George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Creating Challenging Learning Experiences

When teachers leverage inquiry, students use critical thinking skills to examine multiple perspectives and find ways to improve our world.

April 19, 2023
FangXiaNuo / iStock

As I write this article, my daughter is writing about the Berlin Conference and the Scramble for Africa. She is evaluating the impact of imperialism on the people of Africa in the 1800s and the rationale of European nations to colonize an entire continent of people. Through this unit, she analyzed Kipling’s White Man’s Burden and evaluated the influence of its message on world leaders. In addition, she was assigned excerpts from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to represent the thinking of the anticolonialism messages of the time.

I examined these tasks, and I found that she was engaged in critical thinking. She was asked to analyze policies and the author’s purpose in complex pieces of writing. Further, she was tasked with weighing the decisions of European countries to conquer the people of Africa. In addition, she evaluated different perspectives on these decisions.

However, she lacked the opportunity to tie that powerful work to different perspectives from largely underrepresented groups during that period and today. She read about the experiences and analysis of White men. I don’t recall any analysis of the people of Congo, the Philippines, or India.

Rigor Light

She was engaging in critical thinking but lacked the opportunity to engage in criticality, or the idea that we must connect critical thinking with varying contexts (past, present, and future situations) and perspectives to the human condition. As a result, she participated in a mirage of rigor. Rigor without criticality and contribution is rigor light.

Professor and author Gholdy Muhammad, who holds a PhD in literacy, language, and culture, explains the difference between critical thinking and criticality in this way: “I discuss the difference between lowercase-c critical, which is just deep and analytical thinking. But Critical with a capital c is related to power, equity, and anti-oppression.” The argument here is that both criticality and critical thinking are deeply intertwined and necessary in our work with students.

A good way to remain focused on criticality is through the lens of equity. Equity as a practice and mission and the development of thinking deeply are interwoven. So how do we ensure that we are tending to the demands of the interrelationship between the advancement of equity and cognition? And how do we use this learning for meaningful contribution?

The recommendation here is to engage students with a set of questions that move critical thinking to exploring perspectives, evaluating contexts, and determining potential actions that students can take to solve problems and improve or enhance the world. One way to do this is to use questions that move across levels of thinking from critical analysis, to criticality analysis, to a call to action.

Critical Thinking Questions

The “what” questions guide students to engage in critical thinking by analyzing, synthesizing, evaluating, and reflecting on their curriculum, texts, and current events. Using inductive and deductive reasoning is essential for students to develop the skills necessary to understand the core principles of a subject. Here are a few questions to prime critical thinking skills:

  • What is your overall summary or conclusion from this text, theme, idea?
  • What are repeating themes, patterns that occur in this unit of study?  
  • What are your key takeaways? 
  • What is the main idea of the story/article?
  • What information supports your explanation? To what extent is that information valid and accurate?
  • What themes emerge between the two texts we are reading?  
  • What is the author trying to prove? How do you back up your assertion?
  • How does _____ contrast with _____?
  • What is the point or big idea of _____?

Criticality Thinking Questions

The “so what” questions prepare students to challenge assumptions and intent, analyze multiple perspectives, and discuss the effects of both past and present decisions on multiple communities, particularly those whose voices have been underrepresented and marginalized. Here we use the powerful tools of critical thinking to challenge and better understand the nature of how we have been presented, persuaded, and pushed to learn content in particular ways. Here are a few questions to prime criticality skills:

  • How does this relate to other contexts we have studied so far in both time and space? How does this relate to today?  
  • Given the perspectives we are seeing in this text, what voices are missing? 
  • What perspectives would help us better understand the situation at hand from other people, communities, and cultures?  
  • What assumptions are we carrying in this discussion? What are the implications of exploring and testing assumptions?  
  • Where have we seen similar stories/patterns/themes in other texts or in the real world? 

Call-to-Action Questions

The “now what” questions help students look for ways to contribute. Critical and criticality thinking skills are designed for students to take action. Here students should think and act on their learning to make the world a better place through better ways to frame content, to generate problems they want to solve, and to contribute to solving problems locally and globally. The  following questions serve as a primer for students to use their voice for contributing to a better understanding and a better future. 

  • To what extent can and should we take action in a way that promotes social change? 
  • Where have we seen successes in taking action in the past? How can we leverage these successes in this context?
  • When is the opportune time to take action that creates a sustainable change?
  • Where do we see alignment with our next steps?
  • To what extent have others solved this problem?
  • Where have we taken into account assumptions about the problem and our solution?

The following organizations offer a number of protocols that can assist in structuring these questions and conversations: Facing History, National School Reform Faculty, and School Reform Initiative. Additionally, strategies such as comparing contexts or using rigorous PBL as a methodology enable this work to flourish.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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