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instilling critical thinking in technology and engineering education students: In technology and engineering education, critical thinking may be synonymous with technological literacy.


Critical thinking is a skill most teachers want their students to develop and exhibit to help prepare them for their 21st Century futures, whether for college or career choices. Unfortunately, many teachers have a lack of understanding of what critical thinking is and what strategies are best utilized to teach and assess it. Technology and engineering (T & E) education offers appropriate settings for the types of instructional strategies that appear to be the most effective in teaching critical thinking.

What is Critical Thinking?

Definitions of critical thinking depend on the perspective of the domain, whether business, secondary education, higher education, or psychology. While there are similar ideas in all, the variety of definitions adds to the confusion faced by educators directed to increase critical thinking in their students. The Critical Thinking Community (n.d.) website defines it as: "(1) Disciplined, self-directed thinking, which exemplifies the perfections of thinking appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thinking; (2) Thinking that displays mastery of intellectual skills and abilities; and (3) The art of thinking about your thinking while you are thinking in order to make your thinking better: more clear, more accurate, or more defensible."

Pardamean (2012) defines critical thinking as "the process of determining the authenticity, accuracy, and worth of information or knowledge claims ... critical thinking is demonstrated by the individual ability to judge the soundness of information, assess conclusions, and make good inferences. Critical thinking improves students' ability to make decisions or draw conclusions about problems that may not always have a correct solution" (p. 443-444).

According to Ellerton (2014), the four attributes of critical thinking are argumentation, logic, psychology, and science. Argumentation is intellectual engagement with an issue through rational analysis and inference. Logic is reasoned deduction or induction that follows a true thinking path to making informed decisions. Through psychology, people use metacognition to reduce or block the effects of their cognitive biases. Understanding the nature of science, scientific method, and statistics assists people to use the critical thinking process effectively.

Moore (2013) translates critical thinking into themes based on a study of university programs, The first theme is critical thinking as judgment of the validity or truthfulness of a criterion. The second is that critical thinking is related closely to healthy skepticism about what is presented to oneself. The third is that critical thinking could be a careful, sensitive, and contextual reading of text. The fourth theme is one of adopting ethical and activist stances through critical action, The final theme is that critical thinking can be self-reflexive, meaning that one should be considering their own assumptions and subjectivity.

Mulnix (2012) points out that critical thinking is less domain-specific in terms of its effectiveness. Students who excel at demonstrating critical thinking in one content area are able to transfer those skills in other domains. This skill is associated with students who can understand the deep structure of a problem and have domain knowledge to work on solutions. Critical thinking is the ability to recognize inferential connections between differing points of view or evidence. According to Mulnix (2012), it "protects us from sloppy and conformist thinking and insulates us against empty dogmatism and rhetoric" (p. 473).

Critical Thinking in the Workplace

Employers need workers with transferable employability skills who can think about important questions and issues, gather and analyze relevant data and information to standards and appropriate criteria, be adaptable in assessing assumptions and implications of decision-making, and effectively communicate solutions to complex problems (Castellano, Lightle & Baker, 2017). This is considered a skill set for 21st century workplaces. The U.S. Department of Labor (2018) states that "problem solving and critical thinking refers to the ability to use knowledge, facts, and data to effectively solve problems. This doesn't mean you need to have an immediate answer; it means you have to be able to think on your feet, assess problems, and find solutions. The ability to develop a well-thought-out solution within a reasonable time frame, however, is a skill that employers value greatly"

Hyslop-Margison and Armstrong (2004) caution against a purely business-needs focus on critical thinking. That approach considers critical thinking as a means to meet business objectives and increase human capital in order to build business effectiveness and profitability. The authors propose a refined definition of teaching critical thinking based on foundational rationality. This approach requires students to develop deep content knowledge, have the disposition of open-mindedness, explore the historical context of career and technical education content, and respect the moral imperatives of our democracy, including social justice.

Critical Thinking in Education

The varying ideas of what critical thinking is make it difficult for educators to plan instruction to teach and assess critical thinking in their students. Ellerton (2014) states the "problem is that critical thinking is the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula--it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away" (p. 1). Critical thinking has not been emphasized in education due to a three-decade focus on accountability measures and standardized testing.

Critical thinking can be taught in secondary classrooms. Duron, Limbach, and Waugh (2006) describe a five-step process for teaching critical thinking in any discipline. Step one calls on educators to determine learning objectives linked to the top three Bloom's taxonomy levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Step two is to facilitate learning primarily through asking questions. Teachers should ask thought-provoking questions with longer discussions in an open learning environment. Allowing students to answer deeper questions will stimulate their thinking process and allow them to come up for and against assumptions. Step three is practice before assessing through active learning and time for student reflective dialog about what they are learning. Step four prompts teachers to review, refine, and improve their lessons continuously based on feedback from students, and step five provides feedback to students through engaged dialogue. The result of these strategies is that students should be able to define the terms being used, consider the context of the question being asked, weigh multiple explanations, evaluate evidence, and make decisions based on probability of success. The tools learned through critical thinking skills allow students to build awareness and an understanding of the thought process. Critical thinking allows students to be able to apply, analyze, synthetize, and evaluate in their decision-making process.

There are three facets to teaching critical thinking according to Hooks (2010). Teachers need to create a climate of radical openness where students deconstruct knowledge to understand core underlying truths. The critical thinking classroom uses engaged pedagogy or interactive relationships between teachers and students. The teacher is part of the collaborative learning community, not the sage on the stage. Finally, teachers should encourage a conversation-based model of learning with intense dialog, which leads to heightened awareness and engagement with content by students.

Mulnix (2012) encourages teachers to include repetitive and varied practice in thinking exercises, teach students the difference between evidence and the conclusions they support, employ argument maps in class discussions, and have students peer-review other papers for fallacies of argument. These strategies can help students become more autonomous thinkers. Teachers can regularly question students somatically by probing various dimensions of their thinking, including their purpose, their evidence, reasons, data, their claims, beliefs, interpretations, deductions, conclusions, the implications and consequences of their thought, and their response.

Another critical thinking strategy is to require journaling or daily reflection. Maintaining a journal is an effective means to explore ideas. Writing encourages students to expand upon their thoughts and form connections. A journal forces students to slow down and focus on just one or two ideas at a time, which hectic schedules don't otherwise allow. Students can use journaling to record important ideas and develop questions about topics.

Davies and Meissel (2015) reported on the use of quality talk in New Zealand secondary schools as an interventionist teaching strategy to teach students how to use critical reflective-thinking approaches for text comprehension and writing. Students develop skills in interrogating ideas in search of underlying arguments, beliefs, and assumptions. Quality talk uses authentic questions, reasoning words, and fully articulated explanations to understand the complexities in a topic. In a classroom setting, teachers take on a facilitator role instead of lecturer to model, prompt, and challenge students who take on control of the discussion.

Assessment of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is not generally emphasized in education tests and therefore is not often assessed in education, Standardized tests in multiple-choice format offer one correct response for students to choose. Where critical thinking could be assessed is through the use of scenario questions written at higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Watanabe-Crockett (2015) reports that increased focus on critical thinking can raise standardized test scores because students develop a deeper understanding of the content being assessed. The skills of appropriately gathering and analyzing information through reading comprehension and problem solving play a strong role in success on standardized assessments.

In a study on assessing critical thinking in postsecondary psychology courses, Bensley, Crow, Bernhardt, Buckner, and Allman (2010) reported that explicit teaching of critical thinking skills in course instruction is necessary to initiate student gains in argument analysis abilities. Argument analysis is a process of reflecting on evidence to support sound conclusions, using rules and criteria to make judgments based on reason, and having the personal dispositions to use those rules.

The International Technology Education Association/International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEA/ ITEEA, 2003) has an assessment benchmark specific to critical thinking in Advancing Excellence in Technological Literacy. Standard A-4, Benchmark C states that "teachers consistently facilitate critical thinking and decision making" (ITEA/ITEEA, 2003, p. 31). The text that accompanies this benchmark points out that teachers can assess critical thinking through pre- and post-test approaches, reflective writing by technology students, or by evaluating student response to problem situations in order to demonstrate critical thinking and decision making.

Critical Thinking in Technology and Engineering

Standards for Technological Literacy (ITEA/ITEEA, 2000/2002/ 2007) includes many standards and benchmarks that are predisposed towards open-ended discussion and multiple solutions that can be defended by deep understanding and vigorous argumentation. For example, Standard 4 The Cultural, Social, Economic, and Political Effects of Technology, includes a prompt that "students should explore these emerging technologies and develop the skills to evaluate their impact. They should learn to reason and make decisions based on asking critical thinking questions, not on the basis of fear or misunderstandings" (p. 61). A topic on new medical devices can lead to many questions about technological solutions with unintended consequences, costs, the FDA approval process, politics, and other considerations. In technology and engineering education, critical thinking may be synonymous with technological literacy. A sample lesson plan on the effects of technology is referenced at the end of this article.

Yu, Lin, & Fan (2015) studied high school communication technology students' abilities to apply conceptual knowledge to think critically about technological issues. Conceptual knowledge is both system knowledge and theoretical knowledge. An example from communication technology would be the system knowledge of source, encoder, transmitter, receiver, decoder, storage, retrieval and destination, and theoretical knowledge of radio wave forms to explain how mobile phones work. The results of their study indicated that without concrete examples and teacher-directed assistance in student understanding of related theoretical concepts, students generally had a difficult time learning to think critically. Good critical thinking is exemplified by reflection on the effects of technological development, an ability to objectively consider diverse values and to select appropriate solutions to problems. Critical thinking can be enhanced when technology teachers implement more hands-on interactive instructional strategies via computer animation and direct instruction to emphasize system and theoretical knowledge. Classroom debates on technological issues may be used to develop these skills in technology students.

Darby and Rashid (2017) discussed the teaching of higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) in engineering drawing classes. When these classes were taught through rote memorization and procedures with a focus on national exam achievement, the development of critical thinking skills was hindered. Critical thinking was enhanced when open-ended problems based on real-world applications were used as teaching strategies. Higher-order thinking problems require students to "find alternative solutions systematically, analyze the problems and their solutions critically, become confident while reasoning, remain open-minded when being criticized by others, and make mature judgment by taking into account others' views as well as their own decisions" (Darby & Rashid, 2017, p. 309).

Technology and engineering (T & E) teachers have many instructional strategies at their disposal to teach critical thinking. Problem-/project-based learning is a natural strategy through challenging, open-ended, and engaging problems. Students can be required to collect and analyze data to make conclusions. Technology students need deeper understanding of core content knowledge to contextualize to other settings or problems. This is very different than memorizing facts. For example, a technology and engineering teacher develops a design brief about solar powered vehicles. For the students, just knowing terminology won't help them be successful. They must understand physics, electrical conversions, friction, power train, weather, and more to have a deep enough understanding to be successful in this challenge.

Teachers should design challenges with multiple possible solutions. Use of Wikipedia won't be of any value to students in these activities. Competitions increase motivation in students to do better and to find unique solutions to give them an advantage. If the technology teacher can add in explicit links to authentic work situations, that will increase student persistence.

Other technology teaching strategies that can enhance critical thinking include having students develop Wikis, which is noted for student collaborative editing of content. Small-group teams can develop WebQuests for technology content, Case studies may be developed for small-group teams to solve. The groups would determine the effectiveness of their decisions based on criteria and tradeoffs. Class presentation about the decision process is the most effective aspect of this project to develop critical thinking skills, as the students are forced to articulate their decision-making process to others.


In order to be prepared for future college or careers, 21st century students should have critical thinking in their arsenal of soft skills. Most teachers and schools feel that critical thinking skills are important to teach, but unfortunately they have a lack of understanding of what critical thinking is and what strategies are best utilized to teach and assess it. Technology and engineering education is a particularly appropriate setting for the types of instructional strategies that appear to be the most effective in teaching critical thinking. T & E teachers are used to being facilitators in their labs and having students work on open-ended technological problems with rich dialogue and questioning in all phases of the activities. Key cognitive questions should be planned out in advance and be matched to the purpose being taught. With critical thinking ideas infused in course assessments, technology and engineering students have a lead on developing the critical thinking skills they will need throughout life to become discerning and autonomous individuals.


Bensley, D., Crowe, D., Bernhardt, P., Buckner, C., & Allman, A. (2010). Teaching and assessing critical thinking skills for argument analysis in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 37, 91-96.

Castellano, J., Lightle, S., & Baker, B. (2017). A strategy for teaching critical thinking: The sellmore case. Management Accounting Quarterly, 78(3), 1-10.

Critical Thinking Community, (n.d). An educators guide to critical thinking terms and concepts. Tomales, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking. Retrieved from www.criticalthinking. orq/paqes/glossarv-of-critical-thinking-terms/496

Davies, M. & Meissel, K. (2016). The use of quality talk to increase critical analytical thinking and writing of students in three secondary schools. British Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 342-365.

Duron, R., Limbach, B., & Waug, W. (2006), Critical thinking framework for any discipline. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 17(2), 160-166.

Ellerton, P. (2014). How to teach all students to think critically. Retrieved from

Hooks, B. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. London, England: Routledge,

Hyslop-Margison, E, & Armstrong, J. (2004). Critical thinking in career education: The democratic importance of foundational rationality. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 27(1), 39-49.

International Technology Education Association (ITEA/ITEEA). (2000/2002/2007). Standards for technological literacy: Content for the study of technology. Reston, VA: Author.

International Technology Education Association (ITEA/ITEEA), (2003). Advancing excellence in technological literacy: Student assessment, professional development, and program standards. Reston, VA: Author.

Moore, T. (2013) Critical thinking: Seven definitions in search of a concept. Studies in Higher Education, 38(4), 506-522.

Mulnix, J, (2012). Thinking critically about critical thinking. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 44(5), 464-479.

Pardamean, B. (2012). Measuring change in critical thinking skills of dental students educated in PBL curriculum. Journal of Dental Education. 76(4), 443-453.

U. S. Department of Labor (2018). Skills to pay the bills. Retrieved from

Watanabe-Crockett, L. (2015, July 24). Build your brain with critical thinking. Digital Global Citizen Foundation blog. Retrieved from

Yu, K., Lin, K., & Fan, S. (2015). An exploratory study on the application of conceptual knowledge and critical thinking to technological issues. International Journal of Technology & Design Education, 25/339-261.

NOTE: The Technology and Engineering Lesson Plan - "Effects of Technology" is available at

Thomas R. Loveland, Ph.D., DTE is a professor and director of the M.Ed, program in Career and Technology Education at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Baltimore. He can be reached at tloveland&

Caption: James Hemming from Stemmers Run Middle School in Baltimore asks critical thinking questions during the Boat Challenge.

Caption: James Hemming from Stemmers Run Middle School in Baltimore challenges a student to Think critically during the Boat Challenge.

Caption: Critical thinking is emphasized by teacher James Hemming from Stemmers Run Middle School in Baltimore.

Caption: Angela Waldrop from Eastern Tech High School in Baltimore assists students in a critical thinking challenge.
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Author:Loveland, Thomas
Publication:Technology and Engineering Teacher
Article Type:Report
Date:May 1, 2019
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