Teaching Students to Think Critically

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Teaching Students to Think CriticallyIt can be safely said that critical thinking, the ability to think through abstract problems, is one of the most important skills for future success a student can possess. Students need it to succeed in a world and workplace that is increasingly complex, technologically advanced, and highly competitive.

First, let’s explore the concept of critical thinking. Here’s a summary from my book Advancing Differentiation: “Critical thinking contrasts with creative thinking in some unique ways. Whereas creative thinking is more intuitive, is shaped somewhat randomly, and seeks multiple answers, critical thinking is more ordered, directed, and controlled. Both types of thinking require advanced levels of brain energy and seek to generate reasoned solutions. They each approach the solution in a different and valuable fashion.”

Critical thinking also requires learners to find links between varied ideas; determine important, relevant, and significant facts; seek out what’s not being said or written; and build and defend strong arguments. This vital tool of reasoning, logic, and argumentation is necessary when dealing with ill-structured problems (those with no clear solution). More on ill-structured problems can be found in one of my earlier blog posts.

The overwhelming nature of information today, coming from television, social media, and other sources, requires that consumers (our kids) use tools to ferret out truth from fiction. “Fake news” relies on people being lazy thinkers. Therefore, critical thinking is an essential tool for survival in our highly complex world.

We can teach critical thinking in several ways. Some great ways to introduce and practice the strategies of critical thinking are playing games such as chess, doing logic puzzles, and working on brainteasers. Wuzzles are especially good practice. Also known as rebus puzzles, wuzzles are word puzzles that combine words, letters, and symbols in graphic ways to represent words, phrases, names, and so on. Here’s an example:

Teaching Students to Think Critically

Answer: Fat chance!

You can find wuzzles in the newspaper, often in the same section as the crossword puzzle, or by searching “wuzzles” on the internet. Not only should your students answer these puzzles, but they also should learn how to create their own—a great way to incorporate creativity with critical thinking.

Here are a few ideas to encourage all kids to think deeply and immerse themselves in being critical thinkers.

  • To warm up your students’ brains , start each day with a thinking question (or “brain warmer”), such as:
    • How is a car like an idea?
    • If it didn’t rain for the next five years, what would the various implications be?
  • Give your students “Thinking Journals” (spiral notebooks or virtual notebooks) where they can jot down unique questions or their daily brain warmers.
  • Use graphic organizers to assist students in organizing their thoughts.

Teaching Students to Think Critically

Another way to assist students in being critical thinkers is to embed critical thinking practice into the content. We know that students who are not actively engaged with the content are less likely to understand it and be able to apply the necessary strategies and skills across curricular domains. Having students apply critical thinking tools in the content will help them. For example, students might:

  • ask well-developed questions
  • respond to good questions in a thorough manner
  • create well-grounded arguments
  • analyze arguments
  • problem-solve
  • make good decisions
  • communicate effectively with efficiency

One way to do this is to use the 5W + H questioning strategy. Here are a few examples for each type of question:

WHO . . .

  • . . . will the solution impact the most?
  • . . . will be most important to a solution?
  • . . . has the most power in the story?

WHAT . . .

  • . . . benefit is there in knowing and understanding algebra?
  • . . . are the causes and consequences of revolution?
  • . . . is the fatal flaw of each of the characters?

WHEN . . .

  • . . . will you use this mathematical tool?
  • . . . did the situation begin?
  • . . . might the characters change direction?

WHERE . . .

  • . . . are you most likely to find the strategy to be most helpful?
  • . . . can you find more resources?
  • . . . do the characters find their “safe place”?

WHY . . .

  • . . . is this mathematical process effective/efficient?
  • . . . is it important to understand this information?
  • . . . do you think the characters behaved the way they did?

HOW . . .

  • . . . did the situation begin/end?
  • . . . might someone misinterpret the message?
  • . . . did each character respond to the main character?

Here are a couple more ideas:

  • Have students “free write” about current events or topics of study. Students write nonstop for a period of time (10–15 minutes) without making corrections, crossing anything out, or critiquing their thoughts. This type of “stream of consciousness” writing gets students more comfortable with the act of writing, allows for flow of ideas, and uncovers new ideas.
  • Begin every lesson and unit of study by focusing on essential questions. Essential questions are the questions that really matter and are the essence of the content. Learn more about essential questions here.

My book Advancing Differentiation has more ideas for implementing critical thinking in your classroom. You can also cruise the internet for websites that offer some really good ideas, such as the Global Digital Citizen Foundation.

Richard CashRichard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing Differentiation Revised and Updated Edition Differentiation for Gifted Learners


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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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1 Response to Teaching Students to Think Critically

  1. Thanks a lot.

    On Feb 11, 2019 18:35, “Free Spirit Publishing Blog” wrote:

    Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. posted: “By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., author of Self-Regulation in the Classroom: Helping Students Learn How to Learn Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts. It can be safely said that criti”

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