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    7 Ways of Developing Critical Thinking Skills That Engage Learners

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    7 Ways of Developing Critical Thinking Skills That Engage Learners

    Everywhere we go in the world, we ask teachers what they feel are the most important skills for modern learners. Teachers, school leaders, and educators of all kinds have many shared goals. However, no matter where they hail from, one of the most common among them is effectively developing critical thinking skills. 

    Thinking critically is the pinnacle of the accumulation of knowledge and experience. How can we start developing our learners' critical thinking skills rather than teaching to the test? What strategies will bring out the critical thinkers inside all our learners?

    Below is a list of some of the ways we have of developing critical thinking skills the right way for our learners. Ultimately this is as much about how teachers teach as it is about how learners learn. Also, be sure to look at our Critical Thinking Companion, it's full of activities and rubrics to easily start building this skill in your learners.

    Developing critical thinking skills must be embraced and incorporated at the team level. If we start by trusting our teachers to think and speak openly, we can set an example to them to also trust in the goodness of their learners. This encourages kids to step up when fully engaged in meaningful projects.

    1. The Freedom to Learn

    In short, this means to give to the testers what is theirs but give the freedom to think back to our learners. In the article Give Your Students the Freedom to Learn for The Guardian, Matthew Bebbington talks about a strategy used by companies like Google for increasing employee engagement.

    They allow workers a certain "freedom" for focusing on personalized approaches to working on problems. Essentially, they have carte blanche to work on whatever they wish with whoever they wish. The result is a heightened sense of ownership of the problem, and a creative approach to solutions.

    Of course, this elevates critical thinking capacity as well. There's absolutely no reason why the same thing couldn't work in a classroom.

    2. Encourage Project-Based Learning

    Solving real-world problems gets kids out of the classroom and into the real world. Again, this is a skill that's paramount to success in life beyond school. Developing critical thinking skills and HOTS (higher-order thinking skills) comes to the forefront here.

    A great place to do this is Wabisabi. It's a teacher's dream, a resource that lets you plan incredible project-based learning and inquiry units for your students. In addition, it offers real-time reporting against standards, media-rich portfolios your students can easily build as evidence of learning, detailed lesson planning options, and much more.

    3. Encourage Collaboration

    Bring teamwork and peer collaboration into the mix and you're sure to engage critical thinking skills. This applies not only in your classroom with other students but also beyond the classroom walls into broader areas. It can involve the community and all the interesting professionals that are part of it.

    Think about collaboration along the lines of using technology to reach out to the global community. Don't just invest in technology; the end goal is students collaborating, thinking critically, and solving problems relevant to their world.

    4. Include Professional Development

    Make workshops and in-services incorporate the highest critical thinking component among teachers. This is a real boon for administrators, and here's why: what goes around comes around.

    The most effective professional development incorporates teachers being engaged and taking ownership of the material. Through this example, teachers will take this back to their students. If you don't want your teachers to purely lecture, don't hire someone to come in and lecture. Your presenters must be the highest examples of what you want your teachers to be.

    In other words, teach your teachers the same way you want your students to be taught.

    5. Teach the 6D’s of Solution Fluency

    Solution Fluency is a process for working through any problem no matter how big or small. Essentially, it's what you do when you don't know what to do. It doesn't matter if you're writing a shopping list or redesigning the universe; the 6Ds are foolproof and fail-safe. They're also the perfect system for developing critical thinking skills.

    The 6D process is as follows:

    • Define the driving question. Ask questions to clarify, focus and understand what the problem is.
    • Discover all aspects of the problem. What’s being done currently? What exactly is the nature of the problem?
    • Dream and brainstorm directions to approach the solution. Imagine the problem solved in the best way, no matter how seemingly impossible some of the solutions may be, and think without borders.
    • Design the solution. Create a blueprint of the ideas and workshop them thoroughly.
    • Deliver the goods and put the solution to work in a practical application. Generate the product and test it out against the problem.
    • Debrief and review the process and look realistically at the product or solution.

    There are plenty of tools to help you bring this unique critical thinking process into your classroom teaching, as we have with thousands of educators all over the world. Begin with the Solution Fluency Companion or the Critical Thinking Skills Companion, which are excellent resources for developing understanding.

    6. Teach Design Thinking

    Design thinking is another angle very similar to Solution Fluency. In any design approach, nothing is linear. There is always a never-ending cycle of revisitation and revision. When processes are kept linear, possibilities become limited. Possibilities are what both Solution Fluency and design thinking are intended to generate by working cyclically. With them, there are no limits.


    This simple infographic creates a side-by-side comparison of the stages of both Solution Fluency and design thinking. It’s intended to display the striking similarities between the two. Hopefully, this comparison will demonstrate a bit more of the remarkable versatility of Solution Fluency. It truly is a process for both living and learning, and for assisting one in developing critical thinking skills.

    7. Make a Mess

    Messy learning is unguided and encourages learners to draw conclusions on their own. It also requires support from the teacher in the form of structure, templates, guiding questions, scaffolded skills, and the like. Nevertheless, it is the honoring of the critical thinking process of which teachers need to be aware.

    Perhaps the biggest proponents of messy learning are schools that know the value of play in a child’s learning. Schools like those featured here on Getting Smart can provide a safe place for messy, sticky learning.

    The Critical Thinking Cheatsheet

    These challenges above will stretch your learners' critical thinking capacity like never before. However, if you want to really get them talking (and thinking) critically, use the cues on one of our most popular CT resources, the Critical Thinking Cheatsheet. It features a list of questions for Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How.

    These are great conversation starters, research primers, and overall thinking exercises for learners to adopt every day. You can use them for virtually any topic or subject too. So cheat a little—we won't tell.

    Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

    Originally published Jun 20, 2018, updated September 19, 2021


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