Critical Exploration | Susan Jean Mayer

Critical Exploration

What is critical exploration?

Critical exploration is a teaching approach adapted by learning theorist Eleanor Duckworth (2001, 2006) from developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s ‘clinical method.’ In critical explorations, discussion centers on a specific intellectual challenge that has been represented in concrete form: most often, a reliable material proving ground against which students can develop and evaluate their own ideas is provided.

In order to uncover the thinking of one’s students, a particular type of dialogic style is employed. The teacher queries students’ perceptions, assumptions, and lines of reasoning relative to their internal coherence and their ability to explain represented realities in convincing fashion. This triangular relation between the represented challenge, the teacher, and the students creates a dynamic that offers the teacher a window into the ways in which different students go about making sense of the challenge.

In addition to providing a teacher with a means of attending to students’ thinking, critical explorations provide students with reliable grounds upon which they can collaboratively evaluate each other’s ideas and claims. In effect, the concretized challenge establishes an experiential context within which shared understandings can be forged – not just between the teacher and students, but among students as well.

Rather than evaluate students’ ideas, the teacher fosters students’ intellectual engagement with the challenge according to the terms of an established academic discourse, such as literary analysis or scientific investigation. Students consider each other’s thinking in relation to their own thoughts and to their ongoing observations and explorations of the material proving ground. The complex negotiations that reliably ensue implicitly serve to reveal both the intellectual diversity represented within any classroom and the need for shared standards and methods if collaborative understandings are to emerge.

The implications of learning research

As many educators now realize, research demonstrates that people learn by building webs of associations that lead to the construction of organizing conceptual frames. Not only developmental, but also individual and cultural forces all significantly shape each person’s evolving conceptual frames. These various influences can distance children’s thinking from an adult’s understandings in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The reasoning of a parent or a teacher, as clear as it may seem to another adult, can often overwhelm a child’s own efforts to understand.

These established findings on learning have yet to be successfully translated for the purposes of widespread democratic school reform. Critical exploration offers one valuable tool in this regard. As a teaching approach, critical exploration supports a move toward students’ greater intellectual involvement by nurturing a less teacher-centric discourse dynamic. Although the teacher retains a focal role, continually tracking the students’ investigation and often providing queries and materials, students are expected to formulate and evaluate their own insights and theories.

Current psychological and sociological research on individual, cultural, and developmental differences in the ways people make sense of the world challenges educators to design curricular means capable of revealing the diverse conceptual frameworks represented in any classroom. Critical exploration offers one means for meeting this profound challenge while, at the same time, fostering the shared commitments and methods essential to formulating democratic understandings.

It is by balancing an attention to people’s diverse ways of seeing the world with an insistence on shared means and purposes that critical exploration distinguishes itself as a curricular form appropriate to the purposes of a pluralistic democracy. For if diverse peoples are to establish common ground between them, they must learn to reference human experience in ways that can be broadly appreciated and to articulate the perceptions and assumptions upon which their reasoning rests.

Critical Explorers

A non-profit, Critical Explorers, Inc., works with urban middle school teachers and students in the greater Boston area to develop a variety of history and humanities investigations. Those interested in further information can contact Critical Explorers founder Alythea McKinney at or me at A website is due up in the summer of 2009. 

Read more:

Mayer, S.J.,(2005). “The Early Evolution of Jean Piaget’s Clinical Method.” History of Psychology, 8(4), 362-382.

Mayer, S. J., (2004). “Apprehending the Thought of (All) Others in Classrooms.” In Democratic Responses in an Era of Standardization, 179-198. L. Coia, N. J. Brooks, S. J. Mayer, P. Pritchard, E. Heilman, M. Birch, & A. Mountain, eds. Troy, NY: Educator’s International Press.