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Improve student’s critical thinking skills with these 4 teaching strategies

By Isabella Wood on 5 August 2020NSWstaffroomUKstaffroomInnovationPedagogy

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is all about being a good skeptic.

Without sounding too much like a flat-earther, the simple reality is that most information we encounter each day is not what it seems. This is equally true for everything from the words of a book to the messages on our phone, the images we see, the experimental results we gather, what’s on the news and what our leaders tell us. In short, the information we gather from the world around us is always somewhat influenced by the long chain of steps that it takes to get to us. This could be as innocent as an error by the author or as devious as an outright lie intended to steer our choices. But even once the information reaches us, we’re not immune from applying our own world view to it, including whatever prejudices, biases and limitations that might contain.

Critical thinking is the process of understanding this messy chain of information transfer, so that when we encounter new information, we can better appreciate it’s veracity. In other words, to what extent we should trust it and how it should inform our beliefs and actions going forward.

By teaching critical thinking, we hope to equip students with the ability to interpret, analyse, evaluate and infer the considerations upon which we draw meaning from information; considerations like evidence, concepts, methodologies, context, and the biases in between.

We hope that by doing this, students will ultimately be able to make better decisions.

Why is critical thinking so important?

In our modern world it’s getting increasingly hard to trust what you see and hear at face value. From alleged democratic interference to the advent of deepfakes, we’ve skipped right through the Age of Information and landed with a disorienting thud in the Age of Misinformation. More and more, the world has opened up opportunities to exploit its citizen’s inability to practice critical thinking. In its darkest form, a lack of critical thinking exposes us to not only to individual manipulation but societal exploitation. As Martin Luther King Jr. put so eloquently;

‘To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.’

At the softer, less politicised, end of the spectrum, such critical thinking will not only protect students but empower them through their adult lives. Because when it comes to kickstarting careers, studies show there has been 158% increase in the proportion of early career job advertisements demanding critical thinking as a skill.

So now that we’ve set the stakes of the game, let’s take a look at some of the best ways we’ve seen teachers incorporate critical thinking into their classrooms.

4 strategies for implementing critical thinking in education

1. Teach critical thinking explicitly

Although critical thinking is explicitly included in the syllabus of many subjects, many schools have implemented a unified approach, creating programs to specifically promote capabilities like creative and critical thinking, while continuing to filter an application of such capabilities throughout specific subjects.

For many teachers, the thought of carving out time for content that’s not explicitly set out in the already jam-packed curriculum can be daunting, but in reality it can actually pay back many benefits downstream. Having a solid basis in critical thinking means that students will be ready to tackle higher-order questions that require analysis, comparison and evaluation earlier and more readily. If students can tackle with assessing the veracity of information as you’re teaching it, rather than after the fact, it can make for much more productive lessons.

2. Help students identify a critical thinking process

Running with the notion of critical thinking as a self-reflective thought process, take some time in class to step your students through that process. Start by identifying a lack of critical thinking, using the ladder of inference. Developed by Harvard professors Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, the ladder of inference helps students identify how a lack of critical thinking leads to assumptions and eventually actions based on ill-drawn conclusions. Analysing the ladder using a real world scenario will help students to question their own thought processes.

Then move into the critical thinking process with some targeted questioning. Put forward a topic relevant to your coursework, then ask your class questions that inspire critical thinking.


Why...

  • should people care about this?
  • hasn't this changed sooner?
  • does this make people uncomfortable?

What...

  • could have been done differently?
  • would be a counter-argument?
  • can we do to make positive change?

Where...

  • can we get trustworthy information?
  • are there areas for improvement?
  • is change most needed?

When...

  • is doing nothing dangerous?
  • has this happened before?
  • should we take action?

Who...

  • benefits from this?
  • is this harmful to?
  • would be the best group to consult?

How...

  • can we find objective truth?
  • can we implement ethical change?
  • might this benefit/harm others?

3. Question Formulation Technique

Instead of getting students to answer questions, The Question Formulation Technique from The Right Question Institute helps students to ask the questions themselves. Not any old question, but better questions that inspire them to participate more effectively in the decisions that affect them. The institute believes that ‘students who learn to ask their own questions become more curious, take ownership of their learning and demonstrate greater comprehension of challenging content’. You can get free guides and lesson plans by signing up their site. (This isn’t sponsored content, just useful content.) I’ll outline the basic steps here.

  1. The teacher uses a piece of content (eg. a video, an equation, an article) to both kickstart and focus students questions.
  2. Students make a list of questions, either in groups or individually. They don’t stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions and they have to write down every question exactly as it’s stated.
  3. They then work with the questions they’ve produced to improve them by categorizing their questions as closed or open-ended and prioritising the most important ones. Have them select a handful of questions that will help them with their research, guide their work, or help them solve a problem.

4. Inquiry Based Learning

Using the questions formulated in the above technique as a launching pad, have students complete an inquiry based learning project. Of course, to really dive into inquiry based learning we’d need a whole new article. But with the work half done thanks to the Question Formulation Technique, let’s complete the thought. Once your students have their questions ready to go, set them on the path of answering it by researching credible sources. Have them present what they learn in a presentation format, and ask them to defend their findings to the class. After all, critical thinking is nothing without the ability to communicate your conclusions in an effective argument. This last step is crucial in opening up critical thinking as a skill that not only benefits individual students but the civilisation they contribute to.

Now that we’ve rescued critical thinking from the clouds of abstraction, it’s time to set it free in your classroom by implementing select strategies like those above. Or, in the words of Neil DeGrass Tyson, “Inspire students by equipping them with the ability to think critically, communicate their findings effectively, and, more than anything, how to retain a sense of awe and wonder about the world they live in.”

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