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Hilda Taba Critical Thinking Strategies

Curriculum theorist, curriculum reformer, and teacher educator, Hilda Taba contributed to the theoretical and pedagogical foundations of concept development and critical thinking in social studies curriculum and helped to lay the foundations of education for diverse student populations.

Taba was born in a small village in southeastern Estonia at a time when the country was in transition politically. Taba was introduced to Progressive education ideas at Tartu University by her philosophy professor in the period following the Russian Revolution, when John Dewey's ideas about democracy and education were celebrated in Russia and eastern Europe. She pursued her interests in Progressive education and the relationship between democracy and curricula at Bryn Mawr College (M.A. 1927) and Teachers College, Columbia University (Ph.D.1932), where she studied the work of Progressive education pioneers William Kilpatrick, John Dewey, and Boyd H. Bode, to whom she dedicated her dissertation, The Dynamics of Education.

Taba's dissertation established a foundation for much of her subsequent work. Three key ideas in the work are particularly important for curriculum history in the twentieth century. First, she argued that learning and the study of learning should be modeled after dynamic models derived from contemporary physics. Rather than relying on observation, prediction, and measurement of static phenomena, educators should see learning as a dynamic interactive phenomena that is informed by the developing field of cognitive psychology. Thus she established a paradigm that was appreciably different from a simple transmission model of education and evaluation. Second, she argued that education for democracy was a critical component of contemporary schooling and curricula, and that it needed to be experiential, where children learn to solve problems and resolve conflicts together. Her thinking in democratic education foreshadowed constructivist curricula. Third, she argued that educators had to provide conceptually sound curriculum that was organized and taught effectively, and that student understanding had to be evaluated using appropriate tools and processes. This last goal led to her groundbreaking work in evaluating social attitudes in Progressive education curricula.

Over the next four decades, Taba's work as a curriculum theorist developed. The combination of her considerable intellect, her appreciation for democracy, which grew as intellectual freedom in Estonia diminished in the middle years of the twentieth century, her belief in the power of individuals and groups in educational contexts to realize significant social goals, and her expressed commitment to demonstrate empirically the effects of social education established her leadership in curriculum generally and in three major twentieth century projects specifically.


The Eight-Year Study, also known as the Commission on the Relation of School and College, was an ambitious research project that was to evaluate how students from Progressive secondary schools would fare in colleges. Ralph Tyler was responsible for overall evaluation in the Eight-Year Study and he invited Hilda Taba to join him following a meeting at the Dalton School in New York. The significance of the study was that it included curriculum goals that were important to Progressive educators but were not easily measured on standardized tests, such as social responsibility and cooperative behavior.

Taba's contribution to the study was evaluation of social sensitivity, which was related to the general goal of preparing students for effective democratic participation. Using multiple means of evaluation that included group activities, informal conversations, anecdotal records, reading records, and book reviews, Taba delved under the surfaces of social phenomena to identify the attitudes and problems in students' social life that would contribute to a particular phenomena. She tackled a challenging area of social studies curriculum, the measurement of attitudes about race, class, and ethnicity and at the same time provided authentic alternatives to paper and pencil assessment.

Taba's work on evaluation, conducted at the Ohio State University, led to a productive collaboration with Ralph Tyler and the design of a general framework and theoretical rationale for developing curriculum. It also led to a position as director of the Curriculum Laboratory at the University of Chicago in 1938 and her subsequent leadership in intergroup education in the 1940s.

Intergroup Education

In response to racism, anti-Semitism, and perceived threats to national unity, a collaboration was created in 1934 between the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the American Council on Education. This collaboration, focused on the reduction of prejudice and conflict through education, was known as the Intergroup Education in Cooperating Schools Project. Taba developed an association with the project in 1944 when she headed a summer work shop at Harvard that resulted in a yearbook for the National Council for Social Studies titled Democratic Human Relations. She assumed the directorship of the project beginning in 1945, and then served as director of the Center for Intergroup Education at the University of Chicago until 1951.

Taba brought a staff of eight educators together, who fanned out across eighteen sites and seventy-two schools over a period of two years to work with local site faculty on issues of prejudice and discrimination. The Intergroup education project tackled the issues of newcomers, economic instability, housing patterns, and community relations, using typically Taba-type interactive curriculum and processes such as literature groups, conflict resolution, and role playing. The project constitutes a landmark in social education and foreshadowed multicultural education projects of the 1970s and 1980s.

The Taba Curriculum Framework

In 1951 Taba left the Intergroup Education Center to take a position at San Francisco State College, where her third curriculum reform project developed. Working collaboratively with teachers and administrators in Contra Costa County, California, a San Francisco Bay area community, Taba formulated, researched, and wrote about the foundations of curriculum development. Taba and her colleagues from the college and the county schools explicated and documented the complex processes associated with concept formation by children using social studies curriculum. She and her staff organized and implemented staff development for teachers, and documented the processes for research purposes.

Taba's close associate, Mary Durkin, a teacher and curriculum specialist from the Contra Costa County schools, anchored the critical bridge between Taba's theoretical work and her practice of teaching classroom teachers about concept attainment and writing curriculum.

The Taba Spiral of Curriculum Development is a graphic organizer, which was designed to illustrate concept development in elementary social studies curriculum that was used by teachers in Taba workshops in the 1960s. That graphic tool has sustained its utility and is found in curriculum texts in the early twenty-first century. Taba's theorizing and curriculum development processes provided a blueprint for curriculum development in the twentieth century. She comprehended and articulated the complex connections between culture, politics, and social change; cognition and learning; and experience and evaluation in curriculum development–and the significance of all three for teacher preparation and civic education. Her in-service work with teachers in the San Francisco Bay area and in communities around the United States and in Europe left a permanent imprint on curriculum development discourse.


BERNARD-POWERS, JANE. 1999. "Composing Her Life: Hilda Taba and Social Studies History." In "Bending the Future to Their Will": Civic Women, Social Education and Democracy, ed. Margaret Smith Crocco and Orzo Luki Davis Jr. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield.

TABA, HILDA. 1932. The Dynamics of Education. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

TABA, HILDA. 1936. "Social Sensitivity." In Evaluation in the Eight Year Study. Columbus, OH: Progressive Education Association.

TABA, HILDA. 1962. Curriculum: Theory and Practice. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

TABA, HILDA; DURKIN, MARY; FRAENKEL, JACK; and MCNAUGHTON, ANTHONY A. 1971. Teachers' Handbook to Elementary Social Studies: An Inductive Approach, 2nd edition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

TABA, HILDA, and VAN TEL, WILLIAM, eds. 1945. Democratic Human Relations: Promising Practices in Intergroup and Intercultural Education in the Social Studies. Sixteenth Yearbook of the National Council of Social Studies. Washington, DC: National Council of Social Studies.

Hilda Taba (7 December 1902 in Kooraste, Estonia – 6 July 1967 in San Francisco, California) was an architect, a curriculum theorist, a curriculum reformer, and a teacher educator.[1] Taba was born in the small village of Kooraste, Estonia. Her mother’s name was Liisa Leht, and her father was a schoolmaster whose name was Robert Taba. Hilda Taba began her education at the Kanepi Parish School. She then attended the Võru’s Girls’ Grammar School and earned her undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy at Tartu University. When Taba was given the opportunity to attend Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, she earned her Master’s degree. Following the completion of her degree at Bryn Mawr College, she attended Teachers College at Columbia University. She applied for a job at Tartu University but was turned down because she was female, so she became curriculum director at the Dalton School in New York City.


Taba was a student of John Dewey; she wrote her first dissertation after studying with him and wrote a total of seven books. Her dissertation entitled Dynamics of Education: A Methodology of Progressive Educational Thought (1932) focused on educating for democracy. She discussed how children should learn how to relate to one another through democratic relationships. Two other key ideas in her dissertation included how learning should involve dynamic, interrelated, and interdependent processes and how educators are accountable for the delivery and the evaluation of the curriculum. She also believed educational curriculum should focus on teaching students to think rather than simply to regurgitate facts. After working with John Dewey, Benjamin Bloom, Ralph W. Tyler, Deborah Elkins, and Robert Havinghurst, she wrote a book entitled Curriculum Development: Theory and Practice (1962). Taba wrote:

One scarcely needs to emphasize the importance of critical thinking as a desirable ingredient in human beings in a democratic society. No matter what views people hold of the chief function of education, they at least agree that people need to learn to think. In a society in which changes come fast, individuals cannot depend on routinized behavior or tradition in making decisions, whether on practical everyday or professional matters, moral values, or political issues. In such a society, there is a natural concern that individuals be capable of intelligent and independent thought.

Taba explains a process for what educators should teach and how they can accomplish desired student outcomes. In order for teachers to teach effectively, they need to understand the three levels of knowledge. Taba lists them as facts, basic ideas and principles, and concepts. Too much factual information is often presented very quickly, so students do not make connections between the new information and the information stored in their brains. Hilda Taba explains how when facts are simply memorized and not connected to previously known information, students forget the memorized facts within approximately two years. Taba says basic ideas and principles should be selected based on what information children are able to learn at their ages and based on what information has scientific validity. The final level of knowledge, concepts, involves students using knowledge from all content areas to predict outcomes or effects.


Because Taba died in her sixties while she was still an inspiring educator, her students continued her work. Many of her students, who were members of the Institute for Staff Development in Miami, used Taba’s ideas to create four thinking strategies known as the Taba approach. The four strategies are concept development, interpretation of data, application of generalizations, and interpretations of feelings, attitudes and values. Using all four strategies, the Taba approach’s goal is to facilitate students in thinking more efficiently. Based on Taba’s methods, “to think” means “helping them [students] to formulate data into conceptual patterns, to verbalize relationships between discrete segments of data, to make inferences from data, to make generalizations on the basis of data and to test these generalizations, and to become sensitive to such corollary relationships as cause and effect and similarities and differences.”

Taba’s strategies for encouraging students to think focus on the teacher as the mediator rather than the teacher as the lecturer. When utilizing the Taba approach, the teacher leads the discussion but encourages the students to share their opinions and to relate their own ideas to their peers’ ideas. The teacher must not judge the students by their answers and can neither agree nor disagree with their responses. Phrases such as “That’s not quite what I had in mind,” are not acceptable when using the Taba approach. Even positive phrases such as “Correct,” or “Now you’re thinking,” are too judgmental for teachers to say. Along with verbal feedback, the teacher should avoid giving nonverbal cues such as smiling during certain students’ responses and scratching his or her head during other students’ responses. The teacher’s role in the discussion is to encourage the students to expand on their classmates’ ideas or to ask students to clarify their own ideas.


Through Hilda Taba’s teachings and through her books, Taba greatly contributed to American education.[2][3][4] In a 1970 survey of over two hundred educators who had participated in training concerning the Taba approach, nearly all of the educators said the strategies were valuable to their classrooms. Some of the teachers even reported that Taba’s approach to teaching was “the most valuable teaching technique they had ever acquired.”


  1. ^Craig Alan Kridel, Robert V. Bullough, Paul Shaker, Teachers and Mentors: Profiles of Distinguished Twentieth-century Professors of Education, Taylor & Francis, 1996, ISBN 0-8153-1746-8, p59
  2. ^Costa, Arthur L., Loveall, Richard A. (Fall 2002). The Legacy of Hilda Taba. Journal of Curriculum & Supervision, 18, 56-62. Retrieved October 27, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.
  3. ^Trezise, Robert L. (April 1972). The Hilda Taba Teaching Strategies in English and Reading Classes. The English Journal, 61(4), 577-580, 593. Retrieved October 27, 2008, from JSTOR database.
  4. ^Crocco, Margaret Smith, Davis, O.L. (2003). Building a Legacy: Women in Social Education, 1784-1984. In NCSS Bulletin, (pp. 57-58). Washington, D.C. Retrieved October 27, 2008 from ERIC database.