Critical Thinking for a Sustainable World


To teach others to think critically, we must start by thinking about their thinking—and to do that, we start by thinking about our own thinking.

Teaching critical thinking is teaching to improve, enlarge, enhance thinking. Students must therefore become as completely aware of their thinking as they can be, just as they will have to know something of how their body works to be able to manage its healthy development. To think critically, as we shall see, we must consciously control how we think: When and what do we ask? What ideas can be put together to work and what cannot? And so on. Notice I have shifted to “we” over “they.” We teachers must be or become consciously aware of our thinking and practice critical thinking skills in order to teach it. Critical thinking is what we teach and the path by which we teach it. We need to be able to play basketball to teach others to play, to read to teach reading, to do the math to teach math. We need to know how to think critically in order to teach critical thinking.

This takes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ out of our classrooms, as it should. Step back for a minute. We have had it drummed into our heads that we are teaching so that students can do well on standardized tests. Okay. These tests are indicators of our educational health, especially as compared with other nations in the global market place. This is something of a leap, but it is a fairly clear assumption. If test scores are assumed to correlate to our economic standing in the world, they don’t. Zero-growth France (July 2011) scored better one tests than thriving (0.1% growth) Germany. and the U.S., having score lower than both grew more (0.9% growth) in the same period, while none of these approached China’s 9.0% growth. Now, guess who isn’t taking the tests?

In fact, our students and ourselves need to be learning in preparation for a much more important global crisis looming on the horizon. We are expending our host planet. We are already suffering millions of avoidable deaths through weather conditions, natural disasters and seemingly insatiable violence. In education, this situation is both a mandate for action and an opportunity for success. By addressing our educational systems to these crises, and ignoring the cries of the gored ox of corporate America, we not only make a start on solving the biggest problems we will have faced, we also have an authentic arena for teaching and learning – an imperiled world.

Teaching critical thinking and using authentic instruction may often seem to be subversive activities. Meeting standards and classroom evaluation is not only possible, but may even be better achieved when lessons include conscious teaching and learning of critical thinking mind-sets and skills. As you work through this class, try to be intentional of serving both masters. The motivation to learn what is needed to accomplish authentic tasks will overcome the learners’ reluctance we see directed at empty lessons seemingly taught for their own sake. The foundation skills of reading, writing and math are among the tools used for mastering the more engaging skills of making decisions, solving problems and planning real change. The learning in school not only carries over into students’ lives, it becomes a directing force in those lives. And your students will be those to whom others look as leaders.

We have so far succeeded in disconnecting learning in American schools from virtually everything in the lives of the students and the world around them. American education has become an end. It needs to be reestablished as the means to the best life we can make for ourselves and our future and our world. Educators and their students must always be thinking about what’s next and where we are taking ourselves. So, as you started out thinking about your own thinking, think about your role in creating a world sustainable into and beyond the 21st century.


Cognition is a term referring to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension, including thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving. These are higher-level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception and planning.

Mets-cognition is often simply defined as “thinking about thinking.” In actuality, defining metacognition is not that simple. Although the term has been part of the vocabulary of educational psychologists for the last few decades, and the concept for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their cognitive experiences, there is much debate over exactly what metacognition is. One reason for this confusion is the fact that there are several terms currently used to describe the same basic phenomenon (e.g., self-regulation, executive control), or an aspect of that phenomenon (e.g., meta-memory), and these terms are often used interchangeably in the literature. While there are some distinctions between definitions, all emphasize the role of executive processes in the overseeing and regulation of cognitive processes.

Critical Thinking “What is critical thinking and how to improve it.” Fisher, A. (2001) Critical Thinking: An Introduction, from chapter 1. Cambridge University Press.

Authentic Instruction is a model for high-quality instruction developed by Fred Newmann (1993). It lists five major components of the teaching process:

  1. Higher-order thinking. Higher-order thinking requires students to “manipulate information and ideas in ways that transform their meaning and implications, such as when students combine facts and ideas in order to synthesize, generalize, explain, hypothesize, or arrive at some conclusion or interpretation.” When students engage in higher-order thinking, they must solve problems and develop new meanings for themselves. There is an element of uncertainty and unpredictability in the process.
  2. Depth of knowledge. Depth of knowledge means that students deal with the significant concepts or central ideas of a discipline. Students use knowledge to understand arguments, solve problems, or construct explanations.
  3. Connectedness to the world beyond the classroom. This third feature of authentic instruction connects the classroom to some “real world public problem” or personal experiences that the student can relate to.
  4. Substantive conversation. This feature involves considerable discussion and interaction about the ideas of a topic that develop and build on ideas presented by others in the conversation. It involves the sharing of ideas and multiple exchanges in which students and other participants develop shared understanding of a theme or topic.
  5. Social support for student achievement. This last feature involves the development of “high expectations, respect, and inclusion of all students in the learning process.” Social support is more than token acknowledgement or praise for participation. It occurs when teachers convey high expectations for all students and encourage all students to participate in the learning experience.

Sustainability “As Nancy Tierney writes …, for the purposes of this journal, sustainable activities are those that meet contemporary needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This definition derives from the Brundt land Commission (1987) report and has been accepted by many as the root meaning of sustainability. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1993), the word ‘sustainability’ as an adjective to describe that which is “capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level,’ seems to appear first in 1972. To put this in context, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays on a land ethic and conservation, was first published in 1949; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a treatise on the unintended ills caused by the pesticide DDT and considered by many to be the catalyst for the environmental movement in many industrialized nations, was published in 1962; and the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. Over the last 30 years, as scientists, environmentalists, and policy makers more closely examined the world’s ecological systems, the word “sustainability” has gathered force and turned into a movement. Reports from the field started coming back, raising our awareness of ecosystem degradation; air pollution; global climate change; depletion of freshwater stores; loss of biodiversity; major industrial accidents, such as Bhopal, resulting in thousands of deaths; and chronic industrial pollution, such as that found in Cancer Alley in Louisiana. It is doubtful that many of us would wish to turn the clock back to pre-Industrial Revolution times and suffer the miseries and uncomfortable conditions of those centuries. However, we can strive to improve and even radically alter the systems we’ve created over the last 200 years to acknowledge our burgeoning understanding of the role of contemporary human impacts on our planetary environment and our social relations with each other.”

(Kirk, Camille M. “Sustainability: Taking the Long View.” Planning for Higher Education, March-May 2003, p 9-12)

Editorial Note:

So we are working toward a world that provides the best achievable quality of life for the greatest numbers of people over the longest time. That may be our goal, but where are we starting?

It has been more than 40 years since the first Earth Day, when playing outside with a Frisbee was a gesture of oneness with our blue-green planet. What direction have things gone since? We see a world sickening with waste and resource abuse, while millions are seduced by the opiate of plastic geegaws and electronic gadgets, the very production and disposal of which contribute to the world’s ills. We have been conditioned to consume stuff at a great cost to the Earth. Is this the progress we anticipated? Can we have progress without a clear goal, thoughtful planning and the ability to think beyond our personal wants?

As long as we are focused on the material things of this world, and as long as we design our educational systems to create competitors in such a materially valued world, we will continue in the thoughtless consumption of our planet, seven billion bacteria consuming their host. To change this will require millions over decades at least. Some have taken the first steps. Steve Jobs will not be there at the end, nor will any of us, if only because there should be no ending in the plans. But what would have happened to Apple without the steps Jobs took? Or those that lead on from his foot steps? Each of us may only represent a few steps along the road, but it will take us all and those who follow on. Those others are our students.

Critical thinking can enable all of us to look at decisions and see where they may take us. It can help us make sound decisions ourselves. Critical thinking can help with solving problems rather than buying “solutions” that turn into problems. It can help us avoid creating problems for ourselves, while we can better solve the problems life throws at us. Critical thinking can help us plan a better course for ourselves and plan in concert with others. It can allow us to look ahead of today and know we have to plan for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Critical thinking can help us to be reasonable. It can make our choices and actions understandable, and invite cooperation from other reasonable people. Critical thinking is simply living together thoughtfully and valuing the idea that thought and creativity are our greatest human qualities.

We teach critical thinking then because it enables students to become their best selves, fully actualized human beings, something more than components in a board game of global economy. We will not be able to do enough alone, but if we don’t try, if we don’t start, we must bear the criticism of the adage: If you are part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. We may never reach our ideal, but the goal of moving in the right direction may be achievable.

About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

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