When it comes to teaching creatively we use both the heart and the mind in equal measure. ..
For a long time now we’ve discussed critical thinking as being one of the top skills our students need for life beyond school. Such skills are enhanced by the processes of some of our other favourite tools and methodologies like problem-solving and inquiry-based learning. But just how important are critical thinking skills? Additionally, what evidence can we look to for seeing the benefits of teaching them to our learners?
The fact is critical thinking is talked about in many educational circles, but the conversations are not always about how to pursue it and what the next steps are for bringing it into our classrooms. If these are the aptitudes our students require for global workforces in an ever-changing world like ours, doesn’t teaching these skills deserve a place of honour in our classrooms?
What we want to do here is find a way to move past discussion and into action. Let’s talk more about why teaching critical thinking matters to our future. Afterward, we’ll look at how we can make it happen for our young learners as a regular practice in our teaching.
Who Believes in Critical Thinking?
If you look at many education-based organizations, you’ll find critical thinking features in most everyone’s big list of the skills students need. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, the New Zealand Ministry of Education, the International Baccalaureate, the Common Core Standards, and ACARA are just some who reflect this.
Even so, much of the debate seems to revolve around what critical thinking actually is. For interest’s sake, here are some definitions from around the Web:
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
“Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal.”—Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.”—Richard W. Paul
“Thoughtful people ponder the meaning of what they learn and the consequences of what they do. They bring assumptions and implications of ideas and actions to the surface, and challenge them if needed.”—Grant Wiggins
In our own popular resource, the Critical Thinking Companion, we define critical thinking as clear, rational, logical, and independent thinking. It’s about improving modes of thought by analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing how we think. Critical thinking involves mindful communication, problem-solving, and freedom from bias or ego. It’s also about thinking in a self-regulated and self-corrective manner.
However, critical thinking isn’t easy to do, and the assumption is often that it’s much harder to teach as a result. After all, how do you teach someone to think?
In 2006, Mark D. Halx and L. Earle Reybold wrote an article called "A Pedagogy of Force.” In it they made an observation that is just as relevant as it was over a decade ago. They claimed that even though learning requires effort, critical thinking requires our full expenditure of intellectual capability. Their research also found that students and teachers both struggle emotionally with the aspect of personal reflection it requires.
However, the truth is that critical thinking is not something to be feared. Instead, it’s something we must learn to embrace in our schools and classrooms because the world desperately needs it. From solving problems and exploring inquiry-based activities in class to facing the challenges of everyday life, we all need critical thinking skills.
In addition to the obvious applications, consider the world our children live in now and the one they will be inheriting. They’ll be called on to solve problems and face challenges that we cannot conceive of. Furthermore, the openness of the Internet and our ability to create and upload our own content to social media channels has created an information overload. Having an ability to think both critically and analytically using the skills of Media Fluency and Information Fluency, therefore, are critical for us and our students.
The Benefits of Critical Thinking Development
While it may not be easy, critical thinking is one of the most worthwhile things we can pursue in our classrooms. But how do we know how beneficial it really is? If we’re going to be teaching critical thinking, how do we have a sense of how much good it will actually do our young learners?
The answers can be found in studies like Predicting Real-World Outcomes (Butler, Pentoney and Bong, 2017). Critical thinking skills, they deduce, are a far better indicator for making positive life decisions than simple raw intelligence:
“Over one hundred years of research on intelligence testing has shown that scores on standardized tests of intelligence predict a wide range of outcomes, but even the strongest advocates of intelligence testing agree that IQ scores … leave a large portion of the variance unexplained when predicting real-life behaviours … critical thinking ability had a greater association with real life decisions, and it added significantly to explained variance, beyond what was accounted for by intelligence alone.”
In the Chron article What Are the Benefits of Critical Thinking in the Workplace?, author George N. Root III reminds us that critical thinking also makes us better problem-solvers:
“When an issue comes up in the workplace, a common reaction is to assume that it falls into a predetermined category. Critical thinking does not make any assumptions, and using the process of critical thinking in the workplace removes the temptation to immediately classify every issue under something that has happened in the past. It forces employees and managers to look beyond conventional solutions and look for new ideas that can help to efficiently address problems.”
And what about our classrooms? The Pearson article The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking to Students echoes our own beliefs about this fascinating subject:
“Critical thinking is the foundation of strategic thinking, creative thinking, good judgement and good decision making. Good critical thinking results in the ability to draw the right conclusions more often. The good news is that there is substantial evidence showing that critical thinking can be improved with training. Research also suggested that improving critical thinking ability has a knock-on effect in improving problem-solving ability, openness, creativity, organisation, planning and making the right choices in life.”
The list of critical thinking advocates and accolades goes on, but one thing remains clear. Our focus on critical thinking deserves a high seat at the table of education. There’s no better time to begin shifting to this practice than right now.
Research and Discussion Questions
Explore these questions either solo or in a group setting to develop your own next steps for teaching critical thinking.
- What other benefits of critical thinking are there besides what we’ve read?
- How does critical thinking development shift responsibility for learning to our students?
- What examples can you pinpoint of how we would call on critical thinking in everyday life?
- Why do you think schools have not placed more of a focus on such skills?
- What improvements have you seen in this over the past few years?
- What activities would build students’ capacity to think critically about the subjects you teach?
- What curricular barriers exist to teaching critical thinking, and how can we overcome them?
- How do you intend to start bringing critical thinking instruction into your own classrooms?
- Who can you call on to help you, and how can you help them do the same?
- How would you measure students’ results and progress with these skills?
Getting Over the Fear of Critical Thinking
Have you ever heard the expression “if it were easy, then someone else would be doing it” in reference to a difficult task? That’s the attitude we have to take when approaching critical thinking as a goal of teaching and learning. If we can support our students in acquiring these skills in the safest and most relevant ways, the benefits to them are immeasurable. It begins with realizing that the teacher’s role shifts to facilitator of knowledge, while the students take the lead.
It sounds like a huge undertaking, but it seems more manageable when we break it down into smaller pieces. There are countless ways to infuse critical thinking into teaching through the use of activities, assessments, and more. Ultimately the best place to begin is with our Critical Thinking Companion. It has all the activities and assessment tools you need to engage your students with critical thinking development the right way.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Nov 20, 2019, updated September 19, 2021