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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 infusionthe 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 selfquestioning, 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.

Conclusion
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.
References
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Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1979.
Beck, A. T. Cognitive Therapy and Emotional
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Beyer, B. K. Developing a Thinking Skills
Program. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1988.
Flavell, J. H. "Metacognition and Cognitive
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34 (1979): 906-911.

Good, T. L., and J. E. Brophy. Looking in


Classrooms, 6th ed. New York: Harper Collins,
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William W. Wilen is Professor of Education at
Kent State University, Kent, Ohio.
John Arul Phillips is Associate Professor in
the Faculty of Education at the University of
Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.