Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 135-138
National Council for the Social Studies

Teaching Critical Thinking: A Metacognitive Approach

William W. Wilen and John Arul Phillips
A primary goal of social studies is to prepare students to make informed decisions on public and political issues.
Making those informed decisions requires critical thinking skills. Therefore, effective participation in public life is contingent on the quality of one's critical thinking skills.
While there is general agreement as to the necessity of developing students' critical thinking skills in preparation for effective citizenship, there is less agreement about how to teach these skills (Wilen in-press). Useful thinking skills include those associated with acquiring, interpreting, organizing, and communicating information; processing data in order to investigate questions; solving problems and making decisions; and interacting with others (NCSS 1993).

Among the several major approaches to teaching critical thinking skills, the literature seems to favor infusion-teaching thinking skills in the context of subject matter. This approach entails integrating content and skills as equally as possible in order to maintain a balance of the two (Willis 1992). Thinking skills are reinforced throughout the teaching of the subject and later retained. Research shows that students learn both skills and subject matter if they are taught concurrently (Beyer 1988).

Influence of Modeling
Metacognition refers to the knowledge and control people have over their thinking and learning activities (Flavell 1979); it involves "thinking about thinking."

The metacognitive approach we are proposing is an alternative way to teach critical thinking skills and is based on the principles of infusion-the teacher directly teaches students specific critical thinking skills within the context of subject matter. The teacher primarily accomplishes this through modeling the use and application of critical thinking. In addition, the skills are also modeled by the learners.

There is strong evidence for the effectiveness of the modeling component of the metacognitive approach. One of the most influential studies of critical thinking in social studies classrooms is currently underway at the University of Wisconsin. Newmann and his associates are attempting to find out what teachers do to create classroom environments that foster thoughtfulness.

Based on the research conducted to date, primary dimensions of classroom thoughtfulness have been identified. These are observable qualities of classroom activity and talk that facilitate students' development of subject matter understanding, thinking skills, and dispositions of thoughtfulness. The most important characteristic is the demonstration by the teacher of how he/she has thought through problems, rather than the mere provision of answers. This is modeling. Other characteristics are that the teacher shows interest in students' ideas and their approaches to solving problems, and acknowledges the difficulties students have in understanding problematic topics (Newmann 1991).

Modeling, as is acknowledged by Bandura, a leading theorist in social learning, is ". . . one of the most powerful means of transmitting values, attitudes, and patterns of thought and behavior" (1979, 47). Good and Brophy, in their recent review of research (1994), have concluded that students learn more effectively by observation through modeling than through deliberate instruction by the teacher or deliberate practice by the learner. The teacher is the "expert" and models the thought processes involved in executing a particular critical thinking skill, such as establishing whether a statement is fact or opinion. The teacher breaks this skill down into steps and demonstrates the execution of each step by thinking aloud.

The Metacognitive Approach
Cognition or thinking refers to the intellectual functioning of the mind with regard to the learner's ability to attend, acquire, represent, and recall information. Metacognition, which refers to the knowledge and control people have over their own thinking and learning activities (Flavell 1979), deals with the "individual's knowledge about the task, possible strategies that might be applied to the task and the individual's awareness of their [sic] own abilities in relation to these strategies" (Taylor 1983, 270).

In relation to the acquisition of critical thinking skills, metacognition refers to what a learner knows about his or her thinking processes (conscious awareness) and the ability to control these processes by planning, choosing, and monitoring. Basically, there are two components of the metacognitive process: awareness and action (see Figure 1).

Awareness of one's cognitive behavior during a task includes awareness of the purpose of the assignment, awareness of what is known about the task, awareness of what needs to be known, and awareness of the strategies and skills that facilitate or impede understanding.

Action is the ability to use self-regulatory mechanisms or cognitive monitoring to ensure the successful completion of the task, such as checking the outcome of any attempt to solve the problem, for example, planning one's strategies for learning, and remediating any difficulties encountered by using compensatory strategies.

According to Sanacore (1984), metacognition is "knowing what you know," "knowing what you need to know," and "knowing the utility of active intervention." However, this metacognitive skill is apparently not developed in all students. To be an efficient and effective thinker, the learner should be able to monitor his or her degree of understanding, be aware of the knowledge possessed, be conscious of the task demanded, and know the strategies that facilitate thinking. Based on this notion of metacognition, Figure 2 outlines a strategy for helping learners acquire critical thinking skills.

Step 1: Explanation by the Teacher
The teacher decides which skill is to be taught, lists the steps to follow when executing the skill, and explains why it is important and when students will need to use it. One example of a specific critical thinking skill is distinguishing fact from opinion. For example, in teaching learners to distinguish fact from opinion, the teacher begins by defining the skill.

A fact is usually defined as a truth, something that can be tested by experimentation, observation, or research and shown to be real. However, the teacher should also highlight that certain facts may be challenged and proved to be not altogether true.

On the other hand, an opinion is one's belief, feeling, or judgment about something. It is subjective or a value judgment, not something that can be objectively verified. The teacher describes the reasoning process and presents several examples and non-examples to help explain the process. Simultaneously, the teacher anticipates the kinds of problems students may have about when and how to use the reasoning process, and uses a variety of passages to illustrate the skill.

The teacher can illustrate how to distinguish fact from opinion based on the following statements:

1. President J. F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and L. B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President.
2. Truman was the best President of the United States.
3. Columbus was the first to discover America in 1492.
Statement 1 is a fact that can be verified; to this day there is no dispute as to the event. Statement 2 is an opinion because the word "best" is a personal preference. Does "best" refer to President Truman's foreign policy, domestic policies, or his oratorical skills in comparison to other presidents? Statement 3 was held to be a fact for many years, but there is growing evidence that other people from other continents visited, explored, and inhabited America prior to 1492. There is also the important question of whether Columbus could have "discovered" America, since indigenous people had been living there for thousands of years prior to Columbus's arrival.

Step 2: Modeling by the Teacher
Besides merely explaining the critical thinking skill, the teacher models the cognitive processes involved in executing the skill. The teacher "thinks aloud" stating when and how the thinking skill should be used. Students need to hear firsthand how the teacher guides himself or herself verbally in regulating the processes involved (Manning 1991). This can be done by the teacher's reading a text passage to the class and modeling self-questioning, as well as the fix-up strategies adopted to overcome difficulties in understanding. The teacher provides a model of the thinking process by stating what is going on inside his or her head. Herein the teacher is assumed to be the expert thinker while the student is seen as the novice.

For example, to determine whether a statement is fact or opinion, the following "inner dialogue" based on the following passage might be the sequence of mental processes going on inside the head of the teacher-expert.

The Tropical Rain Forest
The tropical forests of Malaysia are regarded as the oldest in the world with the largest variety of flora and fauna. Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain peak in Malaysia and also the highest in South East Asia. The forests of Malaysia, reputed to be the most beautiful in the world, have attracted many tourists from the United States, Canada, and Europe. Also, fascination with the mysteries of the tropical jungle as rightly or wrongly portrayed in many stories and legends has attracted the curious to visit this part of the world.

Teacher: a) I'm going to pretend I don't know the difference between fact and opinion in the passage given. See what happens. (Teacher reads and pretends to have trouble distinguishing fact and opinion.) Hmmm . . . Let me begin by drawing out all the statements of facts in the passage (Teacher reads).

b) What did we say a fact is? (Teacher refers to the earlier definition of a fact.) Okay, if that's the case, then the following are facts. The tropical forests of Malaysia are the oldest and have the largest variety of flora and fauna. I guess this has been proved by geologists, biologists, and botanists. Perhaps, the diversity of flora and fauna was compared in relation to the temperate forests. Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in Malaysia and South East Asia. Yes, this is a fact. It would have been more believable if the height of the mountain peak had been stated by the author.

c) Next, let me look at the statements that are likely to be opinions. Now, what's an opinion? (Teacher refers to the previous definition of an opinion.) The statement that the tropical forests of Malaysia are reputed to be the most beautiful in the world is certainly an opinion. Why? Because beauty is in the eyes of the beholder! For me, the temperate forests are equally beautiful, especially during fall. Oh, the colors!

d) Also, the statement that tourists are attracted to the tropical forests because of the legends and stories associated with the jungle is another opinion. Surely, this is a personal preference and a matter of taste which may not be the reason for seeing the tropical forests.

The teacher checks how the students interpreted the modeling sessions, asking them to tell when and how to use the reasoning process. If, however, the students still do not understand, the teacher provides cues in the form of prompts, analogies, metaphors, or other forms of elaboration that help students refine their understanding of the reasoning process (Herrmann 1988).

Through modeling, teachers are sharing their thinking through externalizing their inner dialogue and verbalizing the questions they are asking themselves. By sharing their strategies, teachers are in fact providing their students with models of mental processes.

Step 3: Modeling by the Learner
Next, the student performs the same task under the guidance of the teacher. As students describe what is going on "inside their heads," they become aware of their thinking processes. The teacher shapes students' understanding of the reasoning process by asking them to explain how they made sense of the text. On the basis of what they say, the teacher provides additional explanations to help them reason like experts. Similarly, as they listen to their classmates describing their mental processes, they develop flexibility of thought and an appreciation for the different ways of solving the same problem. Students are asked to pose questions, spot confusions, form hypotheses, and suggest remedies to failures.

As an illustration of how learner modeling might work in relation to teaching the difference between a fact and an opinion, the teacher might involve the students in a cooperative learning activity. Suppose the class had been reviewing the circumstances surrounding the incident in Singapore involving the caning of an American teenager. The teacher tells the story of Michael Fay while the students listen and write down what they think were the facts and opinions in the story. Suppose one student wrote the following statements from the story:

Michael Fay deserved the punishment because he broke the laws of Singapore.

Caning is painful and leaves permanent scars.

Caning is wrong because it is inhuman.

Singapore is the only country in the world that uses caning as a form of punishment.

Using the Think-Pair-Share cooperative learning technique (Kagan 1989-90), the students are paired with one another to discuss the answers they have written down. The conversation might proceed as follows:

Student 1: Here's my list. I think they are all facts except the third one because the word "wrong" is used. While some people consider caning wrong, others consider it right.

Student 2: You're right. It sounds like an opinion to me. Caning could also be wrong or right for different reasons. What about number 1, though, isn't that an opinion?

Student 1: Maybe, because many people in the United States don't believe he deserved to be caned even though he broke Singapore laws. I think you're right, it seems to be an opinion.

Student 2: Is Singapore the only country that uses the cane for punishment? How do we find out?

After students have discussed in pairs, they share their answers and ask further questions before the whole class. The teacher guides their thinking by providing additional explanations and illustrations in order to help them understand the differences between facts and opinions. Modeling by the learner involves students interacting with one another in order to become aware of their thinking processes. The teacher facilitates the process directly and indirectly.

Teaching learners to think critically is a difficult task and requires a great deal of patience. But the time and effort are well spent to try to prepare a citizenry capable of making decisions and solving problems using reflective thought to guide action for the common good. One approach to teaching critical thinking is the metacognitive approach, which emphasizes explaining and modeling the thinking strategy. The metacognitive approach proposed serves as a guide for teachers interested in orienting their teaching toward helping learners become more analytical and independent thinkers.

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John Arul Phillips is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.