Critical Thinking and
Transformative Learning - Guest Editors, Donna Kienzler and Frances Smith

Vol. 14, No. 2

ISSN: 1546-2676



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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 14, No. 2.

Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer.

Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2004.

Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

Interested in submitting an article to KON FORUM? Papers are now being accepted for review. For more information, see our Call for Papers & Guidelines for Authors.



The Use of the Critical Thinking Process by Family and Consumer Sciences Students1

Frances M. Smith and Donna Kienzler


As decisions related to family, careers, and social concerns (e.g., workplace ethics, personal health care, money management, child rearing practices, and environmental practices) become more complex, the need for being able to use a critical thinking process becomes increasingly vital (Pillay & Elliott, 2001; Waller, 2001). Citizens in a global world need not only critical thinking skills but also the disposition to use them (Tishman & Perkins, 1997, Facione, 2000).

This study shows how students practiced the process of critical thinking and aspects of a thinking disposition as revealed in classroom dialogue and course writing. The critical thinking process envisioned here is not just a set of linear skills, and it is not limited to argumentative reasoning (Anderson, Sodon, & Hunter, 2001), although these skills are important. Critical thinking is a dynamic process of questioning and reasoning about our own and others' claims, assumptions, and conclusions; definitions and evidence; beliefs, and actions (King, 1992, 1994; Kitchner & King, 1990; Lipman, 1988; Paul, 1984, 1993; Siegel, 1988). It requires that the critical thinker have a critical disposition (Facione, Sanchez, Facione, & Gainen, 1995; Oxman-Michelli, 1992; Tishman, Jay, & Perkins, 1993). A critical disposition requires a willingness to be broad and adventurous, planful and strategic, intellectually careful, metacognitive, and to seek understanding (Tishman, Jay, & Perkins, 1993). One who uses a critical thinking process to make decisions seldom takes the social world as given, but searches for the social, historical, and political roots of conventional knowledge (Barber, 1992; Brookfield, 1987, 1991, 1994, 1995; Hardin, 2001; Shor, 1992; Weinstein, 1988, 1993). A critical thinker is oriented to seeking the common good that promotes a fair and just world for everyone (Kienzler, 2001; Smith & Kienzler, 1998; Smith, 1997). Furthermore, a critical thinker is poised on the brim of what O'Sullivan (2002) called "a structural shift in the premise of thought" (p. 11). Such a shift involves students understanding themselves, academia, the community, and the world. It enables students to envision alternate possibilities for problem solving.

The purpose of this qualitative case study research was to examine this process of critical thinking from the college student's perspective rather than from the teacher's perspective. The research questions examined in this article are

  • How do students say they make use of the critical thinking process in dialogue and writing about ethical issues?

  • What part does a critical disposition play in the critical thinking process?

The evidence to answer these questions came from the students' own voices. The data are in the form of words, which are relatively imprecise, diffuse, and context-based, and can have more than one meaning (Neuman, 2000). But the data allow the researchers new insights into the critical thinking process as seen by the students.

Critical thinking experts such as Brookfield (1994, 1995), Mezirow (1990), Paul (1984, 1993), and Shor (1980, 1992) have traditionally written from the perspective of teachers and non-traditional learners. In this paper, the authors use critical thinking illustrations from student writing or recollected conferences and classroom conversations. This study adds extensive data from students' actual taped oral interactions within one family and consumer sciences course in which students were taught a general approach to critical thinking appropriate for various separate subjects (Ennis, 1992). The objective of the course was to help students develop a transformative learning process that would enable them to determine justifiable actions related to their own practical/moral problems, the problems of their future clients, and problems of society as a whole.

The Case Study Class

The classroom setting for the data reported here was a 1995 undergraduate college course, Educational Aspects of Family Social Issues, at a major mid-western public university. The authors’ later work with subsequent courses has indicated similar student responses. The specific objectives of the course were to

  • Use the rules of argumentation to reflect on and present opposing views, both orally and in writing, on family issues.

  • Use dialogue to expand personal and class thinking about family issues in simulated situations where participants hold opposing views.

Half the students were in the course to fulfill a curriculum requirement; half chose the course as an elective. All the students were interested in service occupations in which dealing with persons with views different from their own was a strong possibility.

Class discussion and individual journals revealed that the eighteen students in this course were sophomores, juniors, and seniors from a variety of rural and urban backgrounds. Most were from the Midwest. Four students were age 25 or over; three had children. All of the younger college age students were single. One was an international student. There were no other ethnic minority students in the group. Of the 18 students, 17 were female and one was male. The interests and life experiences of these students were varied. Two respondents were especially interested in feminist issues and one was involved in daycare issues. Some were active in campus organizations; some had a very heavy work schedule; some commuted. Some were engaged or were getting engaged; others were married; still others had experienced separation or divorce. Several were students who had not participated in a college-level discussion course before.

The Classroom Curriculum

The course stressed a critical thinking perspective to help pre-professionals in family and consumer sciences to respond to family issues. The 30 class periods were roughly divided into three segments. The first segment involved examining and practicing specific elements in the process of critical thinking in discussing editorials and writing reasoned paragraphs about family social issues from a book of readings by Bird and Sporakowski (1994). The students used as their text Asking the Right Questions (Browne & Keeley, 1994) and supplementary reading in Writing Arguments (Ramage & Beane, 1994).

In the second segment of the course, students were assigned to one of three six-member teams. Each team selected an issue, then three members of the team presented one stand on the issue; the other three presented an opposing stand on the same issue followed by open discussion. Students selected issues from Bird & Sporakowski (1994): Is marriage good for you? Should gays and lesbians fight for the right to marry? Are children of divorce at greater risk? The other classroom exercise in the second segment involved pairs of students holding a short dialogue on an issue of their choice followed by questions and classroom discussion (Bills, 1999; Townsend, 1998).

In the third segment of the class, the students learned about the art of role play. Several writings about role play (Ladousse, 1987; Milroy, 1982; Shaftel, 1967; van Ments, 1983) were analyzed and a video tape demonstrating role play sessions with questions following these sessions was viewed and discussed.

In self-chosen groups of three, each student in the course then participated in two role plays followed by the class questioning the role players and even the questioners. In some instances, additional role plays explored another view of the situation. The first role play involved characters in literary stories selected from a reading list. The second role play involved scenarios written by the students themselves.

The student assignments included an individually-designed project to improve a self-selected aspect of their own critical thinking, such as identifying assumptions, selecting credible evidence, or listening to different points of view (Barell, 1991; Keeley, 1992; Toppins, 1987). As a part of their effort to analyze and expand their own critical thinking process, each student kept a weekly journal (as envisioned by Reinertsen & Wells, 1993) that provided regular opportunities to question the readings, elaborate on a class discussion, or raise other individual questions of the instructor. The journal was submitted weekly and returned with an instructor response. The journal was also an opportunity for "silent" students (Townsend, 1998) to share their thinking.

Each student also wrote an issue paper that provided credible evidence and references for opposing views on an issue of choice. Papers were to display good use of the criteria proposed by Ramage and Beane (1994) in writing arguments. Feedback from the instructor and others was encouraged during the writing process. At the end of the term, each student participated in a final exam, with both oral and written components. A final self-assessment was also required.

Research Method

Four researchers conducted this research: two university faculty members, one graduate student, and one undergraduate freshman honors student. One university faculty member was the course instructor; the other, an instructor in another issue-related discipline, provided an outside perspective (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998). The two faculty members authored this paper. In addition to the course instructor, the student researchers were present during each class period. The student observers took field notes during the class. The course instructor kept a journal on each class period as well as detailed notes on all student/teacher conferences, phone calls, and other informal contacts initiated by the student or the instructor. All class periods were videotaped and later transcribed.

Multiple sources of data provided richness. The video tapes added to the transcription of the spoken data by revealing feelings and non-verbal interactions. Students’ journals offered fresh insight into both classroom discussion and individual responses (Best & Kahn, 1998). Journals also helped students monitor their own thinking. Member checks occurred through written dialogue in student journals and the teacher's responses to them (Schwandt, 1997).

The semester-long data collections of the case study classroom provided repeated observation of the same phenomena. Peer examination of emerging findings, providing a chain of evidence, occurred through consultation and reviews with both the second faculty researcher and two qualitative research specialists (Merrimam, 1988; Patton, 1980; Stake, 1995; Yin, 1994).

The authors began the process of sorting data by viewing the video tapes. They read the class transcriptions, student and researcher journals, student papers, and researchers' field notes numerous times in order to identify key passages illustrative of the students' critical thinking process related to the research questions (Yin, 1994). As the researchers sifted through the data, they noted how students used the analytical skills of critical thinking in a structured learning process. The role that a critical disposition (willingness to think critically about personal issues) plays in the critical thinking process of students was also noted. As the researchers read the data separately, each took individual notes. After reviewing all data numerous times, the individual researchers compared and combined notes, discussing these comparisons on numerous occasions. They used the combined notes to select the components of the critical thinking process (e.g., identifying the issue, clarifying terms, identifying assumptions, and using evidence as well as openness and empathy related to a critical disposition) that formed the basis of this narrative (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998).

The answer to the first research question (How do students make use of the critical thinking process in dialogue and writing about ethical issues?) was labeled analysis. The answer to the second question (What part does a critical disposition play in the critical thinking process?) was labeled critical disposition. Because of redundancy, data from the student papers and researchers’ journal were omitted from this case narrative.


The analysis aspect of the critical thinking process was exhibited by the students in their reasoning process; a critical disposition was seen in the attitudes, habits of mind, and character traits of the students. The findings are presented under the two headings of analysis and critical disposition. Student quotes are taken directly from their spoken words and writings. The quotations directly from the data are referenced in these findings by tape number and transcript page (Tape 14, p. 1) or by journal, student number, and date (Jstu12, 4/22).


The major analysis skills the students practiced in the classroom were defining the issue, clarifying key terms, identifying assumptions, and using evidence in an argument (Browne & Keeley, 1994, Ramage & Bean, 1994). Although numerous examples were found, only two examples in each of the first three categories will be presented here since these categories seemed straightforward to the students. More examples of the part evidence plays in an argument are presented because using evidence appeared to be a more complex skill for them. Finally, a substantial excerpt from one class period of student dialogue is presented to show a more complex process.

Identifying the Issue. As they learned the process of critical thinking, students first spent time clarifying the issue to be discussed. Then, students helped each other to ensure that the dialogue remained on the main issue and did not revert to a different issue. They found that this type of rigor involved being aware of both explicit and implicit meaning.

From a discussion about gay marriages:

Student 14: We thought you were looking at just marriage; we weren’t looking [at domestic partnerships]. We weren’t on the same thing. (Tape 12, p. 12)

From two students role-playing a husband and stay-at-home wife/mother arguing about who gets to go out for recreation on Saturday:

Student/husband (Student 2): I think the issue is if one of us is to have free time on weekends.

Student/wife (Student 1): That’s what I think the issue is too.

Commenting on this exchange Student 13 says:

It seems to me that the issue is more that he thinks she doesn’t deserve it [weekend recreation] and she thinks that he doesn’t deserve it. . . . You have to dig deeper for the issue than actually what they say it is. (Tape 29, pp. 1-2)

Clarifying key terms. Once students had a working issue, they were adept at clarifying key terms in that issue. In a discussion of the question “Is sex good?” Student 15 asks a question to clarify terms:

Is it [sex] good as in moral or is it good as in fun?” (Tape 15, p. 11). In fact, clarifying key terms seemed an easier skill for them to master than delineating the issue.

Student 11 questions the definition of “remarriage:

When you say “remarriage,” are we talking about . . . remarriage to the same person or [to someone] different? (Tape 30, p. 7)

By the end of the course, some of the questioning of terms definitely shows a new sophistication in the students:

Student 13: First of all, I would like to ask the question about what is a marital affair. Does it necessarily mean having sex, or does it just mean extra companionship? (Tape 30, p. 5)

Student 13: [This course] is trying to make us look further into the answer. Into, like for instance, [my presentation issue] was “Are children affected adversely by divorce?” You know, what is “affected”? (Tape 27, p. 3)

Identifying assumptions. In addition to clarifying their terms, students also began to identify assumptions being made in discussions. In a discussion of a role-play of a husband and stay-at-home wife/mother arguing about who gets to go out for recreation on Saturday, students identified a major assumption:

Student/husband (Student 2): I feel like I really work, you know. I make the money and I should be able to go any time I want to.

Student 6: Does your wife work full time also?

Student wife (Student 1): [answering for husband] Full time in the home.

Student 12: Do you think there are any assumptions made?

Student/wife: I guess something that I feel is an assumption is that I don't work. (Tape 29, p. 1)

Students were cognizant of the value of questioning assumptions. One student wrote in a journal,

It is essential for us as readers, students, and individuals to understand and identify the assumptions made and values held by the speakers or authors before I can and should actually accept their arguments. (Jstu5, 2/1)

Most texts on critical thinking emphasize assumption finding as a skill needed to evaluate new information in essays, news reports, or other communication resources (Ramage & Bean, 1994; Brookfield, 1987, 1995). Students are better able to identify assumptions that are in arguments opposing their own preferences than assumptions in arguments supporting their own views (Anderson, Sodon, & Hunter, 2001; Keeley, 1992).

Using evidence. Barell (1991) reminds educators of a relevant finding of the National Assessment of Educational Progress: “Students are not good at the critical thinking tasks of providing evidence for their conclusions” (p. 265). Student performance in this course supports his claim but shows that students became more proficient at handling evidence as the course progressed; they also became more conscious of that proficiency. Student dialogues show discussion of both the quantity and quality of evidence. As they discussed the quantity of evidence in arguments, they were able to discern the lack of evidence in both others' arguments and their own:

Student 14, analyzing lack of evidence in one of the readings:

I didn’t find any evidence because everything I read was her belief and she didn’t really say studies show or … [sic]. (Tape 10, p. 7)

Recognizing lack of evidence for a decision made by one of the characters from a story from literature, Student 11 commented:

I was kind of surprised that she had jumped to the conclusion that she was going to fire Nora because there wasn’t really any hard-core evidence. (Tape 24, p. 17)

Noting deficiencies in evidence, Student 5 says that her group needed to

. . .find more evidence and statistics about the issue so as to make our argument more objective, trustworthy, and comprehensive. I understand that we may have had too many personal experience and attitudes as well as other testimonials as our back-up evidence (Jstu 5, 4/3).

Students were cognizant of the value of having some direct evidence for their points, but they were sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of evidence available to answer a very broad issue. In a discussion questioning whether divorce hurts children, students discussed the amount of evidence available:

Student 4: This issue is hard to say because there are so many outside factors. [she goes on to note multiple studies supporting both sides] . . .

Student 14: I think I could go find a study about each different thing you just asked. I think there would be enough supporting evidence [for all these related issues].

Student 4: Of course there is, but I don’t have the time to get all of it. (Tape 13, p. 13)

The instructor tried to get them to pursue the process of making a good decision even when one doesn’t have time to get all the evidence but they returned to discussing their opinions. They did not see that using the evidence they had, limited though it was, would be more convincing than their unsupported opinions, often involving generalizations (Anderson, Sodon, & Hunter, 2001).

During the course students began to be aware that it was not enough just to have some evidence, there were quality issues involved. They began to question evidence in printed sources and to check on the authority of the writers:

Student 13: Even though we look it up in a respected journal it doesn’t mean that we should necessarily believe that (Tape 27, p. 3).

A discussion on teenage pregnancies included an extended discussion on the evidence:

Student 7: I have a question for [Student 6]. One of the statistics you said was 70% of the [pregnant] teens were not from poor families. That statistic surprises me. Did you question that at all when you read that or how old was the study?

Student 6: It was from 1989. It was from our author. I guess I didn’t question it.

Professor: Why are you surprised [Student 7]?

Student 7: Probably from . . . the social stereotypes that people in the lower class are the ones that have teenage pregnancies, I guess. From that ingrained into your mind.

Student 6: Excuse me, it is on page 188. . . . It says in Family Relations in 1989, Jane Adams, Sharon Adams-Taylor, and Karen [Pittman, cited in Bird & Sporakowski, 1994] explain that one aspect of teenage pregnancies is a consequence of this culture. The greater majority of adolescent births is to white mothers; however, black teens make up about 15% of adolescent population giving birth to at least 30% of the babies. Close to 70% of teen births are to non-poor families.

Student 12: What do you know about Family Relations as a source?

Professor: . . . It is a journal . . . put out by The National Council on Family Relations.

Student 12: So it is a biased source? (Tape 14, pp. 11-12)

Here students question evidence in a printed source and let their own assumptions be challenged by the evidence. In this discussion, Student 6 does not question the evidence because it was from the author of their textbook. She accepts the assumption that the discipline asks experts to write textbooks and that the professor will choose a reliable textbook. The short passage she reads from the textbook is significant for several reasons. Not only does it directly answer her classmate’s question, but it also reveals the multiple authors of the study and the statistics that lead to false assumptions about black pregnancies. Student 12 has trouble evaluating the trustworthiness of the source because she is not yet a full member of the discourse community with a complete sense of the best authorities (Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman, 1991; Freed & Broadhead, 1987). She also does not recognize the source as a professional journal.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons students learned from their analysis of evidence was that it frequently led to multiple solutions.

Student 12: With a lot of these issues that we are discussing there’s not always just one cut and dried answer. (Tape 24, p. 17)

Student 16: I’ve really learned how differently people can see different situations and that there are many, many different ways to “solve” or work through each situation. It’s a very useful, very beneficial tool. (JStu16, 4/12)

As much as they learned about analysis, the learning was not constant or even always in a forward direction. Regression was always possible. One group of students criticized an article for extolling critical thinking but not explaining how to do it, yet a chart in the article presents a long list of cognitive strategies:

Student 8: [The author’s] talking about the need to bring morals and ethics back into the schools for critical thinking. And he wants to put it at the center of the curriculum, and he tells us a lot of stuff about why we should do this but he never really says how. (Tape 15, p. 9)

Student 16 quickly agrees with Student 8. Perhaps the group members did not see the list of cognitive strategies because it was in a figure.

As far as halfway through the semester, some students would question if they had to do research on the topics they were presenting in class. Student 16 asks,

Do we need to do research on this? (Tape 16, p. 8).

Does s/he still not understand the need for supporting evidence? Or is s/he responding as a student to determine just how much work has to be done for this class? The documents from the class do not tell us.

In fact, students generally did not acquire a perception of needed research for evidence (Anderson, Sodon, & Hunter, 2001). If they had no hard knowledge of a subject, such as homosexuality, they were willing to work with stereotypes rather than conduct library or Web research. Even in these cases, however, they saw themselves as practicing useful analysis skills. Even though Student 5 believes his/her group presentation did not have enough evidence, s/he says,

It helped us a lot in terms of getting more familiarized with the way to argue and develop a reasonable, reliable, and credible argument in terms of finding good and valid reasons and evidence, stating the issue carefully, and defining specific terms or phrases which may be ambiguous and need clarification. (Jstu5, 4/3)

Student 13, says,

Trying to defend my point was hard because there was so little evidence, but I learned a lot from that experience because I learned it’s hard to fight without evidence.” (Final Evaluation)

As both the regressions and some stormy class sessions indicated, learning to analyze was hard work indeed for these students. The immense effort involved was expressed openly in the class on various occasions:

Professor: I don’t see any enlightenment on your faces.

Student 8: I was just thinking. We’ve got a lot going. (Tape 15, p. 12)

Professor: This would be fun, wouldn’t it, to just keep going?

Student 4: No [with emphasis]

Professor: No?

Student 4: I’m getting a headache. (Tape 13, p. 14)

Extended analysis example. Some class periods illustrated a melding of the students’ analysis skills. One that was particularly fruitful occurred near the middle of the semester during the course segment when student groups were presenting two opposing sides of a social issue they had chosen. This particular class period focused on the issue of whether or not gays and lesbians should be allowed to legalize their unions. (Because the entire transcript is sixteen single-spaced pages, only excerpts can be presented here.)

At the beginning of the class, Student 14 summarizes the procedure, how there will be two sides presented on the issue and how each side will ask questions of the other. But s/he also sees an important role for the classroom audience. The students are to evaluate the evidence being presented: Listen and then try to pick out things that are good evidence or poor evidence or that we think we want more evidence on.

You can’t have a belief. At this point you can’t bring in “I don’t like gays and lesbians. It’s wrong. They shouldn’t be married.” You kind of have to leave your beliefs outside this room. And listen to the evidence that we present. And then pick out our issues, our assumptions, our conclusions, evidence that we present to you. And [then] make up your mind about your beliefs. (Tape 12, p. 2)

Student 14 begins the presentation of the group by locating the issue in the textbook and stating the side of one group:

We’re on issue 4, page 84. We’re going to present “yes” on the issue that gays and lesbians should have the right to get married if they so choose. (Tape 12, p. 3)

Student 10, a fellow group member, immediately follows his/her comment with the need to define terms ("we need to . . . define what a marriage will be and what are some of the benefits it will have"). S/he has also researched a key term in the presentation, “domestic partnership,” then s/he translates the definition into his/her own words:

You need to prove financial independence, shared living arrangements, and commitment to mutual caring. You do not have to have a sexual relationship with this person. So, in other words, I could be [with] my friend and I’m living with them but we’re bound together by our money and things. We pool everything together in one certain area. I could be homosexual or heterosexual. We would still be in a domestic partnership. (Tape 12, p. 3)

After Student 10's attempt to define the issue, the third group member, Student 2, immediately adds an important qualification:

But those are just some of the things that define [it] because you can’t totally define a domestic partnership. (Tape 12, p. 3)

Student 2 then cites library research, summarizing the results from interviews with gay men:

They just want the benefits that married heterosexual people get. And also they were saying that some kind of ritual or ceremony would make it more acceptable for their families. (Tape 12, p. 4)

Student 10 responds by clarifying what s/he sees as a major point:

The goal . . . is not to undermine heterosexual marriage. It is to legalize and make homosexual relationships more socially acceptable. (Tape 12, p. 4)

After presenting more evidence, including benefits of same-sex marriages and countries where they are legal, Student 14 concludes for the group. Although s/he shares the class’ tendency to want to use “I believe” or “I feel” statements, s/he quickly catches herself/himself and tries to stick with the evidence offered.

In conclusion, what we feel or what we believe—not what we believe in but what the evidence is supporting—is that gays and lesbians should have an equal opportunity to have a choice in marriage if they do so choose, that they shouldn’t be prohibited by the law saying that just because you feel for the same sex or you're not a normal heterosexual that you should not be allowed to marry. (Tape 12, p. 5)

After Student 14’s summary, the other half of the group presents the stance that gays and lesbians should not marry. They too cite articles, focusing on radical feminist theory that asserts that marriage would be supporting the heterosexual, patriarchal system:

Feminists must eschew standard marriage ceremonies in order not to perpetuate the public, symbolic meaning of heterosexism in women as legal possessions of men. (Tape 12, p. 7)

Student 14, from the previous triad, recognizes missing evidence:

The thing that was stated the most was that this was a feminist point of view. What about all the males? What views do they have? Is that covered anywhere in the interview or is it just the feminists and forget the males? (Tape 12, p. 9)

Student 13, a non-group member, also notices lack of evidence:

I didn’t think there was a lot of evidence to support the no side. . . . It was very vague (Tape 12, p. 12)

Student 8 questions the sources of evidence:

Shouldn’t they be stating where they got their evidence? Because it sounded to me like it was your own opinion instead of things you found outside. (Tape 12, p. 13)

Next, the class identifies some assumptions behind the two sides. For the yes side, “there was an assumption made that if gay marriages were legalized that they would be socially acceptable.” On the other hand, “one of the assumptions you have to make on the no side is that marriage is not good for anyone” (Tape 12, p. 13).

Near the end of the discussion, Student 18 recognizes that the discussion has given him/her food for thought.

I’ve never thought about this issue before for the pros and cons but a lot of the things that they said were things that I never thought about. (Tape 12, p. 14)

When the professor asks what else they would like to know, Student 13 and Student 4 have good suggestions:

Opposite sex inputs on both the pro and the con, I think. We got a male perspective from the pro and a female perspective from the con, but we really didn’t get into that. (Tape 12, p. 14)

I would have liked to know what sociologists, psychiatrists think about the issue. If they think it is acceptable. If there [are] any consequences that these people face. If there’s any societal problems that they have if they get married, as opposed to if they just don’t get married. (Tape 12, p. 15)

The presenting group finishes the class with a brief discussion on finding evidence, especially the difficulty of finding more conservative (“right wing”) material in the school library.

Student 9: We admit it was hard to find stuff on the no side.

However, even after this strong analysis of both the topic and their own presentation, the students are still unsure of themselves. At the very end of class, Student 14, who has analyzed so well here, asks the professor, “Did we do it right?” (Tape 12, p. 16). Even though students were required to chart their own learning during the course, the concept of self-directed learning and the monitoring of that learning both needed further practice (Toppins, 1987; Mayer, 1986).

By the end of the course, however, students were far more confident of their analysis skills—and the usefulness of those skills. Student 16 echoed the confidence of many of the students:

To add to my learning, I began listening to conversational arguments. . . . I tried to find the issue, conclusion, assumptions, reasons, evidence, words to be defined, etc. I think this was very useful to me. I had to listen very carefully to what the people were saying and could not put my own thoughts and feelings into this. . . . This will be useful in everyday life, because I had to sort through the opinions, and “I think’s,” and find facts and evidence. . . . I really do think I am getting better at determining the parts of an argument. It seems to be a slow and tedious process, but slowly but surely, I am catching on. (Final Evaluation)

Student 5 reiterates Student 16’s views on the usefulness of analysis:

I discovered that I have not really thought deeply on all the ideas, concepts, and information that have been presented to me by teachers, friends, the media, and textbooks. . . . I have come to realize that ideas on and conclusions about many controversial or public issues are not as clear-cut, true, acceptable, reasonable, or sensible as they may appear. (Jstu5, 2/1)

This section has employed an extended excerpt of student dialogue to aid instructors in conceptualizing the way that students use the critical thinking process in dialogue and writing. The data show that the elements of analysis used by the students involved clarifying the issue and the terms used, identifying assumptions made by the speaker or the writer, and critiquing both the quality and the quantity of the evidence.

The ultimate proof of student learning, however, was that many students realized they were applying their analysis skills in their daily lives outside of class.

Student 13: Arguing with my dad I used clarifications skills and asked him to define his terms and where he got his evidence. (Final Evaluation)

A Critical Disposition

In addition to knowing how to use the cognitive tools of analysis in thinking critically, students need to be willing to use these skills before any transformation will occur in their lives or the world around them (Taube, 1997). Facione, Sanchez, Facione, & Gainen (1995); Oximan-Mitchell, (1992); Siegel (1988); and Tishman, Jay, and Perkins (1993) call this willingness to use the critical thinking process a critical disposition. The characteristics of a critical disposition include to be intrigued by wonder, to be planful and strategic, to be intellectually careful, and to be metacognitive, i.e., be aware of and monitor one's own thinking (Tishman, et. al., p. 148). It is not enough merely to have the ability to be a rational thinker; the rationality has to be accompanied by a willingness to use the critical thinking process on a regular basis in widespread social contexts. This requires a mind open to new ways of thinking, a respect for the views of others, and a willingness to enter sympathetically into another's point of view (Oximan-Mitchell, 1992; Taube, 1997). These characteristics are similar to the openness of mind that is a key feature of Mezirow's theory of transformative learning (Mezirow, 2000).

The research data illustrate that students were generally willing to practice their critical thinking skills in their presentations, in their discussion of issues, and in their projects (all viewed as academic requirements). In role-plays, they were also able to display some openness to others' beliefs and empathy to actions they would not personally endorse.

The role-plays and the discussion following them allowed students to demonstrate their skills of critical thinking in simulated real-world settings. Shor (1980, 1992) supports the use of incidents from daily life in learning in the political/moral realm such as that identified by Brown (1984, 1993; Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). In arguing for the need of a critical thinking perspective in education, Shor (1980) states, "Daily life offers few ways to gain critical consciousness, while critical thought in the universities has little chance to cross paths with daily life" (p. xxvii). By combining academic learning and the personal aspects of their daily lives in role-plays, students can practice using critical thinking skills in their everyday lives.

Students defined role-play in their own words and described the value of role-play in developing critical thinking skills:

[It is] taking on a character to act out a situation [issue] only this time you're taking feelings and real life into account instead of just debating back and forth" (Tape 21, p. 1).

It's getting people to . . . look at issues through other people's eyes. It is surprising when playing another role . . . I feel I'm actually this person who I'm playing. It also is making us look at the issue and define people's true motives and feeling. We're becoming more of a critical thinker [sic]. (JStu 11, 4/19)

Openness and empathy. These two characteristics are illustrative of how students use a critical disposition in a personal setting that also involves communication skills. The first role-play shared here involved a character, Carol, from a short story, The Right Thing (Howe, 1981). The story line has Carol displaying prejudicial behavior (psychological harassment) toward her adoptive African-American baby and favoritism toward her natural daughter. When Malcolm, the adopted child, is three she returns him to the adoption agency, telling her daughter that Malcolm is to be returned to his real parents.

The classroom dialogue after several role-plays involving Carol, not the actual roles-plays themselves, is used here to highlight the students' voices. Even as students tried to role-play Carol, they had difficulty understanding how she could behave in this manner. They believed her behavior was bad. They thought the best approach would be to try to change her. The comments of two students in relation to Carol's behavior and how to transform that behavior are as follows:

Student 18: She's not really even living. It's like she's play acting through life. She's lying to everybody. She's lying to herself most of all. She's manipulating the people that she supposedly loves (Tape 23, p. 15)

Student 18: [H]ow do you break through that [front]? (Tape 23, p. 14)

Student 3: If her husband left her, took [the daughter], . . . and she lost everything, she would face up to it [lying, lying to herself] . . .One of these days guilt will get to her. (Tape 23, p. 15)

The topic of guilt was not pursued here. In a later class, another student commented on the idea of changing a person's view.

Student 9: You can't really change other people's view as much as you would want to. You can talk with people and you can share experiences with them, but you can't push it down their throat to get them to change. (Tape 25, p. 2)

Another student postulated that an accepting environment was necessary in order for the person to be open (break through her front). Persons have to recognize their behavior as a problem and want to do something about it:

Student 11: I think that if the person talking to me is someone who would . . . say I "understand that this is hard for you," I am willing . . . to talk. . . And you're not there to get mad . . . if [I] tell the truth. (Tape 25, p. 2-3)

A follow-up discussion on lying after a later role-play gave some insight into one student's perception of Carol's character. When the person who role-played both Carol and another story character who lied was asked how s/he felt about lying, s/he expressed it this way:

Student 11: I found it, you begin to feel like a [pause] like a film comes over you. Even when I was just playing a part [someone else, not myself], I felt bad about it. I felt it when people were trying to break me and get me to confess or whatever; I almost became numb. No matter what they said, it wasn't going to matter because I was sticking to my story because there was no way I could tell the truth. And I had reached a point of almost being desperate. It's a negative feeling that you are living a lie. (Tape 25, p. 2)

The students began to realize that getting Carol to face her own behavior in a realistic manner would not be easy. Using role-play helped some students to see Carol's behavior in a more empathetic light (not accepting the behavior, but trying to accept her).

Extended critical disposition example. The excerpts from the dialogue of a role-play on homosexuality (a topic chosen for a scenario by one group of students) and the dialogue following it are presented here to illustrate student voices as they show independence of mind (self-understanding, courage) and respect for others (empathy, readiness to listen, and willingness to consider another's point of view). A teenager (Mary, Student 18) tells her friends (Jane, Student 3 and Ann, Student 17) she is gay. Mary, Jane, and Ann are high school students who have been friends since elementary school. The conversation begins:

Mary: Hey, guys we've got to talk. There's something that I've got to talk to you about. It's really really hard for me to tell you. And I hope that our friendship means enough that after I'm finished telling you what I have to tell you that we'll still be friends and everything. So just bear with me as I tell you. For a long time I've had feelings of homosexuality and these feelings I didn't understand until recently. And I really, I guess all I have to say is that I think I am homosexual.

Jane: But [incredulously] you have been dating Mark for how long?

Mary: It's not like I want to be like this. If I could I'd choose to just like you guys, but I tried with Mark and he doesn't turn me on or anything.

Ann: What other feelings do you have? Do you think we're attractive?

Mary: Well, yes, I love you guys; you're my best friends, but I mean you don't have to be worried about me hitting on you or anything. I just told you guys not because I wanted you to feel weird around me but because you're my best friends and I just needed you to know so that I have somebody to support me.

Ann: Have you told anybody else?

Mary: No, my parents don't even know yet.

Ann: Are you going to tell them?

Mary: I don't know. You guys are kind of the guinea pigs. Depending on how good you take it, it would give me more strength to tell Mom and Dad.

Jane: Even if we take it good, you know, how do you think other people are going to take it all?

Mary: I don't know. I guess I just needed you guys to know so I would know that I wouldn't be doing this on my own. Because I know that people are going to start finding out soon. So I guess I didn't want you guys to find out through a third party.

Jane: I guess I'm just too shocked that I found out. How many times have we had . . . slumber parties and slept over at each other's house and that kind of stuff?

Mary: It's not like that, you guys. It's not like I was lusting after anybody. [Pause] This is too weird.

Ann: So are you going to start dating girls?

Mary: Well, I don't know. That's a really big step. And I don't know any other girls that are homosexual or anything like that. I don't know.

Jane: So why do you think you are [homosexual] if you don't know anybody else?

Mary: I'm just not attracted to men but I am attracted to women. It's just something that I know. I've searched long enough that I just know that's the way I'm going to be for the rest of my life. (Tape 26, pp. 3-5)

The role-play stimulated discussion in a community of learning (Gentzler, 1998; Varelas, Luster, & Wenzel, 1999). The potential of questioning the role-players and each other was a powerful tool in learning about another's point of view. But the skill of questioning about the issue is one that often must be learned. The questioner can just pursue his/her own line of reasoning instead of trying to clarify (stick to) the issue:

Student 14: There's one part where you go, well, I wish I could be like you. Well, that's a kind of copout. . . . I would think that you would have your own feelings and wouldn't need to be like [them]. (Tape 26, p. 5)

Student 14 is moving from the issue of homosexuality to the broader issue of being different. In addition, accusing the person role-playing the homosexual of a copout will only cause him/her to take the offense while a question asking for more about her homosexuality elicited this response:

Student 18: I haven't had any contact with any other homosexuals or anything like that so I'm drawing from what I've seen on interviews [television], etc. They always say, do you think I want to be like this? (Tape 26, p.5)

The role-player showed courage and honesty in her response but also realized that her source of evidence could be questioned.

In this role-play, these students were able to address a very personal situation in a calm and realistic manner. In the role-play itself the players raised several valid points others might have, such as why has she had an earlier long-term relationship with her boyfriend, is she sexually attracted to her girlfriends, will she tell her parents, and how will others respond to her after they know she is a lesbian. The language used seemed realistic in such comments as "how many times have we had...slumber parties" and "this is too weird." The choice of words also reveals something of the students' thinking although they may not be aware of the revelation (Tape 26, p. 9):

Student 17: I just wanted to know what caused her to become [as opposed to recognizing she was] a homosexual or why? What was she feeling?

The social risks of coming out are acknowledged by Mary's desire to retain her friendships with Jane and Ann and their concern about how others will view this revelation. The role-players were able to admit some of their biases.

Student 17: It [homosexuality] wasn't a part of our life so we're probably not very knowledgeable about it. Kinda maybe biased. (Tape 6, p. 9)

Morgaine (1994) reports finding her students resisted and denied personal prejudices even when their own prejudices were exposed to them. She found that the acknowledgment of prejudice and bias is shameful to students because it provides evidence of their imperfection. The ability to relate the biases to the character being played instead of directly to themselves may have made admitting the biases easier in this class.

Candy (1990) proposes that we all have a guide to living that is a repository of what we have learned, what we believe, and how we view ourselves. Some beliefs are held without having been critically reflected upon; some can be prejudiced beliefs that are guarded because they suit the interest of the holder (Siegel, 1997). In describing his/her reaction to a particular segment of television, one student made this comment relating to a critical disposition.

Student 14: You know, I wasn't there doing what I should be doing [listening for facts with an open mind]. . . . I mean I was just thinking this is so stupid and what are these people doing, that I had my mind made up. (Tape 8, p. 35)

This student is admitting the importance of a critical disposition and illustrating the necessity of an on-going practice of openness. "A developmental perspective suggests that skills and dispositions are mutually reinforcing, and hence [they] should be explicitly taught and modeled together" (Kitchener & King, 1995, cited in Facione, 2000, p. 79).

Summary & Discussion

In this qualitative research study, the close analysis of students' words and behavior enabled the researchers to see the critical thinking process from a student perspective: what critical thinking meant for these students and "how their understanding [of critical thinking] influenced their behavior" (Maxwell, 1998, p. 75). Because instructors have often internalized the critical thinking process themselves, they may forget how foreign the process is for many of their students. The student voices showcased here serve as a reminder that learning to think critically is an on-going process and students are at a variety of levels in the use of the process. Many students saw the process as an arduous one with a combination of high and low points. The students saw the need to clarify the issue and the terms used and to make overt the assumptions made throughout the discussion of the issue. The importance of evidence became clear as they discussed both the quantity and quality of evidence, but hard knowledge about concepts related to personal issues often was not sought.

Although transformative learning as a deep structural shift in the basic premise of thought … (O'Sullivan, 2002, p. 11) was not an objective of this class or a focus of this research, the foundation for transformative learning was beginning to form in some students thinking. Student 5 indicated that s/he had begun to realize [in this class] that data presented on issues by friends, teachers, and the media was not as clear-cut, true, acceptable, reasonable or sensible as it appears. Growing up s/he had not bee taught to question authorities. An open mind is essential for transformative learning to take place. Some of the activities, e.g. researching and listening to different viewpoints, role playing to get multiple perspectives from people involved in the issue, and others, reported in this research provide a foundation for transformative learning.

By the end of the semester, the students began to see the importance of communication in the critical thinking process. These students were not good writers, and conversing among themselves about concepts involving beliefs was not always comfortable either. Taking responsibility for their own learning and that of their fellow classmates was an idea they could verbalize, but it was difficult for many of them to rely on their own judgment in this matter. They continued to look to the instructor for validation. This search for validation reflected their discomfort with multiple approaches to complex issues. Some viewed multiple points of views as important in expanding their thinking; others were still questioning the value of the entire critical thinking process, especially as it related to issues involving their personal beliefs. However, clearly articulating a point of view did clarify that view for the speaker and enabled the listener to empathize with that view, even if not endorsing it. Understanding through listening was crucial.

Being able to give a rational argument for a point of view on an issue and being able to agree on a possible action related to the issue are useful skills for implementing goals for social action (Laster & Alexander, 1998; Pillay & Elliott, 2001):

Student 9: [Critical thinking] is a great asset to have. . . . It is a valuable asset to have, to use out in society and when you are talking to people. (Tape 15, p. 3)

The role a critical disposition played in these students' use of the critical thinking process was most evident in their role-plays. Openness and empathy were concepts these students could display in these contexts. When students found a character's behavior distasteful, they were inclined to want to change him/her, even before they tried to understand why s/he might be exhibiting this behavior. The students found themselves inserting their own views into the questions they asked the role-players. They found it enlightening to realize how easily we all become defensive if someone we feel questions our behavior is being judgmental without understanding. And once a position has been taken (even in lying) it is very difficult to reverse course. The students used the skills of the critical thinking process in discussion to enable them to make fair-minded decisions.

To effectively make use of the critical thinking process, students must continuously practice and refine its elements. The ability to make it a part of all aspects of an individual's life will involve more than taking one course; it will mean listening to others, reading a wide variety of materials, and desiring to learn from differing points of view. Critical thinking is an invitation to embrace and cultivate certain habits of mind. (Tishman & Perkins, 1997) One course can be a beginning.


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(1) This research was approved by the University Committee for Review of Research Involving Human Subjects.

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