How to develop critical thinking in education

Have you ever analyzed the commercials on T.V. or the ads on YouTube?

An already beautiful girl smiles as she effortlessly applies makeup to her flawless face. Look how happy you can be if you buy this product!

Another commercial shows a pretty couple who jumps into a shining SUV and zooms off toward the mountains. Imagine how adventurous your life could be if you only had this car! Or maybe the lives of the paid actors in those commercials aren’t any better because of this product.

What about Facebook or Instagram? Have you ever read a post or article and questioned its validity? How about the news? Do you ever wonder whether political alliances get in the way of accurate, honest reporting?

Most movies, especially ones aimed at kids, have an underlying message that they’re trying to communicate. But it’s not always a positive one. What exactly is that message?

If you do any of the above, chances are that you’re engaging in some form of critical thinking. This type of questioning carries over from the many screens in front of our faces to our day-to-day lives. Which activities should we pay for and engage in? Which purchases should we make? What do we base these decisions on? How do we process and handle the conflicts we are regularly confronted by? How do we solve our daily problems?

Critical thinking is essential to daily life. It’s a learned skill that is taught and developed from a child’s earliest days all the way through their years as an adult. It’s a skill we never stop learning or applying.

Young woman thinking playing chess
Photo: Michal-Vrba/Unsplash

What is critical thinking?

According to the National Council for Excellence in Critical thinking, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” 

Yikes — that’s certainly a mouthful.

Here’s my short version: gathering, evaluating, and analyzing information to arrive at a logical, well-thought-out conclusion that can be applied and lived out.

What kinds of critical thinking skills are there?

There are many prerequisite skills that a student needs to engage in critical thinking. Here are ten I’ve found to be more or less universally accepted:

  1. Identifying problems and asking questions
  2. Gathering, assessing, analyzing, and interpreting relevant information
  3. Making logical connections
  4. Solving problems in a well-reasoned, systematic way
  5. Arriving at well-thought-out conclusions
  6. Evaluating conclusions
  7. Identifying mistakes, inconsistencies, and logical fallacies
  8. Maintaining an open mind
  9. Communicating and working well within a group
  10. Applying knowledge beyond the subject at hand
Lightbulb sketch on post-it on bulletin board
Photo: absolutvision/Unsplash

12 ways to develop critical thinking skills in students

It’s important to note that critical thinking doesn’t happen all at once. Instead, it develops in students over time with the increase of knowledge, cognitive development, and experience. Use each of these methods and strategies to different degrees for students in elementary through high school.

1. Teach the students to ask questions

Asking questions is not a natural, common-sense skill. You can show elementary students a picture and guide them in asking the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions. As students get older, challenge them to develop more complicated and in-depth questions. Where did this information come from? How did the character’s past experiences impact his present actions? What might have happened if the other side had won the war? This document gives some great questions to ask based on Bloom’s taxonomy.

At this point in the process, you don’t need to worry about answering the questions. Your goal is to get the brain to recognize there is something it doesn’t know. Once your brain knows that it doesn’t know something, it will engage until it … well, does know.

2. Guide the students in making observations

If this is sounding a lot like the stages of the scientific method, that’s probably because it is. Once the brain has identified a knowledge gap, it’s ready for the next step: Collecting more information. With younger students, guide them in making observations based on the five senses. With older students, challenge them to identify less obvious details, such as objects in the background and the periphery of a picture or scene, things that are out of place, people who don’t seem to be fitting in, and the usage of connotation versus denotation in people’s speech.

3. Establish a solid foundation of facts

While some believe that memorizing facts doesn’t help students to develop their critical thinking skills, I disagree. Before students can evaluate and analyze information, they need to have a solid foundation of information from which they can operate. Good reasoning based off of inaccurate information leads to faulty conclusions and misguided application.

Children in the elementary years are good at learning new information, especially if it’s presented in a fun and engaging way. Students in middle school and high school also need to be familiar with the facts to better analyze, assess, and interpret that information.

4. Challenge students to find the mistakes

Keep students on their toes by intentionally making mistakes when you’re speaking or writing. See how long it takes for them to recognize the error, and challenge them to provide the correct information when they find it. This teaches them to question and evaluate information rather than blindly receive it. As the students get older, teach them about logical fallacies and practice finding them in commercials and the newspaper. This skill is even a basic requirement in some of today’s most in-demand fields, such as computer science.

5. Help students make connections

Making personal connections to the text, asking what-would-you-have-done questions, categorizing information, comparing/contrasting, identifying causes and effects, listing pros and cons, and creating analogies are some of the ways that you can guide students in making connections and analyzing information.

Students completing work
Photo: Google Edu

6. Encourage students to read and write from other points of view

Critical thinking assumes everyone’s reasons from a place of personal bias. To challenge this bias and cultivate greater compassion and understanding, you should guide your students in thinking about things from different viewpoints. “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!” is a great book to read to elementary students. As the students get older, you can have them rewrite another well-known tale from a different point of view, or research and debate issues from many standpoints.

7. Engage in project-based learning

Projects are a great way to challenge students to apply the information they’ve learned in a personal and relevant manner. After learning about the parts of a map, students can create their own for either a fictional or real world. After learning about the geography and economy of a nation, students can create their own fictional nation and justify their decisions. They can make an advertisement or commercial to practice persuasive writing and to demonstrate an understanding of a particular concept. High school students can plan an event on a budget or organize a campaign based on something you taught them.

You can learn more about project-based learning in our step-by-step guide.

8. Have students role-play various scenarios

Role-playing allows students to engage their imaginations and put themselves into someone else’s shoes as they experience the information they’re learning. After the students have worked through the scenario, discuss it as a class to make sure that everyone understood what you taught them.

9. Lead students in full-class and small-group discussions

We can learn a great deal from the thoughts and insights of others. Good discussions can challenge students to consider, analyze, and evaluate the thoughts of their classmates while thinking deeper about and defend their own assertions.

10. Facilitate formal debates

Similar to the benefits of discussions, organized debates can challenge students to think critically about various viewpoints, including their own. The more structured approach forces them to slow down their thought process rather than blurt out the first response that comes to mind. This is especially good if you can have the students research several viewpoints and then randomly select students to defend each perspective in class. After the debate, you can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each argument and why people might support one or the other.

11. Teach students how to collaborate in a group setting

Not everyone knows how to effectively collaborate on projects. It’s far easier for students to lay the bulk of the workload on that one person in the group who cares than to figure out how to divide the tasks. To discourage this tendency, you can provide specific roles for each member and have them report on their progress at the end of the period. Be sure to also discuss the benefits of actively listening to others and providing feedback.

12. Guide students in identifying and practicing real-life application of critical thinking

For younger students, you can have a classroom store where they must make decisions about what they can buy with a designated amount of pretend money. When there are conflicts between the students, talk it out as a class and guide them in thinking through a solution.

With older students, you can have them watch a commercial and identify any implied messages, harmful or not. Are the claims accurate? Read a newspaper article (especially a politically charged one) and identify which position the writer has taken. Do some fact-checking. Evaluate a website for its authority and accuracy. Look up information on political candidates and stage a mock election.

Effects of critical thinking

Critical thinking is an ongoing process that can start when we are young and continue throughout the rest of our lives.

When they practice critical thinking, people go through a long, systematic process of analyzing information to arrive at a well-thought-out conclusion — which then leads to a corresponding action. Good critical thinkers are better able to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions, have confidence in their present knowledge and position, possess a better sense of self, and demonstrate an understanding and compassionate heart toward those with different opinions.

What do you think? Where have you utilized this skill in your life? Which methods have you used to teach it in your classroom?

Photo: Diego Ph / Unsplash

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