Critical Thinkers: Teaching our students HOW to think, not WHAT to think

Engagement, application, and collaboration are skills that withstand the test of time.

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

So, we ask our teachers to be “future-ready” or say 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 change what we are doing drastically. So how do we plan education for an unknown job market or needs?

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

Our role in education is to empower our students to be critical thinkers. To develop critical thinkers, educators must provide students with the needed strategies and ask more than surface-level questions.

Questions to students must motivate them to search for background knowledge. In addition, they should inspire them to make connections to real-world scenarios. These types of questions make learning more memorable and meaningful.

Critical thinking is a general term. 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 supporting their answers or thinking.

As educators, we must continue to promote thinking skills in lesson development and student activities. Some essential skills that are the basis for critical thinking are:

  • Communication and information skills
  • Thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Interpersonal and self-directional skills
  • Collaboration skills

Students will need these four skills in any field and all levels of education. Hence we need to teach our students to think critically and for themselves.

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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 everyday life. Critical thinking will allow students to do more than 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 shape students’ thinking. Quick answers often result in very few words and no eye contact, 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:

  • Please elaborate further on that point.
  • Will you express that point in another way?
  • Can you give me an illustration?
  • Please give me an example.
  • Will you provide more details?
  • Could you be more specific?
  • Do we need to consider another point of view?
  • Is there another way to look at this question?

Utilizing critical thinking skills is a change in the teaching and learning paradigm. 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 has to start over.

Promoting critical thinking in 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.

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


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2. Encourage creativity: I have often seen teachers prepare projects before giving them to their students. Doing the design work or cutting all the shapes 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. So instead, give students all the supplies needed to create a project, and let them do it independently.

3. Empower independence: Giving students freedom will allow students to become critical thinkers because they will have to create their own products with the supplies you give them. Try not to jump to help too fast—let the students work through a productive struggle.

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

A few other techniques to encourage critical thinking are:

  • Use analogies
  • Promote interaction among students
  • Ask open-ended questions
  • Allow reflection time
  • Use real-life problems
  • Allow for thinking practice
Matthew X. Joseph
Matthew X. Joseph
Matthew X. Joseph is the director of evaluation, supervision, mentoring, and hiring in Brockton Public Schools. He is also the CEO of X-Factor EDU consulting and publishing.

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