Designing a Critical Thinking-based Curriculum:
Remodeling K-12 Instruction to Use Reasoning as a Mode of Learning
Written by Gerald R. Egolf
Critical thinking has been around for longer than we realize. It has been used and abused in just about every organization and in every arena. It is time that it is taken seriously and integrated into the core of our K-12 curricula and taught to students of all ages in public and private schools. The traditional reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic should be replaced with reading, reasoning, and ‘riting, not the new language rigor, relevance, and relationship that is touted in Common Core. Contrary to claims that Common Core strengthens and reinforces critical thinking, quite the opposite is true. Common Core minimizes or discourages those activities such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening that help build critical thinking skills. This paper does not review the myriad of flaws and criticisms that have been directed at Common Core. Rather, the author attempts to demonstrate that critical thinking can, and should, be fully integrated as the foundation for a K-12 curriculum. Such a curriculum would really prepare our children for success in higher education and in life by enabling them to reason, solve problems, and better understand themselves and their thinking. A similar plan has been proposed and successfully implemented in the past. With proper preparation and training for teachers, there should be little doubt that it would succeed on a broader scale. The author concludes with a model that includes critical thinking, sound reading and writing, reasoning, and assessment. The model utilizes existing curricula that are in the public domain and a plan to train and prepare teachers from a previous project.
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Although critical thinking has been around for longer than most of us realize, it has experienced its height of popularity during the past decade or so. It is a buzz term that organizations and people too easily throw around to describe their personal thinking style or to claim that their organization is among the elite due to its using critical thinking. This is true for academia as well with schools at all levels claiming that their curriculum emphasizes critical thinking. In truth, this is false advertising because really no curriculum in the United States offers a sound critical thinking-based curriculum. In cases where critical thinking may be included to some extent, teachers are not trained or prepared to teach it and, even more important, do not have effective means of evaluating its use by their students. Properly introduced at an early age, students will have a better foundation of critical thinking elements and fundamentals so that by the time they are ready to progress from Middle School to High School (and beyond), it has become second nature for them to use reasoning to validate what they read, ask appropriate questions, make inferences and assumptions correctly, and write about the conclusions that they reached.
Why Not Common Core?
The Common Core curriculum that has been foisted on the public school systems across the country is foremost among those that claim that it uses or strengthens critical thinking. As with the other curricula, it falls well short of the mark. If one reads the standards and lesson plans, it addresses “thinking,” “critical thinking,” or “sound thinking” as well as other terms to make the reader believe that critical thinking is being taught as an integral part of the subject material. In reality, it is little more than a “pseudo critical thinking” which is a common phenomenon found everywhere one looks. Even intelligent people rationalize about their thinking (bad) and convince themselves that it is sound. This “counterfeit” thinking replaces real critical thinking but since it is structured and seemingly principled, it is accepted as the real item. It may be that using pseudo critical thinking is actually worse than not using critical thinking at all. The former can lead to a false sense of thinking that the inferences, conclusions, or decisions reached are based on sound reasoning.
Critical thinking proficiency is based on a set of standards (accuracy, clarity, precision, fairness, etc.) and a list of elements (purposes, questions, inferences, concepts, implications, etc.) that lead to intellectual traits (humility, autonomy, courage, empathy, fairmindedness, etc.). This process is put into motion by an ability to read, reason what the author was trying to say, evaluating and putting conclusions into words by writing it down. This enabling by reading, reasoning, and writing is one of the distinct flaws with Common Core. It mandates that at least fifty percent of any ELA (English Language Arts) curriculum will include informational reading and writing. This reduces the amount of literary text that teachers can use to teach. It also hinders the ability of students to develop critical thinking skills because they do not learn to “read between the lines.” This crucially harms critical thinking. “Common Core will not improve critical thinking skills; it will reduce the ability to develop critical thinking skills because students will not be taught how to read between the lines of the complex literary text they once were taught how to read,” according to Dr. Sandra Stotsky. She also stated that, “Common Core’s writing standards . . . are an intellectual impossibility for the average middle grade student.” Based on this and other testimony, it is clear that Common Core does not support basic or advanced critical thinking learning or skills development.
Critical Thinking as the Core
The author has personally observed and benefited from the effects that critical thinking has on a profession and a personal life. He first learned of critical thinking a decade ago and has taught and participated in critical thinking training and education since then. It is real and can greatly change or enhance how one thinks and approaches the experiences of life. Integrating critical thinking at the core of a curriculum can foster significant improvements in public education and students’ lives. Historically, criticisms of public education and curricula have noted that students lagged behind their peers in other countries and were ill prepared for successful careers. Creating a different curriculum with critical thinking as a base would help address those issues. It is time to end giving critical thinking lip service and treat it seriously. It could be that much of a game changer.
The Greensboro Plan
While the author is presenting a new model in this paper, there is a powerful example that could demonstrate that his premise is entirely possible. In 1986, Dr. Sammie Parrish, the Associate Superintendent of Greensboro, North Carolina, city schools, proposed the Reasoning and Writing Project whose purpose was to inject critical thinking and writing into the kindergarten through twelfth grade curriculum. Dr. Janet Williamson, one of two facilitators hired to manage the project, wrote a book about the project, “The Greensboro Plan: Infusing Reasoning and Writing into the K-12 Curriculum.” In the book, she details the plan to reach the project’s goal-that of putting critical thinking at the center of the K-12 curriculum. This report caught the author’s attention due to several powerful points. Dr. Williamson (she earned her doctorate with the help of this project) lists several important reasons for why the project was so well planned, leading to its overall success:
- It does not compromise depth and quality for short-term attractiveness.
- It allows for individual variations between teachers at different stages of their development as critical thinkers.
- The Plan provides a range of incentives to teachers.
- It combines a variety of staff development strategies.
- The Plan is based on a broad philosophical grasp of the nature of education, integrated into realistic pedagogy.
- Finally, it is long term, providing for evolution over an extended period of time.
In his introduction for the book, Mr. James P. Davis, Chairman, Greensboro City Board of Education (BoE) wrote, “There is nothing more important than teaching our children to think . . . each of these academic disciplines is dependent on high quality thought. The quality of our children’s thinking will govern the decisions that they will make which, in turn, will determine the future of our world.” Considering that these were written twenty-five years ago, these statements must be admired for their forward-looking and visionary intentions. Another noteworthy fact is that the Greensboro City BoE dedicated considerable funding and manpower to implement the Plan. It started small and evolved to cover a majority of the school districts, reaching out to the teachers to participate and help develop the curriculum and methodology. One example of the BoE’s dedication to the Plan was the hiring of substitute teachers to fill in while the staff teachers were attending workshops or training sessions, and developing lesson plans during school time.
Putting the Plan into Place
The book brings makes many important points, among them is the definition of critical thinking and its application to the 1985 North Carolina Competency-based Curriculum. This incorporates what was then termed the Florida Taxonomy, an adaptation of the famous Bloom’s Taxonomy. This detailed seven levels of learning or thinking skills:
The taxonomies are intended to help teach thinking skills but do not remove other methods that teachers may use to encourage thinking. However, if teachers do not understand critical thinking, they may not effectively apply the tenants of the taxonomies, and may do so unwittingly. A state guide for teachers, “A Need for Teaching Critical Thinking: The Basic Education Plan of North Carolina (1985),” stated that “students must develop the ability to think.” The guide encouraged developing and reinforcing thinking skills throughout the curriculum every day. From the references used to provide background in Chapter 2, “Thinking is Critical: Probing the What, Why, How,” of “The Greensboro Plan: . . .,” it is obvious that those involved with the project and implementing the Plan were well aware of the benefits of critical thinking and were dedicated to helping students develop good thinking skills.
Teacher Training and Preparation
The training and preparation of teachers to develop and teach the new curriculum was a big part of the Plan as it evolved with many techniques and methodologies put in place or modified as events progressed and assessments were made as to the effectiveness of the curriculum and the abilities of the teachers improved. Teachers were heavily involved in each step, workshop, and brainstorming session. Due to a feeling of ownership, teachers felt more inclined to participate in the process and help ensure success with the Plan. The BoE did its part by making resources available to the facilitators and teachers alike.
Even so, this was an entirely new path for the nucleus of teachers who would serve as the guides for the other teachers as they were drawn into the circle of practitioners of the Plan. They were initially intimidated by the subject and the prospect of learning new teaching methods. However, a collaborative decision was made to allow the teachers to modify and remodel the curriculum to suit their needs as well as integrate critical thinking. It was to be a key decision, one of several that helped enable the Plan’s success.
Short results were very encouraging and demonstrated the potential for a critical thinking-based curriculum for reading and writing. The Plan was proliferated through other segments of the Greensboro School District. As the nucleus teachers became better at remodeling and teaching their lessons, they instructed other teachers on how to perform similar remodeling with their material and methodology. It was even showcased and shared with other county school districts. Many of the Plan’s biggest proponents were the teachers who felt more empowered, more ownership, better control, and yes, better thinkers.
Long term effects are somewhat more difficult to gauge as the school districts have been changed and are geographically quite different. The major component today is the Guilford County School District which is comprised of Greensboro and the surrounding environs of Guilford County. The Plan was still in use in 2002 when Jack Crittenden wrote his book, “Democracy’s Midwife.” In it he describes the positive effects that the Plan had and why it should be used more widely to benefit reading and writing in schools.
According to current information on the Guilford County Schools web site, the author believes that they are continuing in the spirit of the Plan, at least its evolved version, and continue to enjoy great success. Guilford Schools have a high standing and rate of success both in North Carolina and nationally. They boast a staff of 757 certified teachers and, according to an interview with their Chief of Staff, many of them emphasize critical thinking in their curriculum. The staff includes several Teachers of the Year, and the high schools, in particular, are known for their academic successes.
The New Curriculum, A New Plan
This paper is not about rewriting curriculum or developing another set of standards. Rather, the author believes that there exist sets of standards that, when properly and thoroughly integrated with critical thinking would satisfy any state requirements and be competitive with international standards.
Dr. Stotsky wrote and published a set of standards for the K-12 ELA curriculum that are among the best and most stringent anywhere. She has made them available to any school system with no charges or fees attached. Another set of standards are the K-12 math standards for the State of California which were also among the highest, if not the highest, math standards in the country. Dr. Milgram, like Dr. Stotsky, was a member of the committee that wrote Common Core. Neither of them signed off on it due to its flaws. Their standards, combined with critical thinking and redesigned for curricula today, would be an extremely effective solution to our educational dilemmas. If Greensboro could do it in 1986, surely we can succeed in replicating their plan albeit on a grander scale, given the advantages that we have today.
 Elder, Linda, PhD; “Does the Common Core Advance a Rigorous Conception of Critical Thinking?” February 18, 2014. Published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking, http://www.criticalthinking.org/
 Interview with Dr. Sandra Stotsky, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas, Department of Educational Reform.
 “The Greensboro Plan: Infusing Reasoning and Writing into the K-12 Curriculum,” compiled and written by Dr. Janet Williamson. Copyright 1991 by the Foundation for Critical Thinking. ISBN 0-944583-06-7
 “The Greensboro Plan: Infusing Reasoning and Writing into the K-12 Curriculum,” forward by Professor Richard W. Paul, Center for Critical Thinking, Sonoma State University.
 “The Greensboro Plan: Infusing Reasoning and Writing into the K-12 Curriculum,” introduction by Mr. James P. Davis, Chairman, Greensboro City Board of Education.
 “The Greensboro Plan: Infusing Reasoning and Writing into the K-12 Curriculum,” Chapter 5: Workshops, page 18.
 “The Greensboro Plan: . . ,” Chapter 11, Response from Teachers.
 “Democracy’s Midwife,” by Jack Crittendon; pages 165-167. Published by Lexington Books, 2002. ISBN 0-7391-0329-6.
 Author interviewed Ms. Nora Carr, Chief of Staff for Guilford County Schools, in her office in Greensboro, North Carolina, on January 28, 2015.