Click on one of the eight practices for a detailed description of the practice.
Teachers trying to help students develop their critical thinking skills must have a grounding in fundamental critical thinking principles. These include methods for structuring one’s thinking, techniques for turning everyday language into logical arguments that can be tested for quality, and knowledge of biases and other psychological factors that can impact reasoning. Teachers must also be aware of strategies for integrating critical thinking knowledge and practice into the teaching of subject-specific content.
Fortunately, the level of background knowledge teachers need to effectively incorporate critical thinking instruction into their practice does not require a degree in philosophy, or even months (much less years) of study. But it does require a commitment to understanding critical thinking fundamentals that form the foundation of all critical thinking high-leverage practices.
In studying the ways curiosity can motivate learning, some philosophers have proposed that thinking of any sort is driven by the human desire to dispel doubt. For doubt makes every one of us uncomfortable, which is why we will go to almost any length to eliminate it by finding explanations that help us make sense of contradictions and surprises or explain the unknown.
This provides teachers a powerful way to motivate students to learn, by introducing them to situations that generate motivating doubt in their minds. This can involve showing them strange natural or physical phenomenon, asking open-ended questions without obvious answers, or providing them puzzles that require both content knowledge and reasoning skills to solve.
Beginning the teaching process by triggering doubt in students’ minds can create an environment where they are eager to learn in order to understand the phenomenon, answer the question, or solve the puzzle and thus eliminate troubling doubt.
While doubt is a powerful motivating factor, there are ways to dispel doubt without learning anything new. One way is to come up with an answer or explanation that fits an existing understanding or world view. Many student misconceptions arise from such an a priori approach. For example, students who mistakenly sum numerators and denominators when adding fractions are fitting a new topic (fraction arithmetic) into an existing understanding (the addition of whole numbers). Similarly, students who approach discussion of historic events through a contemporary political lens are applying a priori thinking to subjects in ways that can limit understanding.
Another way students can have their doubt dispelled is by having answers provided to them by authority figures, such as teachers, authors of textbooks or other experts, a process that can eliminate doubt without any effort on the student’s part. This is why successful critical thinking practice asks students to channel doubt-driven motivation in intellectually productive ways. Asking students to utilize elements of the critical thinker’s toolkit, such as logic or scientific reasoning, to solve problems or puzzles gives them opportunities to practice those skills as they develop understanding through their own intellectual effort. In this sort of process, the teacher acts as a role model and guide for applying critical thinking techniques to interesting and challenging problems.
Surveys of educators, at both the K-12 and college level, routinely reveal the high priority teachers place on helping students learn to think critically. Yet surveys of employers show that a large majority of graduates who have passed through twelve, sixteen years or more of schooling by dozens of teachers and professors do not possess adequate critical thinking and problem solving skills.
This disconnect can result when critical thinking skills are not covered explicitly, but rather assumed to “come along for the ride” when thoughtful and skilled teachers cover complex material. For example, a math teacher explaining geometric proofs is introducing students to a foundational critical thinking concept: deductive reasoning. Explicit instruction would involve using this opportunity to explain deductive reasoning to students, show how it applies to geometric proofs, and explore areas outside of math where deductive reasoning can help solve problems and answer questions.
Just as no one assumes subjects like math and history can be learned through osmosis, so specific components of critical thinking must be introduced, taught, demonstrated and practiced explicitly in the context of learning content in order for students to understand critical thinking methods and develop the skills needed to apply them.
While individual components of critical thinking might manifest themselves differently across subjects, on the whole critical thinking skills transfer fluidly between domains. History teachers might ask students to find evidence in historic documents to support a paper thesis, while math teachers might ask students to show the steps they took to solve a problem. But in both instances, teachers are asking students to provide arguments in which premises lead logically to a conclusion.
Demonstrating and encouraging this sort of transfer allows students to see the wide range of subjects and situations to which critical thinking can be applied. For example, the math teacher who uses a lesson on geometric proofs to teach students about deductive reasoning can also explain the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning, the primarily mode of reasoning used in science. In addition to explicitly introducing students to forms of reasoning that span disciplines, students can also be shown how deductive and inductive reasoning can be used to answers different sorts of questions, a skill applicable inside and outside of school.
Because the number of critical thinking concepts students need to know are finite and can be integrated into the teaching of general content at key points in the curriculum, learning these skills does not have to come at the expense of covering required content. But in order for students to internalize critical thinking techniques, they must be given opportunities to put them into practice.
Deliberate practice refers to activities and exercises specifically designed to give students the opportunity to develop knowledge, skills and abilities tied to specific learning objectives. In the case of critical thinking, such practice exercises would provide students opportunities to put elements of the critical thinker’s toolkit to work as they apply those tools to the learning of content.
To incorporate deliberate practice of critical thinking skills efficiently into the learning process, traditional assignments, such as written papers or worksheet exercises, should be designed in such a way to give students opportunities to apply content knowledge and critical thinking techniques to challenging questions and problems. Creatively designed assignments, such as group projects and presentations, can further motivate students to put both content and critical thinking techniques to work.
Internalization of critical thinking skills requires students to be aware of, and be able to monitor and describe, their own thought processes. This process is called “metacognition,” and there are a number of techniques teachers can use to help students make their learning visible, allowing them to analyze how they are putting critical-thinking techniques they have learned and practiced into use.
While metacognition is useful for all types of learning, helping students metacognate on how they are applying critical thinking skills to different sorts of challenges will help them develop critical thinking habits that persist from class to class, grade to grade, and from school to work and home life.
One critical thinking researcher has proposed that becoming a skilled critical thinker requires the same level of effort needed to become a top-performing athlete or musician: approximately 10,000 hours of practice, which translates to 3-4 hours per day for ten years.
If this estimate is only partially correct, no single course, or even all courses a student takes from kindergarten through college, provides the dedicated classroom or homework hours needed to accomplish this many hours of critical thinking training. This is why teachers must not only explicitly teach transferable critical thinking skills and provide students opportunities for deliberate practice, but also inspire them to continue to use and practice these skills on their own.
The fact that strong critical thinking skills can lead to better grades, better decision-making and a happier, more successful life are all reasons students should be eager to apply them to more than just one assignment or course.
Many student athletes and musicians already demonstrate high levels of dedication and, unlike playing football or the piano, thinking is something we are already doing every waking hour without the need for playing fields, equipment or instruments.