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7 ways to teach critical thinking in elementary education.

Critical thinking skills are an increasingly important element of elementary education, but teaching them can often be a challenge for elementary school teachers.

From what critical thinking is to how to incorporate it into everyday lessons, we examine the essentials of this fundamental intellectual skill below.

7 Ways to Teach Critical Thinking in Elementary Education

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking goes beyond memorization, encouraging students to connect the dots between concepts, solve problems, think creatively, and apply knowledge in new ways.Despite myths that critical thinking skills are only applicable to subjects like science and math, the reality is that these skills—which are based on the evaluation and application of knowledge—are not only vital for success in all subject areas, but everyday life as well.

Critical thinking exercises for elementary education

A BS in Elementary Education—Your Key to Reaching Students

Since children learn in different ways and can come from vastly different backgrounds, it’s essential that future elementary school teachers receive an education that helps them effectively reach various types of students so they can learn to think critically and meet the challenges of living in a diverse, complex world.

If you’re interested helping our children acquire these essential skills, a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Elementary Education can help you prepare to become a certified teacher with the skills and knowledge necessary to be an effective professional educator.

Walden University’s online BS in Elementary Education (Teacher Licensure) program not only aligns with national professional standards and licensure requirements, it can be earned completely online, making it ideal for those balancing work and family commitments.

Ready to become a certified elementary school teacher? Learn how Walden’s online BS in Elementary Education (Teacher Licensure) program can help you engage with children and families to foster healthy development and learning.

The BS in Elementary Education program leads to initial licensure and is approved by the Minnesota Board of Teaching (MBOT) and the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. This program does not qualify for teacher state licensure in Kentucky or North Carolina. Students who are interested in receiving teaching licensure in these states should not enroll in this program. Walden Enrollment Specialists can provide guidance on licensure issues; however, it remains the individual’s responsibility to understand and comply with all state licensure requirements. Walden makes no representation or guarantee that completion of Walden coursework or programs will permit an individual to obtain state licensure or endorsement.

The program learning outcomes are guided by the Minnesota Standards of Effective Practice and Minnesota Teachers of Elementary Education (K–6) Standards.

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Supplement to Critical Thinking

Educational methods.

Experiments have shown that educational interventions can improve critical thinking abilities and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. Glaser (1941) developed teaching materials suitable for senior primary school, high school and college students. To test their effectiveness, he developed with his sponsor Goodwin Watson the Watson-Glaser Tests of Critical Thinking, whose descendants are in widespread global use under the name “Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal” (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994). He found that senior secondary school students receiving 10 weeks of instruction using these materials improved their scores on these tests more than other such students receiving the standard English curriculum during the 10 weeks, to a degree that was statistically significant (i.e., probably not due to chance). More recently, Abrami et al. (2015) summarized in a meta-analysis the best available evidence on the effectiveness of various strategies for teaching students to think critically. The meta-analysis used as a measure of effectiveness a modified version of a statistical measure known as “Cohen’s d”: the ratio of a difference in mean score to the statistical deviation (SD) of the scores in a reference group. A difference of 0.2 SD is a small effect, a difference of 0.5 SD is a moderate effect, and a difference of 0.8 is a large effect (Cohen 1988: 25–27). Abrami et al. (2015) found a weighted mean effect size of 0.30 among 341 effect sizes, with effect sizes ranging from −1 to +2. This methodologically careful meta-analysis provides strong statistical evidence that explicit instruction for critical thinking can improve critical thinking abilities and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests.

Although contemporary meta-analysis provides a more justified verdict on claims of causal effectiveness than other methods of investigation, it does not give the reader an intuitive grasp of what difference a particular intervention makes to the lives of those who receive it. To get an appreciation of this difference, it helps to read the testimony of the teachers and students in the Laboratory School of Chicago where Dewey’s ideas obtained concreteness. The history of the school, written by two of its former teachers in collaboration with Dewey, makes the following claim for the effects of its approach:

As a result of this guarding and direction of their freedom, the children retained the power of initiative naturally present in young children through their inquisitive interests. This spirit of inquiry was given plenty of opportunity and developed with most of the children into the habit of trying a thing out for themselves. Thus, they gradually became familiar with, and to varying degrees skilled in, the use of the experimental method to solve problems in all areas of their experience. (Mayhew & Edwards 1936: 402–403)

A science teacher in the school wrote:

I think the children did get the scientific attitude of mind. They found out things for themselves. They worked out the simplest problems that may have involved a most commonplace and everyday fact in the manner that a really scientific investigator goes to work. (Mayhew & Edwards 1936: 403)

An alumna of the school summed up the character of its former students as follows:

It is difficult for me to be restrained about the character building results of the Dewey School. As the years have passed and as I have watched the lives of many Dewey School children, I have always been astonished at the ease which fits them into all sorts and conditions of emergencies. They do not vacillate and flounder under unstable emotions; they go ahead and work out the problem in hand, guided by their positively formed working habits. Discouragement to them is non-existent, almost ad absurdum. For that very fact, accomplishment in daily living is inevitable. Whoever has been given the working pattern of tackling problems has a courage born of self-confidence and achieves. (Mayhew & Edwards 1936: 406–407)

In the absence of control groups, of standardized tests, and of statistical methods of controlling for confounding variables, such testimonies are weak evidence of the effectiveness of educational interventions in developing the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker—in Dewey’s conception, a scientific attitude. But they give a vivid impression of what might be accomplished in an educational system that takes the development of critical thinking as a goal.

Dewey established the Laboratory School explicitly as an experiment to test his theory of knowledge, which

emphasized the part in the development of thought of problems which originated in active situations and also the necessity of testing thought by action if thought was to pass over into knowledge. (Dewey 1936: 464)

Hence the curriculum of the school started from situations familiar to children from their home life (such as preparing food and making clothing) and posed problems that the children were to solve by doing things and noting the consequences. This curriculum was adjusted in the light of its observed results in the classroom.

The school’s continued experimentation with the subject matter of the elementary curriculum proved that classroom results were best when activities were in accord with the child’s changing interests, his growing consciousness of the relation of means and ends, and his increasing willingness to perfect means and to postpone satisfactions in order to arrive at better ends…. The important question for those guiding this process of growth, and of promoting the alignment and cooperation of interest and effort, is this. What specific subject-matter or mode of skill has such a vital connection with the child’s interest, existing powers, and capabilities as will extend the one [the interest–DH] and stimulate, exercise, and carry forward the others [the powers and capabilities–DH] in a progressive course of action? (Mayhew & Edwards 1936: 420–421)

In an appendix to the history of the Laboratory School, Dewey (1936: 468–469) acknowledges that the school did not solve the problem of finding things in the child’s present experience out of which would grow more elaborate, technical and organized knowledge. Passmore (1980: 91) notes one difficulty of starting from children’s out-of-school experiences: they differ a lot from one child to another. More fundamentally, the everyday out-of-school experiences of a child provide few links to the systematic knowledge of nature and of human history that humanity has developed and that schools should pass on to the next generation. If children are to acquire such knowledge through investigation of problems, teachers must first provide information as a basis for formulating problems that interest them (Passmore 1980: 93–94).

More than a century has passed since Dewey’s experiment. In the interim, researchers have refined the methodology of experimenting with human subjects, in educational research and elsewhere. They have also developed the methodology of meta-analysis for combining the results of various experiments to form a comprehensive picture of what has been discovered. Abrami et al. (2015) report the results of such a meta-analysis of all the experimental and quasi-experimental studies published or archived before 2010 that used as outcome variables standardized measures of critical thinking abilities or dispositions of the sort enumerated in Facione 1990a and described in sections 8 and 9 of the main entry. By an experimental study, they mean one in which participants are divided randomly into two groups, one of which receives the educational intervention designed to improve critical thinking and the other of which serves as a control; they found few such experiments, because of the difficulty of achieving randomization in the classrooms where the studies were conducted. By a quasi-experiment, they mean a study with an intervention group that receives an educational intervention designed to improve critical thinking and a control group, but without random allocation to the two groups. Initially, they included also what they called “pre-experiments”, with single-group pretest-posttest designs, but decided at the analysis stage not to include these studies. By a standardized measure, they mean a test with norms derived from previous administration of the test, as set out in the test’s manual, such as the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985; 2005), the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) and the California Critical Thinking Dispositions Inventory (Facione & Facione 1992; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). They included all such studies in which the educational intervention lasted at least three hours and the participants were at least six years old.

In these studies they found 341 effect sizes. They rated each educational intervention according to the degree to which it involved dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. They found that each of these factors increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They explained the three factors as follows.

Dialogue : In critical dialogue, which historically goes back to Socrates, individuals discuss a problem together. The dialogue can be oral or written, and cooperative or adversarial. It can take the form of asking questions, discussion, or debate. Some curricula designed to promote critical thinking establish “communities of inquiry” among the students. Such communities were a prominent feature of Dewey’s Laboratory School, incorporated as a means of promoting the primary moral objective of fostering a spirit of social cooperation among the children.

An important aspect of this conditioning process by means of the school’s daily practices was to aid each child in forming a habit of thinking before doing in all of his various enterprises. The daily classroom procedure began with a face-to-face discussion of the work of the day and its relation to that of the previous period. The new problem was then faced, analyzed, and possible plans and resources for its solution suggested by members of the group. The children soon grew to like this method. It gave both individual and group a sense of power to be intelligent, to know what they wanted to do before they did it, and to realize the reasons why one plan was preferred to another. It also enlisted their best effort to prove the validity of their judgment by testing the plan in action. Each member of the group thus acquired a habit of observing, criticizing, and integrating values in thought, in order that they should guide the action that would integrate them in fact. The value of thus previsioning consequences of action before they became fixed as fact was emphasized in the school’s philosophy. The social implication is evident. The conscious direction of his actions toward considered social ends became an unfailing index of the child’s progress toward maturity. (Mayhew & Edwards 1936: 423–424)

Communities of inquiry are also a feature of the Montessori method described by Thayer-Bacon (2000) and of the Philosophy for Children program developed by Matthew Lipman (Splitter 1987). Lipman (2003) examines theoretically what is involved in creating communities of inquiry. Hitchcock (2021) argues that the most obvious way for schools to develop critical thinking is to foster development of communities of inquiry.

Anchored instruction : In anchored instruction, whose advocacy goes back to Rousseau (1762) and Dewey (1910), there is an effort to present students with problems that make sense to them, engage them, and stimulate them to inquire. Simulations, role-playing and presentation of ethical or medical dilemmas are methods of anchoring.

Mentoring : Mentoring is a one-on-one relationship in which someone with more relevant expertise (the mentor) interacts with someone with less (the mentee). The mentor acts as a model and as a critic correcting errors by the mentee. Examples of mentoring are an advisor talking to a student, a physician modeling a procedure for a medical student, and an employee correcting an intern. Abrami et al. (2015) identified three kinds of mentoring in the studies that they analyzed: one-on-one teacher-student interaction, peer-led dyads, and internships.

Abrami et al. (2015) also compared educational interventions with respect to whether they were part of subject-matter instruction. For this purpose, they used a distinction among four types of intervention articulated by Ennis (1989). A general approach tries to teach critical thinking separately from subject-matter instruction. An infusion approach combines deep subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically with explicit reference to critical thinking principles. An immersion approach provides deep subject-matter instruction with encouragement to think critically, but without explicit reference to critical thinking principles. A mixed approach combines the general approach with either the infusion or the immersion approach; students combine a separate thread or course aimed at teaching general critical thinking principles with deep subject-matter instruction in which they are encouraged to think critically about the subject-matter. Although the average effect size in the studies using a mixed intervention (+0.38) was greater than the average effect sizes in the studies using general (+0.26), infusion (+0.29) and immersion (+0.23) interventions, the difference was not statistically significant; in other words, it might have been due to chance.

Cleghorn (2021), Makaiau (2021), and Hiner (2021) make specific suggestions for fostering critical thinking respectively in elementary, secondary and post-secondary education. Vincent-Lancrin et al. (2019) report the results of a project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to develop with teachers and schools in 11 countries resources for fostering creativity and critical thinking in elementary and secondary schools.

Ennis (2013, 2018) has made a detailed proposal for a mixed approach to teaching critical thinking across the curriculum of undergraduate education. Attempts at implementing such an approach have faced difficulties. Weinstein (2013: 209–213) describes the attempt at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, from 1987 through the 1990s. He reports that the university’s requirement to include critical thinking in all general education courses led to the use of the concept in identifying topics and tasks in course syllabi, but without a unifying theoretical basis. The committee that approved courses as satisfying a general education requirement ignored the relation of curricular outcomes to critical thinking, and focused instead on work requirements with a prima facie relation to reflective thought: term papers, projects, group work, and dialogue. Sheffield (2018) reports similar difficulties encountered in his position from 2012 to 2015 as the inaugural Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York. A cross-disciplinary faculty advisory group was not ready to accept RIT’s approved definition of critical thinking, but never reached a consensus on an alternative. Payette and Ross (2016), on the other hand, report widespread acceptance of the Paul-Elder framework, which involves elements of thought, intellectual standards, and intellectual virtues (Paul & Elder 2006). Sheffield (2018) reports that many colleges and universities in the United States have received funding for so-called “Quality Enhancement Plans” (QEPs) devoted to critical thinking, many of them written by Paul and Elder or developed in consultation with them. He faults the plans for having a typical time frame of five years, which he argues is probably too short for meaningful results, since lasting institutional change is often extremely slow.

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Classroom Q&A

With larry ferlazzo.

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to [email protected] Read more from this blog.

Eight Instructional Strategies for Promoting Critical Thinking

critical thinking teaching method

(This is the first post in a three-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is critical thinking and how can we integrate it into the classroom?

This three-part series will explore what critical thinking is, if it can be specifically taught and, if so, how can teachers do so in their classrooms.

Today’s guests are Dara Laws Savage, Patrick Brown, Meg Riordan, Ph.D., and Dr. PJ Caposey. Dara, Patrick, and Meg were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show . You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Teaching & Learning Critical Thinking In The Classroom .

Current Events

Dara Laws Savage is an English teacher at the Early College High School at Delaware State University, where she serves as a teacher and instructional coach and lead mentor. Dara has been teaching for 25 years (career preparation, English, photography, yearbook, newspaper, and graphic design) and has presented nationally on project-based learning and technology integration:

There is so much going on right now and there is an overload of information for us to process. Did you ever stop to think how our students are processing current events? They see news feeds, hear news reports, and scan photos and posts, but are they truly thinking about what they are hearing and seeing?

I tell my students that my job is not to give them answers but to teach them how to think about what they read and hear. So what is critical thinking and how can we integrate it into the classroom? There are just as many definitions of critical thinking as there are people trying to define it. However, the Critical Think Consortium focuses on the tools to create a thinking-based classroom rather than a definition: “Shape the climate to support thinking, create opportunities for thinking, build capacity to think, provide guidance to inform thinking.” Using these four criteria and pairing them with current events, teachers easily create learning spaces that thrive on thinking and keep students engaged.

One successful technique I use is the FIRE Write. Students are given a quote, a paragraph, an excerpt, or a photo from the headlines. Students are asked to F ocus and respond to the selection for three minutes. Next, students are asked to I dentify a phrase or section of the photo and write for two minutes. Third, students are asked to R eframe their response around a specific word, phrase, or section within their previous selection. Finally, students E xchange their thoughts with a classmate. Within the exchange, students also talk about how the selection connects to what we are covering in class.

There was a controversial Pepsi ad in 2017 involving Kylie Jenner and a protest with a police presence. The imagery in the photo was strikingly similar to a photo that went viral with a young lady standing opposite a police line. Using that image from a current event engaged my students and gave them the opportunity to critically think about events of the time.

Here are the two photos and a student response:

F - Focus on both photos and respond for three minutes

In the first picture, you see a strong and courageous black female, bravely standing in front of two officers in protest. She is risking her life to do so. Iesha Evans is simply proving to the world she does NOT mean less because she is black … and yet officers are there to stop her. She did not step down. In the picture below, you see Kendall Jenner handing a police officer a Pepsi. Maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal, except this was Pepsi’s weak, pathetic, and outrageous excuse of a commercial that belittles the whole movement of people fighting for their lives.

I - Identify a word or phrase, underline it, then write about it for two minutes

A white, privileged female in place of a fighting black woman was asking for trouble. A struggle we are continuously fighting every day, and they make a mockery of it. “I know what will work! Here Mr. Police Officer! Drink some Pepsi!” As if. Pepsi made a fool of themselves, and now their already dwindling fan base continues to ever shrink smaller.

R - Reframe your thoughts by choosing a different word, then write about that for one minute

You don’t know privilege until it’s gone. You don’t know privilege while it’s there—but you can and will be made accountable and aware. Don’t use it for evil. You are not stupid. Use it to do something. Kendall could’ve NOT done the commercial. Kendall could’ve released another commercial standing behind a black woman. Anything!

Exchange - Remember to discuss how this connects to our school song project and our previous discussions?

This connects two ways - 1) We want to convey a strong message. Be powerful. Show who we are. And Pepsi definitely tried. … Which leads to the second connection. 2) Not mess up and offend anyone, as had the one alma mater had been linked to black minstrels. We want to be amazing, but we have to be smart and careful and make sure we include everyone who goes to our school and everyone who may go to our school.

As a final step, students read and annotate the full article and compare it to their initial response.

Using current events and critical-thinking strategies like FIRE writing helps create a learning space where thinking is the goal rather than a score on a multiple-choice assessment. Critical-thinking skills can cross over to any of students’ other courses and into life outside the classroom. After all, we as teachers want to help the whole student be successful, and critical thinking is an important part of navigating life after they leave our classrooms.



Patrick Brown is the executive director of STEM and CTE for the Fort Zumwalt school district in Missouri and an experienced educator and author :

Planning for critical thinking focuses on teaching the most crucial science concepts, practices, and logical-thinking skills as well as the best use of instructional time. One way to ensure that lessons maintain a focus on critical thinking is to focus on the instructional sequence used to teach.

Explore-before-explain teaching is all about promoting critical thinking for learners to better prepare students for the reality of their world. What having an explore-before-explain mindset means is that in our planning, we prioritize giving students firsthand experiences with data, allow students to construct evidence-based claims that focus on conceptual understanding, and challenge students to discuss and think about the why behind phenomena.

Just think of the critical thinking that has to occur for students to construct a scientific claim. 1) They need the opportunity to collect data, analyze it, and determine how to make sense of what the data may mean. 2) With data in hand, students can begin thinking about the validity and reliability of their experience and information collected. 3) They can consider what differences, if any, they might have if they completed the investigation again. 4) They can scrutinize outlying data points for they may be an artifact of a true difference that merits further exploration of a misstep in the procedure, measuring device, or measurement. All of these intellectual activities help them form more robust understanding and are evidence of their critical thinking.

In explore-before-explain teaching, all of these hard critical-thinking tasks come before teacher explanations of content. Whether we use discovery experiences, problem-based learning, and or inquiry-based activities, strategies that are geared toward helping students construct understanding promote critical thinking because students learn content by doing the practices valued in the field to generate knowledge.


An Issue of Equity

Meg Riordan, Ph.D., is the chief learning officer at The Possible Project, an out-of-school program that collaborates with youth to build entrepreneurial skills and mindsets and provides pathways to careers and long-term economic prosperity. She has been in the field of education for over 25 years as a middle and high school teacher, school coach, college professor, regional director of N.Y.C. Outward Bound Schools, and director of external research with EL Education:

Although critical thinking often defies straightforward definition, most in the education field agree it consists of several components: reasoning, problem-solving, and decisionmaking, plus analysis and evaluation of information, such that multiple sides of an issue can be explored. It also includes dispositions and “the willingness to apply critical-thinking principles, rather than fall back on existing unexamined beliefs, or simply believe what you’re told by authority figures.”

Despite variation in definitions, critical thinking is nonetheless promoted as an essential outcome of students’ learning—we want to see students and adults demonstrate it across all fields, professions, and in their personal lives. Yet there is simultaneously a rationing of opportunities in schools for students of color, students from under-resourced communities, and other historically marginalized groups to deeply learn and practice critical thinking.

For example, many of our most underserved students often spend class time filling out worksheets, promoting high compliance but low engagement, inquiry, critical thinking, or creation of new ideas. At a time in our world when college and careers are critical for participation in society and the global, knowledge-based economy, far too many students struggle within classrooms and schools that reinforce low-expectations and inequity.

If educators aim to prepare all students for an ever-evolving marketplace and develop skills that will be valued no matter what tomorrow’s jobs are, then we must move critical thinking to the forefront of classroom experiences. And educators must design learning to cultivate it.

So, what does that really look like?

Unpack and define critical thinking

To understand critical thinking, educators need to first unpack and define its components. What exactly are we looking for when we speak about reasoning or exploring multiple perspectives on an issue? How does problem-solving show up in English, math, science, art, or other disciplines—and how is it assessed? At Two Rivers, an EL Education school, the faculty identified five constructs of critical thinking, defined each, and created rubrics to generate a shared picture of quality for teachers and students. The rubrics were then adapted across grade levels to indicate students’ learning progressions.

At Avenues World School, critical thinking is one of the Avenues World Elements and is an enduring outcome embedded in students’ early experiences through 12th grade. For instance, a kindergarten student may be expected to “identify cause and effect in familiar contexts,” while an 8th grader should demonstrate the ability to “seek out sufficient evidence before accepting a claim as true,” “identify bias in claims and evidence,” and “reconsider strongly held points of view in light of new evidence.”

When faculty and students embrace a common vision of what critical thinking looks and sounds like and how it is assessed, educators can then explicitly design learning experiences that call for students to employ critical-thinking skills. This kind of work must occur across all schools and programs, especially those serving large numbers of students of color. As Linda Darling-Hammond asserts , “Schools that serve large numbers of students of color are least likely to offer the kind of curriculum needed to ... help students attain the [critical-thinking] skills needed in a knowledge work economy. ”

So, what can it look like to create those kinds of learning experiences?

Designing experiences for critical thinking

After defining a shared understanding of “what” critical thinking is and “how” it shows up across multiple disciplines and grade levels, it is essential to create learning experiences that impel students to cultivate, practice, and apply these skills. There are several levers that offer pathways for teachers to promote critical thinking in lessons:

1.Choose Compelling Topics: Keep it relevant

A key Common Core State Standard asks for students to “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.” That might not sound exciting or culturally relevant. But a learning experience designed for a 12th grade humanities class engaged learners in a compelling topic— policing in America —to analyze and evaluate multiple texts (including primary sources) and share the reasoning for their perspectives through discussion and writing. Students grappled with ideas and their beliefs and employed deep critical-thinking skills to develop arguments for their claims. Embedding critical-thinking skills in curriculum that students care about and connect with can ignite powerful learning experiences.

2. Make Local Connections: Keep it real

At The Possible Project , an out-of-school-time program designed to promote entrepreneurial skills and mindsets, students in a recent summer online program (modified from in-person due to COVID-19) explored the impact of COVID-19 on their communities and local BIPOC-owned businesses. They learned interviewing skills through a partnership with Everyday Boston , conducted virtual interviews with entrepreneurs, evaluated information from their interviews and local data, and examined their previously held beliefs. They created blog posts and videos to reflect on their learning and consider how their mindsets had changed as a result of the experience. In this way, we can design powerful community-based learning and invite students into productive struggle with multiple perspectives.

3. Create Authentic Projects: Keep it rigorous

At Big Picture Learning schools, students engage in internship-based learning experiences as a central part of their schooling. Their school-based adviser and internship-based mentor support them in developing real-world projects that promote deeper learning and critical-thinking skills. Such authentic experiences teach “young people to be thinkers, to be curious, to get from curiosity to creation … and it helps students design a learning experience that answers their questions, [providing an] opportunity to communicate it to a larger audience—a major indicator of postsecondary success.” Even in a remote environment, we can design projects that ask more of students than rote memorization and that spark critical thinking.

Our call to action is this: As educators, we need to make opportunities for critical thinking available not only to the affluent or those fortunate enough to be placed in advanced courses. The tools are available, let’s use them. Let’s interrogate our current curriculum and design learning experiences that engage all students in real, relevant, and rigorous experiences that require critical thinking and prepare them for promising postsecondary pathways.


Critical Thinking & Student Engagement

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books who currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the award-winning Meridian CUSD 223 in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

When I start my keynote on student engagement, I invite two people up on stage and give them each five paper balls to shoot at a garbage can also conveniently placed on stage. Contestant One shoots their shot, and the audience gives approval. Four out of 5 is a heckuva score. Then just before Contestant Two shoots, I blindfold them and start moving the garbage can back and forth. I usually try to ensure that they can at least make one of their shots. Nobody is successful in this unfair environment.

I thank them and send them back to their seats and then explain that this little activity was akin to student engagement. While we all know we want student engagement, we are shooting at different targets. More importantly, for teachers, it is near impossible for them to hit a target that is moving and that they cannot see.

Within the world of education and particularly as educational leaders, we have failed to simplify what student engagement looks like, and it is impossible to define or articulate what student engagement looks like if we cannot clearly articulate what critical thinking is and looks like in a classroom. Because, simply, without critical thought, there is no engagement.

The good news here is that critical thought has been defined and placed into taxonomies for decades already. This is not something new and not something that needs to be redefined. I am a Bloom’s person, but there is nothing wrong with DOK or some of the other taxonomies, either. To be precise, I am a huge fan of Daggett’s Rigor and Relevance Framework. I have used that as a core element of my practice for years, and it has shaped who I am as an instructional leader.

So, in order to explain critical thought, a teacher or a leader must familiarize themselves with these tried and true taxonomies. Easy, right? Yes, sort of. The issue is not understanding what critical thought is; it is the ability to integrate it into the classrooms. In order to do so, there are a four key steps every educator must take.




Thanks to Dara, Patrick, Meg, and PJ for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected] . When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo .

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching .

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones won’t be available until February). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first nine years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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Innovative Teaching Ideas

Critical thinking for teachers and students


What Do We Mean by the Term ‘Critical Thinking?’

Firstly, there is no single, commonly agreed definition of the term ‘critical thinking’.

However, most commonly as teachers we use it to refer to what are known as the higher-order thinking skills.

These higher-order thinking skills are skills that require us to think in a deeper, more complex manner.

If you are familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy, think of the upper levels of the hierarchy - analyze, evaluate, create. We could also add infer to this list of critical thinking skills.

Put simply, critical thinking requires the student to engage in an objective analysis of a topic and evaluate the available information in order to form a judgment.

Critical thinking demands a systematic approach to evaluating new information. It encourages us to question and reflect on our own knowledge and how we arrive at the opinions we have and make the decisions we make.



  Why Is Critical Thinking Important?

Our students need to be able to think critically to make rational decisions on what to believe or what course of action to take.

An inability to think critically can leave students vulnerable to muddied thinking and the possibility of believing in unsound ideas.

Critical thinking helps students to filter the wheat from the chaff, intellectually speaking.

Developing strong critical thinking skills helps students to eliminate dubious data to leave only the strongest, most reliable information.

At its core, critical thinking is about having good reasons for our beliefs. It helps us to navigate through bias (our own and that of others) to avoid manipulation or becoming enslaved by our feelings. These are essential skills in an age of overwhelming information.

Helping our students to develop their critical thinking skills not only inoculates them against embracing flawed ideas, but these skills are also some of the most in-demand by employers and this looks set to continue to be so well into the future.

This is due to the ever-increasing pace of technological change. It is impossible to accurately predict the specific requirements of many future jobs. One thing is for sure though, so-called soft skills such as critical thinking will ensure students will be able to adapt to whatever shapes the workplace of the future will take.

Teaching Critical Thinking 

There are any number of ways to introduce critical thinking into the classroom, either as discrete activities, or interwoven into lessons with other stated objectives. However, it is helpful to students to take the time to teach a variety of strategies to help them think critically about the ideas they encounter which will help them form their own opinions.

An opinion based on critical thinking does not rely on gut feeling, but rather on rational reasoning which often requires some form of initial research.

Let’s start by taking a look at some ways you can encourage critical thinking in your classroom, especially in the research process.


A complete guide to teaching Critical Thinking

This 180 page e-book is an excellent resource for teacher’s looking to implement critical thinking in the classroom.

It is packed full of great content whether you are just starting out, or looking to go further.

It makes relevant connections to technology, STEM, critical and creative thinking.

Teaching Strategies: A Step-by-Step Approach to Critical Thinking

The following process is a useful template to teach students. When embarking on their own research, this template provides a step-by-step process which they can use to structure their investigations.

1. Format the Question

In the age of the Internet, access to information is longer the major hurdle facing the inquisitive student investigator. If anything, the real problem now is knowing how to appropriately sift through the almost inexhaustible amount of information out there.

The key to this filtration process is the formulation of the research question. How the question is composed and formatted will inform exactly what information the student is looking for and what information can be discarded.

The type of question formatted here will depend on the purpose of the research. For example, is the question intended to establish knowledge? Then, it may well be a straightforward What type question, for example, What are the consequences of a diet high in processed sugars?

If the question is geared more towards the use of that information or knowledge, then the question may be more of a Why type question, for example, Why do some commentators claim that a diet high in processed sugars is the greatest threat facing public health?

One extremely useful tool to assist in formatting questions that make demands on student critical thinking abilities is to employ Bloom’s taxonomy.

2. Gather the Information

Once the question has been clearly defined, then the process of gathering the information begins. Students should frequently refer back to their research question to ensure they are maintaining their focus.  

As they gather information in relation to their question, reference to their initial question will help them to determine the relevance of the information in front of them. They can then weigh up whether or not the information is helpful in moving them further towards answering their initial research question.

3. Apply the Information  

The ability to think critically about information is of no use unless the understandings gained can be applied in the real world.

The most practical application of this skill is seen when it is used to inform decision-making. When faced with making a decision, encourage students to reflect on the concepts at work in regards to the choice they face.

They must look at what assumptions exist and explore whether their interpretation of the issue is a logically sound one. To do this effectively, they will also need to consider the effects of that decision.


4. Consider the Implications

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As the old proverb suggests, our well-intended decisions can sometimes lead to unforeseen negative consequences. When considering paths of action, we need to encourage our students to reflect deeply on all possible outcomes of those actions: short, medium, and long term.

Unintended consequences are outcomes that are unforeseen and can often undo much of the good of the original decision.

There are many fascinating examples of this phenomenon that are easily found online and can be interesting to share with the students.

One such example was uncovered by the economist Sam Peltzman. He found that when mandatory seat-belt legislation was passed in some of the US states the number of fatalities of drivers did go down as a result. However, he also found that this was offset by an increase in fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists as drivers felt safer wearing seat belts and many drove faster as a result.

5. Explore Other Points of View

This is the final testing ground of an opinion that has been forged in the fires of critical thinking. Though students will have been exposed to competing ideas earlier in the research stage, they should now take the time to measure their matured opinion against these other points of view.

Exploring alternative viewpoints helps us to evaluate our own choices and to avoid stagnating in our own biases and innate preferences. Doing this helps us to make the most informed decisions possible.

Now that we’ve had a look at a step-by-step approach to critical thinking, let’s take a look at some creative ways to help students exercise those critical thinking muscles in the classroom. Getting critical doesn’t have to be boring!

Critical Thinking Games and Activities

The Barometer: Find Out Where You Stand

When considering where we stand on issues, it’s important to realise that things don’t always have to be a zero-sum game.  Things don’t have to be all or nothing.  Students need to learn that opinions can be nuanced and that often there exists a spectrum of opinion on any given issue.

In this activity, give the students a controversial issue to consider. Assign the extremes on the issue to opposite ends of the classroom and instruct students to arrange themselves along a continuum based on how strongly they feel about the issue.

They’ll likely need to engage in some free-flowing conversation to figure this out and setting a time limit will help ensure this discussion doesn’t go on endlessly.

Draw an Analogy: Making Lateral Links

This game encourages students to think creatively and indirectly about an idea or a subject and it can be used in practically any context. It encourages students to make comparisons between seemingly unconnected things by analyzing both for any underlying concepts that may link them together somehow - no matter how tenuously!

Start by asking your students a creative question based on the topic or idea you are exploring together in the classroom. The format of these questions should closely follow a similar pattern to the following examples:

●      How is raising a child like building a house?

●      Why is an egg like a hunk of marble?

●      How is a bookshelf like a lunchbox?

The more inventive the elements in each question are, the more challenging it will be for the students to make links between the two of them.

This game can generate some interesting responses and is easy to differentiate for students of all ages. Younger students may enjoy a simpler question format such as ‘ Smell is to nose as sight is to… ’ where the links between the elements are much more obvious.

For older students, remember too that when devising the questions the links between the different elements do not have to be obvious. Indeed, as far as you’re concerned they do not even have to exist. That’s for the students to explore and create.

Build Critical Thinking Skills with Brain Teasers

Brain teasers are great fun and an enjoyable way to fill a few minutes of class time, but they also provide great exercise for students’ critical thinking abilities. Though they are often based on unlikely premises, the skills acquired in solving them can have real-world applications.

Let’s take an example to see how this works. Ask your students the following teaser - you might want to set a time limit and have them write their answers down to put some added pressure on:

A rooster sits on a barn and is facing west. The wind is blowing eastward at a speed of 15 kilometers per hour. The rooster lays an egg. Which cardinal direction does the egg roll?  

The answer is, of course, that there is no egg. Roosters are male and therefore can’t lay eggs.

One of the reasons why so many will get this simple teaser wrong is that despite knowing that a rooster is a male chicken, they overlook it due to the casualness with which it’s thrown into the teaser.  

The other reason is the misdirection caused by the quite meticulous detail provided. Students are likely to pay too much attention to the details such as the speed of the wind, its direction, and the direction of the rooster is facing.

All these irrelevant details distract the students from the fact that the only information required to solve this teaser is actually provided by the 2nd word of the riddle.

There are numerous brain teasers freely available on the Internet. Weaving them into your lessons gives students opportunities to sharpen their critical thinking skills by sorting relevant from irrelevant details and encouraging students to analyze closely the relevant details provided.

Build the Habit and Become a Critical Thinker


In this article, we have taken a look at some concrete ways to practice critical thinking skills in the classroom. However, becoming a critical thinker is much more about developing consistent critical thinking habits in our approach to ideas and opinions.

To help your students develop these habits, be sure to encourage intellectual curiosity in the classroom. Ask students to examine their own assumptions and evaluate these in light of opposing opinions and available evidence.

Create opportunities in your lessons to explore advertisements and even political statements together. Fight the urge to impart your own beliefs and biases in favor of allowing students to determine the credibility of the sources themselves. Encourage them to draw their own conclusions.

Consistently insist that your students provide evidence to support their conclusions when they express opinions in classroom discussions.

In time, the habit of critical thinking will inform how your students approach any new information that they come across. This will leave them better able to think clearly and systematically and better able to express themselves coherently too.


Teach Better

Strategies to Increase Critical Thinking Skills in students

Matthew Joseph October 2, 2019 Blog , Engage Better , Lesson Plan Better , Personalize Student Learning Better

critical thinking teaching method

In This Post:

We ask our teachers to be “future-ready” or say that we are teaching “for jobs that don’t exist yet.” These are powerful statements. At the same time, they give teachers the impression that we have to drastically change what we are doing .

So how do we plan education for an unknown job market or unknown needs?

My answer: We can’t predict the jobs, but whatever they are, students will need to think critically to do them. So, our job is to teach our students HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

Helping Students Become Critical Thinkers

My answer is rooted in the call to empower our students to be critical thinkers. I believe that to be critical thinkers, educators need to provide students with the strategies they need. And we need to ask more than just surface-level questions.

Questions to students must motivate them to dig up background knowledge. They should inspire them to make connections to real-world scenarios. These make the learning more memorable and meaningful.

Critical thinking is a general term. I believe this term means that students effectively identify, analyze, and evaluate content or skills. In this process, they (the students) will discover and present convincing reasons in support of their answers or thinking.

You can look up critical thinking and get many definitions like this one from Wikipedia: “ Critical thinking consists of a mental process of analyzing or evaluating information, particularly statements or propositions that people have offered as true. ”

Essential Skills for Critical Thinking

In my current role as director of curriculum and instruction, I work to promote the use of 21st-century tools and, more importantly, thinking skills. Some essential skills that are the basis for critical thinking are:

These four bullets are skills students are going to need in any field and in all levels of education. Hence my answer to the question. We need to teach our students to think critically and for themselves.

One of the goals of education is to prepare students to learn through discovery . Providing opportunities to practice being critical thinkers will assist students in analyzing others’ thinking and examining the logic of others.

Understanding others is an essential skill in collaboration and in everyday life. Critical thinking will allow students to do more than just memorize knowledge.

Ask Questions

So how do we do this? One recommendation is for educators to work in-depth questioning strategies into a lesson launch.

Ask thoughtful questions to allow for answers with sound reasoning. Then, word conversations and communication to shape students’ thinking. Quick answers often result in very few words and no eye contact, which are skills we don’t want to promote.

When you are asking students questions and they provide a solution, try some of these to promote further thinking:

Utilizing critical thinking skills could be seen as a change in the paradigm of teaching and learning. Engagement in education will enhance the collaboration among teachers and students. It will also provide a way for students to succeed even if the school system had to start over.

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Promoting critical thinking into all aspects of instruction.

Engagement, application, and collaboration are skills that withstand the test of time. I also promote the integration of critical thinking into every aspect of instruction.

In my experience, I’ve found a few ways to make this happen.

Begin lessons/units with a probing question: It shouldn’t be a question you can answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ These questions should inspire discovery learning and problem-solving.

Encourage Creativity: I have seen teachers prepare projects before they give it to their students many times. For example, designing snowmen or other “creative” projects. By doing the design work or by cutting all the circles out beforehand, it removes creativity options.

It may help the classroom run more smoothly if every child’s material is already cut out, but then every student’s project looks the same. Students don’t have to think on their own or problem solve.

Not having everything “glue ready” in advance is a good thing. Instead, give students all the supplies needed to create a snowman, and let them do it on their own.

Giving independence will allow students to become critical thinkers because they will have to create their own product with the supplies you give them. This might be an elementary example, but it’s one we can relate to any grade level or project.

Try not to jump to help too fast – let the students work through a productive struggle .

Build in opportunities for students to find connections in learning.  Encouraging students to make connections to a real-life situation and identify patterns is a great way to practice their critical thinking skills. The use of real-world scenarios will increase rigor, relevance, and critical thinking.

A few other techniques to encourage critical thinking are:

Critical thinking prepares students to think for themselves for the rest of their lives. I also believe critical thinkers are less likely to go along with the crowd because they think for themselves.

About Matthew X. Joseph, Ed.D.

Dr. Matthew X. Joseph has been a school and district leader in many capacities in public education over his 25 years in the field. Experiences such as the Director of Digital Learning and Innovation in Milford Public Schools (MA), elementary school principal in Natick, MA and Attleboro, MA, classroom teacher, and district professional development specialist have provided Matt incredible insights on how to best support teaching and learning. This experience has led to nationally publishing articles and opportunities to speak at multiple state and national events. He is the author of Power of Us: Creating Collaborative Schools and co-author of Modern Mentoring , Reimagining Teacher Mentorship (Due out, fall 2019). His master’s degree is in special education and his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Boston College.

Visit Matthew’s Blog

critical thinking teaching method


Teaching critical thinking: An evidence-based guide

© 2009-2012 gwen dewar, ph.d., all rights reserved.


Teaching critical thinking? You might wonder if kids will work it out for themselves.

After all, lots of smart people have managed to think logically without formal instruction in logic. Moreover, studies show that kids become better learners when they are forced to explain how they solve problems. So maybe kids will discover principles of logic spontaneously, as they discuss their ideas with others.

But research hints at something else, too.

Perhaps the most effective way to foster critical thinking skills is to teach those skills. Explicitly. (Abrami et al 2008).

Studies suggest that students become remarkably better problem-solvers when we teach them to

Do such lessons stifle creativity? Not at all. Critical thinking is about curiosity, flexibility, and keeping an open mind (Quitadamo et al 2008). And, as Robert DeHaan has argued, creative problem solving depends on critical thinking skills (DeHaan 2009).

In fact, research suggests that explicit instruction in critical thinking may make kids smarter, more independent, and more creative.

Here are some examples–and some expert tips for teaching critical thinking to kids.

Teaching critical thinking may boost inventiveness and raise IQ

Richard Herrnstein and his colleagues gave over 400 seventh graders explicit instruction in critical thinking–a program that covered hypothesis testing, basic logic, and the evaluation of complex arguments, inventiveness, decision making, and other topics.

After sixty 45-minute lessons, the kids were tested on a variety of tasks, including tests the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test and Raven Progressive Matrices (both used to measure IQ). The project was remarkably effective.

Compared to students in a control group, the kids given critical thinking lessons made substantial and statistically significant improvements in language comprehension, inventive thinking, and even IQ (Herrnstein et al 1986).

Teaching critical thinking in science class may help kids solve everyday problems

In another experimental study, researchers Anat Zohar and colleagues tested 678 seventh graders’ analytical skills. Then they randomly assigned some students to receive critical thinking lessons as part of their biology curriculum.

Students in the experimental group were explicitly trained to recognize logical fallacies, analyze arguments, test hypotheses, and distinguish between evidence and the interpretation of evidence.

Students in a control group learned biology from the same textbook but got no special coaching in critical thinking.

At the end of the program, students were tested again. The students with critical thinking training showed greater improvement in their analytical skills, and not just for biology problems. The kids trained in critical thinking also did a better job solving everyday problems (Zohar et al 1994).

Tips for teaching critical thinking: What should parents and teachers do?

The short answer is make the principles of rational and scientific thinking explicit.

Philip Abrami and colleagues analyzed 117 studies about teaching critical thinking. The teaching approach with the strongest empirical support was explicit instruction –i.e., teaching kids specific ways to reason and solve problems. In studies where teachers asked students to solve problems without giving them explicit instruction, students experienced little improvement (Abrami et al 2008).

So it seems that kids benefit most when they are taught formal principles of reasoning. And the experiments mentioned above suggest that middle school students aren’t too young to learn about logic, rationality, and the scientific method.

If your school isn’t teaching your child these things, then it might be a good idea to find some educational materials and work on critical thinking skills at home.

I also wonder about the need to counteract the forces of irrationality. As I’ve complained elsewhere, TV, books, “educational” software, and misinformed authority figures can discourage critical thinking in children.

What else can we do?

Recent research suggests that our schools can improve critical thinking skills by teaching kids the art of debate.

And at home, parents may consider these recommendations made by Peter Facione and a panel of experts convened by the American Philosophical Association (Facione 1990).

The American Philosophical Association’s tips for teaching critical thinking

• Start early. Young children might not be ready for lessons in formal logic. But they can be taught to give reasons for their conclusions. And they can be taught to evaluate the reasons given by others. Wondering where to begin? If you have young child, check out these research-based tips for teaching critical thinking and scientific reasoning to preschoolers.

• Avoid pushing dogma. When we tell kids to do things in a certain way, we should give reasons.

• Encourage kids to ask questions. Parents and teachers should foster curiosity in children. If a rationale doesn’t make sense to a child, she should be encouraged to voice her objection or difficulty.

• Ask kids to consider alternative explanations and solutions. It’s nice to get the right answer. But many problems yield themselves to more than one solution. When kids consider multiple solutions, they may become more flexible thinkers.

• Get kids to clarify meaning. Kids should practice putting things in their own words (while keeping the meaning intact). And kids should be encouraged to make meaningful distinctions.

• Talk about biases. Even grade school students can understand how emotions, motives–even our cravings–can influence our judgments.

• Don’t confine critical thinking to purely factual or academic matters. Encourage kids to reason about ethical, moral, and public policy issues.

• Get kids to write. This last recommendation doesn’t come from Facione or the APA, but it makes good sense. As many teachers know, the process of writing helps students clarify their explanations and sharpen their arguments. In a recent study, researchers assigned college biology students to one of two groups. The writing group had to turn in written explanations of their laboratory work. The control group had to answer brief quizzes instead. At the end of the term, the students in the writing group had increased their analytical skills significantly. Students in the control group had not (Quitadamo and Kurtz 2007).

More information

For more information about improving your child’s problem-solving skills, be sure to check out my articles on intelligence in children and science education for kids.

References: Tips for teaching critical thinking to kids

Abrami PC, Bernard RM, Borokhovski E, Wadem A, Surkes M A, Tamim R, Zhang D. 2008. Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: a stage 1 meta-analysis. Rev. Educ. Res. 78:1102–1134.

DeHaan RL. 2009. Teaching creativity and inventive problem solving in science. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 8: 172-181.

Facione PA and the American Philosophical Association. 1990. Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. In: Research Findings and Recommendations, Millbrae, CA: Insight Assessment.

Herrnstein RJ, Nickerson RS, Sanchez M and Swets JA. 1986. Teaching thinking skills. American Psychologist 41: 1279-1289.

Quitadamo JJ, Faiola CL, Johnson JE and Kurtz MJ. 2008. Community-based inquiry improves critical thinking in general biology. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 7: 327-337.

Quitadamo IJ and Kurtz MJ. 2007. Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology CBE Life Sci Educ 6(2): 140-154.

Zohar A, Weinberger Y and Tamir P. 1994. The effect of the biology critical thinking project on the development of critical thinking. Journal of Res. Sci. Teachiing 31(2): 183-196.

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K-12 Resources By Teachers, For Teachers Provided by the K-12 Teachers Alliance

Teaching Strategies to Promote Critical Thinking

Janelle cox.

Young boy pointing to a light bulb drawn on a chalkboard

Critical thinking has been an important issue in education, and has become quite the buzzword around schools. The  Common Core State Standards  specifically emphasize a  thinking  curriculum and thereby require teachers to elevate their students’ mental workflow beyond just memorization—which is a really good step forward.  Critical thinking  is a skill that young minds will undeniably need and exercise well beyond their school years. Experts agree that in keeping up with the ever-changing technological advances, students will need to obtain, understand, and analyze information on a much more efficient scale. It is our job as educators to equip our students with the strategies and skills they need to think critically in order to cope with these tech problems and obstacles they face elsewhere.

Fortunately, teachers can use a number of techniques that can help students learn critical thinking, even for children enrolled in kindergarten. Here are some teaching strategies that may prove immediately effective:

Encourage Creativity

Traditionally, elementary teachers prepare templates for art projects before they give it to their students. By doing so, it levels the creative playing field and can, in some ways, help the classroom run more smoothly.

I know it may be a bit unnerving to relinquish a bit of control, but rest assured that  not  having everything prepped in advance is a  good  thing. Instead, give students all of the supplies needed to create a snowflake, and let them do it on their own. This will allow students to become critical thinkers because they will have to use their prior knowledge to consider what a snowflake looks like, how big it is, what color it is, etc.

Do Not Always Jump in to Help

It’s too easy to always find a solution for a student who needs your help. Kindergarteners especially will get very upset when they can’t find their crayons or scissors. The easy way for a teacher to answer is “It’s okay, you can borrow a pair of scissors from me.” Instead of always readily finding a solution for your students, try responding with “Let’s think about how we can find them.” Then you can assist the student in figuring out the best possible solution for finding their lost item.

Brainstorm Before Everything You Do

One of the easiest and most effective ways to get young children to think critically is to brainstorm. Regardless of subject, have students think about what they’ll be doing, learning, or reading — before actually starting each activity. Ask a lot questions, like “What do you think this book will be about?” or “Tell me three things you think you will be learning in this lesson about space?” Give students every opportunity you can to be critical thinkers.

Classify and Categorize

Classification plays an important role in critical thinking because it requires students to understand and apply a set of rules. Give students a variety of objects and ask them to identify each object, then sort it into a category. This is a great activity to help students think and self-question what object should go where and why.

Compare and Contrast

Much like classifying, students will need to look closely at each topic or object they are comparing and really think about the significance of each one. You can have students compare and contrast just about anything — try this out with the book your class is reading now. Compare and contrast the weather forecast for today and yesterday. Compare the shape and color of a pumpkin to another vegetable. Compare and contrast today’s math lesson with last week’s. The ideas are endless.

Make Connections

Encouraging students to make connections to a real-life situation and identify patterns is a great way to practice their critical thinking skills. Ask students to always be on the look for these connections, and when they find one to make sure they tell you.

Provide Group Opportunities

Group settings are the perfect way to get your kids thinking. When children are around their classmates working together, they get exposed to the thought processes of their peers. They learn how to understand how other people think and that their way is not the only route to explore.

When the importance of critical thinking is introduced to students early on in the education process, students will be capable of having complex thoughts and become better problem solvers when presented with difficulty. It’s important for students to possess a variety of skills, but it’s just as important for them to understand how and when to use them.

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Active Learning Strategies to Promote Critical Thinking

Stacy E. Walker, PhD, ATC, provided conception and design; acquisition and analysis and interpretation of the data; and drafting, critical revision, and final approval of the article.

To provide a brief introduction to the definition and disposition to think critically along with active learning strategies to promote critical thinking.

Data Sources:

I searched MEDLINE and Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) from 1933 to 2002 for literature related to critical thinking, the disposition to think critically, questioning, and various critical-thinking pedagogic techniques.

Data Synthesis:

The development of critical thinking has been the topic of many educational articles recently. Numerous instructional methods exist to promote thought and active learning in the classroom, including case studies, discussion methods, written exercises, questioning techniques, and debates. Three methods—questioning, written exercises, and discussion and debates—are highlighted.


The definition of critical thinking, the disposition to think critically, and different teaching strategies are featured. Although not appropriate for all subject matter and classes, these learning strategies can be used and adapted to facilitate critical thinking and active participation.

The development of critical thinking (CT) has been a focus of educators at every level of education for years. Imagine a certified athletic trainer (ATC) who does not consider all of the injury options when performing an assessment or an ATC who fails to consider using any new rehabilitation techniques because the ones used for years have worked. Envision ATCs who are unable to react calmly during an emergency because, although they designed the emergency action plan, they never practiced it or mentally prepared for an emergency. These are all examples of situations in which ATCs must think critically.

Presently, athletic training educators are teaching many competencies and proficiencies to entry-level athletic training students. As Davies 1 pointed out, CT is needed in clinical decision making because of the many changes occurring in education, technology, and health care reform. Yet little information exists in the athletic training literature regarding CT and methods to promote thought. Fuller, 2 using the Bloom taxonomy, classified learning objectives, written assignments, and examinations as CT and nonCT. Athletic training educators fostered more CT in their learning objectives and written assignments than in examinations. The disposition of athletic training students to think critically exists but is weak. Leaver-Dunn et al 3 concluded that teaching methods that promote the various components of CT should be used. My purpose is to provide a brief introduction to the definition and disposition to think critically along with active learning strategies to promote CT.


Four commonly referenced definitions of critical thinking are provided in Table ​ Table1. 1 . All of these definitions describe an individual who is actively engaged in the thought process. Not only is this person evaluating, analyzing, and interpreting the information, he or she is also analyzing inferences and assumptions made regarding that information. The use of CT skills such as analysis of inferences and assumptions shows involvement in the CT process. These cognitive skills are employed to form a judgment. Reflective thinking, defined by Dewey 8 as the type of thinking that consists of turning a subject over in the mind and giving it serious and consecutive consideration, can be used to evaluate the quality of judgment(s) made. 9 Unfortunately, not everyone uses CT when solving problems. Therefore, in order to think critically, there must be a certain amount of self-awareness and other characteristics present to enable a person to explain the analysis and interpretation and to evaluate any inferences made.

Various Definitions of Critical Thinking

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Recently researchers have begun to investigate the relationship between the disposition to think critically and CT skills. Many believe that in order to develop CT skills, the disposition to think critically must be nurtured as well. 4 , 10 – 12 Although research related to the disposition to think critically has recently increased, as far back as 1933 Dewey 8 argued that possession of knowledge is no guarantee for the ability to think well but that an individual must desire to think. Open mindedness, wholeheartedness, and responsibility were 3 of the attitudes he felt were important traits of character to develop the habit of thinking. 8

More recently, the American Philosophical Association Delphi report on critical thinking 7 was released in 1990. This report resulted from a questionnaire regarding CT completed by a cross-disciplinary panel of experts from the United States and Canada. Findings included continued support for the theory that to develop CT, an individual must possess and use certain dispositional characteristics. Based upon the dispositional phrases, the California Critical Thinking Dispositional Inventory 13 was developed. Seven dispositions (Table ​ (Table2) 2 ) were derived from the original 19 published in the Delphi report. 12 It is important to note that these are attitudes or affects, which are sought after in an individual, and not thinking skills. Facione et al 9 purported that a person who thinks critically uses these 7 dispositions to form and make judgments. For example, if an individual is not truth seeking, he or she may not consider other opinions or theories regarding an issue or problem before forming an opinion. A student may possess the knowledge to think critically about an issue, but if these dispositional affects do not work in concert, the student may fail to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize the information to think critically. More research is needed to determine the relationship between CT and the disposition to think critically.

Dispositions to Think Critically 12

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Educators can use various instructional methods to promote CT and problem solving. Although educators value a student who thinks critically about concepts, the spirit or disposition to think critically is, unfortunately, not always present in all students. Many college faculty expect their students to think critically. 14 Some nursing-specific common assumptions made by university nursing teaching faculty are provided 15 (Table ​ (Table3) 3 ) because no similar research exists in athletic training. Espeland and Shanta 16 argued that faculty who select lecture formats as a large part of their teaching strategy may be enabling students. When lecturing, the instructor organizes and presents essential information without student input. This practice eliminates the opportunity for students to decide for themselves what information is important to know. For example, instead of telling our students via lecture what medications could be given to athletes with an upper respiratory infection, they could be assigned to investigate medications and decide which one is appropriate.

Common Assumptions of Nursing Faculty 15

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Students need to be exposed to diverse teaching methods that promote CT in order to nurture the CT process. 14 , 17 – 19 As pointed out by Kloss, 20 sometimes students are stuck and unable to understand that various answers exist for one problem. Each ATC has a different method of taping a sprained ankle, performing special tests, and obtaining medical information. Kloss 20 stated that students must be exposed to ambiguity and multiple interpretations and perspectives of a situation or problem in order to stimulate growth. As students move through their clinical experiences, they witness the various methods for taping ankles, performing special tests, and obtaining a thorough history from an injured athlete. Paul and Elder 21 stated that many professors may try to encourage students to learn a body of knowledge by stating that body of knowledge in a sequence of lectures and then asking students to internalize knowledge outside of class on their own time. Not all students possess the thinking skills to analyze and synthesize information without practice. The following 3 sections present information and examples of different teaching techniques to promote CT.


An assortment of questioning tactics exists to promote CT. Depending on how a question is asked, the student may use various CT skills such as interpretation, analysis, and recognition of assumptions to form a conclusion. Mills 22 suggested that the thoughtful use of questions may be the quintessential activity of an effective teacher. Questions are only as good as the thought put into them and should go beyond knowledge-level recall. 22 Researchers 23 , 24 have found that often clinical teachers asked significantly more lower-level cognitive questions than higher-level questions. Questions should be designed to promote evaluation and synthesis of facts and concepts. Asking a student to evaluate when proprioception exercises should be included in a rehabilitation program is more challenging than asking a student to define proprioception. Higher-level thinking questions should start or end with words or phrases such as, “explain,” “compare,” “why,” “which is a solution to the problem,” “what is the best and why,” and “do you agree or disagree with this statement?” For example, a student could be asked to compare the use of parachlorophenylalanine versus serotonin for control of posttreatment soreness. Examples of words that can be used to begin questions to challenge at the different levels of the Bloom Taxonomy 25 are given in Table ​ Table4. 4 . The Bloom Taxonomy 25 is a hierarchy of thinking skills that ranges from simple skills, such as knowledge, to complex thinking, such as evaluation. Depending on the initial words used in the question, students can be challenged at different levels of cognition.

Examples of Questions 23

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Another type of questioning technique is Socratic questioning. Socratic questioning is defined as a type of questioning that deeply probes or explores the meaning, justification, or logical strength of a claim, position, or line of reasoning. 4 , 26 Questions are asked that investigate assumptions, viewpoints, consequences, and evidence. Questioning methods, such as calling on students who do not have their hands up, can enhance learning by engaging students to think. The Socratic method focuses on clarification. A student's answer to a question can be followed by asking a fellow student to summarize the previous answer. Summarizing the information allows the student to demonstrate whether he or she was listening, had digested the information, and understood it enough to put it into his or her own words. Avoiding questions with one set answer allows for different viewpoints and encourages students to compare problems and approaches. Asking students to explain how the high school and the collegiate or university field experiences are similar and different is an example. There is no right or wrong answer because the answers depend upon the individual student's experiences. 19 Regardless of the answer, the student must think critically about the topic to form a conclusion of how the field experiences are different and similar.

In addition to using these questioning techniques, it is equally important to orient the students to this type of classroom interaction. Mills 22 suggested that provocative questions should be brief and contain only one or two issues at a time for class reflection. It is also important to provide deliberate silence, or “wait” time, for students upon asking questions. 22 , 27 Waiting at least 5 seconds allows the students to think and encourages thought. Elliot 18 argued that waiting even as long as 10 seconds allows the students time to think about possibilities. If a thought question is asked, time must be given for the students to think about the answer.

Classroom Discussion and Debates

Classroom discussion and debates can promote critical thinking. Various techniques are available. Bernstein 28 developed a negotiation model in which students were confronted with credible but antagonistic arguments. Students were challenged to deal with the tension between the two arguments. This tension is believed to be one component driving critical thought. Controversial issues in psychology, such as animal rights and pornography, were presented and discussed. Students responded favorably and, as the class progressed over time, they reported being more comfortable arguing both sides of an issue. In athletic training education, a negotiation model could be employed to discuss certain topics, such as the use of heat versus ice or the use of ultrasound versus electric stimulation in the treatment of an injury. Students could be assigned to defend the use of a certain treatment. Another strategy to promote students to seek both sides of an issue is pro and con grids. 29 Students create grids with the pros and cons or advantages or disadvantages of an issue or treatment. Debate was used to promote CT in second-year medical students. 30 After debating, students reported improvements in literature searching, weighing risks and benefits of treatments, and making evidence-based decisions. Regardless of the teaching methods used, students should be exposed to analyzing the costs and benefits of issues, problems, and treatments to help prepare them for real-life decision making.

Observing the reasoning skills of another person was used by Galotti 31 to promote CT. Students were paired, and 4 reasoning tasks were administered. As the tasks were administered, students were told to talk aloud through the reasoning process of their decisions. Students who were observing were to write down key phrases and statements. This same process can be used in an injury-evaluation class. One student performs an evaluation while the others in the class observe. Classroom discussion can then follow. Another alternative is to divide students into pairs. One student performs an evaluation while the other observes. After the evaluation is completed, the students discuss with each other the evaluation (Table ​ (Table5 5 presents examples). Another option is to have athletic training students observe a student peer or ATC during a field evaluation of an athlete. While observing, the student can write down any questions or topics to discuss after the evaluation, providing the student an opportunity to ask why certain evaluation methods were and were not used.

Postevaluation Questions

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Daily newspaper clippings directly related to current classroom content also allow an instructor to incorporate discussion into the classroom. 32 For example, an athlete who has been reported to have died as a result of heat illness could provide subject matter for classroom discussion or various written assignments. Such news also affords the instructor an opportunity to discuss the affective components involved. Students could be asked to step into the role of the ATC and think about the reported implications of this death from different perspectives. They could also list any assumptions made by the article or follow-up questions they would ask if they could interview the persons involved. This provides a forum to enlighten students to think for themselves and realize that not each person in the room perceives the article the same way. Whatever the approach taken, investigators and educators agree that assignments and arguments are useful to promote thought among students.

Written Assignments

In-class and out-of-class assignments can also serve as powerful vehicles to allow students to expand their thinking processes. Emig 33 believed that involving students in writing serves their learning uniquely because writing, as process and product, possesses a cluster of attributes that correspond uniquely to certain powerful learning strategies. As a general rule, assignments for the purpose of promoting thought should be short (not long term papers) and focus on the aspect of thinking. 19 Research or 1-topic papers may or may not be a student's own thoughts, and Meyers 32 argued that term papers often prove to be exercises in recapitulating the thoughts of others.

Allegretti and Frederick 34 used a variety of cases from a book to promote CT regarding different ethical issues. Countless case-study situations can be created to allow students to practice managing situations and assess clinical decision making. For example, after reading the National Athletic Trainers' Association position statement on lightning, a student can be asked to address the following scenario: “Explain how you would handle a situation in which a coach has kept athletes outside practicing unsafely. What information would you use from this statement to explain your concerns? Explain why you picked the specific concerns.” These questions can be answered individually or in small groups and then discussed in class. The students will pick different concerns based on their thinking. This variety in answers is not only one way to show that no answer is right or wrong but also allows students to defend their answers to peers. Questions posed on listservs are excellent avenues to enrich a student's education. Using these real-life questions, students read about real issues and concerns of ATCs. These topics present excellent opportunities to pose questions to senior-level athletic training students to examine how they would handle the situation. This provides the students a safe place to analyze the problem and form a decision. Once the students make a decision, additional factors, assumptions, and inferences can be discussed by having all students share the solution they chose.

Lantz and Meyers 35 used personification and assigned students to assume the character of a drug. Students were to relate themselves to the drug, in the belief that drugs exhibit many unique characteristics, such as belonging to a family, interaction problems, adverse reactions, and so forth. The development of analogies comes from experience and comparing one theory or scenario to another with strong similarities.

Fopma-Loy and Ulrich 36 identified various CT classroom exercises educators can implement to promote higher-order thought (Table ​ (Table6). 6 ). Many incorporate a personal reaction from the student and allow the student to link that learning to his or her feelings. This personal reaction of feelings to cognitive information is important to show the relevance of material.

Exercises to Promote Critical Thought 36

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Last, poems are another avenue that can be used to promote CT. 20 Although poems are widely thought of as an assignment in an English class, athletic training students may benefit from this creative writing activity. The focus of this type of homework activity should be on reviewing content creatively. The lines of the poem need not rhyme as long as appropriate content is explained in the poem. For example, a poem on the knee could be required to include signs, symptoms, and anatomical content of one injury or various injuries. A poem on head injuries could focus on the different types of history questions that should be asked. Students should understand that the focus of the assignment is a creative review of the material and not a test of their poetic qualities. The instructor should complete a poem as well. To break the ice, the instructor's poem can be read first, followed by a student volunteering to read his or her poem.


Regardless of the methods used to promote CT, care must be taken to consider the many factors that may inhibit a student from thinking critically. The student's disposition to think critically is a major factor, and if a deficit in a disposition is noticed, this should be nurtured. Students should be encouraged to be inquisitive, ask questions, and not believe and accept everything they are told. As pointed out by Loving and Wilson 14 and Oermann, 19 thought develops with practice and evaluation over time using multiple strategies. Additionally, faculty should be aware of their course goals and learning objectives. If these goals and objectives are stated as higher-order thought outcomes, then activities that promote CT should be included in classroom activities and assignments. 14 Finally, it is important that CT skills be encouraged and reinforced in all classes by teaching faculty, not only at the college level but at every level of education. Although huge gains in CT may not be reflected in all college students, we can still plant the seed and encourage students to use their thinking abilities in the hope these will grow over time.

Minds in Bloom

By Rachel Lynette

5 Easy Strategies for Developing Critical Thinkers

We’re excited to have Sydney from Love, Laugh, Teach guest posting for us today! Her post includes helpful insight and advice for developing critical thinkers in the classroom. As teachers, we all know how important critical thinking is, but sometimes it feels like an abstract concept to teach. Read on to learn Sydney’s suggestions!

It should always be a teacher's goal to promote critical thinking in the classroom. This guest post on Minds in Bloom shares five easy strategies for developing critical thinkers -- and they're not tricky! Click through to get ideas for teaching students to think critically in the classroom.

Developing critical thinkers in the classroom is essential to creating a classroom full of excited and motivated learners. What exactly is a “critical thinker”? Critical thinkers don’t just think clearly or rationally; they use skillful analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing to make decisions every day. When we develop critical thinkers, this happens seamlessly. According to Educational Psychologist Dr. Linda Elder, “Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically…”

Students who master their critical thinking skills will be able to differentiate between which influences will shape their personality and which influences will not. But how do we develop critical thinkers in the classroom? All you need are a few simple strategies to develop critical thinkers in your classroom.

#1 – Questioning Techniques

Questioning is an essential tool for developing critical thinking skills. This is the simplest and easiest strategy to start implementing in your classroom right now. Develop questions that require students to dig deeper. Ask open-ended questions instead of “yes” or “no” questions. For example, instead of asking students, “Is learning important?” ask, “WHY is learning important?” Open-ended questions give students an opportunity to examine their own knowledge on the topic in question. I like to ask my students “why” multiple times during a lesson to help them dig deeper. Sometimes they get frustrated, but by the time I’ve asked my last “why,” I can tell if a student understands the concept well or has barely skimmed the surface. When thinking of questions to ask, it’s helpful to take a look at Bloom’s Taxonomy .

#2 – Student-Led Discussions

Student-centered learning environments promote critical thinking skills by requiring students to reflect metacognitively. In a student-centered classroom, students rely more on their peers for answers to their questions than on the teacher. One activity I like to use in my classroom is a mystery game. In this game, students rely solely on their classmates to solve the mystery of who stole the Mona Lisa from La Louvre museum in Paris. Read more about it here ! It is amazing to see students engaged in their learning. They are so focused throughout the entire lesson, they barely even know I’m in the classroom. The whole group discussion at the end of the lesson is very powerful and an excellent way to get students collaborating.

#3 – Inquiry-Based Learning

We want our students to be interested in what they’re learning. Inquiry-based learning is an excellent strategy to get students involved in the learning process and to engage critical thinking skills. Inquiry-based learning is more than just asking what students want to learn; it’s about activating interest and curiosity. The first step in successful inquiry-based learning is to get students to develop questions they want answers to. We want our students to ask and answer higher-order thinking questions. To read more about inquiry-based learning, click here .

#4 – Collaboration

One of the most important aspects of critical thinking is the ability to ask questions and analyze the answers. When students collaborate with their peers, they take ownership of their work, which promotes independence and critical thinking. Give students time throughout your lessons to converse with peers and share ideas. Oftentimes, students will learn from each other, which can eliminate confusion and misunderstandings. Collaborating also expands students’ thinking by demonstrating that not everyone has the same thought process.

#5 – Problem-Based Learning

Problem-based learning, or PBL, is a strategy that encourages students to use critical thinking skills by providing a structure for discovery that helps students deepen their understanding. The steps are simple and can be repeated for each new topic:

Looking for more information on classroom strategies? Check out my most popular post on 5 Strategies for Differentiated Instruction in the Primary Classroom . Also, check out all the fun and engaging mystery games in my Teachers Pay Teachers store to develop critical thinkers in your classroom!

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Related posts:

It may not seem like it, but project-based learning is the perfect way to meet all of your students' needs. There are a variety of ways in which project-based learning can be implemented and tweaked to do just that.

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