Original by Dong-Yol Yang.

Every teacher, no matter his or her subject specialty, is responsible for teaching not only that subject, but for helping students develop as intellectuals.

Recognizing the stages of student development can help teachers better plan lessons and assessment activities to help their specific students become better thinkers.

One well-known model of student development is based on the work of William Perry, Jr.  At Harvard University and Radcliffe College in 1953, Perry surveyed his students and later identified differences in intellectual development among those college students. Over time, Perry's model of intellectual development, because of its similarity to key concepts related to critical thinking, became a model for the linear development of critical thinking skills (Halpern, Stephenson & Williams, 2012). The three stages of development that remain part of that developmental model are Dualism, Relativism, and Commitment (Boss, 2010).

Identifying Dualistic Thinking among College Students

In the Dualism stage of development, students tend to look to faculty, clergy, or other authorities for "right" answers. These students accept the "truth" of what they are taught without question. These students might look for ways to avoid counterclaims to their own arguments and seek out only information that supports their "black or white" answers or opinions of the world. Sometimes, they may be uncomfortable in morally or ethically ambiguous situations because they have not yet developed the ability to make decisions when confronted with ambiguity.

Identifying Students in the Relativism Stage of Critical Thinking

Once students begin to encounter ambiguity in their studies and when making personal decisions about more adult and complicated issues, they may resort to the position of the Sophists of Aristotle's time; that is, they might begin to skeptically question the nature of any truth or probability. For example, these students may tend to use persuasive definitions when making an argumentative claim and ignore lexical or theoretical definitions. These students might be known as the "in my opinion" students. They might truly believe they are communicating effectively when they state their opinions, and they may look to authority figures to approve of their behavior and opinions because they have learned it is better to question the truth than to merely accept it.

Identifying Students Who Have Reached a Level of Commitment

After students reach the stage of Commitment, they are better able to discern the types of information that require additional research, evaluation, reason, and logic, and which types are already reasonable representations of a truth. These students have the skills necessary to complete academic research on a topic, evaluate information using reason and logic, and apply inductive or deductive reasoning to form an opinion or make a decision. These students can accept that there may be multiple "right" answers to a problem or issue, no "right" answers to a problem or issue, or many "probable" answers to a problem or issue.

Teaching Strategies to Promote the Development of Critical Thinking

In order to help students progress along this model of linear development, teachers should practice strategies that help students "come to recognize that there is uncertainty in the world and that authorities can have different positions" (Boss, 2010, pg. 6).

For example, teachers can plan lessons that center around scenarios or case studies that present dilemmas or issues that may have no clear right or wrong answers or solutions. They can also ask students to write multiple drafts of argumentative essays on various controversial topics, asking students to switch positions on an issue between drafts. In multiple-choice assessments, teachers should opt for questions that ask students to choose "best-possible" answers instead of answers that are clearly right or wrong. When taught in conjunction with the hard skills necessary to find, evaluate, and integrate information, these types of assignments can help students recognize and become more comfortable with accepting ambiguity.

No matter whether students are in the Dualism, Relativism, or Commitment stage of intellectual development, teachers can identify students’ strengths and weaknesses in critical thinking, and then help students remediate weaknesses. It should be the goal of every teacher to help his or her students become better thinkers.  What's in it for us?  The assumption that citizens are capable of unbiased, logical, and rational critical thought is the foundation of a working democracy. 

Want to read more about critical thinking?  Try

Contemplative Education and the Cultivation of Diversity Skills
Introducing the Syllogism by Example Example Example
Evidence: Writing Well-Supported Paragraphs

  • Boss, J. A. (2010). Think; Critical Thinking and Logic Skills for Everyday Life. NY, NY; McGraw-Hill.
  • Halpern, D., Stephenson, C. & Williams, P. (2012). Critical Thinking. Education.com, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/critical-thinking/

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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