Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

Teaching Critical Thinking Skills
The Editorial Team February 27, 2023

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The pervasiveness of social media has significantly changed how people receive and understand information. By steering people to content that’s similar to what they have already read, algorithms create echo chambers that can hinder critical thinking. Consequently, the person may not develop critical thinking skills or be able to refine the abilities they already possess.

Teachers can act as the antidote to the algorithms by strengthening their focus on teaching students to think critically. The following discusses how to teach critical thinking skills and provides resources for teachers to help their students.

What is critical thinking?

Oxford: Learner’s Dictionaries defines critical thinking as “the process of analyzing information in order to make a logical decision about the extent to which you believe something to be true or false.” A critical thinker only forms an opinion on a subject after first understanding the available information and then refining their understanding through:

  • Analysis
  • Comparisons with other sources of information
  • Evaluation
  • Reflection

A person who is capable of critical thought relies entirely on scientific evidence, rather than guesswork or preconceived notions.

Key critical thinking skills

There isn’t a definitive list of key critical thinking skills, but Bloom’s Taxonomy is often used as a guide and illustration. It starts with base skills, such as remembering and understanding, and rises to optimal skills that include evaluating and creating.

Bloom's Taxonomy - Cognitive Domain pyramid chart. Created in 2001. Source: University of Florida
Source: University of Florida
  • Remembering: Recalling specific facts
  • Understanding: Grasping the information’s meaning
  • Applying: Using the information in a new but similar situation
  • Analyzing: Identifying connections between different source materials
  • Evaluating: Examining the information and making judgments
  • Creating: Using the information to create something new

Promoting critical thinking in the classroom

A Stanford Medicine study from 2022 finds that one quarter of children aged 10.7 years have mobile phones. This figure rises to 75% by age 12.6 and almost 100% by age 15. Consequently, children are routinely exposed to powerful algorithms that can dull their critical thinking abilities from a very young age. 

Teaching critical thinking skills to elementary students can help them develop a way of thinking that can temper the social media biases they inevitably encounter. 

At the core of teaching critical thinking skills is encouraging students to ask questions. This can challenge some educators, who may be tempted to respond to the umpteenth question on a single subject with “it just is.” Although that’s a human response when exasperated, it undermines the teacher’s previous good work.

After all, there’s likely little that promotes critical thinking more than feeling safe to ask a question and being encouraged to explore and investigate a subject. Dismissing a question without explanation risks alienating the student and those witnessing the exchange.

How to teach critical thinking skills

Teaching critical thinking skills takes patience and time alongside a combination of instruction and practice. It’s important to routinely create opportunities for children to engage in critical thinking and to guide them through challenges while providing helpful, age-appropriate feedback. 

The following covers several of the most common ways of teaching critical thinking skills to elementary students. Teachers should use an array of resources suitable for middle school and high school students. 

Encourage curiosity

It’s normal for teachers to ask a question and then pick one of the first hands that rise. But waiting a few moments often sees more hands raised, which helps foster an environment where children are comfortable asking questions. It also encourages them to be more curious when engaging with a subject simply because there’s a greater probability of being asked to answer a question.

It’s important to reward students who demonstrate curiosity and a desire to learn. This not only encourages the student but also shows others the benefits of becoming more involved. Some may be happy to learn whatever is put before them, while others may need a subject in which they already have an interest. Using real-world examples develops curiosity as well because children can connect these with existing experiences. 

Model critical thinking

We know children model much of their behavior on what they see and hear in adults. So, one of the best tools in an educator’s toolbox is modeling critical thinking. Sharing their own thoughts as they work through a problem is a good way for teachers to help children see a workable thought process they can mimic. In time, as their confidence and experience grow, they will develop their own strategies.

Encourage debate and discussion

Debating and discussing in a safe space is one of the most effective ways to develop critical thinking skills. Assigning age-appropriate topics, and getting each student to develop arguments for and against a position on that topic, exposes them to different perspectives. 

Breaking classes into small groups where students are encouraged to discuss the topic is also helpful, as small groups often make it easier for shy children to give their opinions. The “think-pair-share” method is another strategy that helps encourage students hiding out in class to come out of their shells.

Provide problem-solving opportunities

Creating tailored problem-solving opportunities helps children discover solutions rather than become frustrated by problems they don’t yet understand. Splitting classes into groups and assigning each an age-appropriate real-world problem they can analyze and solve is a good way of developing critical thinking and team working skills. Role-playing and simulation activities are engaging and fun because the children can pretend to be different people and act out scenarios in a safe environment.

Teach children how to ask the right questions

Learning how to ask the right questions is a vital critical-thinking skill. Questions should be open-ended and thought-provoking. Students should be taught different question stems, such as:

  • “What if …?”
  • “Why …?”
  • “How …?”
  • “Can you explain …?”
  • “What would happen if …?”
  • “What do you think about …?”

Teachers should be aware of students who don’t use these stems. A gentle reminder of how to phrase a question can impact the answer received.

Encourage independent thinking

Critical and independent thinking are partners that are more effective together than either can be apart. To encourage independent thinking, teachers should allow children to pick some of their own topics of study, research, and projects

Helping students identify and select different ways to complete an assignment can build their confidence. They should be persuaded to think of as many solutions to problems as possible, as this can open their minds to a wider scope of opportunities.

Provide feedback

Constructive feedback is a crucial part of the learning process. The following list summarizes key strategies that teachers can apply to encourage students through feedback:

  • Identify what the child did well and what needs improving.
  • Provide feedback as soon as possible after the task or assignment.
  • Use positive and encouraging language devoid of criticism or negative language.
  • Offer specific suggestions for improvement.
  • Provide positive and negative feedback and focus on how to progress without dwelling on mistakes.
  • Ensure the feedback is easy to understand and give examples if necessary.
  • Be consistent with feedback for all students to avoid being seen as having favorites.
  • Listen to the student’s responses to feedback and be open to their perspective.

A mind muscle

Finally, critical thinking is a mind muscle. If it is not exercised, it gets weak, and intellectual laziness takes its place. Teachers might consider asking students to present instances of how they used critical thinking outside of the classroom, which provides practice and reminds the students that these skills aren’t only for the classroom.

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