Metacognition and Critical Thinking: Some Pedagogical Imperatives

Peter Ellerton


Critical thinking is apparently universally desirable as an educational outcome. It is rare to find an educational institution that does not mention some critical skills in the list of its graduate attributes. Too often, however, critical thinking permeates the talk and spirit of syllabi but the substance of it fails to materialize. It has become the Cheshire Cat of curricula, in that it seems to be in all places, owned by all disciplines, but it does not appear, fully developed, in any of these.

Most, but not all, attempts to understand critical thinking focus on compiling a set of cognitive skills, and perhaps affective dispositions, that together are not so much definitive of critical thinking as they are descriptive of how a paradigmatic critical thinker might be said to operate. Broad-brush definitions of a critical thinker include, taking a very small sample, someone who is able to correctly assess statements (Ennis 1964, 599), test their own thinking using criteria and standards (Paul 1993), think effectively with concepts (Elder and Paul 2001), and uncover "evidential relations that hold between statements" (Mulnix 2010, 467).

It is hard to imagine discounting any of these ideas as not relating to common conceptions of critical thinking, and none of these or other researchers would likely dispute the value of each other's categorizations. Nor do they fail to elaborate on their descriptive summaries of what critical thinking involves. Hence, the current understanding of critical thinking is very broad. This does not mean that it lacks precision, as many researchers have articulated skills and affective dispositions in great detail (Facione 1990), but there is a sense in which the net is cast so widely that our definitions become too diffuse to provide a sharp educational focus. The lack of a deeper and more unified understanding of critical thinking also makes the creation of a pedagogical approach to producing critical thinkers problematic.

In this paper I shall focus less on the set of cognitive skills often thought of as being constitutive of critical thinking (inferring, analyzing, evaluating, justifying, etc.) and more on the role of metacognition in thinking critically. Metacognition, as it is routinely elucidated, is thinking about thinking. This simplistic definition does not, however, shine a bright enough light on what we shall see is a cognitively complex phenomenon. I shall therefore provide a model of metacognition, via an explanation given at a functional level, that I hope will be productive in two ways: first, it will improve our understanding of critical thinking; second, it will provide some clear pedagogical principles that can guide the construction of learning experiences and assessment design. I shall use this model of metacognition to propose a model of critical thinking in which metacognition is a necessary, unifying element, but in which it is not sufficient—it is, rather, the element that allows any cognitive skill set to be used most effectively, and provides the experience of thinking critically that can be recalled and applied across disciplines and situations. I shall also focus on the evaluative aspects of critical thinking, an emphasis that moves me to name this the metacognitively evaluative (ME) model of critical thinking, with full appreciation of the "me" acronym.

Having developed an understanding of critical thinking involving both metacognition and cognitive skills, and using this to generate useful pedagogical principles, I shall then give examples of the application of these principles that can be applied in most discipline contexts.

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