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Critical Thinking and Social Studies

Critical Thinking and the Social Studies Teacher

by Mike Yell

                        The advance of knowledge has been achieved not because the mind is capable of memorizing what teachers say but because it can be disciplined to ask probing questions and pursue them in a reasoned, self-critical way. Scholars pursuing knowledge submit their thinking to rigorous discipline. 

~Richard Paul

One of the most used and highlighted books in my professional library is Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World by Richard Paul, an international leader in critical thinking movement. We often hear about the need for critical thinking, but we seldom hear sound definitions, or, in my opinion, see comprehensive models that we can apply to what we do in our classrooms. To my mind the works of Richard Paul, and his colleagues Linda Elder Gerald Nosich, and others at the Foundation for Critical Thinking put flesh on the bones of the concept of critical thinking; a concept all too rarely made substantive.

While there are many different approaches to, and definitions of, critical thinking, the Paul/Elder view is that critical thinking is the development of discipline organized thinking that monitors itself and is guided by intellectual standards. Further, they hold that reasoning must be at the heart of good teaching, sound learning, and preparation for college, career, and civic life. Rather than lectures, worksheets, and didactic instruction, it is through reasoning and thinking their way through the curriculum, that students really learn. This approach to critical thinking, I believe, puts this model of critical thinking head and shoulders above others.

The Richard Paul and Linda Elder view of critical thinking, then, has two major components: the elements of reasoning and intellectual standards both of which can, and, in my opinions, should become fundamental components of our social studies instruction.

Elements of Reasoning and Intellectual Standards

Helping our students to become strong disciplined thinkers, thinkers who can navigate the complexities and challenges of college, career, and civic life, is our main goal as social studies educators. To improve student thinking about social studies subjects, and our teaching of those subjects, necessitates an understanding of the elements of good thinking, good reasoning and weaving these elements into our work as social studies teachers. The foundation’s Gerald Nosich explains the elements by noting not all thinking is critical thinking.2 Forming a closely reasoned judgment after paying close attention to evidence is thinking, but so is jumping to conclusions without considering any evidence. The former is critical thinking in that the individual used evidence to reason out a judgment. The use of evidence is the difference; evidence is one of the elements of reasoning.

These elements of reasoning include

·      understanding purpose (this is the beginning point of reasoning)

·      understanding and developing questions

·      understanding and seeking out the best information (data, evidence, concepts)

·      understanding inferences, assumptions

·      understanding and weighing implications

The Paul/Elder model of critical thinking also includes intellectual standards. These standards serve as guidelines, by which we, and our students, can assess our own thinking. Whereas critical thinking is thinking that utilizes the elements of reasoning, it is also thinking that meets high standards of quality, standards of quality that we want our students’ thinking and work to strive to achieve.

Some of these standards include

·      Clarity (good thinking is always clear)

·      Precision (focused on being specific)

·      Accuracy (checking to determine if thinking represents what is)

·      Relevance (not straying from the task or questions at hand)

·      Depth (not shallow/probes beneath the surface)

·      Fairmindedness (an intellectual trait whereby one fairly consider all sides of an issue)

As Richard Paul writes in the preface to his book Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World

Imagine the satisfaction of looking through the inventory of one’s beliefs and finding that many of them were consciously, deliberately, and painstakingly chosen for their accuracy, their depth, their clarity, their consistency – in other words, their legitimate merit! (Paul ii)

Would that were the case more often! Incorporating good thinking and reasoning at the heart of instruction and by setting high standards for that reasoning, I believe, makes this conception more comprehensive and complete than other conceptions of critical thinking. And although a number of essays Paul has written deal with content areas in secondary education, neither Richard Paul nor Linda Elder has written a book specifically addressing social studies and critical thinking.

Until now.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking ( has just published the book Student Guide to Historical Thinking by Linda Elder, Meg Gorzycki, and Richard Paul, but it certainly could be subtitle Critical Thinking and the Social Studies Teacher! 3 This small volume does an excellent job of concisely yet deeply exploring how critical thinking can become an important part of student learning.

We want our students to go beyond recall and gain command of how they think through social studies concepts, issues and processes, and this means understanding how to use their reasoning abilities and the standards to answer social studies questions. What Elder, Gorzycki and Paul write about for history holds for the other social studies disciplines as well; the rich and deep disciplines of the social studies are about more than recall, more than simply memorizing chronology, events, and names; they are ways of understanding, learning, and thinking about the world. The Student Guide to Historical Thinking examines how history instruction (read social studies instruction) can go beyond recall instruction to an instruction characterized by logically pursuing questions, thinking deeply about them, forming inferences and hypothesis and assessing them with high standards.

One of the aspects of the Paul/Elder model that is so appealing-and important-and that comes through so clear in The Student Guide to Historical Thinking, is their firm commitment to reasoning as the center of teaching, and helping students learn to assess their own work, their own thinking, through the use of intellectual standards.

What does an Emphasis on Reasoning and Intellectual Standards look like in the Social Studies Classroom?

Keeping the elements of reasoning and the intellectual standards in the forefront of our instruction cannot be overemphasized if we wish to have critical thinking at the heart of our instruction. When we educate for critical thinking in our classroom, we are educating future citizens who can listen to or read an assertion and ask questions such as “what is this person’s evidence for what they say?” “What questions need to asked about this position?” “What are the implications…?” “What are the assumptions or biases behind the statement?” “Is this a well-reasoned position?”  A positive vision for tomorrow’s citizens indeed!

From the Student Guide to Historical Thinking and other essays from Richard Paul, Linda Elder, and Gerald Nosich, these are some ideas I have incorporated into my classroom and would recommend to other social studies teachers who wish to incorporate critical thinking into theirs:

  • Keep the elements and the standards in front of your students during the entire school year and continue emphasizing them.


One of the posters that I have on the wall of my room is a simple and direct list of standards that I help my seventh grade students strive for in all of their work: Be Clear, Be Concise, Be Accurate, Be Complete, and Be Deep. We talk about the elements and standards early and often, and the standards always form the basics of the rubrics that I use for my students' work, and how students are to assess their own work.


  • Have students become accustomed to thinking twice about their work. Another poster that I have in my room shows two owls sitting side by side and the phrase above them is the phrase Think Twice. Perfect! After all critical thinking is metacognitive in that it involves thinking about our thinking, and our work, in order to improve it. Teach students to assess their work, their ideas, their writing by thinking through everything a second time. In this second look they should be asking themselves questions of how their thought relates to intellectual standards by asking themselves such questions as am I being clear, is this accurate, does my response completely answer the question, etc.


  • Speak less, so that students think and discuss more. In my instruction I keep my talking to a minimum wanting my students to do the talking, discussing, and thinking. Of course there will be explanations we may have to impart, but it is the students who must be actively working and thinking through the curriculum. If a teacher is writing a lesson that essentially could be carried out without any students present (lecturing, passing out worksheets, showing a DVD from start to finish), that lesson is to be scrapped! And when we have discussions, we must make certain that class discussions are truly discussions and not just question/short answer recitations. Discuss with the class by asking questions of clarification, questions that probe assumptions, reasons and evidence, questions about viewpoints, implications, and consequences questions on which students on which must elaborate. 4
  • Use strategies consistent with an inquiry approach. Inquiry begins with questions as does critical thinking. As Nosich writes. “critical thinking begins with asking questions, [and] trying to answer those questions by reasoning them out.” (Nosich, p.5). There are many excellent strategies that utilize inquiry as a basis for instruction, and all of them are based around student questioning.5 Vital for social studies!
  • Require regular writing in the classroom. Writing is thinking (on paper); we as teachers cannot see our students’ thoughts, but we can read what they write. Regular writing helps our students systematize those thoughts, and they can learn to make their writing clear, concise, complete, etc. Whatever the activity we are doing in class, whether my seventh grade students are  moving between learning stations, engaged in an experiential exercise, or hypothezing about clues during in the mystery strategy, they will be involved in some degree of writing to improve understanding. And it is the importance of writing to critical thinking that is the interface between critical thinking and the Common Core State Standards.

I highly recommend the Student Guide to Historical Thinking and recommend social studies bookmark and utilize the resources and article at By incorporating the Paul/Elder model of critical thinking, we can help our students learn to submit their thinking to rigorous discipline. Our goal must to keep our students thinking their way through our courses, and thinking well, Thinking and reasoning are the foundations of readiness of college, career, and civic life, and of lifelong learning. In a world characterized by continual change, we must help develop in our students that which will endure: good rigorous thinking. What better place to do so than in our social studies classes?

1.     Richard Paul, Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World, Foundation for Critical Thinking, The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1995. P. 53

Many of Richard Paul’s articles can be found at “The Critical Thinking Community. Spend time at this website!

2.     Gerald Nosich, Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking in the Curriculum, Prentice Hall, 2001, available through 

3.     Linda Elder, Meg Gorzycki, and Richard Paul, Student Guide to Historical Thinking, The Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2011. P. 5

4.     The types of questions I wrote of would be a part of what Richard Paul would characterize as a Socratic Discussion. To learn about Richard Paul’s concept of Socratic discussion and questioning, go to and check out the articles toolbar.

5.     I explained two of my favorite inquiry strategies, discrepant event inquiry and mystery, in the article Engaging Students in a World History with a Bog Body Mystery, Social Education, January/February 2012.


Michael M. Yell is a 7th grade social studies teacher at the Hudson Middle School in Hudson Wisconsin. He was the president of NCSS during the 2008-9 school year and is currently working on his NBPTS recertification. Michael can be reached at