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   Conference Sessions

36th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Educational Reform

Conference Session Descriptions  

July 25-29, 2016

Preconference: July 25, 2016


Fostering Robust Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines -
In Every Classroom, Every Day, Across the World


This year's conference focal session descriptions are listed below. Click on each title in the overview section to be taken to the descriptions further down on the page. Choose the focal sessions you plan to attend when you register for the conference.


Monday (July 25, 2016) 
(choose one of the following in-depth sessions)

  • Teaching Students to Think Within the Logic of your Discipline… Gerald Nosich
  •   Fostering Critical Thinking in the K-12 Classroom: Practical Strategies   Carmen Polka
  • The Life and Work of Richard Paul…How We Lived and Learned Together... Linda Elder

DAY ONE  Tuesday (July 26)   
(choose one of the following sessions, which runs all day following the morning key-note address) 

  • Critical Thinking as Essential to the Development of Intellectual Skills in Higher Education… Gerald Nosich
  • Critical Thinking as Essential to the Acquisition of Knowledge in K-12 Education… Linda Elder 
  •           Advanced Session: The Important Ideas of Tom Paine, His Revolutionary World View, and Why He Was Ultimately Vilified... Brian Barnes


DAY TWO Wednesday morning (July 27) 
(Everyone is Invited)


Bertrand Russell Scholars Program

Russell Scholar: Dr. Carol Tavris

Lecture and Conversation

All conference delegates are encouraged to actively participate in this session

See the Bertrand Russell Scholars Program


Day Two Early Afternoon – Roundtable Discussions

(to be held approx 1:30 - 2:30)

DAY TWO Wednesday afternoon (July 27) 
(choose one of the following sessions for the afternoon) 

  • Why Intellectual Virtues are Essential to a Robust Conception of Critical Thinking…  Gerald Nosich
  • Critical Reading as Primary Vehicle for Cultivating the Intellect… Carmen Polka
  • Why We Need Concern Ourselves With Human Pathologies in Cultivating the Disciplined Mind… Linda Elder

DAY THREE Thursday morning & early afternoon (July 28) 

Concurrent sessions TBA

If you would like to send a proposal for a concurrent session, please contact The Foundation for Critical Thinking at

Concurrent sessions are one hour in length. Most sessions are conducted by faculty and administrators who have been working with critical thinking concepts and principles for several years by bringing critical thinking into individual classrooms or across the curriculum

       Thursday afternoon (July 28) 

       (choose one of the following sessions, which run through the afternoon  following the Concurrent Program)

  • Teaching Students to Formulate and Reason Through Essential Questions in Teaching and LearningGerald Nosich
  • Teaching Students to Study and Learn Using the Principles of Critical ThinkingCarmen Polka
  • Teaching Students to Internalize and Thinking Within the Ideas of the Deepest Thinkers: Reaching Back Through History to Classic Works...
  •         Linda Elder

DAY FOUR Friday morning & early afternoon (July 29)

  • For Administrators: Placing Critical Thinking at the Heart of the Institution's Mission…  Brian Barnes 
  • Teaching Students to Think Conceptually, and to Take Command of the Concepts that Guide Their Lives… Linda Elder
  • Socratic Dialogue as Primary Tool for Cultivating Critical Thinking in Instruction... Gerald Nosich


 Pre-Conference Focal Sessions

These Preconference sessions are STRONGLY RECOMMENDED FOR NEW ATTENDEES and for those who want to more deeply internalize the foundations of critical thinking:


Teaching Students to Think Within the Logic of your Discipline… Gerald Nosich

One of the main goals of instruction is to help the student internalize the most basic concepts in the subject and to learn to think through questions in everyday life using those concepts. Critical thinking in biology is biological thinking. Critical thinking in anatomy is anatomical thinking. Critical thinking in literature is thinking the way a knowledgeable, sensitive, reasonable reader thinks about literature. A discipline is more than a body of information. It is a distinctive way (or set of ways) of looking at the world and thinking through a set of questions about it. It is systematic and has a logic of its own. In this session, participants will think through the logic of a discipline of their choosing. They will also focus on teaching the logic of their discipline so students internalize the way of thinking inherent in the subject as a life-long acquisition.


Fostering Critical Thinking in the K-12 Classroom: Practical Strategies…Carmen Polka

Bringing critical thinking into the K-12 classroom entails understanding the concepts and principles embedded in critical thinking and then applying those concepts throughout the curriculum.   It means developing powerful strategies that emerge when we begin to understand critical thinking. In this session we will focus on strategies for engaging the intellect at the K-12 level. These strategies are powerful and useful, because each is a way to routinely engage students in thinking about what they are trying to learn as they are learning. Many of the strategies offer students methods for questioning, and for appropriately analyzing and assessing, the ideas they are “receiving” in the schooling process. Each strategy represents a shift of responsibility for learning from teacher to student. These strategies suggest ways to help your students learn to do the (often) hard work of learning.


The Life and Work of Richard Paul…How We Lived and Learned Together…Linda Elder

Richard Paul is widely considered a seminal thinker in the field of Critical Thinking Studies. Though Richard passed away in the fall of 2015, his work and original theory is explicit in the best conceptions of critical thinking and the best work in critical thinking.   In this session we will consider some of Paul’s important contributions to critical thinking. We will focus especially on some of Paul’s significant contributions to the field that often receive less attention than his primary contributions, going beyond, or deeper into, the areas of analysis and assessment of thought and the advancement of intellectual virtues.

We will also discuss some of the significant ways in which Richard and I worked together on a daily basis, as colleagues, to advance our understanding of critical thinking theory, to develop theory of pedagogy in critical thinking, to contextualize critical thinking within fields and domains of thought, and to advance the concept of fairminded critical thinking and fairminded critical societies through our work at the Foundation for Critical Thinking. We will explore the study habits Richard and I used, and developed, during our time together, to increasingly strengthen our intellectual development. 

By way of illustration or example, I will detail some of the ways in which Richard related with me, and the ways in which we related to one another personally, as we employed the tools of critical thinking on a daily basis in thinking through complex issues in parenting, and through our twenty year marriage.

We will view and discuss video footage of Paul articulating the theory of critical thinking and how to foster it throughout instruction. We will read and discuss excerpts from Paul’s anthology: Critical Thinking: What Everyone Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World .

DAY ONE (choose one):


Critical Thinking as Essential to the Development of Intellectual Skills in Higher Education… Gerald Nosich

There is no more important goal in higher education than cultivating the intellect, but we cannot achieve this goal unless we place intellectual development at the heart of instruction. To do this, we must approach our students as thinkers, as persons capable of figuring things out for themselves, as persons with their own thoughts, emotions, and desires, as persons with minds of their own. However, thinking is often ignored in colleges and universities (and indeed in society). Historically critical thinking has been treated in higher education as another add-on, as something interesting we combine with other things we do. But when we understand what it takes to cultivate the intellect we bring the concepts and principles of critical thinking into everything we do in the classroom. Critical thinking becomes the centerpiece of instruction. This is true because it is through critical thinking that we make explicit the intellectual tools students need to live successfully and reasonably, to grapple with the complex problems they will inevitably face, to think their way through content of any kind. However, we can’t foster critical thinking if we don’t understand it ourselves. This session will introduce some of the foundations of critical thinking. We focus on initial internalization of these foundations, coupled with application to classroom structures and strategies.


Critical Thinking as Essential to the Acquisition of Knowledge in K-12 Education…   Linda Elder

Students are increasingly assessed on the acquisition of their knowledge in K-12 schooling. But what knowledge should students be acquiring? How do we decide which is most significant, and which can be left behind? Who decides? Who should decide? How do students acquire knowledge? How do critical thinking, the acquisition of knowledge, and the educated person interrelated as powerful concepts? How do the tools of critical thinking lead to the acquisition of knowledge? How does activated knowledge differ from activated ignorance and inert information? In this session we will explore these questions as we introduce the Paulian Conception of Critical Thinking (Paul-Elder Approach). We will focus on understanding the importance of intellectual virtues in the mind of the educated person and in the acquisition of knowledge. We will briefly explore the analysis of thought and the critical role played by intellectual standards in the acquisition of knowledge at the K-12 level.


Advanced Session: The Important Ideas of Tom Paine, His Revolutionary World View, and Why He Was Ultimately Vilified…Brian Barnes

At this year’s conference we honor, as posthumous Bertrand Russell Scholar, the ideas, work, and life of Tom Paine. Paine was a political activist, philosopher and revolutionary who is considered one of the Founding Father of the United States. He authored several important and influential treatises during his lifetime - including Common Sense and Rights of Man . Excerpts from both books will be explored during this session, from the point of view of critical thinking. We will also explore why, despite his many important contributions to freedom, Paine was later vilified by many Americans, including famous politicians, and why his ideas are essential to the educated person and those who aspire to become critical persons.


Day Two Morning (everyone is invited)

All conference delegates are invited to participate in… 

The Bertrand Russell Distinguished Scholars Lecture and Conversation

This important dimension of the conference highlights the work and thinking of distinguished scholars throughout history who have contributed significantly to the conception, and advancement, of fairminded critical societies. Russell scholars may come from any subject, field, or discipline, or from any domain of human thought.  
This year's scholar is Dr. Carol Tavris. All conference participants are invited to participate in the Russell program. Only conference registrants will be admitted.

Dr. Carol Tavris

Dr. Carol Tavris has devoted her professional life - as writer, teacher, and lecturer - to educating the public about psychological science. Her book with Elliot Aronson, "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by ME): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts" (updated, revised edition, Mariner Books, 2015), applies cognitive dissonance theory to a wide variety of topics, including politics, conflicts of interest, memory (everyday and "recovered"), the criminal justice system, police interrogation, the daycare sex-abuse epidemic, family quarrels, international conflicts, and business. 

She has spoken to students, psychologists, mediators, lawyers, judges, physicians, business executives, and general audiences on, among other topics, self-justification; science and pseudoscience in psychology; gender and sexuality; critical thinking; and anger. In the legal arena, Dr. Tavris has given many addresses and workshops to attorneys and judges on the difference between testimony based on good psychological science and that based on pseudoscience and subjective clinical opinion. 

Dr. Tavris is a Charter Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. Her honors and awards include the 2014 Media Achievement Award from SPSP; an honorary doctorate from Simmons college in 2013; the Distinguished Media Contribution Award from the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology (for The Mismeasure of Woman), the Heritage Publications Award from Division 35 of the American Psychological Association (for The Mismeasure of Woman), the “Movers and Shakers” Award from Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, the Distinguished Contribution to Women’s Health Award from the APA Conference on Women’s Health, and an award from the Center for Inquiry, Independent Investigations Group, for contributions to skepticism and science.

DAY TWO Afternoon (choose one):

Why Intellectual Virtues are Essential to a Robust Conception of Critical Thinking…Gerald Nosich

Critical thinking is not just a set of intellectual skills. It is a way of orienting oneself in the world. It is a way of approaching problems that differs significantly from that which is typical in human life. People may have critical thinking skills and abilities, and yet still be unable to enter viewpoints with which they disagree. They may have critical thinking abilities, and yet still be unable to analyze the beliefs that guide their behavior. They may have critical thinking abilities, and yet be unable to distinguish between what they know and what they don’t know, to persevere through difficult problems and issues, to think fairmindedly, to stand alone against the crowd. This session introduces the intellectual character traits at the heart of a fairminded conception of critical thinking - the traits of mind embodied by fairminded critical persons - intellectual virtues such as fairmindedness, intellectual humility, intellectual perseverance, intellectual courage, intellectual empathy, intellectual autonomy, intellectual integrity, and confidence in reason.


Critical Reading as Primary Vehicle for Cultivating the Intellect… Carmen Polka

Educated persons are skilled at, and routinely engage in, close reading. They do not read blindly, but purposely. They have a goal or objective they are pursuing as they read. Their purpose, together with the nature of what they are reading, determines how they read. They read differently in different situations for different purposes. Of course, reading has a nearly universal purpose: to figure out what an author has to say on a given subject.

When we read, we translate words into meanings. The author has previously translated ideas and experiences into words. We must take those same words and re-translate them into the author’s original meaning using our own ideas and experiences as aids. Accurately translating words into intended meanings is an analytic, evaluative, and creative set of acts. Unfortunately, few students are skilled at this translation. Few are able to accurately mirror the meaning the author intended. They project their own meanings into a text. They unintentionally distort or violate the original meaning of the authors they read.

Reading, then, is a form of intellectual work. And intellectual work requires willingness to persevere through difficulties. But perhaps even more importantly, intellectual work requires understanding what such work entails. In this session you will be introduced to five levels of close reading and will work through one or two of them closely (as “students”). Accordingly, you will experience the process of critically reading significant texts, so as to better understand how to bring this process into your classrooms, and into your students’ thinking, on a typical day.


Why We Need Concern Ourselves With Human Pathologies in Cultivating the Disciplined Mind…Linda Elder


The human mind is at once rational and irrational, reasonable and unreasonable. We naturally see the world from a narrow egocentric perspective. We are also highly vulnerable to influence from group traditions, mores, taboos and customs. We are naturally selfish, self-deceiving, prejudiced, biased. We naturally distort reality to fit our vision of it. We naturally distort information to keep from seeing what we would rather avoid. We naturally seek more for ourselves and our group than is rightfully ours. We naturally act without due regard to the rights and needs of others.

In short, humans are naturally egocentric and sociocentric. At the same time, we are capable of developing as reasonable persons. But to do so requires commitment and some fundamental understandings about the pathological side of the human mind. In this session we will focus on some of these painful truths about the mind. We will explore egocentric and sociocentric thought as intrinsic mental phenomena that get in the way of cultivating the disciplined mind, and hence of the educational process. We will also briefly explore processes for overcoming these pathologies.


Day Three Afternoon (choose one):


Teaching Students to Formulate and Reason Through Essential Questions in Teaching and Learning…Gerald Nosich

It is not possible to be a good thinker and a poor questioner. Questions define tasks, express problems, and delineate issues. They drive thinking forward. Answers, on the other hand, often bring to thought to an end. Only when an answer generates further questions does thought continue as inquiry. A mind with no questions is a mind that is not intellectually alive. No questions (asked) equals no understanding (achieved). Superficial questions equal superficial understanding, unclear questions equal unclear understanding. If your mind is not actively generating questions, you are not engaged in substantive learning.

So the question is raised, “How can we teach so that students generate essential questions that lead to deep learning?” In this session we shall focus on practical strategies for generating questioning minds---at the same time, of course, that students learn the content that is at the heart of the curriculum.

Teaching Students to Study and Learn Using the Principles of Critical Thinking …Carmen Polka


To study well and learn any subject is to learn how to think with discipline within that subject. It is to learn to think within its logic, to:

1. raise vital questions and problems within it, formulating them clearly and precisely.

2. gather and assess information, using ideas to interpret that information insightfully.

3. come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards.

4. adopt the point of view of the discipline, recognizing and assessing, as need be, its assumptions, implications, and practical consequences.

5. communicate effectively with others using the language of the discipline and that of educated public discourse.

6. relate what one is learning in the subject to other subjects and to what is significant in human life.

To become a skilled learner is to become a self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinker who has given assent to rigorous standards of thought and mindful command of their use. Skilled learning of a discipline requires that one respect the power of it, as well as its, and one’s own, historical and human limitations. This session will offer strategies for helping students begin to take learning seriously.

This session focuses on a number of instructional ideas that are based in the insight that substantive teaching and learning can occur only when students take ownership of the most basic principles and concepts of the subject. These strategies are rooted in a vision of instruction implied by critical thinking and an analysis of the weaknesses typically found in most traditional didactic lecture/quiz/test formats of instruction. This session, then, focuses on some basic instructional strategies that foster the development of student thinking, and on strategies that require students to think actively within the concepts and principles of the subject.

Teaching Students to Internalize and Think Within the Ideas of the Deepest Thinkers: Reaching Back Through History to Classic Works…Linda Elder

One way of deepening our understanding of critical thinking and its role in history is to routinely and systematically interrelate explicit critical thinking concepts and principles with transformative ideas developed by deep thinkers throughout history. Many students have no real understanding of the deepest ideas that have been thought, nor how to access these ideas. In this session, we will consider the works of some of the important thinkers throughout history and how these thoughts interrelate both with one another, and to the conceptual tools in critical thinking. We will employ critical reading as we explore original texts, focusing on the conceptual work of thinkers such as Socrates, Epictetus, Voltaire, John Henry Newman, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Eric Fromm, and Albert Ellis.


Day Four:

For Administrators: Placing Critical Thinking at the Heart of the Institution’s Mission…Brian Barnes

Critical thinking, deeply understood, provides a rich set of concepts that enable us to think our way through any subject or discipline, as well as through any problem or issue. With a substantive concept of critical thinking clearly in mind, we begin to see the pressing need for a staff development program that fosters critical thinking within and across the curriculum. As we come to understand a substantive concept of critical thinking, we are able to follow out its implications in designing a professional development program. By means of it, we begin to see important implications for every part of the institution — redesigning policies; providing administrative support for critical thinking; rethinking the mission; coordinating and providing faculty workshops in critical thinking; redefining faculty as learners as well as teachers; assessing students, faculty, and the institution as a whole in terms of critical thinking abilities and traits. We realize that robust critical thinking should be the guiding force for all of our educational efforts. This session focuses on the importance of placing critical thinking foundations at the core of teaching and learning at all levels of the institution, and it presents a professional development model that can provide the vehicle for deep change across the institution. We will utilize Dr. Elder's article on professional development, published in Times Higher Education.


Teaching Students to Think Conceptually, and to Take Command of the Concepts that Guide Their Lives…Linda Elder

Ideas are to us like the air we breathe. We project them everywhere. Yet we rarely notice this. We use ideas to create our way of seeing things. What we experience we experience through ideas, often funneled into the categories of “good” and “evil.” We assume ourselves to be good. We assume our enemies to be evil. We select positive terms to cover up the indefensible things we do. We select negative terms to condemn even the good things our enemies do.  

We conceptualize things personally by means of experience unique to ourselves (often distorting the world to our advantage). We conceptualize things socially as a result of indoctrination or social conditioning (our allegiances presented, of course, in positive terms).

If we want students to develop as a critical thinkers, they must come to recognize the ideas through which they see and experience the world. They must take explicit command of their concepts. They must become the master of their own ideas. They must learn how to think with alternative ideas, alternative “world views.”  

Failure to command important distinctions can significantly influence the way we shape our experience. If, for example, we confuse ethics with arbitrary social conventions or religion or national law, we have no basis for understanding the true basis of universality in ethics: awareness of what does harm or good to humans and other sentient creatures.

When students take command of their concepts, they go beneath the surface of ideas. They strive for ideas to broaden and empower them as free individuals and liberally minded persons. In this session we will come to better understand the role of concepts in human thought, and explore methods for helping students take command of the concepts that guide their lives. We will focus on core concepts in your subjects and disciplines which contribute to self command and intellectual disciplined.

Socratic Dialogue as Primary Tool for Cultivating Critical Thinking in Instruction… Gerald Nosich

Socratic questioning is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including exploring complex ideas, getting to the truth of things, opening up issues and problems, uncovering assumptions, analyzing concepts, distinguishing what we know from what we don't know, and following out logical implications of thought. The key to distinguish Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, and deep; it usually focuses on foundational concepts, principles, theories, issues, or problems.

Teachers, students, and indeed anyone interested in probing thinking at a deep level should construct Socratic questions and engage in Socratic dialogue. When we use Socratic questioning in teaching, our purpose may be to probe student thinking, to determine students' depth of understanding, to model Socratic questioning for them, or to help them analyze a concept or line of reasoning. In the final analysis, we want students to learn the discipline of Socratic questioning so that they come to use it in reasoning through complex issues, in understanding and assessing the thinking of others, and in following-out the implications of what they, and others, think.

The art of Socratic questioning is intimately connected with critical thinking because the art of questioning is important to excellence of thought. Both critical thinking and Socratic questioning share a common end. Critical thinking provides the conceptual tools for understanding how the mind functions in its pursuit of meaning and truth; Socratic questioning employs those tools in framing questions essential to the pursuit of meaning and truth.

This session will introduce the methodology of Socratic dialogue and its relationship with the language and tools of critical thinking. The session will be interactive as participants briefly practice Socratic questioning using the foundations of critical thinking.