An Interview with Linda Elder About Using Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools

Interview questions provided by:
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico
April 2002



1) You have recently co-authored a miniature guide with Richard Paul on “How to Study and Learn.” Briefly explain the purpose of this guide.

The Miniature Guide for Students on How to Study and Learn is designed to help students become “master students.” It provides students with a variety of practical strategies to improve how they study and how they think about the classes they are in. It places the emphasis for learning on the student, rather than on the teacher. Here is how the table of contents begins:

  • 18 Ideas for Becoming a Master Student
  • How to Study and Learn a Discipline
  • How to learn with discipline

This miniature guide provides important structures for thinking within any content, based on critical thinking concepts and principles, for example, for analyzing the logic of an author’s reasoning, or the reasoning embedded in a textbook. It introduces students to the idea that to learn any subject well is to learn its most fundamental logic, to be able to think within the subject. In other words, it emphasizes the importance of students learning to think historically, to think sociologically, to think scientifically, to think in a literary way, etc. It also introduces students to the intellectual standards for thought, as well as the intellectual virtues, or defining traits of the disciplined mind.


2) What role does critical thinking play in learning and studying?

Critical thinking is integral to learning and studying---if one wants to study effectively and learn deeply.. The only way to learn anything well is to actively think it into your thinking. Therefore thinking ideas into one’s thinking is the key to learning any content. Critical thinking provides the tools of mind one needs to do this. When students study without engaging their minds using intellectual tools and standards, they study superficially. They may be adept at memorizing names and places, facts and events, but they miss the important ideas. They are unable to integrate ideas they learn in one class with ideas in another class. Critical thinking provides the foundation for deep learning and integration. In other words, without thinking critically through what they are studying, students cannot learn ideas in a meaningful way, they cannot learn deeply enough to have their thinking altered and improved, they cannot become educated persons.


3) You emphasize discipline throughout your text. How does the average teacher instill “ discipline “ in many students who are lacking it?

First, teachers must understand what it means to be intellectually disciplined if they are to teach intellectual discipline. In other words, faculty must themselves have disciplined minds. They must be able to analyze thinking, to assess what they analyzed, and to reconstruct thinking (so as to improve it). One of the misconceptions about critical thinking is that we can somehow easily teach for it without much explicit knowledge of critical thinking on our part, that we can employ strategies that lead our students to think without our having thought through the content we are teaching. But critical thinking is a rich set of concepts that can only be internalized over years of working on one’s mind.
Having said this, faculty must begin somewhere, and the Miniature Guide For Students on How to Study and Learn, along with the Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, is a good place to begin. Both of these guides provide structural ideas that foster critical thought.

Take for example, the assessment of thinking. One needs specific intellectual standards to assess thinking, standards such as clarity, accuracy, logicalness, fairness, significance, depth, breadth, relevance, precision, etc. Students need to begin to use these standards in thinking on a daily basis in the classroom. For example, clarity is a gateway standard in that if we are not clear about what someone is saying, we cannot further assess what they are saying. In other words, if someone’s thinking is unclear, all we know about what they are saying is that we don’t know what they are saying. Yet most students don’t know how to identify when their thinking is unclear. To clarify what someone is saying, we can ask questions such as: Can you say that in other words? Can you elaborate what you have said? Can you give me an example? Can you illustrate?

For students to develop intellectual discipline, they must practice critical thinking on a daily basis for a substantial length of time. There is no reason why we cannot develop our thinking for the whole of our lifetime. However, since most students come to us with virtually no discipline, we have to recognize the limitations of what we can do to foster their development in one semester. We must appreciate the fact that they have bad habits of mind developed over the course of their lives. We need to structure our courses, therefore, so students are regularly engaged in thinking through the content, so that they can’t memorize their way through our courses. Everyday, we need to ask ourselves, “What am I doing today in the classroom to foster thinking through the content? What am I doing to help students to learn how to learn?”


4) Tell us what you mean by “ Form of thinking “.

When we say “form of thinking” we mean the type of thinking inherent in the discipline, subject, or domain of knowledge upon which one is focused. The basic idea is that when we learn any content well we learn the form of thinking essential to the content. For example, when we study history properly and deeply, we learn to think historically. When we study science properly and deeply, we learn to think scientifically. When we study anthropology properly and deeply, we learn to think anthropologically.

We learn the form of thinking unique to a discipline when we understand the purposes and questions pursued within it, the kinds of information used within the discipline, the key concepts, principles and theories that guide the discipline, the fundamental viewpoints fostered in the discipline, the assumptions accepted in the discipline, and the kinds of judgments made by professionals within the discipline. Until we can do this, until we can begin to think like professionals within a discipline think, we do not understand the subject as a form of thinking.


5) What do you mean by “ the logic of a textbook “?

When we say “the logic of” we mean that there is an internal system of meanings that must be understood to understand what we are speaking of. We use the tools of critical thinking to analyze that logic. To figure out “the logic of” any product of reasoning, we need to focus on the elements or structures of reasoning embedded in the reasoning. For example, all reasoning has a purpose, answers some question, uses information, makes inferences (or comes to conclusions), reasons from some viewpoint, takes certain things for granted (or makes assumptions), uses concepts and ideas, and has implications.

Given that a textbook is a product of someone’s reasoning, we can analyze the reasoning embedded in the textbook by focusing on its intellectual parts. We can therefore figure out the purpose of the textbook, the questions that drive the author’s reasoning, the primary information and concepts used in the textbook, the assumptions the author(s) make, the points of view inherent in the textbook, and so forth. The tools of intellectual analysis, then, provide students with an effective way to understand the interrelated system of meanings that underlie and define an authors’ reasoning, whether in a textbook, and article, or any other written piece.


6) What are the defining traits of the disciplined mind?

The disciplined mind is a mind truly educated, a mind with intellectual dispositions or cultivated tendencies that go beyond basic intellectual skills. For example, the disciplined mind has knowledge of its ignorance, questions its own beliefs, is aware of the need to entertain alternative viewpoints, holds itself to the same intellectual standards it expects of others, is willing to do intellectual work, is confident that reason is the best way to determine what to believe, and thinks for itself As critical thinkers, these traits of mind are our ultimate goal. They are developed gradually, through daily practice in using the tools of thinking. They are also interrelated. As we develop one of these dispositions, or virtues, the others develop as well.


7) Most students study to pass multiple choice tests. How can we get them to evaluate an author’s reasoning?

The best way to get students to learn at a deep rather than a superficial level is to structure the course so that they have no choice. If students can make good grades by memorizing for multiple-choice tests, they will. So the key is to design daily activities that require students to think through the content. For example, if we want students to learn to evaluate reasoning, they need lots of practice in doing so. We should begin with simply acts of reasoning and move slowly toward more complicated ones.. They might, for example, figure out an author’s purpose, the main questions the author is addressing in the article, the important information the author uses, and the primary conclusions s/he comes to. We can have students analyze the author’s reasoning a number of times until they become relatively proficient in it. Gradually we can add the other elements of reasoning until they can do the full “logic of” the article. At the same time, we can give them practice in thinking through the intellectual standards and applying them to thinking. We are then ready to have students begin to evaluate an author’s reasoning using the criteria in the Miniature Guide for Students on How to Study and Learn.

It is important that students learn to analyze, or take apart, an author’s reasoning before they assess it. Too often students are quick to judge reasoning before they understand it. My rule is this: If you cannot accurately explain an author’s reasoning in your own words, you have no right to evaluate it. But most students are used to taking positions they do not understand about reasoning they do not understand. When we allow them to do so, we are not doing our job. We need to begin slowly to get students on the right track appreciating the discipline that critical thinking demands of them. They need lots of practice in analyzing reasoning first. Only when they analyze well can they evaluate well.


8) What do you mean by “ inert information “ and activated ignorance and
activated knowledge?

Inert information is information learned at the superficial level. It is comprised of the facts crammed into the mind without understanding the facts as well as trivial facts rotely remembered that serve no useful purpose. Unfortunately, the focus of most schooling focuses on storing up rote information in one’s short-term memory – fragmented pieces of this and that, facts memorized for tests and then quickly forgotten, information not valuable to us because we don’t understand it well enough to use it in our lives. The key is that we don’t put inert information to work in our thinking because we don’t understand it well enough even to misapply it.

Activated ignorance, on the other hand, is comprised of all the ideas we actively mislearn. Prejudices, biased misconception, and misinterpretations of various kinds are all products of activated ignorance. The key (to activated ignorance) is that we often internalize things that are not true and compound our error by applying it over and over again (falsely) in real life situations. Activated ignorance results from information wrongly learned, or information that is incorrect, inaccurate, or based in half-truth. Activated ignorance can lead to intellectual righteousness, the tendency to believe one is inherently right, that one’s ideas are better than the ideas of others, and therefore that one has a right to “lord” those ideas over others.

Activated ignorance is a natural state of the human mind. We don’t have to learn to use falsehoods in our experience. The mind naturally sees itself as right, as in possession of “the truth,” even when it is using faulty reasoning. We routinely act on ideas that are irrational or unreasonable. Through self-deceptive tendencies we are able to see ourselves as right when we are wrong. In other words, though we often use faulty reasoning and distorted concepts in thinking, we nevertheless are able to hide the problems in our thinking through self-deception.

Activated ignorance is a problem for a number of reasons. It can lead us to make bad decisions. It can lead to problems in our personal lives. It can impede our ability to learn and think through complex problems. It can lead to great injustice and cruelty in the world. Indeed injustice usually occurs, not because people know they are doing something wrong and do it anyway, but because they wrongly think what they are doing is right. They believe themselves to be perfectly justified, even when engaging in the most egregious of acts.

To exemplify the prevalence of activated ignorance in student thinking, consider the following ideas students routinely use in thinking: “Learning should be easy. Learning should be fun. If I am not learning it is the teacher’s fault. Learning means doing what the teachers says.” Each of these ideas is flawed. Each when believed and acted upon is a form of activated ignorance. Each leads to negative consequences for students.

Activated knowledge occurs when we act on ideas we deeply and rightly understand. It is knowledge that begets further knowledge. This is the ideal for human thinking and a fundamental goal of the critical thinker.

To act in accordance with activated knowledge we must possess the intellectual virtues or dispositions we talked about earlier. For example, when we have intellectual humility, we are clear about what we know and what we don’t know. We resist acting on prejudices and superficial understandings. We are not intellectually arrogant in our approach to situations. We don’t presume to know what we do not. We are careful in the conclusions we come to, and we hold them tentatively when necessary.

The stronger the intellectual virtues in the mind, the more prominent the role of activated knowledge.

For the most part, schooling fosters both the rote memorization of information (producing inert information in the mind), and false understandings taken to be true (producing forms of activated ignorance). The former is apparent in the large volume of superficial work required of students throughout the “educational” process.

The later can be exemplified in all the ways that students come to falsely believe things: through classroom mislearning, through accepting media propaganda as true, through uncritically accepting the beliefs of their peer group as true, etc…

In the educational process, we need to move away from inert information and activated ignorance. Instead we need to foster the development of knowledge that produces knowledge. Students need to learn to use their minds in responsible, meaningful ways. to learn what is important to learn, to examine and change their beliefs, to think things through from multiple competing perspectives, and to deal in the world fairmindedly. Most of all they need foundation stones of knowledge that lead them to unlimited knowledge.

9) You have a website at www.criticalthinking.org How do you think websites and the Internet will change critical thinking and reasoning and problem solving ?

The information now available on the internet, like traditional information sources, is useful to us only to the extent that we can accurately assess and apply it. In other words, the internet information is not a good in itself. We will not improve our thinking or our knowledge merely because we have more information available to us. In fact, people unskilled at thinking can easily be manipulated through (what is often false or misleading) information that is pre-digested and made available on the internet. To effectively use any information we must utilize the resources of critical thinking. We need to determine the accuracy, relevance, and significance of information.
The problem we now face is that students often believe whatever they read on the internet. They uncritically consider it a source of reliable information. This is true because they don’t have the intellectual tools to differentiate between credible and incredible information and claims.


10) How do we teach students to think within the ideas of a subject?

To teach students to integrate foundational concepts and principles into their thinking, we need first to place the emphasis on the most significant concepts underlying the subject. We need to model thinking using those concepts. We need to model finding connections between foundational and not-so-foundational concepts. We need to proceed slowly, helping students to make their ground sure before they move on.. We do this by having them read, write, talk, and use foundational concepts in solving problems. We need to give them time to actively discuss the concepts in class with other students. We need to call on them to explain important concepts in their own words. We need to focus less on coverage and more on depth so that students learn a few things well in our classes, rather than many things badly.


11) A practical question regarding education. With the rise of mainstreaming and inclusion, how can the average classroom teacher foster critical and higher order thinking skills in today’s classroom ?

One of the beauties of critical thinking is that the concepts and tools embedded in it can be universally taught and applied. It need not, indeed it should not, be reserved for more “advanced students.” All students need to learn to use their minds more effectively. All students need to learn to think things through in a disciplined way. The vast majority of students are capable of learning critical thinking and using it. Though students will inevitably learn at different paces, we can focus on the same material because foundational concepts can be learned at different levels of depth. By having students work together in groups, they can benefit by the insights of others.

Roughly the same practice is essential for all students in learning to think within a discipline (historically, geographically, biologically, sociologically,…). For example, all students can learn to ask questions of clarification within disciplines (Could you say that in other words? Could you give me an example). All students can learn to ask questions of relevance (How is what you are saying relevant to the question we are trying to answer?). All students can learn to analyze information for accuracy (How can we check to see if this information is accurate?). All students can learn the intellectual dispositions and begin to work them into their thinking (intellectual perseverance, intellectual humility, etc.)

In fact, questions focused on the elements and standards of thought can be fostered with children at very young ages. For example, I have worked in demonstration classes with elementary level students and have successfully taught basic critical thinking skills to children even at the kindergarten level. I have also written a miniature guide to critical thinking for children. In this miniature guide, you will find the same foundations of critical thinking that are fostered in the Miniature Guide for Students on How to Study and Learn. The point is that students of all levels and abilities can benefit from critical thinking.


12) What critical thinking skills do we need to foster in terms of information on the World Wide Web?

To effectively use information available to us on the web, we need basic critical thinking skills to analyze, evaluate, and improve thinking. In other words, we need to be able to figure out the agenda of the website, the questions they are purporting to answer, the information being presented, the assumptions made, the key concepts that drive the positions taken, etc.

But perhaps even more importantly, we need to be able to assess the quality of website material. For example, we need to be able to figure out whether the information is accurate, and hence how we could check to see if it is accurate. We need to be able to figure out whether it is relevant to the issue we are focused on. We need to be able to distinguish between information that is deep and that which is superficial. We need to differentiate between the significant and the insignificant. We need to be able to determine whether the information provided is detailed enough (or precise enough) for our purpose, etc.


13) Your work focuses on “ essential ideas “. Where did this concept come from and why is it important ?

In every subject and domain of learning, there are ideas that are seminal and ideas that are peripheral (and many ideas in-between). Essential ideas are seminal. They are at the roots of many derivative ideas. When we know these foundational ideas well, we are able to derive many of the others. They become sources of power in our thinking. For example, one cannot understand physics without understanding the idea of matter and energy. All of physics revolves around these two ideas and their interrelationships. To think like a physicist is to learn how to use these concepts everywhere in one’s thought.

It is essential ideas that form how we see the world, and how we function in it. If you read the pages in the How to Study and Learn guide, you will notice that each page is focused on one essential idea. Notice two things: 1) the essential idea is the most basic point being made on the page or set of pages, 2) if students use this idea in their thinking, they will reason better through the content and function better as learners.

Take, for example, the essential idea on page 20, “To understand our experience and the world itself, we must be able to think within alternative world views. We must question our ideas. We must not confuse our words or ideas with things.” Now image a student taking this idea seriously. This student would continually seek out, and seek to master, multiple viewpoints. The student would routinely question the ideas he is using in his thinking. He would recognize that things are often confused with words. Words often hypnotize us and we use them without reflecting on what they represent.

Critical thinking reminds us of the power of essential ideas in human thinking: purpose, question, information, concept, inference, implication, point of view, clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, and significance. These are essential ideas for our thinking at a critical level. In this miniature guide, we wanted to distill ideas for students so that they could easily see the most basic ones and begin to learn how to put them to use. We did not assume that students can figure out essential ideas on their own, given that they have most likely lack the tools and discipline to do so.


14) Charles Sykes recently wrote a book about “ Dumbing Down Our Kids.” How can we reverse this trend?

The only way we can do this is to begin to significantly change the way we approach schooling at all levels. Students must learn to use their minds mindfully. They must discover the (liberating) power of intellectual discipline.

But we face many barriers to intellectual development on a large scale. First, teachers and faculty themselves largely lack intellectual discipline and process new material in the same superficial ways their students do. Standardized tests often do not focus attention on foundational concepts and intellectual tools. Coverage “a mile wide and an inch deep” is the rule at most levels of education. Those who should lead are often a significant part of the problem.

When those responsible for educating students misunderstand education as “lecture and test” and do not realize that they are perpetuating the problem, it is difficult to bring change about. In a study conducted by the Center for Critical Thinking for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, we found that though college and university faculty overwhelmingly identify critical thinking as of primary importance, few can adequately explain what critical thinking is and how they are teaching for it. In other words they are in essence saying, “We teach critical thinking but don’t ask us to explain what it is or to describe how we teach for it.” This study focused on 38 public universities and 28 private ones. It took a wide sample across the disciplines. The intellectual arrogance prevalent in this study is not confined to faculty in California. It seems natural for teachers and instructors to believe that they are teaching students intellectual discipline.

But this can change if faculty participate in well-designed, long-term professional development activities. When faculty begin to take critical thinking seriously, start to redesign their courses, and focus on essential concepts and basic thinking within the discipline the light bulbs begin to go on.


15) Currently, many universities are going to “ on-line courses “ and Instructional Television. What impact do you think this will have on critical thinking?

For the most part this will not have any significant impact on the teaching of critical thinking given that critical thinking is far from prominent in college classes today. What is crucial is a commitment to critical thinking. When that commitment is there, the rest follows. Committed faculty use the internet for class discussions, peer interaction, and teacher feedback. All things being equal, the ideal is to use faculty with experience teaching students to think within content. With the critical insights in place, the necessary adaptations will follow.


16) Many college students are dealing with “ information overload”. They complain of “too much to learn in too little time”. What do you suggest?

The students are right. Most faculty are attempting to cover entirely too much material in a semester course. We need to move away from content coverage and toward deep understanding of the most fundamental concepts in our courses. When students are taught in the didactic mode, at the end of a semester’s course, most students cannot adequately articulate even the most basic concepts in the course. They forget as fast as they learn. Remember, most students take years of classes in science, history, math, language arts, etc., and yet cannot accurately state what science is, why it is important to think scientifically, what history is and why it is important to think historically, what math is and why it is important to think mathematically, etc?

We have been on the content coverage bandwagon for many years, and the amount of content we are asking students to “learn” is increasing quickly. Yet even the best students can only learn well a small set of important concepts in one semester. As we design our courses, we should begin with questions such as these: If my students learn nothing else in my classes what would I want them to learn? What concepts within my content are the most crucial for students to understand to utilize for the rest of their lives?

The fact is that we have little time with our students. Most of what we would want to teach, we simply do not have the time to teach. Thus we must begin with the most significant ideas in our subject. We must help students understand those ideas deeply so that they take root and live in their minds, so that ultimately they live differently having learned those ideas.


17) Many college students are confronted with general education requirements that they feel have no relationship to their major and minor. What can instructors do to remedy this situation?

First, students should come to learn that the most important goal that they should have in college is to acquire the traits and skills of lifelong learners. College should not be seen merely as a means to a job.

But if we want students to change their concept of college, we have to change our concept as well. We have to structure our courses so that students develop intellectual skills that they recognize as useful as they move through their courses. We need to help them see the relationship between developing important of skills of mind and functioning well in life. We need to help them make connections between what they learn in the classroom and what is happening in the real world, in their world. For example, we need to show them the importance of ideas in life, how the ideas they hold shape their perspectives, how they can change their ideas and transform their lives for the better as a result.


17) What do you see as critical thinking concepts and tools?

Critical thinking concepts are a rich set of ideas that enable us to understand our minds, our thinking and emotions, and how to live our lives effectively. Critical thinking “tools” is a metaphor for intellectual skills, abilities and dispositions of mind. Some of the most important concepts are the elements of reasoning (purpose, question, information, inference, assumptions, concepts, point of view, implications), the intellectual standards (such as clarity, accuracy, precision, depth, breadth, relevance, significance, fairness, logicalness, etc.), and intellectual virtues or dispositions, which we have already discussed. The “tools” include intellectual abilities such as the ability to gather accurate information, the ability to come to well-reasoned, logical conclusions, the ability to formulate clear and justifiable purposes. When students have skills and dispositions of mind, they have tools of mind they can use in life situations.


18) What question have I neglected to ask ?

Perhaps the most important question still to be answered is: What are the most significant barriers to the development of critical thinking abilities and traits?

There are a number of barriers to the development of thinking including the lack of insight into critical thinking on the part of teachers and faculty. But at a deeper level, perhaps the single most significant barrier is the native egocentrism of human thought. This is an important question because it is egocentrism that keeps us from seeking and finding flaws in our thinking. It is egocentrism that leads to intellectual arrogance, or the tendency to think we know more than we do. It is egocentrism that leads to human selfishness and close-mindedness. Therefore as we teach students to think within disciplines, we also need to teach students how the mind normally functions – that it functions to get what it wants, to validate its views, and justify its behavior. We pursue this thesis in our book: Critical Thinking: Tools for taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life. This book was written as a textbook for college level students but is useful as well for faculty interested in developing their thinking. The problem of egocentrism in human thinking is also outlined in our newest miniature guide: The Miniature Guide to The Human Mind.


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