Teaching Critical Thinking: K-12 Guide

Why critical thinking is important? a helpful guide to teach it
This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series critical thinking

As teachers, we bear the responsibility of teaching critical thinking to enable our students to not only acquire knowledge but also to analyse its validity. We set them up with the fundamental skills they need to succeed, and one vital skill is the ability to take what they’ve learned and actively use it to make sound decisions. 

Teaching children how to think critically is easier said than done. Yet, as technology becomes more prevalent in our children’s lives, delivering this skill becomes increasingly important.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the process our minds go through when we actively compare ideas, evaluate and analyze information and come up with sound conclusions or judgements based on the thought process we’ve completed. Critical thinking is an important skill for children of all ages to continue to develop, because it allows them to express their thoughts and belief and be more likely to have a higher quality of life as adults, both personally and professionally. 

In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, critical thinking is one of the two (right behind complex problem solving) top sought after skills by employers during the fourth industrial revolution (we’re in it!). In 2015, it was the fourth most important skill. Critical thinking fosters the creativity innovation requires in 2022 and beyond. 

So how can teachers optimise their teaching habits to increase the learning of critical thinking in the classroom? Here are some specific guidelines based on the age and grade level of students that the average child will be more likely to succeed in developing these critical thinking skills. Remember first, that every student’s learning is different and what works for one child, for example, reading comprehension to put two ideas together, might not for another child who requires hands-on growth.

what is critical thinking

Depending on a student's age, there are optimal stages for teaching critical thinking skills in the classroom.

Here are some specific guidelines based on students’ age and grade level that the average child will be more likely to succeed in developing these critical thinking skills. Which I have categorised into four stages:

  1. kindergarten or foundation
  2. lower primary
  3. upper primary
  4. high school

Remember first that every student’s learning is different and what works for one child, for example, reading comprehension to put two ideas together, might not work for another child who requires hands-on growth.

Teaching Critical thinking - stage 1

Students begin kindergarten or foundation in Australia at a young age, and their minds are like sponges, ready to absorb every bit of information you give them. Critical thinking skills learned simply through games and activities at the age of five will set that student up for success decades later. Here are some activities you can try when teaching critical thinking skills:

  • Sorting games are an excellent way for children to learn logical reasoning. They will see how certain items are similar and different and be able to use reason to sort items based on colour, size, shape, and more. 
  • Watch a movie or read a book and then ask open questions. What did they like or not like about the main character? What did they believe was the purpose of the story?
Teaching critical thinking skills in the K-12 classroom

Teaching Critical thinking - stage 2

Like kindergarten, lower primary students learn the most about the foundations of what they will learn in later grades. They begin to solve problems through maths and learn about the world around them. Some activities to try with grades 1-3 include:

  • Teach students the difference between facts and opinions. Find articles in the newspaper, share them with the class, label each one as either fact or opinion, and have them provide their reasoning. 
  • Have students write a few sentences or a paragraph about the important people in their life. Why is their mother, father, or guardian someone special to them? Who do they admire, and why?
think outside the box

Teaching Critical thinking - stage 3

Students in the upper years of primary school who have effectively gained critical thinking skills at a younger age are more likely to have strong friendships and be more social and self-aware. According to the Australian Curriculum, “Responding to the challenges of the twenty-first century – with its complex environmental, social and economic pressures – requires young people to be creative, innovative, enterprising and adaptable, with the motivation, confidence and skills to use critical and creative thinking purposefully.” 

If you’re teaching critical thinking to upper primary, it’s best to introduce more sophisticated learning techniques that allow students to think for themselves and be logical. Some examples include: 

  • Allow for group projects where students are required to cooperate, think together, and work through their differences of opinion. 
  • Brainstorming ideas for projects, science experiments, etc., allows students to let their creative juices flow. 
  • Have students start a fictional business where they must plan a budget, inventory, and mor

Teaching Critical thinking - stage 4

With mobile phones at their fingertips, teenagers have much more access to information and misinformation than before. High school students need to be able to separate reliable sources from unreliable ones to form opinions with the best possible information available to them. 

If you’re teaching critical thinking to teenagers, it’s best to utilise visual tools to help students analyse and synthesise knowledge. Some examples include: 

  • Technology has produced learners who learn best visually. Therefore tools like Venn diagrams can enable students to analyse and synthesise the data they find in their research of any given subject.
  • Allow students to rank their opinions about a topic you’re studying at the moment. Start by choosing a statement, i.e., ‘Abstract art is a load of rubbish.’ Then students grade their opinion visually by arranging themselves on a scale along the classroom wall from strongly agree to disagree. Then allow students to argue their viewpoints, and finish with students grading their opinions a second time along the wall.
  • Get students to research the problems and possible solutions of an Asian Megacity for homework or an initial lesson. In the following lesson, have groups of students compare what they found on a Jamboard so that they can analyse their findings collaboratively.

Teaching critical thinking is something we should all be doing

We need to encourage our students to try new things instead of strictly sticking to the ideas they’ve been comfortable with throughout primary school. Perhaps a student has loved basketball right through school but has never tried biology or even swimming as a way to learn something new that might just become a new passion.

Interested in learning more about how you can develop critical thinking in the classroom? Read the rest of our series on the importance of critical thinking.


Series Navigation<< Why Critical Thinking skills are Important to Unlock
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x