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Professional Development Model for K-12

Note: The Foundation for Critical Thinking now offers customized webinars and six-week customized online courses, all tailored to your institution's needs and goals!  Read More Here

by Linda Elder

Critical thinking is foundational to the effective teaching of any subject. Critical thinking, deeply understood, provides a rich set of concepts that enable us to think our way through any subject or discipline, through any problem or issue.

In a related article, Richard Paul details a substantive, deep concept of critical thinking. A substantive concept of critical thinking is one that has a significant array of implications for teaching and learning. The concept as Paul presents it implies that:

  • Content is a product of thinking and can be learned only through thinking
  • All subjects exist only as modes of thinking
  • There are essential structures in all reasoning within all subjects (that enable us to understand those subjects)
  • There are intellectual standards that must be used to assess reasoning within all subjects
  • There are traits of mind that must be fostered if one is to become a disciplined thinker, able to reason well within multiple, and even conflicting, viewpoints
  • The only way to learn a subject is to construct the ideas in the subject in one’s thinking using one’s thinking.

With this substantive concept and its implications clearly in mind, we realize that robust critical thinking should be the guiding force for all of our educational efforts. We begin to see the pressing need for a staff development program that fosters critical thinking within and across the curriculum. Critical thinking, rightly understood, is not one of many possible “angles” for professional development. Rather it should be the guiding force behind any and all professional development.

Key Components of a Professional Development Program

Throughout the 30 years of its existence, the Center for Critical Thinking has designed critical thinking staff development programs and workshops for more than 60,000 teachers and faculty from the U.S. and abroad. In this article, using the insights gained from this experience, I lay out essential components of any effective professional development program.

1. Identify the Gap Between the Ideal and the Real

In designing a practical professional development program, we should first articulate our vision of the ideal school. We should then compare this ideal to actual practices at our own school. This process should lead to practical strategies for moving from the real toward the ideal.

VISION: The ideal school is an exciting place where learning is a process of making sense of important truths that one can use in life; school as a place where one learns to read closely and write substantively; school as a place where one learns to think historically, sociologically, scientifically, mathematically; school as a place where one learns to ask important questions and pursue important answers; school as a place where one learns how to gather useful information and where one begins to learn the art of problem-solving; school as a place where students have success in learning because they are learning how to learn, how to make sense of things, how to communicate and solve problems effectively; school as a community of learners and thinkers; school as a place where kindness, thoughtfulness, and helpfulness are modeled every day, where there is no bullying, mocking, ridiculing or teasing.

REALITY: The typical school is one where students become progressively more passive and bored, where students begin to accept memorization as the way to learn, where they fail to see school as a place where one gains important knowledge one can use in solving life’s problems, where students fail to learn how to read closely or write substantively, where students fail to discover the power of language and the excitement of great literature, where teachers rarely model the thinking they want, rarely understand content in terms of the thinking one needs to do to learn it.

NARROWING THE GAP BETWEEN VISION AND REALITY: Through practical teaching and learning strategies, teachers abandon the didactic approach, abandon rote memorization, and begin to teach subjects as ways to think more effectively about the world, as ways of asking important questions and getting important answers. They approach content through leading ideas that tie other ideas together and make learning more simple and logical. They model the thinking they want students to learn, engage the students in the thinking they model, and hold students responsible for the thinking they do.

2. Foster a Critical Thinking Climate

It is entirely possible that one or two, or even a handful of teachers at any given school is fostering critical thinking. But this is not enough to foster disciplined reasoning across the student body.

At the outset of any professional development program, we need to consider how we can foster a climate throughout the school focused on the development of thinking abilities. We cannot force teachers to place thinking at the center of their teaching. But we can create an atmosphere that places thinking at the focal point of the school’s philosophy, mission and goals. We can provide support for teachers to learn the foundations of critical thinking, so that they can begin to integrate it into their teaching. We can tie assessment of teachers and the college as a whole to the fostering of critical thinking and provide incentives for teachers to do this. These are necessary conditions if thinking is to play a primary role in learning across the school.

3. Understand the Importance of
Administrative Commitment to Critical Thinking

To create a school climate that places thinking at the heart of teaching, requires, not only administrative support, but administrative commitment. Initially, this commitment might come from only one key administrator. But the commitment must be based on a substantive concept of critical thinking, and become deep and lasting in the mind of the lead administrator(s). As Richard Paul has said, “ Critical thinking is not something to be devoured in a single sitting nor yet in a couple of workshops. It is to be savored and reflected upon. It is something to live and grow with, over years, over a lifetime.”

Unfortunately, many administrators form a passing interest in critical thinking. Very few demonstrate a deep interest. To become effective instructional leaders, administrators must work their way slowly and methodically through the theory of critical thinking and apply it in their work and in their lives. Only then do they see it as the heart of teaching and learning. Only then can they begin to persuade others to take a similar interest.

Though at least one administrator committed to critical thinking is a necessary condition for effective professional development, it is not a sufficient condition. A professional development program cannot, in the long run, be dependent on one person. In the end, critical thinking must become the defining concept for the school.

4. Establish an Advisory Team to Guide the Process

In addition to at least one key administrator, a leadership team of administrators and key teachers must be established to guide the reform process. This team must be in a position to positively influence teachers across the school.

5. Take a Long-Term Approach

A professional development program can succeed only through a long-term approach. The fact is that a commitment to critical thinking is a commitment to continual improvement. It is not something you do and are done with. We can always improve. A quality professional development program is never ending and ever evolving from a deep base in foundational insights.

Having said this, the initial stages will nevertheless involve more intense focus, particularly in providing the resources and creating the needed support to teachers as they develop their understanding of critical thinking. This initial process will involve somewhere between five and seven years of workshops and consultation with experts in fostering critical thinking across the curriculum.

A long-term approach is not possible if the program is vulnerable to the whims of new administrators. As new principals and other key administrators are appointed, the commitment to critical thinking must remain. It is vitally important, therefore, to include the entire school in change from the start.

6. Provide Ongoing Workshops

Once administrative and support from key teachers is in place, the next important step is to introduce teachers at large to critical thinking. At the Center for Critical Thinking, we have found that the only effective way for doing this is through workshops in critical thinking conducted by experts. These workshops should be systematically conducted (with a clear design in mind), and throughout a five to seven-year period, if not longer.

The best workshop design is one that begins with an introduction to the foundations of critical thinking and then is systematically followed up by contextualizations of these foundations throughout curricular areas and school-wide policies and practices.

Though there is no one “right” way to design workshops in critical thinking, there are some essential guidelines that should be followed.

Before any workshops are conducted, or as soon as the first workshop is conducted, a leadership team should be identified. The primary purpose of the leadership team is to continually deepen its understanding of critical thinking so as to eventually (after several years) provide introductory workshops in critical thinking to teachers on campus. This team should include only those teachers and/or staff who have demonstrated commitment to long-term development as learners, and thinkers. This team, if well-chosen, will serve as an internal mechanism for keeping the process going as top-level administrators come and go.

An effective design for workshops conducted by experts in critical thinking would include at its base 10 days of workshops per year in the following pattern:

First Year

Fall Semester: Two days of critical thinking training in which all faculty are required to attend. Three additional days of training for the Leadership Team (for 5 days in all for the Leadership Team).

Content focus: Foundations of Critical Thinking.

Spring Semester: Two days of critical thinking training for all faculty who wish to attend. Three additional days of training for the Leadership Team (for 5 days in all for the Leadership Team). Content focus: Applying the Foundations of Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum.

Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Years

The same structure as in the first year, except that faculty are no longer required to attend. Workshop topics might include:

  • Socratic Questioning
  • Critical Thinking for Elementary Students
  • Critical Thinking at the Middle School Level
  • Critical Thinking for High School Students
  • Understanding Content as a Mode of Thinking
  • Learning to Assess Thinking Within Any Discipline
  • Fostering the Traits of the Disciplined Mind
  • Ethical Reasoning
  • Scientific Reasoning
  • Reasoning Within the Social Sciences
  • Historical Reasoning
  • Mathematical Reasoning
  • How to Read Closely and Write Substantively
  • Teaching Students to Assess Their Own Reasoning

You might ask whether it is possible for a staff development program to proceed without the guidance of experts in critical thinking. The answer is this: theoretically, yes, but practically speaking, unlikely. The fact is that mistakes are part of learning. Feedback from experts is important for facilitating effective and accurate self-assessment. This will correct for predictable misunderstandings and misapplications.

7. Facilitate, Through the Leadership Team,
And in Consultation With the Critical Thinking Expert,
An On-Going Staff Development Process

Once teachers have been introduced to critical thinking through the 5-day workshops, and in between these workshops, work with the critical thinking expert to design a process that facilitates critical thinking development throughout the year. Sessions should be held every two weeks with interested teachers. At each session (1 – 1 ½ hour long), a basic critical thinking strategy will be introduced and teachers will do one or more activities that utilize that strategy. Then they will test the idea in the classroom. The following format might be used:

a. A facilitator (from the leadership team) will introduce one or more critical thinking teaching strategies.
b. Teachers try the idea in the meeting working through activities designed for that purpose.
Teachers contextualize the idea for their subjects and classes and then "experiment" by introducing it into instruction.
d. Teachers come back to the next meeting ready to discuss the specific ways they introduced the strategies as well as give their assessment of how those strategies worked, what modifications they made, or plan to make, etc.






The school will work with the critical thinking expert to design and choose the strategies which will be the focus of each session.

If teachers take the concept of critical thinking serious through this project, the impact on instruction will be immediate and assessed by the teachers themselves. They will take ownership of the strategies that work best with their students. Over time, the teachers will build a variety of effective teaching strategies, their confidence in cultivating student engagement and learning will increase, and the strategies used will spread by word of mouth from teacher to teacher. Interest in further participation in the program will grow. Student performance should improve across all relevant measurable scales.

8. Provide Activities and Opportunities Throughout the Year that Foster Critical Thinking

In addition to providing teachers workshops and regularly planned meetings focusing on critical thinking strategies, we suggest working with the critical thinking expert to provide teachers with opportunities to continue developing as thinkers and to share classroom strategies. These activities might include:

  1. A monthly newsletter inviting all teachers and staff to share thoughts and insights about critical thinking (including ways to teach for it)
  2. A web forum wherein teachers and staff can routinely engage in critical thinking discussions
  3. Pre-designed foundational seminars for new teachers facilitated by the leadership team, but designed by experts in critical thinking (after the first year)
  4. Teacher access to publications and other resources in critical thinking
  5. Parent workshops that introduce critical thinking as the centerpiece of the school curriculum
  6. Teachers observing teachers – wherein teachers volunteer to observe one another and then provide feedback in terms of emphasis on critical thinking

8. Link Critical Thinking to Assessment, Targeted Student Outcomes, and the School Mission

It is important to place critical thinking at the center of all official objectives of the school, as well as the school’s mission. Critical thinking must also be tied to the assessment of teachers, students, and the school as a whole. This can be done in multiple ways, but the important thing is that it is done.

One effective way of measuring teacher knowledge of critical thinking, and the extent to which teachers are effectively teaching it, is by using the interview protocol found in the study conducted by the Center for Critical Thinking. This protocol can be used both in pre and post assessment of teacher knowledge of critical thinking. Moreover, The International Critical Thinking Test (Paul & Elder, 2003) can be used to assess student reasoning abilities in the high school grades, also in pre and post assessment format. To assess the extent to which critical thinking is being fostered in the school as a whole, random samples of student work can be obtained from across the curriculum, and then assessed for critical thinking. The leadership team, in consultation with the school’s critical thinking expert, would design assessment rubrics.

9. Fund the program

An effective staff development program cannot occur without adequate funding. Early in the process, a budget must be established to fund the program. This may entail identifying grant possibilities.

10. Keep the Focus on a Substantive Concept of Critical Thinking

One of the pitfalls in creating a professional development program focused on thinking is the tendency to pick and choose from multiple theories of thinking, some of which may lack rigor or breadth. Stick to a robust concept of critical thinking.

No matter what else is true about teaching and learning, it is vitally important that students learn the cognitive skills to think their way through content. This can only be done when they are encouraged to use their thinking in a disciplined way throughout their school experience. Everything within the staff development program must assist in achieving this end.

11. Avoid Political Problems

Every school has a political dimension. Prudently work within it without betraying the principles to which you are committed.

12. Beware of Intellectual Arrogance

Through a large research study (see endnote), The Center For Critical Thinking found a significant gap between what instructors think they know about critical thinking and what classroom practices actually reveal (about what they know). Much of that gap is traceable to inadvertent intellectual arrogance.

And, as we begin to introduce critical thinking to teachers, we must anticipate and respond to problems that may result when teachers misteach what they mislearn about critical thinking, either to students or to colleagues. For this reason, the advice and assistance of a critical thinking expert throughout the process is necessary.

13. Avoid Elitism,
Be Inclusive From the Start

Another potential danger in creating an effective staff development program is the appearance of those heading up the program as an “elite group.” The rest of the teachers then define themselves as in opposition. Therefore, the program should be, from the beginning, as inclusive as possible. It must encourage and challenge, but not threaten or invalidate.

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