Prof. Sharon Bailin's RRF Research Activities

July 20, 2017

Integrating an Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking into Disciplinary Instruction at the Postsecondary Level

Prof. Sharon Bailin is a recipient of a grant from the Retirees’ Research Fund (RRF).  The RRF began in 2014 with the aim of supporting on-going research, scholarly activities and dissemination by retirees who formerly held tenured appointments within the Faculty of Education. Dr. Bailin provides a brief report of her RRF research activities.

Dr. Mark Battersby, Professor Emeritus from the Department of Philosophy of Capilano University and I have been investigating how disciplinary teaching can be organized around inquiry. This project investigates how an inquiry approach to critical thinking can be integrated into disciplinary pedagogy at the postsecondary level. The initial focus of this research was largely on how the approach can be instantiated in individual critical thinking courses. For the part of the project funded by the RRF grant, the focus has been on how the approach can also be an effective way to foster critical thinking in specific disciplines and can be integrated into disciplinary pedagogy.

The starting point for our argument is that an important goal of disciplinary instruction is for students to be able to make reasoned judgments using the criteria and modes of reasoning of the discipline. There is evidence, however, that this is not a common outcome of traditional disciplinary instruction (Hestenes, Wells & Swackhamer 1992; Jungwirth 1987; Ferraro & Taylor 2005). The assumption of traditional teaching in the disciplines has generally been that the ability to reason and think critically within a discipline will be acquired automatically by students through learning the discipline, but this does not appear to be the case. We have argued, in contrast, that, in order to be able to make reasoned judgments in an area, reasoning and argumentation need to be an explicit focus of disciplinary pedagogy. This requires an emphasis on both the common aspects of argumentation that transcend disciplinary boundaries and the criteria modes of argumentation that are specific to the area. Knowledge of the arguments on various sides of an issue as well as of the historical, intellectual and social contexts is also essential to making a reasoned judgment in disciplinary contexts. Without a grounding in the debates within the discipline and without an explicit focus on the modes of argumentation which are specific to the area, the modes of argumentation and reasoning in particular disciplines are not likely to be learned.

An aspect of the project has involved investigating how inquiries in specific disciplinary areas can illuminate the common structure and aspects of inquiry and how they are manifested in the particular area, and can also highlight the specific concepts, forms of reasoning, argumentation and criteria which are particular to and dominant in the particular discipline.

An example of an inquiry that we have been developing that exemplifies the integration of an inquiry approach into disciplinary pedagogy is for an ecology course and concerns the assessment of local laws governing logging. It calls upon concepts and criteria dominant in the disciplines relevant to ecological concerns but is built around the guiding questions which we developed to structure inquiry in general:

1.    What is the issue?

2.    What kinds of claims or judgments are at issue?

3.    What are the relevant reasons and arguments on various sides of the issue?

4.    What is the context of the issue?

5.    How do we comparatively evaluate the various reasons and arguments to reach a reasoned judgment?

The funding from the grant was invaluable in enabling us to hire Monica Bhattacharjee, a SFU PhD candidate, as our RA to assist with the research and editorial work for the project. In terms of future research, our work on this project has led us to become interested in inquiry as it takes place in group contexts and to work on developing guidelines for structuring group deliberation.


Ferraro, P. J. & Laura O. Taylor, L. O. (2005). Do economists recognize an opportunity cost when they see one? A dismal performance from the dismal science. Contributions to Economic Analysis and Policy4, 1.

Hestenes, D., Wells, M., & Swackhamer. G. (1992). Force concept inventory. The Physics Teacher, 30, 141–158.

Jungwirth, E. (1987). Avoidance of logical fallacies: A neglected aspect of science education and science‐teacher education. Research in Science and Technology Education5(1), 43–58.