Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Critical thinking/questioning skills

Alma Whiteley
Graduate School of Business
Curtin University of Technology

Teaching/Learning Rationale

Like many other University courses that have a strong functional basis, much of the learning is entwined with validation activities. This can produce in students a performance rather than learning orientation. Using the iceberg metaphor, that part of the iceberg that relates to assessable outcomes can be given sharp focus by students as they aim to either impress employers or qualify for higher-level courses. Performance for a grade or a presentation to peers are evident as key student activities both in class discussion and academic counselling sessions. The rest of the iceberg, that portion that comes through struggle, debate, discussion and thinking together is not always legitimised. Students seem to consider the learning part a luxury "if only we had time".

The task became one of celebrating extrinsic needs at the same time as luring the students into intrinsic learning experiences.

A learning strategy was set up where students were part of a pass/fail course. There were no formal assignments or assessment, thereby minimising perceptions of normative judgements of one student's ability against another. The topics to be presented were opportunistic so that ideas could be given across a range of areas. There was an element of challenge in that each group had to submit its issue to the rest of the class and defend it as being plausible across the critical thinking dimensions.

A typical session would be introduced by the lecturer, the presenter going ahead as though it were an ordinary presentation, leaving before the critical thinking session. The critical thinking component would be facilitated by the lecturer. There would be three distinct sets of activities, individual, small group and plenary.

The PATP framework

The P.A.T.P. model involves a hierarchical schema which allows managers and workers, and students to comprehend daily practices in terms of the contrast between their espoused theories and theories in use Argyris (1993). The model directs people to ask critical questions not only about the theory of organising in their places of work but about the assumptions upon the organisation and practices lie. The idea is to provide a way to further trace the practices, theory of organising and assumptions to the epistemological 'nature of knowledge' about the human at work. It should be possible to throw some light on the paradigm-in-action to which the assumptions, theories of organising and work practices pay allegiance. The P.A.T.P. model is a working model in the sense that it was produced for, and in, a management education setting. However, students are applying it across a wide range of other contexts. The model is generative and is part of a broader agenda to include the facilitation of workers' intellectual development as part of the manager's 'normal' responsibility. Most of all, the P.A.T.P. model is about challenging mindsets.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The P.A.T.P. Model

Theoretical framework

Ideas for the model came from the literature of critical thinking and the arguments that compared the use of 'logic' to that of a more informal 'healthy scepticism'. Splitter (1991:90) offers Schlecht's (1989:133) definition of critical thinking "critical thinking abilities are...whatever skills are required to recognise analyse and evaluate arguments". He observes that there is by no means a consensus about what critical thinking should be. "Schlecht's "traditional" definition reinforces what some critics of critical thinking and philosophy already believe, viz. that a critical thinker is a kind of intellectual nit-picker who spends his time carping at other people's arguments".

Splitter celebrates Ennis, below, and Lipman (1988a:39) "critical thinking is skilful, responsible thinking that facilitates good judgement because it: a) relies on criteria, (b) is self-correcting; and (c) is sensitive to context". Ennis (1985:1) shows the nature of 'general critical thinking' education via the test of critical thinking ability which he developed at Cornell University:

A general critical thinking test might cover induction, deduction, evaluation, observation, credibility (of statements made by others) assumption identification and meaning. Ideally, it would also cover attitudes of a critical thinker such as open-mindedness, caution and valuing being well-informed.
General or 'hard logic' critical thinking in this didactic sense is characterised by the teaching of logic, formal and informal. Traditional philosophy supported the search for a universal "theory of reason". This was a belief in the absolute power of logic to explain the world, logic which was not dependent upon particular contextual rules and semantics. The validity of the general critical thinking model is approach is not a discussion point for this paper except to point out that work practices in the nineteenth/twentieth centuries indicate that logic was used to order the world of work, including the human aspects. The logical/rational rather than affective/emotional needs and motivations of workers were the only ones considered to be reasonable. (The language and complexity of the rules of logic meant that the ordinary worker may not have been adept at critical thinking other than in untutored, intuitive way. 'He' would probably, therefore be ill-equipped to see this flow in management thinking. The language of logic itself rose above the day-to-day language of the workplace and used formalisation as a form of control over thinking (Toulmin 1972).

Paul (1990:109) informs the future use of the P.A.T.P. model by warning against weak sense critical thinking, such as "considering multilogical issues with a monological bias, leading to egocentric thinking which is reluctant to critique its own fundamental categories of thought". Haynes (1991:140) outlines Paul's strong sense critical thinking in a way that makes a good working definition:

(a) an ability to question deeply one's own framework of thought, (b) an ability to reconstruct sympathetically and imaginatively the strongest versions of points of view and frameworks of thought opposed to one's own, and (c) an ability to reason dialectically (multilogically) to determine when one's own point of view is weakest and when an opposing point of view is strongest" (Paul 1990:109).
Siegel (1988) finds agreement between critical thinking theorists that critical thinking has (at least) two central components: a reason assessment component, which involves abilities and skills relevant to the proper understanding and assessment of reasons, claims and arguments; and a critical spirit component, which is understood as a complex of dispositions habits of mind and character traits.

McPeck (1981:8,13) defines thinking through the concept of 'reflective scepticism':

I have already said that the core meaning of critical thinking is the propensity to engage in an activity with reflective scepticism... the disposition to do X in such a way that E ( the available evidence from a field) is suspended (or temporarily rejected) as sufficient to establish the truth or viability of P (some proposition or action within X).
This paper adopts a critical thinking view closer to natural language and specific context (McPeck 1981). This does not undervalue general critical thinking or systematic analysis and logic, far from it, but it recognises Siegel's point that "content knowledge" is frequently necessary for thinking critically within a subject.

The management setting

As the PATP was created for a business course, the critical thinking ideas needed to be placed in a management and human relations setting as follows.

Few would deny that the workplace has a language of its own. "Them and Us" has a special meaning. It also has a recognisable set of shared conventions, value-systems and belief structures that inform and direct patterns of thinking. It seems sensible here to consider critical thinking as context specific. This does not imply that Ennis's (1962,1989) dedication to "clear and critical thinking where-ever it appears" is not accepted. Rather that the P.A.T.P. model presented in this paper is not proposed as a general model. (although generalisability seems to be already happening to some extent as users transfer the model to other activities. As the model becomes robust through repeated use and refinement, then the issue of generality would become part of a future research agenda).

Two major paradigms are presented in the critical thinking literature.

  1. philosophical science which favours the more general (taught) critical thinking skills and;

  2. cognitive psychology which favours a contextual, process oriented approach is useful so that one can be selected for the work in hand which engage with the human world of affective and cognitive understanding.
Sternberg's metacomponents, those which "selectively encode and combine new information and selectively compare new information and old information so as to allow learning of new information to take place" fits the P.A.T.P. model even though it may not fit the logical rigor of formal (Ennis 1962) and informal but 'hard logic' writers (Scriven 1980:148, Dauer 1989).

In a sense, Human Resource managers are the 'interpreters' of the organisation. Visions, missions and strategies are abstract concepts whose meaning needs to be interpreted and shared between workers and management.

Learning about meaning will be the management challenge of the future, with the emphasis on learning. Learning about thinking will be the key to learning about meaning. De Geus (1988) talks about institutional learning as the process whereby management teams change their shared mental models of their company, their markets, their competitors and their competitors.


The last preparation for the 'hands on' sessions was to give students a worked example of how the model might be applied.

The Taylorist Mental Model


Taylor's view of the nature of work and the worker is predicated on the 'reality' of the mechanistic paradigm. Taylor's reputation for control is evident by his philosophical 'laws' captured by Lippitt (1982) when he says that:
The employee is (1) a constant in the production equation, (2) an inert adjust of the machine prone to inefficiency and waste unless properly programmed, (3) by nature lazy, and (4) his main concern is self-interest. Secondly, the truth as Taylor saw it was that humans at work are basically rational/economic beings." (ibid)


The assumptions which might follow from these philosophical views might be that workers would rationally give up all decision making and essentially human characteristics in return for money. These might include the basic decisions to sit, stand, move around in a particular way, pause, stop or even break monotony by passing the time of day with a workmate.

Taylor's philosophical stance might reject assumptions that intrinsically humans are the authors of their own destiny. It might assume that humans will give up their desire to help each other and seek interdependent relationships, even be 'comrades in adversity' (Revans 1980). The mechanistic paradigm to which organisational allegiance must be paid would assume that workers would embrace efficiency, human structures and systems that were logical rather than emotional. Strictly differentiated functional relationships would be arranged around the needs of machinery and control mechanisms between humans would be correspondingly mechanistic and impersonal.


The theories of organising and designing of work would follow both the philosophy and assumptions for which Taylor was famous. Authoritarian management required tall structures of management. Many hierarchies separated managers from workers and workers from decision making. Communication would be top-down. Men (women were not taken into account as being significant) would be directed. Reward systems were monetary and were in direct proportion to outputs. The 'psychological contract' (Lippitt 1982:217) would not be recognised as an important or even necessary activity to need attending to. The worker would be tightly controlled, externally (economically) motivated. he would be divested of all social and psychological interactions unless they were specified as part of a scientifically designed set of movements.


Daily practices would not be too difficult to imagine. They included close supervision. Decision making was exclusively a managerial prerogative. Time and motion study was practiced to seek ever increasing accuracy and standardisation in the way workers completed their tasks. The emphasis was on specialisation so that as little discretion as possible was left to workers. Recruitment was to strictly assessed standards. Selection was based on knowledge and skills. Jobs were designed around machinery. Motivation was synonymous with wage payment systems. What we have seen at the practical level is the manifestation of management theory, assumptions and philosophy.


Based on the explanations above, this is what a typical session would look like.

P.A.T.P. begins with a preparatory session at which consideration of issues such as the ones in this paper would be discussed:

Evaluation shows that the model is addictive and the only complaint is one by students that they would prefer an assignment. This is the dilemma. What would you do?


Argyris, C. (1993). Knowledge for Action. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Dauer, F. W. (1989). Critical Thinking: An Introduction to Reasoning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Geus, A. P. (1988). Planning as Learning. Harvard Business Review, March/April, 70-74.

Ennis, R.H. (1962). A Concept of Critical Thinking. Harvard Educational Review, 32(1) 83-111.

Lipman, M. (1988a). Critical thinking: What can it be? Educational Leadership 45(1), 38-43.

Lippitt, G. L. (1982). Organisational Renewal: A Holistic Approach to Organisational Development. 2nd.ed. Englewood Cliffs. N.J. Prentice-Hall.

McPeck, J. (1981). Critical thinking and education. New York: St. Martins. p8, 13.

Paul, R. W. (1990). Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World. California: Center for Critical Thinking for Moral Critique.

Revans, R. W. (1980). In A. Mumford (1989), Management Development Strategies for Action. London: Prentice-Hall.

Schlecht, L. (1989). Critical Thinking Courses: Their Value and Their Limits. Teaching Philosophy, 131-140. In L. J. Splitter, (1991), Op. cit. p 90.

Scriven, M. (1980). The Philosophical and Pragmatic Significance of Informal Logic. In J. A. Blair and R. A. Johnson (eds), Informal Logic. The First International Symposium. California: Edgecliff Press.

Siegal, H. (1988). Educating Reason. New York: Routledge.

Splitter, L. J. (1991). Critical Thinking: What When and How? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 23(1), 90.

Toulmin, S. (1972). Human Understanding. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press.

Whiteley, A. M. (1992). Expanding the Horizons of HRM: The Core Values Model. Proceedings of the Second Organisational Behaviour Teaching Conference: Perth, Australia, Curtin University.

Please cite as: Whiteley, A. (1996). Critical thinking/questioning skills. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p165-170. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/whiteley.html

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