Ideas for teaching critical thinking

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
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We all agree that critical thinking is essential for today’s young people – but just how do you teach these crucial skills? John Dabell advises

Think about it! How many times does that get said every day in a classroom? The problem is if children aren’t taught how to think then thinking about it is actually very hard.

It is the same with the question: what do you think? Sounds simple enough but it is a tough question when you haven’t been trained to think critically. Uncritical thinking is commonplace. Thinking critically isn’t something we just “pick up”.

Critical thinking is a crucial survival skill and training students to think critically is no easy task. But what exactly are critical thinking skills? There is no universally accepted definition of critical thinking and the term is open to different interpretation.

For me it is multi-dimensional thinking that includes logical, lateral, metacognitive and creative thinking. It is thinking inside the box, outside the box and poking the box. It is about unpacking, unearthing, mulling over, thinking slowly and thinking at the edge.

It is a Swiss army knife. It is something we engage in when we encounter cognitive conflict, an unfamiliar problem, an uncertainty, a question or dilemma. It is pattern-sniffing, tinkering with ideas, describing, guessing and experimenting.

Acquiring critical thinking skills is considered the “Holy Grail” of every subject. Critical thinking can be thought of as a learning muscle made up of lots of fibres including remembering, questioning, forming ideas, planning, reasoning, solving problems, making decisions, adapting, imagining, focusing, analysing, organising, integrating and improving. These are habits of mind.

Really what we are talking about is developing learning power, and research suggests there are several dispositions that we need to develop in order to become lifelong learners and thinkers.

Professor Guy Claxton suggests there are four learning dispositions: Resilience, Resourcefulness, Reflectiveness and Reciprocity – the 4Rs. These dispositions are like learning muscles that can be developed in the same way as we can develop physical muscles.

Each of the 4Rs is made up of a number of learning behaviours or capacities which can be trained, nurtured and exercised. You could add another R to this list: Risk-taking.

There are many strategies for developing learning power and thinking skills at one and the same time, many of which have no right or wrong answers. Here are a few ideas.

Thought experiments

A thought experiment is an exercise in critical thinking designed to develop students’ skills in raising ethical questions and problems, and formulating them clearly and accurately. These are “what if” scenarios that would be difficult or impossible to conduct in a lab setting. They tend to be moral dilemmas that work as real mind twisters.

For example... A runaway trolley is heading down the train tracks toward five workers who will be killed if the trolley continues on its present course. Mark is next to the points and could switch the trolley onto a second track where it would hit just one person. If Mark lets the trolley go by then it will almost certainly be catastrophic. The only way to save the lives of these workers is to move the points thus killing just one person. What should Mark do?

Balloon debates

Balloon debates involve imagining that a hot air balloon is losing height rapidly because it is overweight and will soon crash, therefore you have to get rid of six of the passengers. Who would you choose and why?
Mother Teresa, Charles Darwin, Rosa Parks, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Nelson Mandela, Anne Frank, William Shakespeare, Yuri Gagarin, Pele, Mahatma Gandhi, Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Mao Tse-tung, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, or Elvis Presley.

Diamond 9

Diamond 9 is a well-established thinking skills tool for comparison, ranking and evaluation. Eight cards have a statement written on them. A blank card is provided so students can write their own statement.
Working in a group students must agree on their placement to form a diamond. One card is at the top and seen as the most important, two cards on the next row down are the next most important, then three cards, back to two, and one card on the fifth row which is seen as the least important.

For example, prioritise the following concepts according to the question: what is the most important in maintaining a healthy relationship? The nine options are: communication, respect, trust, being apart, sexual relations, compromise, love, forgiveness, having fun together.

Conflict conversations

Conflict conversations are arguments where pupils share their thoughts about a particular concept. You can present these arguments to pupils as speech bubbles where differing opinions are placed side-by-side and are up for discussion. Pupils then talk with each other to try and reach a shared understanding. For example, “multiplying always makes a number bigger”: if you multiply by zero then the number becomes smaller; if you multiply by a fraction then it could make it bigger or smaller.

The aim is to stimulate cognitive conflict and thought friction so that learners are challenged to compare and contrast a range of opinions and ultimately voice their own views. Encourage pupils to test the statements and think of a statement of their own that they can add to the conversation.

Thinking dice

Thinking dice are fun resources which enable pupils to develop HOT (higher order thinking) and questioning skills. There are six coloured dice and each one has a question structure printed on each side corresponding to remembering and recalling information; understanding ideas and concepts; applying information; analysing information in order to explore and understand relationships; evaluating ideas, concepts and situations; and creativity (making something new with the knowledge).

The dice act as prompts so that pupils can organise and phrase their thinking. They engage pupils, stimulate learning conversations and challenge what learning has taken place. They can be used all at the same time or one die at a time for focusing on a specific skill. The dice can be made using card or bought commercially (e.g.


Provide pupils with a list of five random words (e.g. torch, toe, puppet, balloon, bicycle). Now ask them to show how any or all of the words connect to one another. How do they interact with one another? Create a story using all the words. Mind-map each word and then analyse the links between them.


Analogical reasoning requires students to make connections between different things. The strength of an analogy lies in the “fit” or the validity of transferring information or meaning from one subject to another. Ask students to make analogies based around the lesson, or, within their work as they go along.

  • Cloud is to cumulus as mineral is to… (hematite)
  • Pinnacle is to base as exceptional is to… (ordinary)
  • Parody is to satire as rogue is to… (scoundrel)
  • Valiant is to cowardly as pacify is to… (aggravate)


Counterfactual thinking is thinking that runs counter to the facts. This is “What if...” thinking where pupils are encouraged to imagine what could, would, or might have happened under differing conditions.

Ask pupils to consider the consequences of the following counterfactual statements and then compose their own. Examples: What would have happened if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo? What if Turing had not broken the Nazi codes? What if President Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt? How might the world be different if Barack Obama had lost the 2008 presidential election?


Critical thinkers think deeply and broadly, they think independently and confidently. They also read, write, speak and listen critically.

They do these things because they get opportunities to improve the quality of their thinking by skilfully analysing, assessing and reconstructing it through challenging activities.

The above examples are just starting points to get the ball rolling.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit


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