Critical Exploration

Critical exploration in the classroom explained

In the practice of CEC, students undertake focused inquiries collaboratively: some form of material proving ground is provided against which students can develop and evaluate their own ideas. The teacher’s role primarily involves uncovering students’ perceptions, assumptions, and lines of reasoning and placing these into relationship with the thoughts of other students and with the realities provided by the proving ground.

This triangular relation between proving ground, teacher, and students is based on a Piagetian approach to the study of learning, which was also called critical exploration (Inhelder, 1974). In the same manner that the learning research method does, CEC creates a generative intellectual dynamic that offers the teacher a window into the different ways in which students are approaching a particular subject matter.

In addition to providing teachers with a means of attending to their students’ thinking, CEC provides students with reliable grounds on which they can experiment and evaluate each other’s ideas and claims. In effect, the concretized challenge establishes an experiential context within which shared, evidence-based understandings can be co-constructed by all members of the classroom.

Rather than modifying or evaluating students’ ideas, a teacher fosters students’ ever more sensitive and probing engagement with the materials by directing students’ attention back to them and by elevating the observations and questions of their peers.

The implications of learning research

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 help to shape each person’s conceptual framing. These various interwoven influences can distance any child’s thinking from a teacher’s understandings in different ways.

As a practice, 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 in revealing students’ ideas and providing additional challenges and materials, students are asked to generate, explore, and evaluate their own different perspectives, ideas, and hunches based on the materials before them.

It is in balancing an attention to people’s diverse ways of seeing the world with an insistence on shared standards of observation and reasoning that critical exploration distinguishes itself as a curricular form particularly suited to the work of educating for a pluralistic democracy. For diverse peoples to establish common ground and understandings, they need to learn how 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.

Related Organizations

An educational organization, Critical Exploration Press provides CEC related materials and services, including in-person and online gatherings devoted to the ongoing consideration of CEC as a contemporary curricular practice.

An educational non-profit, Critical Explorers, works with school teachers and students, primarily in the greater Boston area to develop academic investigations and offers teacher workshops. Those interested in further information can contact Alythea McKinney at



Delaney, M. K. & Mayer S. J. (Eds.) (2021). In search of wonderful ideas: Critical exploration in teacher education. Teachers College Press.

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

Inhelder, B., Sinclair H., & Bovet, M. (1974). Learning and the Development of Cognition. Harvard University Press.

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