Critical Thinking Skills Theories Of Crime

This workshop was funded as part of one of HEA Social Science’s strategic priorities 2013 – 14 ‘Active and experiential learning in the Social Sciences'.

This blog post was compiled by Angus Nurse, University of Middlesex (


What is critical thinking?
This seemingly simple question provoked spirited debate at the HEA sponsored Critical Thinking in Action workshop hosted by Middlesex University’s School of law.

Most social science academics doubtless consider critical thinking to be an integral and inherently embedded aspect of their pedagogical practices.  Yet the workshop identified that while educators may believe they are teaching students critical thinking skills, articulating how this is done and ensuring it is done effectively is not so straightforward. The lecture/seminar paradigm continues to dominate law and criminology teaching as do essays and exams as forms of assessment. Yet in one sense these risk being seen as outmoded forms of teaching frequently unsuited to the learning styles of contemporary students.  Today’s students are the first generation to have grown up surrounded by and using  computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones and other digital media, consequentially they have a different thinking and learning style and different brain structures to previous generations (Prensky 2001). 

The research project on critical thinking on which this workshop is based began in 2009 and has continued intermittently since, incorporating focus group and workshop discussions with students and staff in Law and Criminology.  Specific aims of the research are to: 

  1. Increase the employability of undergraduate students by developing and increasing their ability to apply knowledge and theory to complex real-world situations;
  2. Address the needs of vulnerable and failing students by identifying the core skills needed in critical thinking and legal/policy problem solving skills; and
  3. Develop a model for students that will provide them with practical skills in applying theoretical and socio-legal knowledge to complex situations and so far as is possible to develop and test their practical skills in critical thinking and problem solving.

Discussions with staff and students early in the research identified a clear gap between the skills that staff believe students are being taught and developing, and the student perspective on how (and whether) they are developing critical thinking and analytical skills.   This view has consistently been reinforced during the research. The workshop examined these issues; seeking the views of staff and recent students on the teaching of critical thinking and use of experiential learning both inside and outside of the classroom as tools to develop analytical ability in undergraduate students.

The context for the workshop was Middlesex School of Law’s reflection on teaching and learning within its Criminology and Sociology Department, and its examination of experiential learning as a tool to enhance the student experience.  If used effectively, critical thinking teaching and experiential learning can address the needs of vulnerable and failing students who require assistance to develop problem solving and analytical thinking skills.

Prior research by Middlesex staff  has identified that law and criminology students are often not learning the skills intended by staff.  This raises questions about both the teaching approach and the needs of today’s technology-savvy students whose digital knowledge & awareness means they have a different thinking and learning style to previous generations and may well learn in a way not catered for by ‘standard’ teaching.


Delegates at the event included staff from Portsmouth University, the AQA, the HEA, Criminology, Library and Academic Writing staff from Middlesex University and recent Middlesex University Criminology graduates now working as Graduate Teaching Assistants and studying at Masters level.

In the morning Angus Nurse introduced the background to the day and the initial findings of his research since 2009 which identified a clear gap between the skills that staff believe students are being taught and developing, and the student perspective on how (and whether) they are developing critical thinking and analytical skills.  Students identify that they learn subject-specific skills and how to pass assignments or exams but not how to think independently or develop their own analytical ability.  The discussion identified that there is a distinction between thinking in a critical way about a subject and the skills of critical thinking or analytical ability.  One is an integral part of undergraduate study; the other requires some form of dedicated teaching and learning.

Kevin McDonald presented material on the move from discourse-based to practice-based study leading a discussion on the need to engage students in experiential learning as a way of encouraging participation and helping students to care about their learning experience.

This also highlighted how students’ lack of engagement is linked to self-confidence issues and can be a defense mechanism. Discussion highlighted how the lecture/seminar paradigm may, in fact, increase students’ disengagement with their study and the importance of experiential learning not just within but also outside of the classroom.  The anonymity of much lecture-based teaching means that students already struggling and with little ability to reverse any problems with their learning may actively disengage with study or assessment as a way of minimizing the risk and consequences of failure.

Discussion focused on different aspects of student problems raised during the research (e.g. perceived focus on passing assignments rather than developing skills, lack of engagement with teaching methods, poor attendance) and how to address them.…

The afternoon session was based around discussion of techniques for developing critical thinking, particularly the use of case studies as a teaching tool.  The discussion highlighted the value of using case studies within criminology as they allow students to explore real-world criminal justice issues and can be based on staff research, staff experience as practitioners or contemporary criminal justice issues discussed in the media.  In particular, case studies allow students to explore the analytical thinking process and not just right or wrong answers by participating in and reflecting on the process by which they weigh evidence and information and reach conclusions.…

The discussion highlighted the time-consuming nature of developing and using such tools and that while they hold value they may not be suitable for all courses. 

Future planned work includes: 

1)    dissemination of our critical thinking research thus far (including discussions arising from this event) via journal article(s) for publication in ELiSS (and other journals as appropriate);

2)    empirical research with students and staff at Middlesex University to further explore the question of what is critical thinking and how should critical thinking and problem solving skills be taught to undergraduates; 

3)    consultancy/outreach work with the AQA concerning the development of the A' level critical thinking qualification or other qualification suitable for preparing college students for the demands of university study; and

4)    analysis of how placements (via our placements and internship modules) can further develop critical thinking by way of experiential learning outside of the classroom.

Middlesex’s Department of Criminology and Sociology has recently set up a number of working groups as part of a revised governance structure.  These include Working Groups looking at Teaching and Learning and The Student Experience.  The Department is also initiating a monthly research incubator which provides a forum for discussing research on teaching and learning. Our critical thinking and experiential learning research will feed into these groups and their review of assessment and teaching practices.  A further event following on from the work of this workshop and our subsequent research will be considered.


We invite readers to comment on and give ideas on the following question: 

What is critical thinking and how should it be developed in undergraduate social science teaching?

If you would like to contribute, please use the 'leave a reply' facility below.

Critical Consciousness Theory focuses on the role of oppression and privilege in creating and sustaining social and individual dysfunction.1–4 Social dysfunction may include disproportional levels of unemployment, disease, crime, homelessness, marginalization, drug traffic, and/or lack of access to services in a community. Individual dysfunction might be substance use disorders and HIV/HCV risk behaviors, and criminal behavior. From a critical consciousness perspective, dysfunction is perceived as a direct consequence of structural and internalized inequality.3–5

Structural inequality is a system of power imbalances maintained by social norms, organizations, policies, and individual behaviors informed by Eurocentric ideologies that prevent marginalized groups of people from enjoying the same rights and opportunities afforded to the general population.3,4,6,7 For the purposes of our work, structural inequality is composed of two domains: privilege and oppression. Whereas structural inequality is the presence of privilege and/or oppression, structural equality is the absence of privilege and oppression. Privilege and oppression both have internal and external forms. For instance, believing that one is genetically superior or inferior when compared others is a form of internal privilege or oppression. An example of external oppression includes a store clerk suspiciously watching a customer dueto the color of his/her skin.

Incarceration practices in the United States are an excellent example of structural inequality and, specifically, of external oppression: a disproportionate number of African Americans are incarcerated due to racial profiling, increased police presence in low-income neighborhoods, increased exposure to law enforcement through open air drug markets and harsh mandatory sentences for drug possession.8 Their ability to resume productive lives in the community is sharply limited by privileged legislators, employers, and community residents who deny them access to welfare support, limits their ability to compete for certain types of jobs, apply for financial aid to attend school, and to enjoy basic human rights.8

The dominant culture in the United States has institutionalized rules and engendered biases against convicted felons that keep them out of mainstream society. External privilege is the opposite of external oppression in that the mainstream’s culture and rules provide some advantaged status to a group of people based on some common characteristic (e.g., socio-economic status, sexuality, race, or gender) regardless of merit.9 This imposed advantaged status perpetuates social, economic, and/or political advantage.10 It is important to note that oppression and privilege usually go hand-in-hand in that the privilege of some results in the oppression of others.

In addition to the external forms of oppression and privilege, internalized forms also exist. We use internalized privilege to denote the process by which a person comes to believe and accept the generalized positive messages, beliefs and values that the dominant culture attaches to one’s membership group. For example, a man may believe that he deserves higher pay than a woman in the same job because he has internalized the dominant culture’s belief that the public sphere is a man’s domain. In contrast, internalized oppression is the process by which a person internalizes the negative messages, beliefs, and values that mainstream society attaches to their member group.4,11 Internalized oppression can be manifested in ways that are usually self-destructive or harmful to one’s community.

According to Paulo Freire,2 ignorance is a key tool in the maintenance of oppression. Freire developed Critical Consciousness Theory in response to the illiteracy rates of impoverished Brazilian people.2 Ignorance is more than a lack of knowledge; it is also a lack of critical thinking skills. Knowledge serves a purpose within a society. Often, that purpose is to uphold conventional, often oppressive, ways of thinking. One of the purposes of traditional schooling is to create buy-in to the mainstream. Acquiring knowledge without critical thinking skills may indoctrinate a person into an oppressive culture. In addition to the acquisition of knowledge, critical thinking skills are necessary to resist oppression.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the art of thinking skeptically about information and knowledge,13 the ability to question the source, purpose and potential uses of information and to choose between alternative theories based on evidence. There are many ways in which we acquire knowledge, including personal experience (i.e., trial and error or experimentation) and vicarious knowledge (i.e., the experience of others and knowledge that is passed down). Much of what we think we know is incorrect or does not accurately reflect “reality,” often because our thinking process is flawed. Human thought is often clouded by emotions, stereotypes and covert messages. As a result, it tends to be biased, partial, uninformed or prejudiced.13 Critical thinking reaches beyond mere schooling or literacy to question the reasons for and consequences of thinking certain ways. The skill of critical thinking is what allows people to gain an understanding of who creates knowledge and who benefits from that knowledge within systems of oppression. This awareness is one dimension of critical consciousness.

Critical Consciousness: The Construct

Critical Consciousness refers to the process by which individuals apply critical thinking skills to examine their current situations, develop a deeper understanding about their concrete reality, and devise, implement, and evaluate solutions to their problems. In Community Wise, critical consciousness is a key ingredient for positive behavior change. It has two components: anti-oppressive thinking and anti-oppressive action. Anti-oppressive thinking means developing a deeper understanding of structural and internalized oppression. Anti-oppressive action means collaborative efforts to overcome and dismantle structural and internalized oppression. Developing a critical awareness of systems of privilege and oppression is necessary, because without this awareness, one cannot take action. Critical thinking and the anti-oppressive thinking of critical consciousness work together, because oppression involves controlling information, and it requires uninformed thought. Without the ability to think critically, a person cannot develop anti-oppressive thinking.

The other key ingredient of critical consciousness is anti-oppressive action. Anti-oppressive action occurs at the individual and community levels. The individual can harness resources and work with others to minimize oppression in the community through personal development and community organizing (e.g., volunteering at a community organization, helping disseminate information, engaging in the political process). In order for anti-oppressive action to occur, the entire community must be able to think critically and develop community capacity. Community capacity refers to the community’s ability to effectively draw upon their existing strengths and resources in order to address community problems. Strengths and resources include community members’ participation in community action, empowerment, leadership, skills, resources, understanding of community history, community power, and critical reflection.13–15

Critical Consciousness Development

The development of critical consciousness happens through group dialogue, participatory action, and empowerment. When people develop critical consciousness, they come together to develop and apply critical thinking skills to discussions about their communities, how community conditions impact them, and how they can join in taking action to improve their lives and the lives of their communities. The dialogue goes beyond a simple discussion of personal opinions. It involves the application of critical thinking skills, active listening, and open minds. Through dialogue, it is expected that people will learn about themselves, particularly about how they think and how they limit themselves through deeply held assumptions and beliefs that reflect internalized oppression.5 During critical consciousness–raising, people are encouraged to challenge the forces of oppression that are identified and channel their feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration into anti-oppressive action.

As part of the process of developing critical consciousness, people are expected to identify and join community organizations that address issues that “speak to them.” People learn through direct involvement how to work collectively to achieve a community objective and how to build social connections. Activities may include: attending community meetings, joining organizations as members, creating new businesses that serve community needs, fundraising, volunteering for community oriented events and work, and participating in local politics. People are encouraged to engage their peers in Change Talk and to develop support groups. By involved themselves in consciousness-raising dialogues, people can form new identities and begin to change the way they see themselves, the world around them, and their ability to improve themselves and their own communities.

For more information, go to Paulo Freire Institute in Brazil, Paulo Freire Institute in the US, Paulo Freire Institute in the United Kingdom.


  1. Freire P. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Company; 2000:164.
  2. Freire P. The banking concept of education. In: D. Bartholomae, & A. Petrosky., ed. Ways of reading. 7th ed. New York: St. Martins Press; 2005:255-267.
  3. Mullaly B. Challenging oppression: A critical social work approach. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press; 2002:232.
  4. Chronister KM, McWhirter EH. An experimental examination of two career interventions for battered women. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 2006;53(2):151-164.
  5. David E. Internalized oppression, psychopathology, and cognitive-behavioral therapy among historically oppressed groups. Journal of Psychological Practice. 2009;15:71-103.
  6. Windsor L, Dunlap E, Golub A. Challenging controlling images, oppression, poverty, and other structural constraints: Survival strategies among African-American women in distressed households. Journal of African American Studies. 2011;15(3):290-306.
  7. Windsor L, Benoit E, Dunlap E. Dimensions of oppression in the lives of impoverished black women who use drugs. J Black Stud. 2010;41(1):21-39.
  8. Alexander M. The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press; 2010.
  9. Adam BD. The survival of domination: Inferiorization and everyday life. New York: Elsevier; 1978.
  10. Paul R, Elder L. Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall; 2002.
  11. Zimmerman MA, Israel BA, Schulz A, Checkoway B. Further explorations in empowerment theory: An empirical analysis of psychological empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology. 1992;20(6):707-727.
  12. Zimmerman MA. Empowerment theory: Psychological, organizational, and community levels of analysis. 2000.
  13. Perkins DD, Zimmerman MA. Empowerment theory, research, and application. Am J Community Psychol. 1995;23(5):569-579.
  14. Campbell C, MacPhail C. Peer education, gender and the development of critical consciousness: Participatory HIV prevention by South African youth. Social Science & Medicine. 2002;55(2):331-345.
  15. Orr M, Rogers J, eds. Public engagement for public education”: Joining forces to revitalize democracy and equalize schools. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; 2011.

Critical Consciousness Theory


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