Food and AgriCultural Transformation — July 18, 2017

Are Critical Thinking Strategies a Missing Piece of the Puzzle in Working with Low-Income Populations?

Critical thinking is by no means a novel concept and the term generally has an identifiable meaning. Although there is often a lack of consensus regarding the definition of critical thinking and the context in which it is used, there is often agreement in terms of the value of critical thinking and what characterizes it. Even if someone is unable to clearly articulate a definition of critical thinking, they generally can attest to its value.

Critical thinking in academic settings is often related to logic and the science of correct reasoning. The emphasis on critical thinking in this context has not waned. Instead, there has been increased interest in critical thinking as we see schools struggle to improve failing test scores and industry make demands for workers who are able to solve the complex problems of the workplace. In short, critical thinking has become an indispensable strategy for educators engaged in both pedagogy and andragogy or adult learning practices.

My research focuses on developing critical thinking skills in low-income families who experience considerable health disparities and who are at increased risk for food insecurity, chronic diseases, morbidity, inadequate quality of care, and mortality. These individuals are daily confronted with complex, value-laden nutrition and health choices. For example, how do I feed my family on a limited income and in a sub-optimal environment?

Critical thinking and the use of critical thinking strategies provide important tools for reasoning, initiative taking, problem-solving, and making sound decisions. Learning to think critically is often regarded as one of the most significant activities of adult life. Research suggests that adults by reason of their many experiences are predisposed to critical thought (Brookfield, 1987). However, predisposition does not necessarily guarantee sound decision making. In many instances, critical thinking skills may not be well developed and opportunities must be provided to foster these skills.

My approach to critical thinking

My work in critical thinking includes providing opportunities for low-income families to analyze and evaluate information, their situation, or their behavior in order to make fully informed decisions while reflecting on their thought processes (Adams, Hausafus, Hendrich 2010). Interventions to increase the offerings of specific vegetables (shown to decrease chronic diseases) in the diets of Head Start children have been successful on two levels:

  • Children were exposed to vegetables and healthy food choices at an early age thereby increasing the potential of establishing these habits throughout the adolescent and adult years.

  • Parents were taught how to solve problems, gather relevant information, provide a rationale for their choices and judge the soundness of their decisions.

How does critical thinking fit into the InFACT mission?

InFACT is involved in several projects among low-income families. As we work with vulnerable children and families to promote access to learning opportunities in nutrition, diet, and healthy choices, it is important to provide opportunities that increase their capacity to define, analyze, and act on their own problems (Aldoory, Braun, Briones, 2015; Lindacher et al 2017). We often forget, or at times need to be reminded, that low-income individuals and vulnerable populations have the best knowledge of their own needs. The use of critical thinking strategies allows us to come alongside these individuals and provide the tools needed for them to define their problems and to arrive at solutions that are in their best interest. Critical thinking should be an integral part of any intervention related to health, diet and the use of income among low-income and vulnerable populations.


Adams, I. K., Hausafus, C. O., Hendrich, S. (2010). A critical thinking approach increases offerings of dark green leafy, yellow/orange, cruciferous vegetables, and tomatoes in the diets of low-income children. The Forum for Family and Consumer Sciences Issues.

Aldoory, L., Braun, B., Briones, R. L. (2015). Empowerment in the process of health messaging for rural low-income mothers: An exploratory message design project. Women & Health, 55:297-313.

Brookfield, S.D. 1987. Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lindacher, V., Curbach, J., Warrelmann, B., Brandstetter, S., Loss, J (2017). Evaluation of empowerment in health promotion interventions: A systematic review. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 1-42.