Critical Thinking: A Guide For The Classroom And Beyond
“Clear, critical thinking should be at the heart of every discipline in school and a cultivated habit outside it too.” – Sir Ken Robinson
One of the great responsibilities for educators is to prepare students for the future in a complex and ever-changing world. As society and employment opportunities evolve, there is a greater need to develop 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking.
As an experienced educator, I understand the need to adapt to new challenges and equip students with the tools they need to navigate life beyond the classroom. This has become especially important during these uncertain times of the global pandemic.
The pandemic has placed further pressure on educators to adapt to new ways of working which also requires some critical thinking of their own.
This article will guide you through the fundamentals of Critical Thinking and provide tried and tested methods to use in your classroom and everyday life.
Critical Thinking Quick Guide:
- What is Critical Thinking?
- Analytical Thinking vs Critical Thinking
- Developing Thinking Skills
- Critical Thinking in the Classroom
- Critical Thinking Activities
- Critical Thinking Practice
- Barriers To Critical Thinking
- Food for Thought
What Is Critical Thinking?
“Critical thinking can be defined in a number of different ways consistent with each other, we should not put a lot of weight on any one definition. Definitions are at best scaffolding for the mind. With this qualification in mind, here is a bit of scaffolding: critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.” – Richard Paul, author of Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World.
There is often a misconception that critical thinking is a negative process to disprove something. It would be more constructive to consider it as a means of putting an idea into perspective and seeing the bigger picture.
Critical thinking provides an opportunity to analyze and reflect on ideas. It also enables you to suspend past assumptions and self-doubt.
Analytical Thinking vs Critical Thinking
Analytical Thinking is a linear process which allows you to break down and review complex information. This type of thinking uses reasoning and logic to analyze the information presented, identify patterns and trends, and present facts and evidence.
Critical Thinking includes an element of analytical thinking but goes much further. It’s a more holistic process that results in a judgement of the validity of information using other sources. Critical thinking requires a detailed evaluation of the information. You should check for accuracy, any bias or assumptions, assess the conclusions and whether the evidence supports the conclusion.
Both of these skill sets should be developed to allow greater depth of thinking.
Developing Thinking Skills
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein
When developing an academic curriculum, educators often refer to Bloom’s taxonomy – a model used to classify learning objectives. Within this model, thinking skills are categorized into lower and higher order thinking skills:
Lower order thinking skills – knowledge, comprehension and application
Higher order thinking skills – analysis, synthesis and evaluation
The higher order thinking skills that students need for critical thinking can be assessed using a number of criteria:
- Use of information
- Questioning abilities
- Aptitude for communication and collaboration
- Ability to keep an open mind
- Ability to draw conclusions
Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, it is a good starting point for identifying learning outcomes and developing specific skills.
There are many tools that students can use to support their learning, such as interactive resources, social media and discussion groups to share thoughts and opinions. Connecting to others and the world around us can also help us to develop a greater understanding of ourselves.
Critical Thinking in the Classroom
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle
“How do you know that?”
These two simple questions formed the basis of many interactions with students in my classroom, regardless of age or subject matter. When a student gave an answer to a question, I would ask one of these questions to encourage them to elaborate on their response. My students knew that I didn’t just want an answer but for them to demonstrate how they had arrived at the answer; I was interested in their critical thinking skills. Students would then consider if there were other ways to arrive at the same conclusion or whether there were alternative answers. They were also encouraged to ask their own questions to probe deeper into their thinking.
This simple resource can help students reflect and question their own thinking and ultimately develop their independent thinking skills for future learning.
Whilst this is just one anecdotal example to enhance critical thinking, there are many effective activities that you can use in the classroom with your students.
Critical Thinking Activities
Continuum Line: Give students a key statement and a continuum line with ‘Always’ at one end and ‘Never’ at the other end. Students should determine where they would place themselves on the line and provide reasoning for their decisions. This task generates discussion and debate around the key statement. Some students may decide to change their position of the line throughout the course of the debate but persuasion is not the aim here. The purpose of the task is to elicit a range of viewpoints around the statement to support critical thinking.
Silent Debate: Set a number of written statements on large pieces of paper around the classroom. Students are then asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement. They should add their reasoning and also be encouraged to add to the ideas of others. This alternative to the traditional oral debate encourages everyone to contribute at the same time and promotes collaboration. It can be particularly effective for quieter class members.
Fact or Opinion?: Ask students to identify the facts and opinions within authentic articles or editorials. Encourage them to analyze the language and explain how they can distinguish the evidence from their beliefs.
All of these activities can be easily adapted from the classroom to online platforms such as Trello or Zoom breakouts rooms.
Check out this Critical Thinking Workbook for more examples.
Critical Thinking Practice
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact; everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” – Marcus Aurelius.
In critical thinking, it is important not to willfully accept the all information presented. Question assumptions and ideas to determine whether or not you are seeing the bigger picture. ‘Fake News’ is a prime example of this.
Try these tips to hone your skills:
- Identify inconsistencies, errors, and omissions
- Find and understand links between ideas
- Develop systematic ways of solving problems
- Recognize problems before building any arguments
- Foster your curiosity – is there something else that hasn’t been explored?
Barriers To Critical Thinking
A Closed Mind
Everyone has opinions and their own perspective on some issues. If your bias is so strong that you are unwilling to consider any other perspectives, this leads to closed-mindedness. Your bias may be based on research outcomes that you consider unlikely to change. But critical thinkers know that even the basis of some knowledge can change over time. Check your assumptions to apply critical thinking.
Misunderstanding The Truth Or Facts
We may occasionally accept beliefs presumed to be true but have little evidence to justify them. To demonstrate critical thinking, it’s crucial to distinguish facts from beliefs and to dig deeper by evaluating the "facts" and how much evidence there is to validate them.
Trusting Your Instincts
When you trust your gut instincts, this is largely based on sensing or feeling. Using intuitive judgment is actually the last thing you should do if you want to demonstrate critical thinking, as you are less likely to question your assumptions or bias.
Lack Of Knowledge
This barrier could be two-fold. Firstly, you may lack the knowledge and understanding of the higher-order skills required for critical thinking. Secondly, you may lack knowledge of the topic you need to evaluate. Recognizing this lack of understanding and carrying out research to close the knowledge gap will help to reduce the barrier.
Lack Of Effort
Recognizing that critical thinking is not necessarily over-thinking is significant to removing this barrier. Even if you have developed the necessary skills, it is important to have the willingness to engage in the process of critical thinking.
Overcoming these barriers will help you to:
- Reinforce your problem-solving skills
- Boost your creativity
- Encourage curiosity
- Foster independence
- Develop your range of skills
- Provide you with a skill for life
Food for Thought
Have you been evaluating the information presented in this guide?
Did you find yourself challenging or agreeing with points that have been raised?
Have you considered alternative ideas or new ways of thinking?
Are you think differently after reading this article?
If the answer is YES, you are already on the path to Critical Thinking!