Critical Thinking in the English Classroom

By Nathan Woods

This review illustrates a need for research on how teachers in New Zealand have interpreted the Key Competency ‘thinking’ and how they have attempted to embed critical thinking as a Key Competency into English courses. Key themes arising from the review are: (1) critical thinking can be expressed differently in different subject domains; (2) domain-specific knowledge plays a key role in critical thinking; and (3) schools and teachers may overlook the domain-specific nature of critical thinking when they interpret the Key Competencies.

What are the Key Competencies?

The New Zealand Curriculum 2007 (Ministry of Education) included five Key Competencies: thinking; using language, symbols, and texts; managing self; relating to others; and, participating and contributing (Ministry of Education, 2007). These Key Competencies are defined as a combination of “knowledge, attitudes, and values” (Ministry of Education, 2007) that people need to “live, learn, and work, and contribute as active members of their community” (Ministry of Education, 2007). Unlike the Essential Skills (Ministry-of-Education, 1993) in the previous New Zealand Curriculum Framework, the Key Competencies include dispositional, and knowledge components. This broader, competencies-based, approach recognizes that it is not enough for people to know how to do something if they do not want to do it, or do not have the necessary knowledge to do it.

The Key Competencies are often discussed in relation to the challenges that people will face in a rapidly changing, post-industrial future society. Many commentators have suggested that the future will be complex, uncertain, and dynamic, with changes in technology and social organization fundamentally altering the way people work and live together (Bolstad & Gilbert, 2008; Claxton, 2002; Gilbert, 2005; Robinson, 2011). They suggest that in the near future people will be required to adapt to the constantly shifting demands of a competitive global economy and changing patterns of work, to interact with groups and individuals from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds, and to contend with social, technological, and environmental challenges of a magnitude and complexity not encountered by previous generations (Robinson, 2011).

Underpinning these concerns about the future is a new understanding of what knowledge is, how it is acquired, and how it is used. Postmodern theories of knowledge tend to reject grand narratives, emphasizing instead diversity, multiple perspectives and context (Gilbert, 2005). Knowledge is seen as tentative, constantly evolving, and context-dependent. It is no longer viewed as an object that is possessed, stored up, and transmitted; rather it is active – it “does stuff” (Gilbert, 2005, p. 154) and “changes stuff” (Gilbert, 2005, p. 154). It is developed “through connections and relationships” (Gilbert, 2005, p. 154) and it is valued “not according to whether is true or objective, but whether it works in the particular local context” (Gilbert, 2005, p. 155). According to this view, it is impossible for schools to ‘once and for all’ provide learners with the specific knowledge and skills they will need for the future. Learners will need to learn how to access, use, and create knowledge successfully in a range of contexts (Claxton, 2002; Gilbert, 2005). The Key Competencies are designed to help schools to re-focus on how they can prepare students to be able to learn and adapt successfully in challenging future circumstances – to know how to form an identity, earn money, enjoy their leisure time, form relationships, and participate in society in a way that is “fulfilling, enjoyable, and responsible” (Claxton, 2002, p. 46).

The competencies-based approach has been criticised by scholars who claim that competency-based curricula downgrade the role of knowledge (Beista & Priestly, 2013; Rata, 2012; Yates & Collins, 2010; Young, 2010). They argue that a competencies approach focuses on what people should become, rather than what they should know (Beista & Priestly, 2013). This marks a shift from thinking of the learner as “subject of education to an outcome of education” (Beista & Priestly, 2013, p. 38). Furthermore, the focus on skills and dispositions is said to undermine the role of powerful disciplinary knowledge, which is described by Young (2012) as a vast body of knowledge established by successive generations – knowledge form the sciences, arts and humanities that is “about the world, about living in it and about how it works” (Young, 2012, p. 14).

In an analysis of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (2004) and The New Zealand Curriculum (2007), Priestly and Sinnema showed that this downgrading of disciplinary knowledge was not a “clear-cut” issue (2014, p. 19). They found that the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge continued to be “a fundamental focus of aims and purposes” (Priestly & Sinnema, 2014, p. 19) but that it was only one of a variety of aims. They also found that the new curricula did not heavily prescribe content, and did not specify clear processes by which teachers could select content, running the risk that disciplinary knowledge could be downgraded in practice (Priestly & Sinnema, 2014). Overall, they found these curricula contained inconsistent messages about the meaning and role of knowledge (Priestly & Sinnema, 2014).

Wood and Sheehan (2012) located the Key Competencies in the context of a wider political and economic policy aimed at creating a ‘knowledge economy’. They examined four schools that were recognized as early adopters of the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) and profiled on The New Zealand Curriculum Online Site. They found that these schools emphasised student-centered, inquiry-based pedagogies, the use of information and communication technologies for learning, and the integration of subjects and learning areas. They noticed an absence of discussion about the role of disciplinary knowledge or disciplinary thinking in relation to the process-driven, competency-based approaches adopted by the schools. They argued that this allowed for “the potential for knowledge to be placed in a peripheral role (boring and difficult) alongside the more ‘engaging’ focus on skills” (2012, p. 28). The authors viewed this 21st Century learning ‘revolution’ skeptically, suggesting that it promoted an “over-socialised” (2012, p. 27) understanding of knowledge.

Overall, research suggests that competencies-based curricula may downgrade the role of disciplinary knowledge but that this is not an inevitable outcome; although the competencies approach marks a shift towards skills and dispositions it does not necessarily mark a shift away from knowledge. How schools and teachers interpret the Key Competencies and the weight they give to the various components – skills, dispositions, and knowledge – will need to be considered carefully. The concern that a competencies-based approach can lead to indoctrination whereby national curricula become mechanisms for ensuring that schools produce of a certain type of person is partially warranted. However, this concern also rests upon matters of interpretation – teachers might interpret and implement the Key Competencies in ways that either enable or constrain students’ autonomy. How teachers interpret the 21st century discourse that informs the Key Competencies needs to be considered. If they believe the future is determined by out-of-control social, technological, and economic forces then they might think of schools as places where students are simply ‘shaped’ to ‘fit in’ to the world as it will unavoidably become and lose sight of the connection between powerful disciplinary knowledge and self-determination.

Hipkins found it was crucial to address how teachers interpreted the Key Competencies (2010b). She argued that the Key Competencies “come into view during learning interactions that vary according to the demands of the specific subject, the affordances that the planned learning offers individual students, and the various new contextual links that become apparent” (2010b, p. 7). She rejected the idea that the Key Competencies could be taught generically, in isolation from subject-based content. Rather, she believed they needed to be “explored from a disciplinary perspective by teachers in each subject area” (2010b, p. 7). She suggested, “Teachers need to be sufficiently confident in their subject expertise to be responsive to students’ ideas and reactions, and to follow new learning possibilities as these unfold” (2010b, p. 7). Furthermore, she argued that teachers often interpreted the Key Competencies form a skills-based perspective (2010b). Teachers who adopted a skills-based approach were likely to view the Key Competencies as a replacement for the Essential Skills (Ministry-of-Education, 1993), and therefore treat them as an ‘add-on’ to existing programs and pedagogies (2010b). Because the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) did not sufficiently cue the socio-cultural basis of the Key Competencies, she was worried that teachers could easily misinterpret them (Hipkins, 2010a).

Hipkins (2011) also found that the New Zealand Curriculum 2007 provided little guidance for teachers on how to integrate the Key Competencies with subject content. Her review of early adopter schools showed that many teachers had made only superficial changes to practice and that there was a “‘knowing/doing gap’ between schools’ recognition that there was much still to learn about subject-specific change and their ability to envision and enact such change” (Hipkins, 2011, p. 80). Hipkins (2011) described a study in which teachers, working alongside researchers, integrated the Key Competencies into their reading instruction. The teachers found that by updating their academic knowledge of English they were able to “share more of their personal passion for reading with their children…[and initiate] rich conversations about multiple possible meanings for texts [that] helped the children make diverse connections from the reading programme to their daily lives” (2011, p. 81). This study indicated a need for teachers to develop a “strong knowledge of the nature of their subject as a knowledge-building discipline” (Hipkins, 2011, p. 81).

Concerns about the downgrading of disciplinary knowedge and thinking in competency-based curricula were also raised by Gallaghar, Hipkins and Zohar (2012) when they analysed the implementation of thinking as a Key Competency in three countries: Ireland; New Zealand; and Israel. They drew on research from the different countries to compare and contrast context constraints, challenges, and successes in the three countries. In New Zealand, they noted a disparity in the way different schools and teachers had interpreted thinking as a Key Competencies. They also found schools and teachers had been slow to recognize that thinking could be expressed differently in different learning areas. In relation to implementation in New Zealand, they found a lack of integration between the front and back half of the Curriculum, which made cohesive program design challenging for teachers. Furthermore, although many schools and teachers understood the transformative potential of thinking as a Key Competency, they struggled to bring about the necessary changes in practice. The authors concluded that alignment between assessment, accountability systems, professional learning, and curriculum direction was crucial for the thinking competency to be successfully integrated into learning programs (Gallaggher et al., 2012).

What is critical thinking?

A review of literature reveals that there are numerous characteristics that help to define critical thinking. Firstly, critical thinking is not an impulsive activity, rather it is evidence-based, purposeful, and reflective thinking (Bailin, 2002; Marin & Halpern, 2011). It involves the application of ‘higher order’ thinking skills, such as analyzing and synthesizing information, making inferences, inductive and deductive reasoning, and evaluating sources of information (Ennis, 1993; Gillespie, 2011; Pithers & Soden, 2000). Along with skills, critical thinking also requires the exercise of dispositions like open-mindedness, skepticism, honesty, and intellectual rigor (Ennis, 1993; Gillespie, 2011; McPeck, 1990; Pithers & Soden, 2000; Walsh & Paul, 1986). There is also a normative element to critical thinking; criteria like being perceptive, insightful, reasonable, and effective help distinguish critical thinking from other forms of thinking, as the habitual application of ‘higher order’ skills and dispositions can still lead to sloppy or uncritical thinking when poorly executed (Bailin, 2002). Finally, critical thinking aims at more than simply finding fault or being negative; it is seen as a way to arrive at more accurate and reliable knowledge and understanding (Marin & Halpern, 2011).

Harpaz pointed out that approaches to teaching critical thinking fall into three broad categories: the skills approach; the dispositions approach; and the understanding approach. The skills approach emerged “as a reaction to the explosion, obsolescence, availability, and relativity of knowledge” (39). The belief that ‘old’ knowledge was being replaced rapidly by ‘new’ knowledge became increasingly popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For many people it no longer made sense to base curricula on the transmission of knowledge, which had a limited ‘shelf-life’. Rather, the focus shifted to the teaching of critical thinking skills – skills that would enable people to use, and make senses of knowledge in a complex, fast-paced world. During the 1990s a focus on thinking dispositions became increasingly popular. It was argued that thinking skills alone would not lead to critical thinking if individuals were not motivated to use them. Several well-known lists of thinking dispositions emerged, and teachers were encouraged to develop their students’ critical thinking dispositions. The understanding approach recognizes the important role of background knowledge in critical thinking, and is based on the idea that “deep, systematic, critical” (43) thinking is impossible if one does not understand the content of one’s thoughts. The understanding approach aligns well with the definition of thinking in the New Zealand Curriculum, which describes thinking as a Key Competency that draws on a combination of skills, dispositions, and knowledge.

Kuhn (1999) suggested that critical thinking has a developmental basis and that understanding the developmental phases of critical thinking can help educators to identify its distinctive features and to develop teaching strategies more likely to enhance learners’ critical thinking abilities. Kuhn suggested that epistemological knowledge was particularly important to critical thinking because people’s beliefs about what knowledge is and how it is acquired can determine their attitude towards critical thinking. She identified four distinct developmental phases related to epistemological understanding: a pre-absolutist phase where assertions are equated with reality; the absolutist phase where knowledge is seen to be located in the external world, awaiting discovery and knowable through direct apprehension; the multiplist phase where beliefs are seen as relative, subject to personal experience and not open to objective criticism; and the evaluative phase where it is understood that some views are more right than others, and that judgment, evaluation, and reasoned debate is the path to informed understanding (Kuhn, 1999). Reaching the evaluative stage is, clearly, conducive to thinking critically. When one believes it is possible to arrive at better, more reliable, knowledge, one is more likely to value such knowledge and want to acquire it. This links to the idea that critical thinking is a Key Competency that draws upon attitudes and values – i.e. knowledge is valuable and therefore worth pursuing.

A point of contention in the literature for many years was whether critical thinking should be viewed as a domain-general or domain-specific ability. Scholars generally agree that background knowledge is required for critical thinking; however, the extent to which domain-specific knowledge and critical thinking skills could be separated was hotly debated. Ennis (1990) claimed that there are important and powerful critical thinking skills that transcend specific domains of knowledge. He pointed out that in ‘real life’ situations people often think critically about things of which they have little subject-specific knowledge. This, he believed, indicated the existence of general critical thinking abilities. McPeck (1990), on the other hand, argued that some generic critical thinking abilities existed; however, he thought that the more general a thinking ability is the more trivially obvious it is, whereas “the truly suggestive, and therefore useful, thinking skills tend to be limited to specific domains or narrower areas of application” (1989, p. 12). McPeck criticized courses that taught general critical thinking skills on the grounds that it was not clear what students would learn from such a course: would it enable them “to solve mathematics or physics problems without having learned mathematics or physics?” (1990, p. 37). He thought transfer of critical thinking to ‘real world’ situations was possible because many domains of knowledge have a broad range of applicability (1990).

The idea that critical thinking skills are primarily domain-general and can be taught in separate add-on courses has “given way” (Pithers & Soden, 2000, p. 241) as mounting evidence has shown that “such abilities can be developed more effectively in the course of teaching subject-matter content” (Pithers & Soden, 2000, p. 241). Willingham (2008) and Sweller and Tricot (2014) pointed out that research on the differences between experts and novices has shown that experts draw on a vast and sophisticated network of domain-specific knowledge in order to solve novel problems, but that their problem solving abilities do not transfer easily to other unrelated domains. Willingham concluded that, “The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought…if you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspective. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize” (2008, p. 21). The issue of domain specificity is related to Hipkin’s concern that teachers may interpret thinking as a Key Competency as simply a replacement for the Essential Skills (2010b). Hipkins noted that although there may be some generic thinking skills there are also, undoubtedly, important subject specific modes of thinking that need to be understood by teachers if they are to embed thinking as Key Competency into their instruction successfully (2010b).

What is English?

According to The New Zealand Curriculum, English helps learners to become critical thinkers who are able to “make sense of” the word around them. It is “the study, use, and enjoyment of the English language and its literature, communicated orally, visually, and in writing, for a range of purposes and audiences and in a variety of text forms”. Critical thinking is at the heart of this learning area: students are expected to “think critically and in depth” to understand the power of language and texts to “enrich and shape their own and others’ lives”. This involves processes and strategies such as, identifying “particular points of view within texts”, understanding “that texts can position a reader”, and analyzing and evaluating how texts can “create meaning and effect”.

Critical Thinking in English

Literature related to the English curriculum provides examples of how critical thinking has been embedded in English courses. These examples emphasize different aspects of critical thinking – skills, dispositions, knowledge and understanding. A number of themes arise form the literature: Firstly, English is seen as uniquely positioned to develop critical thinking in relation to the way different texts and contexts can give rise to multiple perspectives, motivations, and courses of action. Secondly, English readily lends itself to developing students’ abilities to support claims with evidence, recognize themes, and make connections between ideas. Thirdly, English fosters students’ critical thinking by helping them to deconstruct texts (oral, written, visual, multi-modal), to identify and challenge dominant cultural discourses, and to produce alternative, or resistant, readings. Finally, critical thinking in English is seen to involve an element of affect that adds a human dimension to ideas.

English is uniquely placed to develop learners’ critical thinking by helping them to explore different perspectives and interpretations of texts – to see the world through different eyes (Langer, 1995; Reid, 2013). Reid argued that a key responsibility of English teachers is to lead students “beyond the familiar, and to reframe their experience of the world in which they live by introducing them to worlds elsewhere” (2013, p. 65). Langer (1995) described a response-based approach to textual analysis, which led to an opening up of meanings and perspectives that allowed students to understand and tolerate ambiguity. From a response-based perspective readers are viewed as “active meaning makers with personal knowledge, beliefs, and experiences that affect responses and interpretations—thus creating the potential for more than one ‘correct’ interpretation” (1995, p. 212). Langer argued that effective instruction in literary analysis “focuses on exploring multiple perspectives, on arriving at a broader base of knowledge from which interpretations can be developed and enriched, on sensitivity to others’ well-defended views, on expectations that convincing arguments will differ based on the specific readers and their audience, and on good defenses that need not always move others to agree, but that do offer additional perspectives for consideration by others” (1995, p. 212). Langer compared a literary, response-based ways of thinking to scientific thinking, suggesting that literary thinking was “more inward, focusing on personal meanings, understandings of human situations, and the complex web of relationships embedded in them” (1995, p. 209). Scientific thinking, on the other hand, was “distant, focusing outside of the individual’s personal life-world, on texts and situations as they relate to each other” (1995, p. 209).

There are many creative ways English teachers can draw students’ attention to the way texts can give rise to multiple perspectives, motivations and courses of action. For example, Stanford (1995) described an English unit that combined conflict management techniques with literary analysis. During the unit students were encouraged to reflect on real-life conflicts that they had experienced and to role-play conflict situations from the perspectives of different fictional characters. They then analyzed short stories, considering the relationships between conflict management styles, plot, and character development. Students learned to consider alternative choices that were available to literary characters as well as the choices that arise in real-life conflicts. They were encouraged to see things from different perspectives, to imagine and analyze the potential outcomes of various choices and conflict styles. Teachers who implemented the unit reported improvement in students’ behaviour and their abilities to critically analyze literary texts. Stanford’s description of this unit captures the notion of critical thinking as a key competency: thinking is treated as something more than a set of skills or strategies, with disciplinary knowledge (knowledge of plot, character, theme) and the underlying motivational and dispositional components of thinking all playing an important role.

The English curriculum also lends itself to the development of students’ logical, deductive and inductive reasoning abilities. In English classes students can be challenged to identify themes in various texts, giving reasons for their claims, and make connections between ideas. Moulton (1912) argued that close analysis of difficult literary texts helps to develop students’ critical thinking abilities by giving them practice in “relating knowledge”, “promoting investigation” , and “instilling the idea of hard won progress” (1912, p. 441). Moulton described a typical English classroom activity where students worked together to analyse a passage from John Milton’s L’Allegro. When students encountered a challenging and remote text of this kind their teacher encouraged them to “go into the silence”, “to be an investigator”, and to work together to “shed light on a confusing problem” (1912, p. 441). He told his students to imagine they composed “a miniature world of civilization in which each one should seek to discover the truth for the benefit of all” (1912, p. 441). Working together students put forward interpretations, backed by evidence from the text. Theories emerged and were held “tentatively” (1912, p. 441) as the students worked through the rest of the passage, interpreting, and gathering evidence to support their conclusions. As students continued to interpret the text they drew on their knowledge of the English language, realizing that “inspection of grammatical relations” (1912, p. 441) could lead to “some surprising discoveries” (1912, p. 441).

Likewise, Evans (2004) described how he used texts from popular culture to help develop his students’ evidence-based, rational thinking. Because the students were familiar with popular songs, movies, and advertisements, and their conventions, they were able to identify common literary themes and support their claims with evidence. Evans used texts from popular culture to help his students to understand the effectiveness of rhetorical techniques and develop their understanding of the way texts are intentionally constructed to entertain and persuade (2004). After students developed confidence in their ability to make connections between common literary themes and specific details in texts they were familiar with, they were introduced to more challenging, less familiar, literary texts.

The English curriculum can also foster critical thinking by helping learners to develop the capacity to deconstruct texts, identifying and challenging dominant cultural discourses and producing alternative readings. Janks (2000, p. 176) explained that Critical Language Awareness:

…emphasizes the fact that texts are constructed. Anything that has been constructed can be deconstructed. This unmaking or unpicking of the text increases our awareness of the choices that the writer or speaker has made. Every choice foregrounds what was selected and hides, silences or backgrounds what was not selected. Awareness of this prepares the reader to ask critical questions: Why did the writer or speaker make these choices? Whose interests do they serve? Who is empowered or disempowered by the language used?

Barrell and Hammett (1999) found that by using new technologies to produce multi-modal responses to traditional literary texts, learners were able to resist dominant cultural discourses often present in the ‘traditional’ English curriculum. Responding to texts using new technologies allowed students to “fill in gaps and silences” (Barrell & Hammett, 1999, p. 28) by using multiple forms of representation to illustrate what they felt had been omitted, to contradict dominant readings, and to produce alternative readings. For example, when responding to the novel The Shipping News one student was able to challenge the negative representation of her hometown, Newfoundland, which was depicted as a dreary, lifeless place in the novel, by contrasting the written text with scenic photographs from the interior of the country (Barrell & Hammett, 1999).

Finally, the English curriculum, and in particular the English language arts, can foster critical thinking by adding a human dimension to facts. Dakin (2010) pointed out that the statement “six million Jews were killed in the second world war” (2010, p. 18) is startling, and shocking, but when the idea is presented through literature, like The Diary of Ann Frank, the facts are given a human dimension. Dakin pointed out, “Logic needs literature because the stories we tell…lend a human scale to the elemental forces of creation and destruction that sweep the corridors of time” (2010, p. 19). Australian historian, Cassanda Pybus, made a similar point when she noted: “not even a master of the popular history genre…can construct a world as rich and satisfying as the parallel universe the novelist can imagine, nor create characters who are revealed to us in their most intimate and private thoughts. The historian remains tied to concrete evidence, which is patchy at best and never allows access to the inner working of the human psyche” (cited in Reid, 2013, p. 68).


When students think critically in English they draw on a combination of skills, dispositions, knowledge, values, and attitudes – some of which are unique to the domain of English. Understanding how English is uniquely positioned to promote critical thinking is essential for teachers if they wish to successfully embed critical thinking as a Key Competency into English courses. However, as Hipkins has pointed out (2010b), the New Zealand Curriculum does not clearly cue a domain-specific understanding of the Key Competencies. It is likely that many schools and teachers will continue to treat critical thinking as a generic skill that transcends and is untouched by subject boundaries. If this is the case, the transformative potential of critical thinking as a Key Competency may be lost. There is mounting evidence that critical thinking is knowledge-based and, at least partially, subject-specific. This means there is a pressing need for research that looks at how teachers are interpreting and embedding critical thinking into English courses in New Zealand.


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