Critical Exploration

Critical exploration explained

Critical exploration is a teaching approach adapted by learning theorist Eleanor Duckworth from developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s ‘clinical method’ and from a method of learning research developed primarily under the leadership of Bärbel Inhelder. In critical explorations, students undertake focused inquiries collaboratively: typically, some form of material proving ground against which students can formulate and evaluate their own ideas is provided.

The teacher’s role primarily involves querying students’ perceptions, assumptions, and lines of reasoning to uncover their internal coherence and to place them into an ever more sensitive relationship with the thoughts of other students and with the realities provided by the proving ground. This triangular relation between the proving ground, 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 teachers with a means of attending to their 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, then, a 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, contemporary learning research has demonstrated 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 interwoven 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 at times additional materials, students are expected to formulate, investigate, and evaluate their own ideas 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 intellectual diversity that is always represented within any classroom. Critical exploration offers one valuable means for meeting this profound challenge while, at the same time, developing the shared commitments and methods essential to establishing democratic understandings.

It is in 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 assumptions and reasoning upon which their claims and commitments rest.

Critical Explorers

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

Read more:

Duckworth, E. (2005).  Critical Exploration in the Classroom.  The New Educator, 1(4), 257-272

Duckworth, E., (2006). “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. New York: Teachers College Press (third edition).

Mayer, S. J., (2012). Classroom Discourse and Democracy: Making Meanings Together. New York: Peter Lang.

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