Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking Pathways

August 19, 2014

Critical thinking is trendy these days. With 6.3 million hits resulting from a Google search -- six times "Bloom's Taxonomy" -- its importance is undeniable. Worldwide, critical thinking (CT) is integrated into finger-painting lessons, units on Swiss immigrants, discussions of Cinderella, and the Common Core State Standards. In short, critical thinking is more beloved than Egyptian cotton.

Definitions abound. Critical thinking is:

  • "Seeing both sides of an issue." -- Daniel Willingham
  • "An ability to use reason to move beyond the acquisition of facts to uncover deep meaning." -- Robert Weissberg
  • "A reflective and reasonable thought process embodying depth, accuracy, and astute judgment to determine the merit of a decision, an object, or a theory." -- Huda Umar Alwehaibi
  • "Self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way." -- Linda Elder

Jarno M. Kopomen, founder of RandomtheApp, shares his insight on the subject: "The highest form of critical thinking? A person disagreeing with her/himself." Kopomen's point acknowledges the importance of self-doubt. In other words, to model critical thinking for students, teachers need to be openly and comfortably uncertain.

Meanwhile, watch out for CT posers. An awkward moment with a textbook representative ensued when I pointed out a ninth grade basal question. Underneath an old photo of a rickshaw winding through heavy automobile traffic, there was a question labeled critical thinking: "How does a rickshaw make travelers vulnerable on the open highway?"

"How is that critical thinking?" I asked.

"It really gets students thinking about the dangers of rickshaws," he said. That was the best he could do.

Joe Lau's CT Framework

What do critical thinkers do? An Introduction to Critical Thinking and Creativity: Think More, Think Better, by Joe Y.F. Lau, lists six things:

  1. Understand the logical connections between ideas.
  2. Identify, construct, and evaluate arguments.
  3. Detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning.
  4. Solve problems systematically.
  5. Identify the relevance and importance of ideas.
  6. Reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs and values.

The specific behaviors Lau identifies are skills that K-12 students can be taught. For example, let's look at two real classroom scenarios that align with that list.

Example #1: Making Intentional Errors in Math

Evan Stoudt is a math teacher from New Orleans who sings to his high school math students (adorable!) and creates opportunities for CT by making purposeful math errors during his board work so that students have the opportunity to detect inconsistencies and then defend their analysis. Watch this short video of Evan's lesson, hosted by the School Improvement Network.

This scenario aligns with Lau's #3 (detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning), and also #6 (reflect on the justification of one's own beliefs and values).

Example #2: Designer Babies, Role Playing, and PBL

Kelly Yonce, a biology teacher at East Wake School of Integrated Technology in North Carolina, facilitates problem-based learning (PBL) on the topic of designer babies -- how fertility clinics allow parents to select a child's physical traits.

Inquiry is in the DNA of PBL, which features learners choosing a guiding question that prompts a need to know, then organizing to find the answers, and finally concluding with a finished project or solved problem.

After having students gather in groups and assume the role of genetic counselors, Yonce presents teams with a (fictional) family that possesses various genetic histories. The "counselors" are instructed to conduct a risk analysis and then facilitate genetic counseling interviews. They are also instructed to blog about the ethics of genetically designed babies.

Her unit, Yonce explains, shows that "somebody, somewhere actually uses the knowledge [students] are expected to acquire. I don't get the question, 'Why do we need to know this?' very much any more.

Dan Lewandowski's Learn NC article walks through Kelly Yonce's complete designer baby curriculum.

This second example aligns with Lau's #4 (solve problems systematically) and #5 (identify the relevance and importance of ideas).

Three Curriculum Pathways That Promote Critical Thinking

Lau's six-point list isn't the only way to ensure that your class addresses CT. Whether you use authentic inquiry, PBL, or interdisciplinary (integrated) studies, be assured that each of these curriculum models speeds learners along the autobahn of critical thinking.

But don't forget explicit road signs. Many kids don't realize that they're thinking critically unless you explicitly tell them. Robert Swartz, director of the National Center for Teaching Thinking, recommends that teachers review CT approaches at the end of a lesson and have students paraphrase strategies in their own words.

In other words, show them how much they know, then tell them.

Here are some resources to help you explore these pathways.

Critical Thinking



Integrated Studies

So what ideas do you have for teaching critical thinking?

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  • Critical Thinking
  • College Readiness
  • Integrated Studies
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)

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