University of Shizuoka Kendai Net Vol. 4, May 1997 (p. 1)

Fostering Critical Inquiry in Classrooms

by Tim Newfields

What is meant by critical thinking? Dewey (1910) describes it as "reflective thought" and Kamernar (1996) calls it ". . . the ability to move beyond what is immediately apparent, to look at things in a greater context and make rational assumptions." At the root of critical thinking is a desire for logical coherence and sense of curiosity. A historic outgrowth of Greek skepticism, critical thinking has continually challanged prevaling notions of truth and raised questions about existing certaininities. Paradoxically however, many of the tenets of critical thinking itself are open to question – particularily if we regard critical thinking as the prevaling belief sysyem propelling academic thought at large. If critical thinking or any other belief system becomes institutionalized into a dominant doxology, it begins to parody many of its own beliefs.
". . . critical thinking" is loosely undertstood as creativity and a capacity for novel ideas."

For many years the charge has been raised that education in Japan and other parts of Asia fails to promote critical thinking among students. Here "critical thinking" is loosely undertstood as creativity and a capacity for novel ideas. With a strong tendency towards rote learning, conformity and hesitation to publically criticise authority, that claim may be justified. The educational system in most countries is not set up to promote critical thinking in any meaningful sense. That is simply not in the interest of the ruling elites. Critical thinking, if examined closely, is a volatile brew which questions all allegiences.
Critical thinking is what many scientists strive for in their fields of research. Scriber and Paul (1996) stress that critical thinking involves not merely accumulating facts, but applying intellectual skills to guide behavior. With a clear pragmatic emphasis, they insist that critical thinking should be a precursor to action.
Although Scriber and Paul maintain that critical thinking ". . . is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, . . ." it appears some aspects of critical thinking may be culturally specific. It is worth pointing out that the concept of critical thinking developed out of a Western philosophical tradition. Is it a valid procedure for all fields of systematic inquiry? That issue is being hotly debated. Though critical thinking strives for objectivity, educators such as Wolfson (1985) concede pure objectivity is impossible - we cannot detach ourselves from our frames of reference. Invariably linguistic, cultural, and genetic forces shape us. Though absolute objectivity may be unattainable, disciplined self-directed thinking is worth striving for and critical thinking may have value.
Watson and Glaser (1991) describe critical thinking as consisting of five basic skills consisting of the ability to (1) make inferences, (2) recognize assumptions, (3) draw conclusions, (4) interpret data, and (4) assess arguments. They add that these skills are learnable and essential to a society that values scientific knowledge.
". . . critical thinking is, in a sense, not a subject to taught - but a skill to be acquired."
Much of the field of critical pedagogy is devoted to facilitating critical thinking. Indeed, a paradox occurs: critical thinking is, in a sense, not a subject to taught - but a skill to be acquired. Often teaching is antithetical to critical thinking because it implies that a set of values and beliefs will be transmitted from one person to another, in the same way that a fluid is transferred from containers. Pedagogy based on this conduit-metaphor is essentially antipodal to critical thinking. However, teaching based on Socratic inquiry might be able foster critical thinking skills. Max Black (1952) recommends the formal study of logic and problem solving to facilitate critical thinking and Parker and Unworth (ref.) have recommended the study of propaganda techniques. Harvey Brightman (1996) also suggests embedding critical thinking "modules" in ordinary lessons and teaching specific problem solving techniques.
I believe good way to sharpen critical thinking skills is through systematic debate. Looking at things from a variety of perspectives is an essential component of critical thinking. Unfortunately, few Japanese seem skilled at debating, which is incorrectly regarded as a matter of sophistry.
Effective debating, as critical thinking itself, is more than a matter of style or polemics: it is a matter of recognising our core values and discovering new facets of a given phenomenon. Unlike sophistry, debate is ultimately not concerned with "winning" or "losing", but with the scrutinizing the integrity of hypotheses. For that reason, a high degree of intellectual rigor is required.
Schools should teach the art of debating along with the principles of critical thinking. More college students should critically evaluate the information they are given and consider the social agendas and belief systems behind that information. Those who passively accept second-hand information on face value will never really "own" their beliefs. Though many students in Japan are taught to accept many beliefs without questioning, a real democracy of knowledge and ownership of information can arise only after critical questioning.


Black, M. (1952). Critical thinking. New York: Prentice Hall.

Brightman, H. (1997). On critical thinking. [Online]. Available: (10 May 1997).

Dewey, J. (1982). How we think. Lexington, Mass.: Heath. (Originally published in 1910.)

Kamernar, T. (1997). Communication 104 syllabus for Weber State University. [Online]. Available: [Expired Link]

Scriber, M., and R. Paul. (1996). The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Draft Statement. [Online] Available: [Expired Link]

Watson, G., and E. Glaser. (1991). The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanvich.

Wolfson, L. (1985). The untapped power of the press. Berlin, London: Praeger Pub Trade.

Chronological Index Subject Index Title Index
Copyright (c) 1997 by Tim Newfields