According to teacher education programs, workshops, seminars, and professional journals, improving the thinking skills of students has been a top priority of school districts across the country for at least the last twenty years. Teachers and school officials are well aware that in addition to acquiring the basic skills, students need to become better problem-solvers. Only then can we expect to increase the number of students who will develop into the responsible, caring adults mandated by the national goals. It is by directing more attention to mastering the critical thinking skills that will make the difference.
There have been differences of opinion over the years as to how these skills should be taught. Course offerings at the college level and some high school curriculums have taught critical thinking separately from the content areas. Debate ensued, with educators at both extremes, as to whether or not the subject might be better taught as part of the regular curriculum. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education stated the follwing in their widely publicized report entitled
A Nation At Risk
: “. . . formal instruction in critical-thinking skills [must] be mainstreamed across the curriculum at all levels. Such curricular integration is especially important in middle schools . . . because students there are beginning the significant transition from concrete to formal cognitive operations.”
This indeed makes sense as it seems unrealistic to attempt to fill students with facts without showing them how to think about the facts—that is, to fully comprehend, and be able to compare and evaluate ideas and information.
One avenue, then, in which critical thinking can easily be introduced is through literature. “Research Says Literature CAN Teach Critical Thinking” is an article in the November 1993 issue of
The Education Direst
. Robert Burroughs states that, “. . . the study of literature can promote the kind of critical thinking and skilled intelligence called for in the push toward new national standards. . . . We’ve [The National Research Center on Literature Teaching] found the best way to promote critical thinking . . . is to involve students in class discussions in which they have the opportunity to raise issues, clarify their thoughts, and test their ideas against their classmates’. . . . Students need to be able to think critically. Literature can show them the way.”
Most content area textbooks emphasize the need to merely recall data and information. “Interpreting literature, on the other hand, is at the heart of what Center Co-Director Judith Langer calls literary understanding, which differs from understanding in science or history. Her work has led to a change in the framework the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) uses for evaluating reading comprehension on its assessments (often used as a national barometer of student achievement). NAEP exams now ask different questions of literary and nonliterary texts, acknowledging the different stances readers take toward different kinds of texts.”
The article further points out that Langer’s work shows how teachers can support and encourage such critical thinking through literature. It remains to show, then, that not just literature but one specific genre of detective literature can be used in this way.