Academic Literacy: Critical Thinking & Reasoning by Dr. Harry Stein

Academic Literacy: Critical Thinking and Reasoning

Dr. Harry Stein, Manhattan College

Academic Literacy has one goal:  learn more quickly and forget more slowly.  Learning has four elements:  gathering and organizing information, critical thinking (CT) and reasoning, memory/retention, and creating thought through writing, speaking, and creative acts in art, music, dance, and drama.  

    How can we describe and define critical thinking?  There is no single, agreed upon definition.  Critical thinking has different components including recognizing information and assumptions, accurate evaluation of ideas and comprehending how conclusions are reached.   Critical thinking should consistently be practiced in school and used in everyday life.  

    Reasoning is more defined.  If thinking is a mind’s highway then reasoning is the curves. ups and downs, and directions the highway takes.  There are five kinds of reasoning:  inductive, deductive, metaphorical, analogistic, and syllogistic.  The first two are most practiced in academic settings.  For example, if we ask students to discuss the affirmed generalization “Lincoln saved the Union” and then ask students for evidence we are practicing deductive reasoning.  We have a true statement and are now providing the facts and ideas as the foundation for the statement.  In inductive reasoning we would ask students to assemble random facts and ideas and then ask what generalization do they prove.  

    In 2007 the National Institute for Literacy published the guidebook “What Content Area Teachers Should Know About Adolescent Literacy.”  An introduction stated that “adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st. Century will read and write more than at any time in human history.  They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives.”  Academic literacy extends this focus of literacy beyond print to many forms of visual and quantitative learning.  The flood of modern information is not restricted to print.  Images and data are critical.  Writing is critical but for others producing thought in art, music, dance, and dramatic forms is their way of responding to information.

   If we can agree that critical thinking is an important learning achievement mental processing act once we have gathered and organized information.  How do teachers and different students start this critical thinking process?  The critical thinking will be later stored and produced as our writing, speaking, or creative response to information.  

Illustration #1

    Illustration #1 is a visualized chart showing the critical thinking process.  Every student is given a copy.  Large copies are mounted on the classroom walls.  Part of our dilemma in thinking is that it is a silent and hidden process.  If we are asked to read or see we use our eyes.  When we are asked to think we do not have self-directed tools.  How do I think?  The chart makes the idea tangible to the eye.  The letters A B C D show the four types of thinking skills.  The skills are circled.  Questions are the matches that ignite or fire-up the thinking skill target. 

There are four thinking targets: 

  1. recognition and recall of explicit information,
  2. understanding,
  3. creating new ideas
  4. arriving at judgments and opinions.

There are three types of understanding skills: 

  1. interpretation,
  2. application, and
  3. analysis. 

     Illustration #1 can be used by a teacher in planning content knowledge objectives.  It can be used in classroom or assignment questions. If students take State tests, IB exams or AP exams the visual can be used to analyze the types and frequency of questions on these external examinations.   Finally, it can be used when designing a school quiz or test. 

     Often, parents want to discuss a student’s achievement.  If assignments and tests follow the A B C D elements in the visual, student results can be quickly identified by thinking skill.  High achievement students consistently think at the C D level after they have mastered A B levels.  Some students never elevate their thinking beyond factual recognition and recall. Their test results and assignments do not rise to the B C D level.  These levels become achievement goals.  When students can “see” their thinking results and goals, they can consciously reflect on what a C or an A student means, Illustration #2 is a chart that identifies thinking skills and the questions we use to ignite the skill.

Illustration #2

     When students can “see” their thinking results and goals, they can consciously reflect on what being a C or an A student means.  Illustration #2 is a chart that identifies thinking skills and the questions we use to ignite the skill. 

Illustration #3

Illustration #3 is another question taxonomy.  Stress with students the difference between the thinking skill target and the question arrow.  Once they practice with our question they can create their own questions or even an examination using the menu of illustrations 2 and 3. Students learn to think about thinking.         

      We have now defined critical thinking and examined visual examples showing the relationships between Critical thinking and questions.  Critical thinking occurs within a class setting. 

Illustration #4

What are the teaching tactics which will help us reach our Critical thinking strategical goal?  One strategy from Robert Marzano is applied to a single sentence classroom reading.  See Illustration #4. 

Marzano asks the class to respond to the question “Under some circumstances may the end justify the means?”  Students may read or listen to the question.  He then lists 16 possible ways the teacher can activate student thinking by direct questions or asking students to create their own question responses to the statement.  

Illustration #5 (Q/R) Question and Response

       In Illustration #5, Robert Stahl of Arizona State University developed a multistep question approach to questions centering on values and moral education.  When encountering information, print, visual, or quantitative, Stahl took students through four critical thinking actions: 





For each stage he used certain specific questions.  To know requires explicit evidence yielding precise facts.  He used “I see it there” focus questions.  Then he asked students researching for implicit evidence.        

Stahl used two question tactics.  “Define” and “restate in your own words.”  To focus on values relating to critical thinking, he asked students to compare and contrast and finally he used questions summarizing, concluding, or clarifying that helped students make judgments.

Illustration #6 (Dr. Sylvia Gaylor)

       Dr. Sylvia Gaylor gives us some concluding advice in her article MASTERING THE ART OF QUESTIONING,  Illustration #6

Illustration #7

       Two examples of deductive reasoning follow.  The first called J line or Judgment Thinking is by an American Studies middle school teacher Jay Wordsman (Valley Middle School, Oakland NJ). The activity in Illustration #7 has 4 elements:

        A.  Assign a reading-The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.

        B.  Following the reading students are given a response form called J Line containing six statements.

        C.  Students are asked to read the statement and consider its validity remembering evidence about each statement. Using the Judgment Line they circle one of the responses A B C D E F G writing a few words above the letter noting their evidence.

         D.  Finally, the defend each of their six choices in a sentence.

The final example of deductive reasoning is from the Massachusetts Department of Education, Illustration #8

Illustration #8

It lists four conclusions from a Columbus reading and asks students to evaluate the strength or weakness in the conclusion.

Critical thinking and reasoning are the second element in Academic Literacy.  These skills are used in the classroom, for assignments and in evaluation.  By its very nature thinking is hidden and silent.  We need to visualize it and engage students using the visuals so that private thinking becomes public discussion.

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