Critical Thinking

Getting Critical About Critical Thinking

It may not be easy to define critical thinking, but we do have suggestions for how you can teach it.
May 4, 2017
A group of elementary students sit at a table analyzing geometric shapes as their teacher assists.
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Remember that scene from the ’90s film Reality Bites in which Wynona Ryder was given the chance to quickly define irony to land a sweet gig? The elevator closed on her face while she struggled to define a word we all use every day. So it may be with the term critical thinking.

Critical thinking has become education’s bull’s-eye, a target that, if achieved, will cue up a chorus and win us universal approval. We’ve been tasked with ensuring that students develop critical-thinking skills and then continue to improve their ability to use them.

We’re definitely heading in a good direction. Our educational system was developed in the shadow of the industrial era, when the factory model prevailed. So when we say that we must now differentiate, individuate, and, yes, teach critical thinking, it’s to help move away from the rote strategies used in the standardization era.

But if the elevator door were closing in your face, would you be able to define critical thinking?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Critical Thinking

The need to teach critical thinking is everywhere these days. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning asks that we “focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration... to prepare students for the future.”

Meanwhile, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts stress the “critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.”

And the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for tests that “measure higher-order thinking skills, such as reasoning, analysis, complex problem solving, critical thinking, effective communication, and understanding of challenging content.”

These descriptions leave room for educators and schools to teach critical thinking in a more individualized way. However, by not defining the term clearly, all these documents may dilute its importance. It becomes the “wha-wha” sound emitted by the teacher in all those Charlie Brown cartoons.

Putting It in Your Own Words

I define critical thinking through visualization: I picture the brain triggered by a thought that causes it to shoot signals from one area to another, forming pathways between neurons. Critical thinking is when the brain is active, making connections to the material and applying original thought to the concept. It’s the difference between struggling to remember (“ugh!”) and struggling to solve (“yeah!”). Googling "Effects of World War I on Europe" is not critical thinking. Outlining a science chapter is not critical thinking. These both have a purpose, but critical thinking they are not. My definition is not perfect, but it indicates what critical thinking isn't.

In the Classroom

The fact is that while all kids think, not all activities trigger critical thinking. We want to use targeted approaches and strategies to cause those brains to sweat:

  1. Adopt a PBL philosophy. Project-based learning differs from mere projects because it triggers more critical thinking. Rather than write a report on a state, why not found the 51st state? Rather than read about the effects of nutrients in soil, why not grow a garden and see those effects in action? Check out these resources for getting started with project-based learning.
  2. Explore the world in a subject-area scavenger hunt. Ask students to find examples of your content in the world outside of school. Ask them to bring in those examples and teach others how they apply to the current topic of study.
  3. Utilize habits of mind. Asking students to think critically is not enough; we have to teach them how. Guide your students in visualizations, help them make connections, and teach them about persistence and taking risks in order to solve difficult challenges. Find suggestions for doing this in “Integrating the 16 Habits of Mind.”
  4. Require reflection. The KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart is a good start, but add an H for “How” to it, making a KWLH chart. Ask students how they learned something. Teach your students to recognize their own “eureka!” moments. Present them with metacognitive questions so they can routinely explore what they think about their thinking and how they got there.
  5. Teach students to question. Push students to develop questions beyond those that can be answered through a Google search. Help them develop questions that guide their research, that challenge with evidence, and that indicate their own understanding. Consider having them use question stems developed around the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Incidentally, irony can be defined as “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” But it didn’t take critical thinking to define it. I just Googled it.