How to Improve Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

Chari Brown
Chari Brown

Educational reformist and philosopher John Dewey is noted for coining the term critical thinking. His belief of this concept was rooted in what he referred to as reflective thought. As times have evolved, so has the definition of this skill, that is regarded as the most essential in personal and professional success.

Dictionary.com defines critical thinking as “Disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.”

Now that we have an understanding of this concept, let’s determine the various strategies teachers can utilize to improve critical thinking skills among students.

Asking Questions

The primary discipline to critical thinking is inquiry, or asking questions. Growing up, children are often told that “there are no dumb questions.” For much of my life, I have revered this statement as a universal truth, and one that I remind my students of daily. When students retreat and refrain from asking questions, they are looked upon as passive learners. Moreover, teachers have no understanding of their knowledge. As a result, in order to activate the skill of inquiring, teachers must do what we do best: Model. When students see the power of asking questions, they will feel more inclined to follow suit.

Teachers must formulate open-ended questions that do not have a right or wrong answer. Students must also understand that the main component of asking questions is listening. Actively and objectively listening to other people’s perspectives is what inquiry encapsulates. Teachers must remind students to listen to understand, not to respond. Taking notes during these exchanges is strongly encouraged.

Independent Thinking

Independent thinking is comprised of two components: Reflection and research.

After students have practiced active listening, time to process the information they have gathered is important. Having a conversation or taking notes serves no purpose if students are not allowed time to reflect on what they have received. They must also reflect on their own perspectives or analysis of the situation.

Students may struggle with formulating an opinion of their own and should never be encouraged to take the views of others as the “Be all, end all.” This is why research is also a characteristic of independent thinking. Whether students are finding articles, Googling facts, collaborating with additional groups of people, and/or pulling out a book, students must provide evidence to support their rationale. Supporting one’s own perspective comes from active listening, researching, and then reflecting on the perspectives of others along with his or her own

Expand Learning Opportunities

There are various activities teachers can employ to foster critical thinking. One example that is simplistic, and can be seen as an icebreaker activity to improving these skills, is the paper clip test. This activity calls for students to first think of a paper clip and jot down its usage. After which, students can be paired, grouped, or work individually to then consider creative ways in which a paper clip may be used.

Project-based learning is another way to strengthen critical thinking skills. It allows students to explore and execute. When students are able to see what they have created, they take ownership of their learning, and pride in their work. Creativity is key in project-based learning.

Another quintessential understanding for educators to consider is allowing students to grapple. Do not provide them with solutions; allow them to create their own. Create/creativity/creation is key. When students are pushed to think beyond the confines of their own feelings, needs or beliefs, they are able to better critically analyze.

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