Teaching school kids to think critically is a delightfully dangerous thing: you end up with students who question everything, who think independently and who, as a consequence, can produce richly thought-out, high quality work. We also get to have a hand in creating young people who are less likely to be mislead by charlatans and scams, and who (because they can think clearly and solve problems rationally) are more likely to make a real and positive difference in the world.
A bold claim that: critical thinkers change the world for the better! But just imagine it: A generation of young people who have a habit of analyzing the claims and information that come their way – and who are aware that rational, evidence-based solutions trump all of those pesky things that hold back human progress: comforting lies, baffling mumbo-jumbo, political rhetoric, emotional manipulation and lazy rationalizations. A better world, I tell ya!
Critical thinking is one of the three or four most essential skills kids can learn at school (along with creativity, the ability to communicate effectively and collaborating). But how exactly should we teach it?
To my mind, teaching critical thinking effectively needs to be part of a deep institution-wide shift. It involves a very carefully planned and managed strategy aimed at the meaningful acquisition of deep thinking abilities. It is not enough to ask teachers to encourage ‘higher order thinking’ in their individual classes – nor is it ever going to be enough simply to demand that students ‘think about it deeply’. Teaching critical thinking seriously requires a systemic reboot.
I would like to suggest the following as points to consider when rolling out a critical thinking program at your school:
Begin by debating, defining and refining your terms at the most fundamental level. What do parents, students, teachers and school management think is meant by:
It might seem a ridiculously simple exercise but getting these things defined is of paramount importance. For example, much of what is done to encourage critical thinking involves the teacher intentionally stepping back and allowing the students to lead lessons. The teacher begins to take on roles more akin to a referee, a coach and a guide. How does this dovetail with any potential definition of ‘teaching’?
What is ‘learning’ exactly? The ability to regurgitate facts? The ability to understand and apply in various contexts? The tendency towards wanting to discover and investigate? All of these?… or something richer perhaps? And how do we get to those higher order skills? Do we necessarily need to build up from the simpler skills?
And in defining ‘thinking’, we need to consider a multi-layered definition that encompasses everything from the creation of hypotheses to the evaluation of data, and everything from analyzing the reliability of information and sources to the interpretation and synthesis of this information.
It may take some time to nail down exactly what is meant by these three terms, but it is worth doing as it creates a mutually-agreed upon scaffolding for rolling out a critical thinking program.
Learn about what critical thinking really means. And then figure out which elements need to be included in critical thinking lessons. Also, (and significantly) how does this change pedagogy? This could perhaps be done by means of a staff ‘unconference’ or a series of brainstorming sessions. The following could be included:
- The scientific method
- Evaluating data
- Evaluating sources
- Research methodology
- Basic logical fallacies and cognitive biases
- Interpreting and synthesizing information
- How to build an argument
- Debating techniques
- Advertising methodologies
- Critiquing texts
Teachers now need to figure out how to infuse the principles decided upon in the previous step into their lessons. They should be encouraged to mash things up with one or more other subjects and to ensure that lessons encourage active, participatory discovery and learning in line with Step One and Two above.
Here’s the big secret: The timetable has to be redesigned and reimagined if any of this is going to work.
Lessons need to…
- be long enough to encourage meaningful and deep learning. I think anything less than an hour significantly curtails learning. Two or even three hour lessons are ideal. At worst, longer and shorter lessons could alternate on different days.
- include specifically allocated time for reflection, peer discussions and the cross-pollination / connection of ideas.
- be flexible and multi-tiered enough to allow for full days (or weeks) to be spent involved in an immersive learning activity that doesn’t necessarily relate to any one specific subject.
- allow for multi-grade collaboration.
I would also specifically allocate time for staff to get together to plan, reflect and share best practice.
Educational technology can play a massive role in encouraging critical thinking prowess. The integration of ICT in the classroom does, however, need to involve a fair amount of training – specifically in the realms of Internet research and the evaluation of the reliability of the information gathered. I would recommend a few hours a week of initial student (and teacher) training across the board at the beginning of the year with the focus on turning devices into critical learning and content creation tools.
Classroom spaces must be redesigned with the needs of the students in mind. Hence, teachers need to consider how to arrange learning spaces so as to foster discussion, collaboration and independently-driven learning. ‘Thinking spaces’ can be set up inside the classroom and elsewhere in the school.
Teachers themselves (and parents) need to be encouraged to model critical thinking both within and outside of the classroom and to do so publicly. Some ideas:
- Get teachers engaged on social media – especially Twitter chats.
- Have staff development days centered around controversial educational topics that require teachers to investigate, debate and reach consensus.
- Request that parents spend a few minutes a day discussing current events with their kids.
- Ask teachers to consider setting up their own blogs and / or a blog per a group of teachers.
- Invite parents and teachers to special talks, workshops and round-table discussions.
Finally, assessments need to be rethought. Standardized assessments can indeed measure critical thinking abilities, but only to a degree. Better assessment practices are those which encourage a visible thinking process and which specifically target investigation, collaboration, substantiation, the building of strong points of view, metacognition, as well as the on-going revision of thoughts and ideas. You may even want to reconsider whether students receive marks for these assessments at all, or whether your school is in the position to offer assessments and reports which are more personalized and critically reflective.
For more posts on critical thinking go to: My thoughts on critical thinking