A CEC experience asks students to solve a problem, interpret an artifact, or develop and pursue questions about an intriguing object or phenomenon that has been represented in some manner before them. This shared experiential context provides a proving ground against which students can develop and test their own ideas and theories, freeing them from their traditional dependence upon their teacher’s feedback. As the students begin to interact directly with the materials, the teacher queries their thinking in an interested and nonjudgmental manner, asking them to link what they have just said back to what they have observed and to respond to contrasting ideas—as in all forms of Piagetian method.

The work of Critical Exploration in the Classroom moves from a desire to understand students’ understandings, an often complex and delicate endeavor that those who employ the method have come to view as essential to teaching. Other educators may also pursue this aim based on related traditions of practice that share foundational influences from the worlds of democratic pedagogical theory and developmental learning research and theory.

Listening-focused practices such as CEC position student thinking center stage. Such practices are designed to slow discussions down and to complicate them by welcoming unanticipated questions, by opening topics up to the ideas of all, and by probing for the thinking underlying much of what students say and do. In addition, experiences with CEC are designed to challenge students in two distinctive ways: Students are given responsibility both for framing the questions that structure their investigation and for evaluating the ideas and theories that emerge (Mayer, 2012).

Although enactments of CEC can vary in a number of ways, the underlying dynamic always involves:

  • Engaging students with an intellectual challenge;
  • Providing them with the materials they will need to pursue that challenge themselves
  • Following their thinking
  • Insisting that they also follow each other’s thinking;
  • Insisting that everyone refer back to the shared materials in order to support all claims and arguments they make.

Throughout, teachers strive to sustain student interest in the object of study and in the claims and arguments of their classmates while entirely refraining from modifying or evaluating student claims and theories themselves. As the students begin to interact directly with the materials, the teacher attends closely to their unfolding ideas and questions and to the relationships between them, querying their thinking in an interested and nonjudgmental manner and asking them to link what they have just said back to what they have observed.


The interactional dynamic of CEC can be traced to the long years the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget devoted to devising a method that he viewed as capable of exploring the existing ideas and beliefs of the young, focusing both on accessing children’s motivated thought and on introducing as few adult influences and interferences as possible. Following a decade of increasingly unconventional trials, Piaget settled on an entirely unprecedented blend of the naturalistic observation and analysis he had learned in his youth, the diagnostic clinical interview used in psychoanalysis (in which he had been trained as a student at the Sorbonne), and the formalized practical challenges that he had encountered while working in the field of psychometrics (Mayer, 2005).

Although Piaget was not theoretically interested in the progressions in a child’s thought that could occur during applications of his famous clinical method, with time some of his colleagues, including his close colleague Bärbel Inhelder, came to be interested in the implications of Piagetian research for learning theory. These researchers adapted Piagetian method to the study of learning by providing challenges that served to draw children’s attention to inconsistencies that had been found to be common in the reasoning of children at certain ages. They also extended the length of the interactions and conducted several sessions with each child across the course of many weeks.

These researchers were interested in studying learning as it was unfolding. In order to study learning in this way, the researchers realized that their subjects must be in the process of trying to figure something out or to think about something in a new way. In other words, they must actually be learning. By providing materials that allowed children to explore the implications of their reasoning and then attending closely to all that they did and said—at times querying the children’s actions or asking for elaborations in a neutral manner—they found they could reliably inspire their subjects’ interest, attention, and concentration. Inhelder and her colleagues called this methodological adaptation critical exploration (Inhelder et al, 1974).


Eleanor Duckworth, a student of Piaget’s and Inhelder’s, went on to adapt critical exploration into a pedagogical approach, which she now calls Critical Exploration in the Classroom, when she turned to graduate teaching in the early 1980s. As in the case of the learning research adaptation, CEC shares defining Piagetian commitments to accessing and investigating children’s assumptions and patterns of thought on their own terms through the close study of their action and speech and also seeks to inspire new thinking through the deliberate introduction of conceptual provocations and relevant material resources. In addition, CEC provides tools for provoking, following, and supporting the growth of student thought in classrooms.

Over the course of her teaching career, Duckworth has come to see that this fundamental dynamic can be adapted to any subject matter and for students of any age. Originally, Duckworth had led her graduate students in explorations drawn primarily from the sciences and from traditional Piagetian experiments, such as those on conservation, which were also used in the learning research. Duckworth would then have her graduate students teach a few of these same explorations to someone outside the class. For their final projects, she then asked her students to conduct an exploration of their own design, drawing on their own areas of expertise. Over the years, her students have conceived of CECs in every imaginable area of study, gradually broadening the kinds of explorations Duckworth undertook with new groups of students (e.g., Duckworth, ed., 2001).