What is Critical Thinking? How do we teach it? And how does it fit into great PBL? | Edutopia
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What is Critical Thinking? How do we teach it? And how does it fit into great PBL?

What is Critical Thinking? How do we teach it? And how does it fit into great PBL?

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Laura Thomas in another post in this group mentioned the Critical Skills Classroom model, and this reminded me of one of my favorite topics, both when I teach students and when I teach teachers about PBL—namely, Critical Thinking. Education has been talking about Critical Thinking for centuries it seems, yet do we have a good definition for what it is? More importantly, do we have a good set of tools and ideas with which to teach it? And perhaps most importantly, do we know how to teach it to ALL students, not just the ‘better’ students? I have an article on some of these ideas (at least the definition part) that I would like to share with you, perhaps as a thought stimulator, but prior to that I would be really curious if any of you would like to share your thoughts as they stand currently. Any takers?

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Tom Fullerton's picture
Tom Fullerton
Faculty Associate, Simon Fraser University

Hi Jack,
Appreciate your thoughts. Had a bit of trouble with your link. I thought I'd share this one in case others had the same difficulty.
What and Why 98 from insightassessment.com

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

[quote]...a critical thinker is essentially shopping in the marketplace of ideas, and weighing some of those ideas against each other. [quote]

Hi Kevin,
I love your description of "shopping in the marketplace of ideas." However, I'm not sure it goes far enough. Don't we also want students to contribute their own ideas to this marketplace? And if so, how do we build the confidence and foster the creativity to make that happen?

Joe Dillon's picture

...is to present divergent viewpoints and ask students to see both sides of any issue. I try to present debatable topics to students and I teach my students to generate debatable topics.
I like to anchor this work in reading response. I usually ask students to think about question and answer relationships when they generate questions about a text, and I always try to put a premium on "should" questions that students generate in their reading. By posing these types of questions, the seventh graders in my reading and writing workshop, identify debatable topics. The find them in whole class texts, small group texts or independent texts. We try to see which debatable topics take us beyond the text and get us talking about our lives and issues that are relevant to students.
For my part, I assert that students who can argue both sides of any issue are showing evidence of higher level thinking.

Daniela Arghir's picture
Daniela Arghir
teacher of English as a foreign language in Sibiu, Romania

Thank you, Tom.
[quote]Hi Jack,

Appreciate your thoughts. Had a bit of trouble with your link. I thought I'd share this one in case others had the same difficulty.

What and Why 98 from insightassessment.comCheers,


Cindy Kerr's picture

I agree that each of you have mentioned important areas of critical thinking. Teaching critical thinking necessitates having the student recognize their own process of thinking or their thinking dispositions. Art is a wonderful way to enhance critical thinking skills. First, art is all about making choices and creating meaning out of materials that have no particular meaning. Second, talking about art through artful thinking routines has been shown to develop critical thinking skills. You might want to look at some programs:
1. Artful thinking developed by Shari Tishman and Harvard's Project Zero. http://www.pz.harvard.edu/tc/index.cfm
2. Guggenheim Museum's Learning through Art. http://www.learningthroughart.org/
3. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Thinking through Art

Tishman has also found that teaching these artful thinking routines or dispositions can transfer to thinking in other subject areas, as well.

John Barell's picture
John Barell
Consultant for inquiry, problem solving, critical thinking.

To the above posts on the nature of critical thinking I would add that of John McPeck, that critical though is "a certain skepticism or suspension of assent toward a given statement, established norm, or mode of doing things." So, in work with educators, K-12, i emphasize the important role of asking good questions about claims, such as "All New Yorkers live longer," or "This proposal will bend the cost-curve downward/stimulate employment," or "Fastest 4G network in the US."

It's important for all our students to be able to ask key questions about sources, evidence, assumptions, definitions and bias of all conclusions and claims presented by textbooks, media, adults and other students.

"How do you know?" is a question my mother often modeled for me.

Critical thinking is fostered by inquiry that focuses upon significant problematic situations within our content. From there we move to problem solving, critical/creative thought and, of course, reflection.

What's interesting now is to determine to what degree our students are improving in all of these so-called 21st century skills. "How do we know they're getting better?" over time, during a school year, from elementary to high school? This is what's intriguing now.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

Hi Sophie -

I thought you might enjoy this resource I found on Twitter about Bloom's Taxonomy. It has hyper-linked resources for each part of the pyramid: http://www.usi.edu/distance/bdt.htm. Enjoy!

[quote]To me, critical thinking reflects Bloom's taxonomy, in other words, besides just understanding and remembering information and concepts, people can also apply it to different situations, analyze it using logic, create or synthesize, and evaluate.

Erika, above, makes a good point that kids in many high poverty, high crime areas become very good at these skills for survival's sake. But, no, unfortunately, not all thinking is critical thinking in my opinion.

I took a Critical Skills class that Laura Thomas mentions, and it is indeed a terrific way to integrate all of these critical thinking skills in school.[/quote]

Lucas Cioffi's picture
Lucas Cioffi
Civic Entrepreneur

Hi, Cristina, I agree that class discussions are the key and we find that software can help quiet students find their voice. Combining online and in-person discussions is especially powerful.

For any teachers that are interested, our company donates critical thinking software to K-12 schools. Please do reach out to me if you or your school might be interested: lucas@athenabridge.org

Here's an example of how middle school students in DC were using it recently to discuss the question of "What is Democracy?" http://democracy.onlinetownhalls.com and here's an example of how a high school class in PA was using it in a debate about global warming where students role-played to represent various perspectives: http://onlinetownhalls.com/map/475 Participation in the second conversation is limited to students from that school, but you can sign into either conversation with a username of "tester" and a password of "tester".

This is "conversation mapping" software designed to help people with different perspectives collaboratively map out a complex topic and sort out supporting and opposing points. It facilitates critical thinking by allowing students to respond directly to each other and assess the validity and relevance of each other's statements.

It works for conversations within one classroom, between classes at a single school, and "scales up" for conversations among students at different schools.

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

This is an important discussion for us to have with our faculty. I wrote a blog post on this question a little while back and would like to share it as part of the conversation. You can find it at:


In my post, I pose some questions to begin with. How do we intentionally teach critical thinking skills? How do we know that students are mastering critical thinking skills? What will it look like in the classroom and for the graduate when students have mastered the skills? How should we effectively assess the critical thinking skills we say we value?

I think assessing critical thinking is a challenging endeavor for teachers. Susan Brookhart, in her book Assessing High Order Thinking Skills, does a nice job of providing a structure for building good assessments.

Thank you the post and the thoughtful comments.

Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching

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