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Why do learners need critical thinking skills?

What is critical thinking and how can you teach it effectively? In this post, we share five strategies for teaching critical thinking - or higher order thinking skills - in your classroom.

6 Feb 2020

What is critical thinking?

Educators, employers, and researchers agree that to succeed in the workplace, learners need skills and competencies beyond technical or academic knowledge - skills such as critical and creative thinking, communication, collaboration and teamwork, self-management, social responsibility, and leadership.

We all know that critical thinking (sometimes known as higher order thinking) is a crucial employability skill. It leads to better learner engagement, greater academic progress and future success in the workplace. But along with other human skills like communication, creativity and self-management, critical thinking skills are often overlooked in education as they're challenging to teach and assess.

But to employers, these skills are invaluable despite being hard to find.

Critical thinking skills are those that enable learners to think critically, going beyond observation and memorisation of facts.

Broadly, critical thinking is defined as a multifaceted skill that involves problem-solving in the face of ill-defined information - or to put it another way, critical thinking involves the use of evidence to create a new argument or method. 


4 reasons why critical thinking skills are important

1. Learners with better critical thinking are more prepared for the workforce.

2. Critical thinking skills can predict academic success in university.

3. Critical thinking has been identified as a crucial skill for university graduates and employers.

4. Greater levels of critical thinking are associated with improved quality of life.


How do you teach critical thinking effectively?

1. Define and discuss critical thinking skills with your learners

Many learners will be unfamiliar with the term critical thinking so be sure to use 'think alouds', explicit instruction and examples to explain what good higher order thinking skills look like in terms of desirable behaviors and useful strategies.

Name and label higher order thinking skills when your learners engage in them, so they begin to develop a vocabulary around these skills and provide your learners with clear opportunities to practise their higher order thinking skills with your support, and give them feedback on their performance.

Teach higher order thinking skills in an appropriate way for learners' developmental level

In some cases, learners' ability to demonstrate critical thinking skills will be dependent on their level of cognitive development as well as their vocabulary, reading and writing skills. It is important to keep these considerations in mind when developing activities. 

The youngest learners can begin developing higher order thinking skills by distinguishing fact and opinion, supporting opinions with evidence, and considering whether information is relevant to solve a problem.

Later, learners can construct paragraph or multi- paragraph arguments and consider the quality of information used to solve a problem.

More advanced students are increasingly able to take an objective, logical, and nuanced stance to drawing conclusions from evidence and critiquing evidence and arguments.

3. Scaffold your learners' practice of critical thinking skills.

You can scaffold higher order thinking skills through the gradual release of responsibility model - “I do, we do, you do”. This strategy allows learners to develop competence with and confidence in their ability to use higher order thinking skills. 

First, complete a task, explaining the higher order thinking skills used as you go along (“I do”). Next, the learners follow along during the task (“We do”). And finally, learners complete the task on their own, getting assistance and support only when needed (“You do”). 

4. Teach your learners how to ask good questions when examining evidence and drawing conclusions.

One of the main goals of critical thinking instruction is to teach your learners to internalise a questioning mindset when gathering and examining evidence and drawing conclusions.

Ask your learners intentional and targeted questions that elicit higher order thinking skills.

Present them with content that poses contradictions and inconsistencies and evokes cognitive conflict (i.e., challenges deeply-held assumptions). This type of content will allow for thoughtful and deep discussions that facilitate higher order thinking skills.

Give them opportunities to practise identifying concepts that can weaken arguments (e.g. logical fallacies, experimenter bias, correlation versus causation or the presence of confounding variables).

5. Incorporate inquiry-based assignments to teach and assess critical thinking skills

Inquiry-based assignments support the development of higher order thinking skills by providing learners with meaningful and challenging questions or problems that require them to investigate and explore problems, and integrate and synthesize information in order to develop and justify a solution idea.

Set assignments that require our learners to explore authentic problems that are complex and do not have clear right or wrong answers.

Incorporate writing into assignments and provide learners with evidence on an issue (i.e. documents or articles) that they have to critically synthesize, organised and evaluate in order to support a decision or conclusion on the issue.  

Try this critical thinking exercise in your primary classroom

Before you begin, ask your students to read the brainteaser alone and not to discuss it, then once they've read it, ask them to stand up if they think it's possible, and stay seated if they don't think it's possible.

Next, ask them to discuss it with their neighbour and indicate their answer in the same way - let them know it is ok to change their mind!

This time, ask those who think it's not possible, why? And ask those who think it is possible, also why?

Then explain that those students who said it is not possible aren't thinking critically. Yes, Friday is six days after Sunday, not two days later. So the cowboy could not have left town on the calendar day Friday. But - that didn't stop him hopping on his horse named Friday and leaving town!

Solving a brainteaser requires you to decide on an answer based on a given amount of information, such the fact that the cowboy in question arrived on a horse. He came to town on a Sunday. The information about sleeping in the hotel isn't relevant. You know that names of the days of the week don't change, so Friday couldn't have taken the place of Tuesday. Therefore, the Friday in question wasn't a weekday. It had to be the name of the cowboy's horse.

We use critical thinking whenever we use logic to connect ideas or information in order to make a decision, draw a conclusion, evaluate a position, or reach an answer.


Here's another question for older students


Again, ask your students to think about this question on their own initially and then share their thoughts with a partner.

To complete the task, first they need to gather information that will inform the plan. Who is the target audience for the product? What has worked well in the past? What hasn’t? 

Next, they'll need to use that information to actually create the plan. What information will they weigh most heavily? What if some of the information they've gathered conflicts?

Throughout the process they'll probably critique various drafts and use those critique to improve their plan.

All of these steps reflect how critical thinking is used.

Just as with the first brainteaser, explain to your students that we use critical thinking whenever we use logic to connect ideas or information in order to make a decision, draw a conclusion, evaluate a position, or reach an answer.


How do you assess critical thinking?

Assessing critical thinking skills can be complex so wherever possible, consider how critical thinking is practised in a particular subject as this will better prepare your students for how they will use critical thinking in their future careers.

Activities that require the exploration of an open-ended, complex, and authentic problem or question typically elicit critical thinking and in particular, having students draw and justify conclusions or design solutions is key to critical thinking assessment.


More on teaching and assessing critical thinking skills

Skills for Today: What we know about critical thinking

Critical thinking: a summary for educators

Throughout February and March we are running a 'Our Human Talents: Personal and Social Capabilities' webinar series which will take taking a deeper dive into the Personal & Social Capabilities that are crucial for employability, including critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Find out more and sign up here.

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