Exploring the effects of classroom learning environment on critical thinking skills and disposition: A study of Hong Kong 12th graders in liberal studies

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Contribution: The significance of developing the abilities of modern citizens to efficiently and critically discern and consume the wealth of the information in today’s world has been widely recognized by educators (Forawi, 2016). As stated by Paul in his seminal work, “critical thinking is the essential foundation for education because it is the essential foundation for adaptation to the everyday personal, social and professional demands of the 21st century and thereafter” (Paul, 1995, p. xi). The curriculum reform documents published recently in many countries and regions also consider critical thinking as a key component of their educational objectives (e.g., Australian Department of Education and Training, 2006; Singaporean Curriculum Planning and Development Division, 1998). In recent years, the Hong Kong Education Bureau has exerted great efforts to innovate school curricula. One of the features of the current reform is the emphasis on the cultivation of nine generic skills in all key learning areas (Education Bureau, 2001), namely collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, information technology, numeracy, problem solving, self-management, and study. Another reform has been the inclusion of Liberal Studies as one of the core subjects aside from Chinese Language, English Language and Mathematics in the new senior secondary curriculum, which was implemented in 2009. It is explicitly stated that the course of Liberal Studies aims to develop critical thinking in students (Curriculum Development Council & Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority [CDC & HKEAA], 2007, p. 5). Students are expected to be able to “identify the values underlying different views and judgments on personal and social issues, and apply critical thinking skills, creativity and different perspectives in making decisions and judgments on issues and problems at both personal and social levels” (CDC & HKEAA, 2007, p. 6). Besides, critical thinking has been incorporated into the assessment criteria of Liberal Studies in the Diploma of Secondary Education in Hong Kong. The approaches to teaching critical thinking can be classified into three models: general, infusion, and immersion (Behar-Horenstein & Niu, 2011; Ennis, 1989). Although in past decades extensive work has been done on these three approaches, there is still a lack of research investigating the influence of the classroom learning environment (which is considered as one type of immersion approach) on both critical thinking skills and disposition. To fill in this research gap, this study was conducted to explore the relationships between the classroom learning environment of a Hong Kong Liberal Studies course and the critical thinking disposition and skills of secondary school students. Method: The participants of this study were Grade 12 students from Hong Kong. A total of 41 public secondary schools were invited to participate in project. Eventually, a total of 28 schools participated. A total of 3,914 Grade 12 students responded to the questionnaire, but 45 student questionnaires were excluded because of missing data, so only the data of 3,869 students were included in the final data analysis. Each participant was asked to complete a Chinese version survey, which consisted of three scales adopted from matured assessment tools. The first scale measured the students’ perception of their classroom learning environment of their Liberal Studies lessons; the second probed their disposition of critical thinking; while the third assessed their critical thinking skills. Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses were used to explore the structure of the revised learning environment scale. The Cronbach’s alpha coefficients were calculated for all three scales in the survey as the indicators of their reliability. To investigate the relationship between the learning environment of Liberal Studies and students’ critical thinking disposition as well as skills, Pearson correlation analysis was conducted to develop the hypothesized paths, where only the relationships that generated significant correlation coefficients were maintained. Structural equation modelling (SEM) analysis was then performed to test these paths and estimate their path coefficients. Expected Outcomes: Through combining both exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses, a two-level model of the classroom learning environment for critical thinking with seven dimensions (i.e., Student Negotiation, Challenging Task, Multiple Perspectives, Shared Control, Skeptical Voice, Uncertainty and Personal Relevance) at the first level and three broader aspects (i.e., Pedagogy, Relationship and Content) at the second was generated. Coefficients between all the dimensions of classroom environment and critical thinking disposition were all positively significant, ranging from .352 to .433. Among the three broader factors (i.e., pedagogy, relation, and content), the content-oriented aspect (r=.466, p< .01) of the classroom environment had the strongest correlation with critical thinking disposition, followed by the pedagogy-oriented aspect (r=.432, p< .01) and the relationship-oriented aspect (r=.382, p< .01). Compared with critical thinking disposition, the correlation coefficients between the seven dimensions of classroom environment and critical thinking skills were lower, ranging from .029 to .135. There were five dimensions whose correlations with critical thinking skills were significantly positive, including student negotiation, challenging task, multiple perspectives, skeptical voice and personal relevance. At the same time, the correlations of the other two were not significant although they were positive. Among three broader factors, the pedagogy aspect (r=.105, p< .01) of classroom environment exhibited the strongest correlation with critical thinking skills, followed by the content aspect (r=.069, p< .05) and the relationship aspect (r=.049, p>.05). Based on the Pearson correlation analysis, a model including all the paths with significant correlation coefficients was proposed to further explore the relationships among classroom environment, critical thinking disposition and skills. The results indicate that the model was supported by the data collected in the current study (χ2/df=10.34, p<.01; CFI=.934; PNFI=.791; RMSEA=.049). In sum, the correlation and structural equation modelling analyses indicated that the classroom learning environment had a stronger relationship with critical thinking disposition than skills. Copyright © 2017 ECER.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017


Wang, Z. H., & Cheng, M. H. M. (2017, August). Exploring the effects of classroom learning environment on critical thinking skills and disposition: A study of Hong Kong 12th graders in liberal studies. Paper presented at the ECER 2017: Reforming Education and the Imperative of Constant Change: Ambivalent roles of policy and educational research, Copenhagen, Denmark.


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