Critical thinking skills truly are an increasingly important element of education.
While everything from our day-to-day work to all that’s in between employs thinking critically, teaching critical thinking skills can often be a challenge.
The reason critical thinking can be difficult to teach and grasp is that it requires students to set aside assumptions and question topics from a ‘blank page’ to learn to distinguish fact from opinion when exploring a topic.
Students develop critical thinking skills at different ages. Much like a muscle, it is something that can be cultivated and developed with a little practice and hard work.
This does not mean watering down the curriculum. Rather, it involves teaching students to think critically and understand how the learning process works.
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the analysis of facts and information to form a judgement. It is essentially the ability to objectively analyze information and draw a rational conclusion. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective thinking. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities as well as a commitment to overcome native egocentrism and sociocentrism.
It also involves gathering information on a subject and determining which pieces of information apply to the subject and which do not, based on deductive reasoning.
Critical thinking engages students in reflective and independent thinking. Students who think critically have the ability to:
- Understand the logical connections between ideas
- Analyze, compare and contrast the information to make decisions
- Identify, construct and evaluate arguments
- Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
- Solve problems systematically and come up with different solutions
- Identify the relevance and importance of ideas
- Reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values
How to Exercise Critical Thinking in Your Classroom?
Critical thinking has been defined in a variety of complex ways, but for students who are new to the concept, it can be summarised as “thinking and judging for yourself.” It entails clear, rational, logical and independent thinking. It emphasises practising problem-solving skills that are free of bias and egocentric tendencies.
Critical thinking can be applied to any subject, problem or situation you choose. The questions here are meant to be versatile and be applied to a range of topics. However, note that the list presented is not exhaustive, but rather a starting point –
The following are the qualities of strong critical thinkers:
- Inquisitiveness about a wide variety of topics
- A desire to learn more and remain well informed
- Attentive to opportunities to apply critical thinking
- Open-mindedness regarding divergent worldviews
- Being considerate towards different options and viewpoints
- Attentiveness to potential future occurrences in order to anticipate their consequences
- Understanding the opinions of other people
- Impartiality in evaluating arguments and appraising reasoning
- Face one’s own biases, prejudices and egocentric tendencies with honesty
- Prudence in suspending, making decisions or altering judgments
- Confidence in one’s own abilities to reason
- Willingness to reconsider and revise views when reflection suggests that change is essential
How to Promote Critical Thinking in Students?
Teaching your students to think critically takes practice. But, students who can think critically grow into lifelong problem solvers. Rather than focusing on facts and figures, they can take information and analyze it, draw conclusions, form and defend opinions with data to back it up, reflect on their work and approach problems in a systematic way.
Critical thinking helps students recognize different contexts and points of view. Ultimately, interpret information, produce new ideas based on sound evidence and then develop an explanation.
You can offer students problems to be solved and opportunities to make decisions to practice their critical thinking skills. Once students offer solutions and make decisions, they must be given a chance to reflect on what made them successful or why they failed. Establishing a routine of observation, analysis, interpretation, conclusion and reflection in each academic discipline improves students’ critical thinking skills, which they will need in the real world.
But, where does it begin in the classroom? And how do we promote critical thinking in students?
Critical thinking starts by asking questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no and critical thinkers start by asking questions about whatever is in front of them. They consider cause and effect. For example, If this, then what? If that, then how will the outcome differ?
Students who think critically understand that every action has a consequence and they think about all possible outcomes of decisions before they make them.
Asking questions, especially open-ended questions, gives students a chance to apply what they’ve learned to new concepts and build on prior knowledge. Open-ended questions promote discussions, inquiry and problem-solving. It also allows students to think on their feet and boosts self-esteem by providing an opportunity for students to express themselves in front of their classmates.
So how do we do this?
For instance, we must work on in-depth questioning strategies and ask questions that get students to think vigorously. Allow for answers with sound reasoning and then word conversations and communication to shape students’ thinking.
When you are asking students basic questions and they provide a solution, try some of these to promote further thinking:
- Could you elaborate further on that point?
- Will you be able to express that point in another way?
- Can you give me an illustration?
- Would you give me an example?
- Can you provide more details?
- Could you be more specific?
- Is there another way to look at this question and do we consider that?
It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
– Albus Dumbledore
Since a substantial part of promoting critical thinking skills revolves around applying knowledge and evaluating solutions, you must encourage decision-making as much as possible. Decision-making opportunities in the classroom enable students to apply what they have learned to different situations, solve genuine problems, weigh the pros and cons of a variety of solutions and then decide which ideas work best. It will also help students be charged with continually examining, applying, and challenging their learning.
Following are the three most important criteria for good decision making:
- Values – What your students value determines their behavior. Their beliefs produce attitudes that produce feelings and feelings lead to behavior.
- Experience – Students learn to make decisions through experience. Reflecting on the choices, however, helps them determine if a decision is good or bad.
- Common Sense – Common sense, or what your students already know, is a key component in choosing one path versus another. Encourage your students to use the information available to them and what they know to make the best decision.
Decision making is a process that must be learned. Therefore, you must empower students to be able to make decisions and good choices with easy to use strategies and provide them with opportunities to try out those strategies in the classroom. For example, encourage them to connect with their favourite cartoon character or superhero sagas to analyze the decisions that their favourite characters make.
Here are a few ‘simple steps’ to encourage decision making in your classroom:
- Pause and identify the need to make a decision
- Think about the different choices
- Create a Pro and Con list
- Reflect on the decisions
- Try it out
Imagination and creativity are the traits that fuel critical thinking in students. When designing learning experiences, teachers should seek out new ways for students to use the information to create something new. Teachers must also plan and frame the curriculum and give students options, voice and choice in order to enable them to be creative.
Bloom’s Taxonomy ranks synthesis (creativity) as one of the topmost skills because any individual must use all of the other cognitive skills in the creative process. Since, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, creating is the highest order of thinking, it should be at the forefront of all learning environments and the final goal. When students create what they imagine, it puts them in the driver’s seat.
Art projects are an excellent way to do this. Students can also construct inventions, write a story or poem, create an audio or video presentation – the sky’s the limit
Here are four things that help to develop creativity in students:
Develop learning activities that allow students to explore their creativity in relevant, interesting and worthwhile ways
- Embrace creative solutions as part of learning, value their creative ideas and reward it
- Incorporate cognitive and emotional functioning to help creativity flourish
- Use a creativity model –
- Mess-finding – Identify a goal or objective
- Fact-finding – Gathering data
- Problem-finding – Clarifying the problem
- Idea-finding – Generating ideas
- Solution-finding – Strengthening & evaluating ideas
- Acceptance-finding – Plan of action for Implementing ideas
- Consider assessments and homework that uses divergent and convergent thinking
- Use cultural artefact and establish expressive freedom
- Tap multiple intelligences through incorporating art, music and culture in classroom lessons
Add-on, some pro-tips on teaching creativity explicitly –
- Being disciplined or self-motivated.
- Giving responsibility to students. Have them develop their own projects
Analyze With an Open Mind:
Analyzing information with an open mind is another key pillar to promote critical thinking in students. Critical thinkers are open and receptive to all ideas and arguments, including those with which they may disagree. They reserve judgment on a message until they have examined the claims, logic, reasoning and evidence used.
Critical thinkers are fair-minded and understand that a message which differs from their own opinion is not inherently wrong or faulty. They remain open to the possibility of changing their view on an issue when logic and evidence supports doing so.
There are countless benefits of teaching perspectives and helping your students analyze information with an open mind. Such as,
- Embrace different points of view
- Before making any important decision, listen to and consider the opinions of others
- Recognize new ideas and experiences which will broaden their mind and challenge their thinking capabilities
- Understand mistakes or failure leads to a deeper understanding and emphasis on learning
- Be eager to learn new things and build on existing knowledge, even if it challenges existing beliefs
- Search for alternatives before settling on an answer
- Be an effective team player and collaborator
- Gain trust through fair opinion on issues
- Handle constructive feedback and recognize that they learn from their mistakes
To help your students view the world with an open mind, surround them with cross-cultural perspectives and values. Create an environment where students can actively pose thoughtful questions and spur discussions. An environment that will help them embrace new perspectives while developing and learning from their own experiences.
Take a moment to think about which topics in your lesson plan could be fruitful for discussion?
Try to be as aware as possible of the filters and biases your students may have towards any real-world scenario and turn them off.
Question everything during this step –
- Are they being objective?
- Are they speculating enough?
- Did they assume anything?
- Do they know it to be absolutely true?
- What are the facts?
- Are they considering the situation from a different point of view?
- What could be done differently next time to be more inclusive?
- How could it have helped if she/he was more open-minded?
Critical thinkers are more interested in communicating solutions than in placing blame, complaining or continuing to talk about the problems. Whether students use it for gathering information or convincing that the conclusions they have drawn are correct, good communication is imperative in the process to promote critical thinking.
In some situations, it might seem easier to just provide the student with the answer – but this will not promote critical thinking. Students must find their own answers and communicate them with others. Encourage students to communicate their ideas and information with peers and think for themselves.
Communicating solutions will also help students learn to identify good sources and bad sources, make logical conclusions and develop new theories to make the right choice.
To get started, once students reach a conclusion, provide them with the opportunity to communicate and implement a solution.
It will help develop compassion, empathy and diplomacy to interpret that not everyone has thought the situation alike. And, will also aid to analyze the different levels of understanding and communicate solutions in a way that everyone can understand.
Brainstorming, a time-honoured tradition and an excellent learning tool. It’s also an excellent critical-thinking exercise, especially when paired with visual elements that bring original thinking and classroom discussions to life. It helps students explore and expand their ability to think critically and laterally.
As brainstorming actively involves students, it also aids the process of learning and improves academic performance.
Brainstorming in the classroom motivates students to freely express their ideas and thoughts on a subject as well as it helps students to –
- Find an innovative solution to solve a problem or find an answer
- Benefit from the ideas of others through the development and build on them
- Emphasis on cohesion, build relationships and assess the views of others
To promote critical thinking, allow frequent brainstorming activity. Regardless of the subject, have students analyze what they’ll be doing, learning or reading – before actually starting each lesson plan. Ask lots of questions, like “What do you think this book will be about?” Or “Tell me two things you think you will be learning in this lesson?” However, when students collaboratively brainstorm, you will be surprised by different experiences – from awesome idea-generating sessions to complete chaos.
Brainstorming may seem like an unstructured activity, however, here are the steps to conduct effective brainstorming to promote critical thinking –
- Select a leader and a scribe in each group of students
- Define the problem or idea to be brainstormed. Ensure that each student is clear on the topic being explored. Pick a topic and ensure that you –
- Make the prompts clear and simple
- Brainstorm about real-world issues
- Brainstorm about other classmates’ perspectives
- Encourage discussion and ideas and not winning or losing
- Set up the rules for the session. It may include:
- Letting the leader have control
- Allowing everyone to contribute
- Discontinuing evaluation of ideas until all ideas are gathered
- The validity of all contributions
- Recording each answer, unless it is a repeat
- Setting a time limit
- Write all the ideas down and organize and make sure not to evaluate or criticise any answers until the brainstorming is complete
- Begin evaluating the responses. Here are some initial qualities to look for when examining the responses include:
- Look for answers that are repeated or similar
- Group similar concepts together
- Eliminate responses that definitely do not fit
Critical thinking is a skill, and just like any other skill, it can be taught, learnt and improved upon through practice.
But to ensure each and every student finds the opportunity to acquire and hone critical thinking skills, you must encourage a spirit of inquiry in classrooms.
Teaching critical thinking as a mindset rather than merely a skill can help it become a kind of habit. Put another way, critical thinking skill comes more naturally in some states of mind such as playful, safe, curious and empowered. Rather than at a time when a student is more directed, monitored, forced and evaluated.
As you continue to work through lesson planning, curriculum design and providing high-quality instruction, keep in mind these key points, strategies and examples of critical thinking.