Ideas to teach critical thinking

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
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Hi Steve, It's really wonderful. It will help me to plan out more effectively.

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Thinking skills are highly prized in today’s world. Steve Burnage offers teachers some strategies to develop skills in critical thinking and problem-solving in lessons and across the curriculum

Increasingly, learning and innovation skills are being recognised as the skills that separate learners who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century, and those who are not.

A learning and teaching focus on the skills of creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration is essential to prepare learners for their futures.

In this article I would like to explore some strategies to better develop learners’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The three strands of thinking – problem-solving: the ability to find solutions, reasoning: the ability to weigh up balanced arguments; and making decisions: the ability to act based on our thinking – all feature critical thinking as one of their core components.

But what is critical thinking, why do learners need to think critically to succeed in the modern world and, how do we teach learners to think critically? For me, there are four key areas of critical thinking:

1 Understanding perspectives

The illustration on this page is a good example of how each of us brings our own perspective to our thinking. Some will see a vase while others will see two faces looking towards the centre.
Whichever you see, you are correct; yet, whichever you don’t see is also a correct perspective. Thinking critically is about being able to understand the differing perspectives and to accept the validity of each.

2 Evaluating evidence

Evidence is data on which we base our judgements or decisions. Gathering and evaluating evidence is an important feature of critical thinking. However, learners will often make two common mistakes:

  • Learners base their views or decisions on no evidence or wrong evidence led by their emotions. Think for example of the current controversy around the issue of global warming – yet evidence that supports global warning as a significant issue is irrefutable.
  • Learners dismiss evidence that conflicts with their pre-existing views. We see evidence of this when people refuse to accept bad news or learners don’t accept our concerns that they are not going to meet their target grades, despite irrefutable evidence that this is true.

3 Non-routine problems

A routine problem can be solved using methods familiar to learners by repeating previously learned methods in a step-by-step fashion. Non-routine problems are those where there is no predictable, well-rehearsed approach or pathway explicitly suggested by the problem, problem instructions or a worked example.

For example: “There are 10 people in a room and everyone shakes hands with everyone else. How many handshakes occurred?”

Whether this is a routine or non-routine problem depends on the learner. One student who is familiar with algebra might easily solve this problem. Another student who is just starting to learn algebra might not know how to solve this problem (the answer is 45 by the way).

4 Looking for deep structure

Deep structure refers to a principal that goes beyond specific examples. Surface structure refers to the particulars of an example meant to illustrate deep structure.

For example, understanding how to structure a response to a specific examination question in a subject is surface knowledge. Being able to take the principals of the features that generally make up the structure of a good examination answer and apply this to all questions in all subjects evidences deep knowledge.

Putting this together

So, why do we need to teach critical thinking and problem-solving?

Young people don’t need to know what to think, they need to know how to think. That means dedicated classroom time on how to evaluate arguments, analyse evidence, ask questions, and reflect on meaning.

Critical thinking skills develop learners’ ability to learn more in all subjects. The best way to equip learners with such skills is to teach them explicitly as opposed to simply expecting them to develop while you are teaching another subject. Here are 10 teaching strategies:

1 Begin with a question

This is the simplest opening into critical thinking. What do you want to explore and discuss? It shouldn’t be a question you can answer with a “yes” or a “no”. You want to develop essential questions here.

When you present your question to learners, encourage brainstorming – write down possible answers on a whiteboard or flipchart as a student reference. Have big open discussions where learners can dissect and discuss questions.

2 Create a foundation

Learners cannot think critically if they do not have the information they need. Begin any critical thinking exercise with a review of related information – this links to the evidence strand of critical thinking. This ensures they can recall facts pertinent to the topic. These may stem from things like:

  • Reading assignments and other homework.
  • Previous lessons or critical thinking exercises.
  • A video or text.

3 Reconstruct a text

This activity is best suited towards the end of the topic when learners have a good understanding of the information. To consider fairy tales from the perspective of the villain can help introduce the activity. For example, using the Three Little Pigs – in groups or individually – learners should:

  • Divide a piece of paper into three columns and at the top write “what/who has been blamed?” (Seen as the villain – the wolf.)
  • Column 1: write down the main points of the event.
  • Column 2: how was the “villain” (the wolf) responsible for these events?
  • Column 3: what could have happened from the villain’s perspective, how could they have been misunderstood?
  • Reconstruct the information from the perspective of the villain (the wolf) as a diary entry/narrative/report.

4 Use the news

In pairs or small groups learners are to find a minimum of two current news articles that show different perspectives on the same topic or situation.

This may be two different people at a crime scene, opposition leaders discussing a current topic or professionals discussing a current issue such as global warming. Questions to consider:

  • What is different about the perspectives?
  • Are there any similarities?
  • What influences both parties’ perspectives?
  • Would you think differently if you only read one of the articles?
  • When is it okay to only focus on one perspective and when should we look at different perspectives?

5 Use information fluency

Part of critical thinking is knowing when to pursue and when to discard information. Learners must learn to amass the appropriate knowledge to inform that thinking.

Mastering the proper use of information is crucial to our learners’ success in school and life. For example, we need to teach learners how to use online search engines such as Google properly to assess the validity of evidence. If something is part of Wikipedia, does this mean it is true?

6 Utilise peer groups

Twenty first century learners thrive on environments where critical thinking skills develop through teamwork and collaboration. Show learners that their peers are an excellent source of information, questions, and problem-solving techniques.

7 Try ‘one sentence’

Try this exercise in your lessons: form groups of 8 to 10 learners and instruct each student to write one sentence describing a topic on a piece of paper. The student then passes the paper to the next student. The next student will add their understanding of the next step in a single sentence. This time, though, that student folds the paper down to cover the first sentence. Now only their sentence is visible, and no other.

Each time they pass, learners can only see one sentence. They must keep adding the next step of their understanding. This teaches them to really hone in on a specific moment in time. They learn to critically apply their knowledge and logic to explaining themselves as clearly as possible.

8 Role-playing

Pair learners up and have them research an historical conflict. Ideally it should involve an interaction between two famous historical figures. Then lead them to decide which character they will each choose to play.

They will each have opposite points of view in this conflict. Have them discuss it until they can mutually explain the other’s point of view. Their final challenge will be to each suggest a compromise.

9 Speaking with a sketch

We are inherently visual learners. It is challenging to effectively communicate an idea without words, though. Translating thoughts into a picture encourages critical thinking very effectively. It guides learners to think using a different mental skill-set. It is a great way for them to become truly invested in an idea.

10 Change their misconceptions

Critical thinking involves intensive work and concentration. Learners should be left to themselves for much of the process. That said, it can be helpful to step in partway through their process. You can do this to correct misconceptions or assumptions.

Conclusion

Please do put teaching critical thinking skills at the forefront of your lessons. Every subject offers opportunities for critical thinking. Check understanding and offer room for discussion. It will help even if such periods are brief. You’ll begin to see critical thinking as a culture rather than just an activity. Learners will benefit from practising critical thinking. Keep it at the forefront of your teaching. You will offer richer lessons, deeper exploration, and better lifelong learning.

  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for staff development, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit www.simplyinset.co.uk and read his previous articles for SecEd, including his series of free CPD workshop overviews, at http://bit.ly/2u1KW9e


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Hi Steve,
It's really wonderful. It will help me to plan out more effectively.

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