Thinking: The Foundation of Critical and Creative Learning in the Classroom

reviewed by Anne Slonaker - 2006

coverTitle: Thinking: The Foundation of Critical and Creative Learning in the Classroom
Author(s): Robert E. Boostrom
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745693, Pages: 175, Year: 2005
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Robert Boostrom introduces Thinking: The Foundation of Critical and Creative Learning in the Classroom by asking, “how to recognize, let alone create, classrooms in which students think, classrooms guided by the pursuit of what John Dewey called ‘reflective experience’” (p. 3). To explore this question, Boostrom considers teaching and learning to think from three “commonplaces” (p. 5) that he identifies as defining, telling, and believing, to argue that in each of these commonplaces across teaching and learning to think are paradoxes that unwittingly contribute to the practice of “non-thinking” (p. 3) in classrooms. Boostrom’s argument is evidenced by practices of non-thinking that emerge from his own compiled multiyear data collected across his work with groups of preservice and in-service educators in his university education classes, as well as with students in K–12 classrooms.

Through the first paradox of defining, Boostrom deconstructs the problem of how the historical development of subject disciplines define thinking in ways that actually contribute to non-thinking in classrooms today. Boostrom shows why efforts to define and measure thinking from the established bodies of knowledge that make up subject disciplines have led to spelled-out processes that students and teachers perform together in mechanical ways that unconsciously produce non-thinking. As Boostrom asserts, “Attempts to clarify and define the concept of thinking almost inevitably diminish our grasp of thinking. The harder we try to nail down thinking, the more it eludes us” (p. 10). Thus, it is not the intention of Boostrom’s book to define thinking but rather to explore how demonstrated understandings about what it means to think are problematic in teaching and learning.

Boostrom explores this point by first taking apart Dewey’s “reflective thinking” and Sir Frederick Charles Bartlett’s “adventurous thinking” (p. 12), to argue that when scholars break down large topics into subsets, such definitions can end up as unintelligible and unconnected composites that do not join to encompass a holistic definition of thinking. Boostrom demonstrates contemporary examples of this practice through teachers’ utilization of Bloom’s taxonomy and Gardner’s multiple intelligences in classrooms. He shows how attempts to break down the complexity of thinking into steps to follow inevitably end up in processes of non-thinking: “This business of digesting information is a practice that depends upon literacy, for part of the nature of a discipline is that it has a history” (p. 48). Boostrom’s review of the history of the liberal arts tradition shows how, in the division of curriculum into subjects to be learned from an established discipline of knowledge, the origins of the differences between skill-building for technical knowledge and the explorative nature of liberal learning have been lost, along with the connections between physical and mental learning and, as such, “Thinking was separated from ordinary life” (p. 51).

In Part II, Boostrom considers the paradox of telling in teaching and learning: “The problem for the educator is to discover both when telling is unavoidable and when it leads to a deflection or undermining or perversion of thinking” (p. 58). To illustrate this point Boostrom addresses, with Louise Rosenblatt’s (1978) transactional theory, what can happen when “the reader contributes to the creation of the work of art. . . . as a reminder that the ways in which habits of mind, structure what we perceive” (p. 58). Using Thurber’s (1938) “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” Boostrom demonstrates how through reading the play “wrong” (p. 58) by applying the principals of the murder mystery genre to a transaction with Macbeth, non-thinking can be encouraged in schools. Focusing on the interconnectedness between showing and telling, Boostrom turns to Dewey’s characterization of the differences between a “statement” and an “expression” (p. 61) to support his analysis that, “We the readers must see the world as it is constructed by the implied author. This leads to a conclusion­—namely, that the acts and statements an author records are some-thing” (p. 64, emphasis in original). Thus, Boostrom argues, a reader cannot get at what a story means contextually unless they can “feel” the author’s own expressions of some-thing.

Boostrom states that telling through stories contributes to non-thinking when attention is turned “away from the text (and the experiences it affords) toward a distilled ‘lesson’ supposedly embedded in the story but separate from it” (p. 74). William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues is referenced for Bennett’s attention to George Washington’s “honesty” in telling his father that he cut down a cherry tree. “Bennett does not comment on the irony that an admittedly fictitious event is used to portray ‘honesty.’ . . . because the text is of no particular interest to Bennett. All that matters is the ‘literal sense’” (p. 74), thus taking the message of the story as important beyond the style with which it was written. Boostrom uses examples such as this one to make the case that teachers may well need to tell more about those stories children read in classrooms, “if children are to learn to think about the stories they are told by all the voices—commercial, political, religious, educational—of our society and our world” (p. 79). Otherwise, telling becomes a transference of facts between a teacher and her students; and, as such, learning becomes searching for information from texts rather than an understanding of the different transactions with texts that lead to thinking for oneself. This kind of telling is seen by many in the educational field to be fair for students because it can be measured as right or wrong (p. 96).

In Part III, Boostrom discusses the paradox of believing as an end point as well as a beginning point in thinking. It is premised that in a society that places such value on truth as the goal of learning, rather than a search for meaning, beliefs become almost unshakable claims in students’ school lives. Boostrom explains the understandings of truth in schools against what Dewey taught, “Truth (Dewey says) can no longer be considered to be merely received; because of what has been achieved technologically and socially, we construct what truths must be created and re-created from the problems encountered within the life of a progressive society” (p. 113). To illustrate this struggle, Boostrom addresses the current debate about including creation science in schools and the problem of the dichotomy between facts and opinions in school curricula. He states, “The assertion of creation science can only be disputed by challenging the interpretation of the documentary evidence. And the interpretation is an opinion, not a fact, which means that it lies outside the system of verification” (p. 119). Boostrom addresses the problem in schools between fact and opinion by positing that teachers concentrate less on “capital-T Truths” (p. 132) and more on helping students to develop their own understandings of the many truths by which we live out our lives.

Boostrom believes that students can benefit from inquiring into the distinctions between learning to receive truths and to seek meanings in our lives. In this frame, “Thinking does not settle anything; it unsettles” (p. 137), which is a part of the reason that non-thinking is so difficult to disrupt. To return to the question that begins Boostrom’s own inquiry, he associates this unsettledness as important to Dewey’s “reflective experience” (p. 139) when students take on thinking for themselves. In light of all the thoughts of others that are out there for students to read, Boostrom concludes that the impetus to think for oneself is possible in the form of Dewey’s “originality of attitude” (p. 147) where a search for meaning becomes a part of who we are as people and how we approach seeking our understandings of our worlds.

As Boostrom well knows, I, as a reader, cannot help but approach my reading of this book from my own constructions of what his writings might offer. I found this book to be dense with examples of non-thought that I have practiced in my own life as a student, as well as in my own classrooms as a teacher. However, the value of this book for all readers is to bring the paradoxes of defining, telling, and believing to the forefront of our own inquiries both inside and outside the classrooms to work on them as dialectics to be understood in the greater contexts of our lives. For, I believe, as the character Syme states in George Orwell’s 1984, if we do not do this work for ourselves, our understanding of what it means to think “will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (Orwell, 1947, p. 57).


Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 862-865 ID Number: 12137, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 12:06:01 PM

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