Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // Forum // 1FRM2

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Using and Teaching Critical Thinking

...modeling and instilling critical thinking skills for a client is, in fact, teaching him or her to fish for a lifetime. In doing so, the client isn't just satisfied for the moment, but instead has life-long skills.

Rodney Fulton
Adjunct Instructor
Department of Education
Montana State University-Bozeman

Wendy V. Hamilton
Assistant Professor and
4-H Development Specialist
New Mexico State University-Las Cruces

In a world of rapid and perpetual innovation, critical thinking is absolutely necessary.1 An Extension agent's job requires information management and timely response. Thus, agents must critically analyze issues to best serve their clientele.

Critical thinking can be defined as:

A parallel process by which individuals analyze given information in a contextually specific situation and create new ideas, concepts, or constructs based on their analysis.2

It can be measured by the extent to which a person recognizes and challenges underlying assumptions in any given situation. Most importantly, the critical thinker accepts the conditional nature of his or her thinking process.

To practice critical thought, Extension faculty must examine their thinking about thinking. For example, when you're trying to solve a problem, do you look for patterns and threads connecting information that might lead to new alternatives? Connecting information is the foundation of critical thinking. By identifying patterns, you can be open to adding additional information, dropping outdated information, or upgrading the information you already believe about the topic.

One common pitfall of the noncritical thinker is connecting information to nonrelevant criteria. Why do advertisers pay famous people to promote their products? Because they know the favorable feelings many people have for the person will unconsciously be transferred to the products. Knowing that the most admirable person can occasionally be wrong and the least admirable can be right, critical thinkers judge ideas on their merits, regardless of the source.3

All thought has a universal set of elements that can be monitored for possible examination. Are you clear about what it is that you're looking for? Do you recognize your goal in the fact-finding process? Can you recognize you biases and assumptions? Can you identify the evidence or reasons on which you base your claims? Have you considered all the implications and consequences that follow your reasoning? Critical thinkers develop skills to identify and assess these elements in their thinking and in the thinking of others.4 If you tend to take information at face value, focus on the answer rather than the question, think in black and white, or seek agreement at the cost of other alternatives, then you may want to re-examine your thinking methods and make efforts toward broadening your thinking skills.

Clientele depend on agents for solutions to problems. If agents assume the role of the "Shell answer man" without helping clientele examine underlying conditions and assumptions, agents will be viewed by clientele as just another information source, handy if they're there, dispensable if they're not. If the question is "what software program is best for retirement planning" and the response becomes "we recommend the ABC line of retirement packages," the client has no basis for understanding how to assess software in the future. However, if the Extension agent teaches clientele how to assess information analytically, Extension has added value to the information and set its service apart from other information sources.

The Hindu parable of the fish offers an analogy for the Extension agent's role in critical thinking. Providing answers and information to clients is akin to giving a hungry person a fish to eat. For the short-term, clients may be well-satisfied. However, modeling and instilling critical thinking skills for a client is, in fact, teaching him or her to fish for a lifetime. In doing so, the client isn't just satisfied for the moment, but instead has life-long skills.


1. Chet Meyers, Teaching Students to Think Critically (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986).

2. Rodney Fulton, Critical Thinking in Adulthood (Bozeman, Montana: Kellogg Center for Adult Learning Research, 1989) [ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 320 015].

3. V. R. Ruggiero, Teaching Thinking Across the Curriculum (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).

4. R. Paul, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World (Ronert Park, California: Sonoma State University, Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, 1990).