Critical Thinking & ICTs

23 Dec

critical-thinking-cartoonThere 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?

blooms_digital_taxonomySimilar 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

revised_taxonomyBloom’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

pe-critical-thinking-modelThe 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
10Another 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.

waving-not-drowning-7-638From 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.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: