Now more than ever, it has become important for teachers to help students practice critical thinking skills in the classroom. As educators, we hear lots of talk about the importance of critical thinking, but many of us experience uncertainty about when to teach it, and what teaching these skills look like. We may like the idea of encouraging critical thinking but shy away when the time comes to help students navigate through sticky issues.
Here are some suggestions for how you can begin building critical-thinking skills in your classroom.
1. Teach Students to Question Everything
After the 100th “interesting” student question of the day, it can be tempting to begin to answer these questions with, “Because” or “That’s just the way it is.” Instead, we need to encourage our students not only to ask questions but to continue asking questions once they’ve found the answers. This practice of consistent and critical inquiry can help students to further investigate things they already believe to be true. It is when we begin to question our truths that critical thinking begins. You can start this by asking students questions like,
- “Where can we find that information?”
- “Where can we learn more?”
- “Is there more than one answer to that question?”
- “What information has been left out? Why do you think it was left out?”
- “Can we identify the author’s tone?”
- “Can we identify bias?”
- Model Desired Behaviors
While you’re teaching, reading, researching, stop and ask the same questions aloud that you would ask your students. If we want students to think critically, we have to show them how it’s done. When an issue appears, we need to wrestle with it audibly in front of the class. “Hmm. I wonder if this is the only answer to the question? Are there other thoughts on this?” Even questioning something as simple as classroom routines can be effective: “I wonder if there’s a way to streamline our morning routine to make it faster? What other ways might we do things? How do other classrooms do this?” The more students see you questioning your status quo, looking for new ways to accomplish things, and widening the resources used to answer those questions, the more apt they’ll be to try it!
- Provide Visuals
Many times, students do not share their opinions because they’re afraid that they will “say it wrong” or they “don’t know how to say it” (both quotes I’ve heard in my classroom). It is this fear that holds students back from sharing some really amazing thoughts and ideas! To reduce this fear, create posters to hang in your room all year long that students can use as visual cues to help them when they’re stuck. These anchor charts should provide sentence stems that allow for discussion, responding to what someone else has said, and even a list of critical thinking questions to ask about a subject. When student questions arise, use and refer the words and questions on the anchor charts and encourage students to do the same. If students have a scaffold such as this to help them articulate their thoughts, just imagine what wonderful ideas you’ll hear.
- Allow for Discomfort
Once you’ve encouraged your students to question everything, it is inevitable that they will ask questions that will make you cringe. They might delve into some subjects that are ethically, morally, or politically ambiguous. It is okay to feel uncomfortable, but do not stifle the discussion. We need to show students that asking the tough questions can be a good thing. The reality is that kids are going to talk about these issues somewhere, so why not give them a structured, safe, guided environment in which to do so? You can direct the conversation by continuing to ask questions of students. It’s okay to not have the answers to questions, but encouraging them to keep questioning and researching can be just as important. Take the time to look up the answer together, and then question the sources where you found that information. The more confident students become in asking good questions, and being critical of answers that they find, the less discomfort everyone will feel. Yes, the questions may tackle some tricky issues, but it is because they’re tricky that they’re so important to discuss.
- Don’t Give Up
The first time many teachers help their students expand their thinking and encourage discussion, it doesn’t always go as planned. You might be left feeling that the discussion went awry, or that it was unproductive. It may feel like students didn’t glean what you wanted them to, or that they weren’t seeing the issue for what it really was. You may be met with a silent room, incredibly misinformed comments, or off-topic tangents. What you must never do is give up. Reflect on the activity, what worked well, what didn’t, and what might need to be changed for next time? When the work feels like a failure, it is oftentimes still a success, because you tried. The kids practiced deeper, critical thinking and for this simple fact, it was not a failure. The more your class practices, the better you all will get. The short-term struggle is worth it to help create a generation of students who will have the critical-thinking skills to make informed decisions about themselves and the world around them.
About the Author
Sarah Garza is a middle school teacher
in the San Francisco Bay Area
as well as a published author.