George Lucas Educational Foundation

Making Critical Thinking Explicit and Intentional

Making Critical Thinking Explicit and Intentional

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It is natural that we think as we read, but when we are able to name our thinking with a common language and shared understandings, we are empowered to become intentional about developing and exercising our thinking skills as a habit of mind.  

There are ten types of cognitive processes that we may refer to as the ABCs of critical reasoning. We use them to understand complex situations, generate solutions to problems, and nurture new insight.  

These cognitive processes become even more powerful when we reflect upon how we have used them, aiming to self-evaluate and improve our cognitive processes.  We refer to this as meta-cognition (thinking about thinking).

Meta-cognition involves three types of knowledge: 

  • knowledge of cognitive process
  • knowledge of strategies and tasks (applying the cognitive processes) 
  • knowledge of self

1. Connect Background Knowledge

Make connections to what is being read with prior knowledge and personal experiences.

2. Generate Questions

Ask open-ended questions to propel reading forward.  Ask why a character behaves or feels a certain way. Ask what are the implications of specific events or choices.

3. Visualize

Form mental sensory and emotional images to make meaning and deepen understanding. Read, think, and create movies in the mind.

4. Infer

Think about what is implied. Read between the lines and put two and two together. Make predictions and come to conclusions supported by evidence.

5. Gain Perspective and Empathy

See through the eyes of the character (perspective) and feel the character’s emotions (empathy). Walk in the shoes of the character.

6. Compare and Contrast

Identify and think about similarities and differences between people, places, objects, and events – within the text and between the text and the real world. 

7. Identify Cause and Effect

Determine why an event happened and the impact it has on a character or situation. Think, “because this happened, that happened.”

8. Analyze and Synthesize

Understand by taking apart the constitution or structure of a person, place, object, or event (analyze). Understand by putting knowledge and ideas together to solve problems and create solutions (synthesize).

9. Determine Importance

Decide what ideas and details matter most to make meaning, to make decisions, and to solve problems.

10. Monitor Comprehension

Recognize when understanding breaks down. Ask questions and reread to make             meaning and clarify understanding.

Whether you are a teacher or parent, model thinking aloud these critical thinking skills as often as possible and they will soon become a habit of mind for you and your learners!


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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

These are great, Brian! My 8th graders are expected to move beyond reading for comprehension and into literary analysis, which is not an easy task. I have found success using the Depth and Complexity Icons (developed by Dr. Sandra Kaplan, USC) to prompt students to think more deeply about what they are reading. The icons address many that you have on your list, and they can be used with all different genres of text and in all different subjects. Here is a breakdown of them, if you're interested: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CT4JUmOzKOeXJfV9bqv1Pz-VVR6T6xYq3Chd...

Brian Kissman's picture
Brian Kissman
Brian Kissman is passionate about innovative best practice for all things literacy and learning.

Love your icons and criteria for literacy analysis, Laura. Though recursive application across years, one grade level to the next, this line of thinking becomes a habit of mind - imagine! What do you think about the following "Questions for Meaningful Conversation" for character analysis?:

1. Who wants what? What are the character's desires?
2. How does the character struggle as a result of her/his desires?
3. What are the personality traits of the character?
4. How does the character view herself/himself?
5. How do others view the character?
6. What do you think about the character's choices?
7. How does the character's personality traits affect her/his choices?
8. What is important to the character? Why?
9. What relationships and objects are important to the character? Why?
10. What do you think about the relationships between characters?
11. What is learned about the main characters through secondary characters?
12. Why did the character act this way?
13. Was it right or wrong for the character to act this way? Why?
14. What did the character get from acting this way?
15. How am I like or unlike the character?
16. How does the character's desires and struggles reveal the author's message?
17. How does the setting put the story in context?
18. How does the setting impact the character and contribute to the mood of the story?
19. How would you describe the type of conflict(s) within the story?
> person against person > person against self
> person against nature > person against time
> person against society > person against fate
20. How does the conflict develop?
21. What actions or events lead to the conflict's resolution?
22. How does the resolution bring a natural, thought-provoking, and / or surprise ending to the story.
23. What enduring understandings or essential questions arise from this story?
24. What are the big themes or lessons learned within this story? What's the gist?
25. How have the lessons learned changed the way I think?

These are from my innovative work, Literacy Mats.

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