Ten Takeaway Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking

Suggestions from educators at KIPP King Collegiate High School on how to help develop and assess critical-thinking skills in your students.

Suggestions from educators at KIPP King Collegiate High School on how to help develop and assess critical-thinking skills in your students.

Ideally, teaching kids how to think critically becomes an integral part of your approach, no matter what subject you teach. But if you're just getting started, here are some concrete ways you can begin leveraging your students' critical-thinking skills in the classroom and beyond.

1. Questions, questions, questions.

Questioning is at the heart of critical thinking, so you want to create an environment where intellectual curiosity is fostered and questions are encouraged. For Jared Kushida, who teaches a global politics class called War and Peace at KIPP King Collegiate, "lecturing" means integrating a flow of questions throughout a lesson. "I rarely go on for more than 30 seconds without asking a question, and I rarely stop at that one question," he explains.

In the beginning stages, you may be doing most of the asking to show your students the types of questions that will lead to higher-level thinking and understanding. You can also use "wrong" answers as opportunities to explore your students' thinking. Then ask more questions to lead them in a different direction. As students become more comfortable and skilled, their questions will drive the class discussions.

2. Start with a prompt and help them unpack it.

Pose a provocative question to build an argument around and help your students break it down. Identify any ambiguous or subjective terms and have students clarify and define them. For example, Katie Kirkpatrick, who teaches ninth-grade Speech & Composition at KIPP King Collegiate, poses this question in the first unit of her class: "Is a life in poverty the responsibility of the individual or a result of outside factors?" She guides her class to identify "responsibility of the individual" and "result of outside factors" as what she calls "shady terms" that need definition. Once the terms are clearly defined, students are better able to seek and find evidence that is relevant to their argument.

3. Provide tools for entering the conversation.

At the beginning of the year, Kirkpatrick gives her students a list of sentence starters and connectors such as "I agree/disagree because," "I can connect to your statement because," and "Can you clarify what you mean by." Providing them with these words gives them ways to enter the conversation and will guide their thought process in analyzing the argument.

4. Model your expectations.

"It all comes back to modeling," says Kellan McNulty, who teaches AP world history and AP U.S. history at KIPP King Collegiate. "If you have a behavioral expectation, the best way to teach that is to model." In fact, he learned how to facilitate effective Socratic discussions by observing his colleague. Similarly, he demonstrates for his students ways to enter a conversation, the difference between an analytical point and a summary, and appropriate ways to disagree with one another. Kirkpatrick uses examples, both good and bad, of people presenting arguments and having Socratic discussions from sites such as YouTube. Some sample links include:

5. Encourage constructive controversy.

Lively discussions usually involve some degree of differing perspectives. McNulty even uses a "devil's advocate" card that he secretly gives to a student before each discussion, charging him or her with the role of bringing up opposing views. You can give students controversial topics and let them hash it out, but make sure to first demonstrate for them respectful ways of disagreeing and establish clear rules for voicing different perspectives. These rules include the language to use when disagreeing and that the disagreement must be objective, such as finding a flaw in the evidence or the reasoning, not a subjective disagreement based on personal opinions.

6. Choose content students will invest in.

It's important to choose topics that are relevant and significant to students to get them talking and engaged. Kirkpatrick wanted social justice to be the overarching theme for her class. The topic struck a chord with the students and motivated them to build the communication skills they needed to effectively voice their views. Kushida spends much of his prep time finding rich sources (including texts, photos, art, even a single word) about pressing, relevant content to help fuel the discussions. He follows up with a deep arsenal of questions that range from factual to analytical to connective to philosophical.

7. Set up Socratic discussions.

Socratic discussion is the method of inquiry in which participants ask one another questions that test logic with the goal of gaining greater understanding or clarity. At King, teachers regularly set up formal Socratic discussions to give students the opportunity to challenge one another intellectually. The teachers serve primarily as observers, offering prompts only when there is a lull in the conversation, but otherwise leaving it to the students to keep the discussion moving. They strive to engage students in Socratic dialogue informally as well. Kushida explains that he works Socratic questioning in every single day by "never being satisfied with a student answer that does not result in another question and always pushing and counterquestioning and teaching them to do the same."

8. Assess their reasoning through different methods.

To know whether your students are learning to think critically, you need a window into their thought processes. So challenge them to communicate back to you. Essays, Socratic discussions, and speeches give students the chance to demonstrate their skill and allow you to evaluate their reasoning in a variety of situations. Even written tests can foster critical thinking if they require the student to provide counterarguments to a series of statements using details and evidence from the unit of study. You can also assign your students topics to research and then let them lead the classroom discussion. Doing so will help you assess their understanding of the material and their skill at communicating it.

9. Let students evaluate each other.

It can be difficult to assess students while simultaneously facilitating a Socratic discussion. But one way teachers at King give some of the responsibility to the students is by setting up the room in a "fishbowl" configuration, with an inner circle and an outer circle. Students in the inner circle are the active participants while those in the outer are their peer evaluators. Kirkpatrick, McNulty, and others at King use a Socratic seminar rubric that clearly lays out the components of analytical thinking so the students know exactly what to look for. And by evaluating their peers with the same rubric the teacher uses, students gain a better understanding of the criteria for strong critical thinking and discussion.

10. Step back.

It can be hard for a teacher to let go of the reins and let the students do the teaching. "But when you remove yourself from the equation," McNulty explains, "that really forces the kids to step up." And when you give students the responsibility to be the thinkers in the class and drive the content, they may take it in unexpected directions that are more relevant to them and are thus more likely to stick.

This article originally published on 7/11/2011

see more see less

Comments (12)

Comment RSS

I think questioning is a

Was this helpful?

I think questioning is a great way to generate critical thinking. I often have questions prepared for anything that we read or watch as a class. These questions serve as lenses that guide our reading or viewing. However, I am starting to carry a few extra questions around "in my pocket." These are higher level questions that I can prepare before the class, and then bust and use if the opportunity presents itself. For example, I might use these questions to move the conversation forward or to push student thinking.

Researcher at Great Books Foundation

[quote]Hutchins and Adler

Was this helpful?

[quote]Hutchins and Adler were adamant in The Great Conversation that the Great Books were accessible to all. That was the point of the Great Books format: that such books were eminently readable, and, with proper guidance, anyone could engage in the "conversation."[/quote]

Well done. Most teachers in the 60s and some of our own Directors and staff didn't think youngsters were capable of discussion of text. The initial Junior Great Books was packaged for high school, but in the 90s, curriculum for elementary schools was created. It wasn't until then that we and others with discussion-based methods learned that poor and struggling readers benefited the most from text-based discussion. The discussion gave children purpose and engaged their minds. It also allowed members of a group to learn from each other how to form questions and use evidence to create responses.

Thanks for being that pioneer.

English and Philosophy teacher from West Springfield, MA

Hello, Mark. I taught a

Was this helpful?

Hello, Mark. I taught a Great Books curriculum to my high school students in the 60's. However, I took it quite the opposite way: that Hutchins and Adler were adamant in The Great Conversation that the Great Books were accessible to all. That was the point of the Great Books format: that such books were eminently readable, and, with proper guidance, anyone could engage in the "conversation."

Researcher at Great Books Foundation

It turns out that we had it

Was this helpful?

It turns out that we had it all wrong in the 60s when the Great Books Foundation began a program of literacy based on rich texts and collaborative discussion because we limited it to "gifted" children. We've discovered in the last 2 decades that all children benefit from text-based discussion, what we call Shared Inquiry(tm).

Part of the reason is that more of the students are engaged more of the time during the reading, writing, listening, and speaking activities in Shared Inquiry and, yes, the 10 tips posted here are very important. Even though school often seems like a very strange game to many students, collaborative discussion seems more real--more like adult life. In fact, the Great Books Foundation has been supporting adult discussion groups since 1947.


Teacher, Writer, and Artist


Was this helpful?

On the first day of school I asked my students how they learn the best and what they’re good at. It was a question more for me, I said, but would eventually be good for you, too. You know, once we get to work.

A few of them huffed and dropped their heads on their desks. That’s the power of the phrase … get to work.

I had a yellow legal pad out and a pen ready to write. One of the nicest things you can do for someone is to shut up and listen to them … and even write down what they say while they’re watching you.

They were watching. I got the impression no one had ever asked them those questions.

Lazlo said he loves vampires. Nesbit said he’s good at sleeping late. Brainerd said he wanted me to quit talking so fast.

I made the time-out sign with my hands and said … Oh-kay. Why don’t we start all over again.

Technology & Critical Thinking

Was this helpful?

What a great post! You really hit on some key steps to developing critical thinking skills. What is always is difficult is determining the level of understanding and how far your students are on scaffolded skills. Technology provides us with numerous new ways to measure that growth. One area that may help is “stick pick” - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvjcgLa5ofo which allows for individual tracking of student growth and methods for measuring their ability to critically think. I am impressed by how students can have a more valid connection at a deeper level with content by compelling them to respond through a tech application. Any tips to increase critical thinking benefits our students. Thanks!

International Educator, Certified by the NBPTS | Educational Leader, Licens

Your post makes me wish...

Was this helpful?

I taught High School. I'm trying to think of ways to scaffold your steps for upper primary students. I think the hardest one is listening to and restating what others have said. We can model and students can evaluate one another.

The greatest debate topic I've ever used with 10-year-olds: Whether or not children under 13 should be allowed on Facebook. :)

Janet | expateducator.com

President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

Engaging Internet tool teaches critical thinking strategy

Was this helpful?

The people at TregoED.org have developed an internet discussion tool that does all this. Students are given a scenario (prompt) with different perspectives on a complex issue. The tool then walks them through the "questions" - SCAN - See the issues, clarify the issues, assess what's important and Now, name some next steps. Students log in using screen names and avatars (teacher has initials) and discuss the situation "facebook-style" using the questions as guides. The beauty is that ALL students participate, free scenarios are provided and you can even write your own (with a $45 unlimited use subscription). The SCAN critical thinking strategy has been used for years in the corporate world. Kids love the tool and learn how to think, not what to think!

Retired teacher educator - UMass, EDC, various school systems

Reflection, reflection, and watch your fish

Was this helpful?

For teachers, the best tool was invented a very long time ago by Louis Agassiz, the Harvard anti-Darwinian. He taught freshman biology, and would give each student a fish to examine in the biology lab. For ten weeks he'd walk around the lab, muttering "watch your fish" and keeping the students from cutting into it. Then, after much watching, he'd ask them to draw the internals and, finally, to see if they were right by dissecting it. Pent up curiosity is a lot more fruitful than a dilatory knife at the wrong end of an inquiry.

Today, with tech, it's easier to cut and harder to look. What we've been doing is using that tech to teach self-assessment and reflection, with the 8 skills of the SCANS report - those "soft skills" like responsibility, inquiry, creativity, teamwork, etc. - as a "table of contents" for a multimedia portfolio that begins as early as 9th grade and gets refined for at least 4 years, with observations by other students, teachers, parents, grandparents, job supervisors and the like. Those e-Portfolios don't use fancy software, but invite student creativity with google sites and google docs, as long as they address those 8 skills with "the best examples of what you do to show..." whichever skills you prize the most.

The most important skill is self assessment, which transcends all others (and John Hattie's favorite in Visible Learning). Next is reflection, which builds others into the process, as well as celebrates different media products about projects in and out of school. And next is collaboration, which integrates negotiation, teamwork, and a host of others.

And all of them trump the simple numbers of standardized tests with concrete and original contributions. While not invalidating the tests, these portfolios give them enough context for employers, colleges, peers, parents and grandparents (often in other languages or countries) to share a student's success.

Knowledge really is Power

Was this helpful?

Other urban public schools with supposedly disadvantaged populations, such as University Park Campus School in Worcester MA, have been using this questioning and critical thinking approach to engage students and foster learning for many years and it consistently works. UPCS supplements it, as I am sure KIPP does, with lots of reading and writing opportunities. Most notable, this approach teaches the key 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity which are necessary for superior student achievement both academically and in life. Before these examples I had only seen consistent use of this pedagogical approach at the top private schools in the country, such as Milton Academy, but KIPP King Collegiate proves that the approach is effective for all students (and, I suspect, in all subjects).

The line in the video that stands out for me is "We are on a team where everyone is devoted to our mission that it is possible for every single student that attends our school to have the opportunity to go to 4 year college if they want to do that". I believe that creating that culture and supporting it completely is what makes KIPP schools stand out and consistently out-perform charters and public schools. I see no reason why any school could not emulate that attitude.

see more see less