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Is there a tension between teaching and assessing critical-thinking skills?

Jonathan Haber, Educational Researcher at LogicCheck

The widely varying quality of responses to the global Coronavirus pandemic presents yet another example of the importance of critical-thinking skills among leaders and the public dealing with fast-changing, unprecedented and ill-defined events. The name of the OECD’s recent initiative on ‘Teaching, assessing and learning creative and critical-thinking skills in education’ exposes challenges related to definitional issues educators have struggled with over several decades since critical thinking became an educational priority in many regional and national school systems.

‘The widely varying quality of responses to the global Coronavirus pandemic presents yet another example of the importance of critical-thinking skills among leaders and the public dealing with fast-changing, unprecedented and ill-defined events.’

Researcher Emily R. Lai has collected close to a dozen definitions of critical thinking that have been developed over the years, including historical definitions from Dewey and Glaser, as well as more recent ones, such as the resulting definition from the Delphi study overseen by critical-thinking educator Peter Facione. My own work took a genealogical approach to the subject, looking at how the concept of critical thinking emerged in the early 20th century, drawing from older disciplines such as philosophy and psychology, as well as modern ones such as cognitive science (Haber, 2020). This analysis led to the recommendation that we consider critical thinking to be made up of three broad categories of knowledge, skills and dispositions that – taken together – overlaps with, but does not subsume, other 21st-century skills such as creativity, communication and collaboration.

While this structure does not leave us with consensus wording for a definition of critical thinking that educators and policymakers can rally around, it does provide a research-supported framework that educators teaching different subjects can use to determine how critical-thinking can best be integrated into instruction. That said, even if the critical-thinking teaching project can move forward with a broad consensus framework, such a framework does not necessarily provide a clear enough construct that can be used to create scalable assessments of critical-thinking ability.

In order to create a scalable, standardised assessment, like those used in past OECD studies of content knowledge in areas like mathematics, one needs a well-defined construct that clearly spells out which knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) will be measured. But the adaptability of a framework that accommodates variation in subject matter and classroom pedagogies, coupled with the need to support ill-defined problems that defy selective-response questioning, mean standardised testing for critical-thinking skills might not be achievable beyond the scale already supported by commercial tests such as the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, the California Critical Thinking Skills Test or the CLA/CLA+.

While these high-quality products have found their uses in both education and industry, measurement of critical-thinking skills at ground level is likely to require classroom teachers to be able to design rubric-scored assignments that break down and evaluate discreet critical-thinking components, such as the ability to translate everyday language into structured statements and build those into logical arguments, as well as analysing those arguments for quality. The OECD’s work includes several model rubrics that can be used for such purposes (OECD, 2019), but to make classroom evaluation of CT skills a cornerstone of both teaching and assessment, we need to do the following.

  1. Train teachers on the components of critical thinking (such as logical reasoning, language skills and argument analysis) to the point where they are able to both integrate teaching of those skills into instruction on traditional content, as well as evaluate whether students are demonstrating development of their critical-thinking abilities.
  2. Further train teachers on the creation and implementation of rubric-scored assignments, possibly alongside providing them better preparation on how professional test-design principles can guide their assessment practice overall.
  3. Give up on worldwide, standardised measurement that can tell us which nations are ahead and which are behind in developing student critical-thinking skills in the hope that a well-prepared teaching force, guided by research and best practices, can help us achieve our ultimate goal: to increase the amount of critical thinking that goes on in the world so we might be better prepared to act reasonably before the next crisis occurs.


Haber, J. (2020). Critical thinking essentials. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Organisation of Co-operation and Development [OECD]. (2019). Fostering students’ creativity and critical thinking. Paris.