Fostering critical thinking in highly disciplined & structured schools

I think I may lean towards a socialistic view and therefore am a strong advocate of public schools and teaching every child equally.  To be fair I have only experienced one private school but that led me to write the following short inquiry/essay and I am still struggling to find the answers!

Is it possible to foster critical thinking skills in students in a highly disciplined and explicitly structured school culture?

There are many advantages for teachers, students and parents when a school’s culture is structured on highly disciplined rules and expectations.  Yet, is this culture negatively impacting the potential for an increase in student’s critical thinking skills?  Critical thinking education which has been defined, explored and promoted by educational philosophers such as Giroux (1988), Freire (1997) and Dewey (1966) is greatly influenced by the idea that education should focus on creating a democratic citizen capable of viewing the current state of society, identifying problems and then influencing transformational change in society.  Critical thinking should be a major aim of education to allow for learning that can “…be used to expand the public good and promote democratic social change” (Giroux, 2007).  It could be argued that these critical theorists are utopian and unrealistic but I subscribe to the idea that “Without a vision for tomorrow, hope is impossible” (Freire, 1997, p. 45).

I believe the aim of education should be to create an environment that promotes a democratic community for social interaction that allows students to question society’s views and values.  For learners to become democratic citizens capable of questioning norms and possibly transform society, they require the ability to think critically.  In my view, critical thinking is imperative; it is required before a person is capable of identifying a problem in society and ultimately affecting change by their actions.

So, is critical thinking occurring in schools that follow a culture based on a highly structured discipline?   To maintain such a culture within a whole school often requires that there are set routines, expectations and strict consequences for students and teachers who do not follow the rules.  This leads to a continual focus on control and how to maintain this control.  The advantage of this controlling nature within a school environment is likely to result in higher educational gains and less room for negative student behaviour such as bullying and poor performance.  This type of control however, often requires a Skinner-type technique to control student (and teacher) behaviour which may results in a reward driven individual that destroys “…the notion of the self, individual responsibility, and self-reliance” (Ozman & Craver, 2008, p. 214).  A controlling environment, specifically a controlling teacher, may not be able to foster a caring relationship between teacher and student.  Kohn (1993) argues that teachers that are constantly controlling student’s behaviours by using behaviour modification and rule enforcement are unable to foster a caring relationship.  A truly caring relationship between teachers and learners, based on an “ethics of care” (Noddings, 2005), is required for a critical and democratic classroom to exist.

How can a controlling school culture, with all its inherent benefits for students and their parents, avoid the potential of their controlling nature to negatively impact the freedom that is arguably required to foster critical thinking in our future citizens?  Is this possible?  Are highly disciplined schools and critical thinking mutually exclusive?  Are the benefits of a controlling school culture at odds with the idea of creating critically thinking citizens?  Is the key to successfully fostering critical thinking in students at such schools to have teachers that focus on creating democratic classrooms with an underlying educational philosophy that includes an ethics of care?  Can a classroom be truly democratic in such a school environment?

Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: Free Press.

Freire, P. (1997). Pedagogy of the heart. New York: Continuum

Giroux, H. A.. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Granby, Mass.: Bergin & Garvey.

Giroux, H. (2007). Youth and the politics of disposability: resisting the assault on education and American youth.  Retrieved on May 20, 2011, from

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Noddings, N. (2005). Caring in education. Retrieved May 20, 2011, from

Ozman, H., & Craver, S. (2008). Philosophical aspects of behaviorism. In Philosophical foundations of education (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

2 comments on “Fostering critical thinking in highly disciplined & structured schools

  1. Amanda Coates says:

    Hi Elke,
    I feel very strongly about this subject as well. Have you read any information on Philosophy in Schools? Matthew Lipman started this movement and Phil Cam and some others are really keen to embed this into the curriculum – Phil Cam was involved in writing some of the critical thinking general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.
    I have seen this program in action at Buranda State School (if you ever have the opportunity to visit, I would definitely recommend!) and have been through several courses about how to do this effectively in classroom situations but am still muddling my way through 🙂 If you get time, I would encourage you to have a look. There is a great book out by Buranda State School, which provides stimulus texts and then builds children’s awareness of using skills like agreeing, disagreeing, reasoning etc
    Good luck with the blogging! Can’t wait to read the next installment!
    Amanda Coates


  2. elketeaches says:

    Hi Amanda,

    Yes, I have explored a little bit about the Philosophy in Schools movement/approach an have read some Lipman. I love it! I remember my son telling me about doing Philosophy in 2nd grade and I thought that was awesome.

    Thanks for mentioning Buranda SS and Phil Cam because I hadn’t known about either…..I am right now searching both on the net and finding great stuff, wow! This stuff is exciting eh? (maybe ‘food’ for my next blog post!) Some of this I can imagine doing kind of ad-hoc within an ethics of care (Nel Noddings) based classroom in a high school setting. My biggest problem envisioning this is having the time to do this type of thing in a 70-minute lesson at the Secondary level, BUT I know I am driven to get to know my students and care about them and so maybe I can let this type of thing happen in spurts of conversation here & there during a lesson. In my past teaching experience I know I felt happier and got more out of it in the last years of teaching when I really wanted to get to know my students, learn from them & help them learn from me etc.



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