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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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?

Related Tags: Project-Based Learning
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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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Kevin Gant's picture

As I coach teachers about fostering Critical Thinking, I have explained it this way: first, the word "critical" could mean "essential", but I tend to prefer "critical" that has the same word root as "critique". This helps me frame the notion that a critical thinker is essentially shopping in the marketplace of ideas, and weighing some of those ideas against each other. So, if there is a problem that has many avenues for solution, the critical thinker will consider those avenues and their relative merits before further moving along the problem-solving process. This skill is quite important in a project-based environment.

So...as a teachers, I think we have to ask ourselves, "Do the assignments I give to students provide the opportunity for multiple possible solutions?" If we only ask questions that yield a single answer, it is likely we are not developing critical thinking skills in our students. If we teach students that there is only one way to answer a question, then we are probably not developing those skills either.

But let's say that you do have rich questions or problems that your students must solve... the next step is to prompt them to consider that there are multiple pathways to the solution, and they should articulate more than one way to solve. Without this sort of prompt, then students may take the path of least resistance, and settle for the first possible solution that comes to mind.

Hence, I would suggest that critical thinking is closely tied to divergent thinking as well. One must have multiple ideas before one can consider relative merits.

What do you think?

(a quick shout out to Tristan DeF, of whom I am a fan)

Michelle King's picture
Michelle King
Staff Development Director, Coppell ISD, Coppell, TX

I'm intrigued by all this discussion. Particularly since we,
1) have a New Tech Foundation model high school,
2) are studying how best to utilize PBL in all of our campuses and
3) have just completed a Middle School Strategic Plan where one of our tactics is "We will equip students with all of the necessary tools to be successful in an everchanging society".

As the Staff Development Director, I am intersted in providing engaging learning experiences for teacher/facilitators so they can be equipped to provide/embed critical thinking skills in student learning experiences.

please share your comments and thoughts.

Mike's picture

Thinking gets a bad name these days, as education "experts" pile steaming heaps of jargon upon it. The habits of mind that deepen one's thinking haven't changed since Socrates. All the modern contrivances and conveniences merely provide a different environment for thought. A classic education remains the best way to build thinking because within it one can find the marriage of knowledge and wisdom. Replacing traditional scholarship with testing schemes and jargon-based pop curriculum only degrades thought, and dumbs down the culture.

Kevin Gant's picture

While many of the habits of mind developed with Socrates remain valuable, we need to take an honest look at some of his legacy, particularly that of Aristotle. The Aristotelian way of describing the world came largely from a debate contest - who could argue their point better? Aristotle, being a good debater, won, and so we had an "understanding" that objects will come to rest unless acted upon by a force, which lasted for around 1700 years. Our understanding of the natural world became much deeper and better at predicting when we started really requiring careful observations to provide evidence to our claims. Galileo asked some fundamental questions about Aristotle's claims (especially about how objects tend to move or stay still), and used some careful experimentation to guide his questions. Based upon Galileo's work, Newton was able to carry it further, and create a mathematics to describe inertia. This transformation of our understanding of physics would not have happened without a new habit of mind and action that requires observations to guide our claims. Now, we only consider something to be 'true' in science when we can recreate an experiment.

All of this to say: our understanding of thinking and learning and discovering CAN and has changed over time. I am convinced that we should continue to stand on the shoulders of giants, but not grow complacent in their work. We too, can be giants.

Steve J. Moore's picture
Steve J. Moore
I'm a writing teacher in Kansas City
Blogger 2014

[quote]I don't know much about it myself, but here's the information I've come across.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_thinkinghttp://www.criticalthinkin... last one has developed materials for teaching critical thinking explicitly (as opposed to it being some sort of side-effect of a science class), which I think is exactly what's needed. Of course, they're trying to sell you something, but it's still useful.

I would really like to see an entire course on critical thinking in our high schools. The state (CA, in my case) should develop or approve a curriculum.

I wonder if I could get my local my parent-funded "art & science foundation" to pay for such a course...[/quote]I'm not sure kids need a course in critical thinking. Teachers should be focusing on using strategies that help students develop their thinking skills.

A critical thinking course would probably look a lot like "study skills" courses have looked in the past. Kids would sign up but end up not learning much because it's a skill that should be inherently taught by all teachers and encouraged across the board. It isn't a singular and isolated event (I'm gonna go think critically over here) but rather something that must be specific to a goal or plan for learning.

I think your heart is in the right place because you want these skills taught to your children in schools, but drafting a critical thinking course and not encouraging and supporting all teachers in every area to teach those skills to all students doesn't go far enough.

Ruslana Westerlund's picture

Hi, I would like to chime in as a person from a Communist country. No, not all thinking is critical thinking. Thinking like Communists told you to is not critical thinking. My husband, who is from the US, told me the same, "Critical thinking is thinking like an adult". That's a privilege that many people from other indocrinated countries do not have.

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