Dialogical Critical Thinking: Elements of Definitions Emerging in the Analysis of Transcripts from Pupils Aged 10 to 12 Years

Article excerpt

We aim to clarify Matthew Lipman's definition of critical thinking. The research project was conducted during a complete school year among eight groups of pupils from three cultural contexts: Australia, Mexico and Quebec. We worked in an inductive manner, inspired by the grounded theory approach, and analysed transcripts of the pupils' exchanges while they used a philosophical approach adapted to mathematics. Analysis of the transcripts was performed according to the characteristics of a grid that we developed elsewhere, which represented the manifestations of 'dialogical critical thinking' in pupils aged 10 to 12. From the analysis, the Lipmanian criteria (sensitivity to context, thinking governed by criteria and self-correction) do not seem representative of dialogical critical thinking, although the modalities of thinking that he formulates did manifest themselves in pupils engaged in the research project.


'Critical thinking' is a concept on which researchers have yet to reach a consensus, especially with regard to its characteristics and the planes it encompasses. Some, however, consider it as a rational skill for solving problems (Catrambone & Holyoak, 1989; Needham & Begg, 1991; Norman, n.d.; Polya, 1957), whereas others define it more globally, including affective, social and cognitive components (Ennis, 1993; Lipman, 1991; Paul, 1993). The researchers who share the first conception are often associated with the field of psychology and their definitions are corroborated by experimental studies on young adults (college and university students), whereas the researchers who share the second conception usually originate from the field of philosophy and their definitions are verified through theoretical analyses. We share the philosophers' perspective, particularly that of Matthew Lipman who, with his colleague Ann Margaret Sharp, proposed the Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach.

In this paper, we will attempt to clarify Lipman's criteria for critical thinking. In order to do this, we will analyse transcripts of pupils' philosophical exchanges according to the characteristics of a grid that we developed elsewhere, representing the manifestations of dialogical critical thinking in pupils aged 10-12 (Daniel et al., in press).

Critical thinking from the Lipmanian point of view

The definition of critical thinking elaborated by Lipman (Montclair State University, NJ) is among the five most important such definitions propounded since the 1980s (Johnson, 1992), alongside those of Ennis (1993), McPeck (1991), Paul (1993), and Siegel (1988). For Lipman (1988, 1991, 1995), individuals use critical thinking processes in a given context, to help them distinguish, from the information they receive, those most relevant in relation to the goals they pursue from those that are less relevant. Thus critical thinking is a useful tool for countering opinions (uncritical thinking) and thoughtless action. In other words, to be able to establish a critical position protects individuals from the alienation that occurs when person A attempts to influence person B or does not give him the chance to engage in a personal quest. Lipman (1991) contends that critical thinking 'protects us from being coerced or brainwashed into believing what others want us to believe without having the opportunity to inquire for ourselves' (p. 144). Critical thinking helps people to make better judgements. The definition proposed by Lipman is pragmatic in that, for him, critical thinking is a complex process that is integrated into a utilitarian design for the improvement of personal and social experience (Daniel, 1997).

To Lipman (1991, 1995), critical thinking presupposes skills and attitudes that develop according to four categories: conceptualisation, reasoning, generalisation and research. The fundamental Lipmanian criteria of critical thinking are: (a) Use of particular criteria: Individuals, whose cognitive behaviours can be associated with a form of critical thinking, and who make use of particular criteria to evaluate the terms of statements; (b) Self-correction: Individuals who can engage in an active search for their own mistakes with self-correction in mind; (c) Sensitivity to context: Individuals who develop flexible thinking, allowing them to recognise that different contexts require different applications of rules and principles. …