“Critical thinking” has become a buzzword used in job descriptions, schools, etc. It’s increasingly becoming a more aware skill for our children to develop to succeed in today’s–and tomorrow’s–technologically advanced world.
However, so many don't truly understand what thinking critically actually means?
- Politicians use social media to push their platforms and technology to divide nations instead of bridging them together. Some have made the country and world-changing decisions based on personal emotion rather than their people’s best interests.
- Social media fosters racism and hate, spreading fake news to drive fear instead of love, and many of our youth cannot tell the difference.
- Higher Education University-level faculty cannot accurately transport critical thinking into the modern classroom. Instead of actively involving students in the learning process, studies show that most students are lectured to and expected to make those evaluations themselves.
- Job descriptions list critical thinking as an essential skill–or an asset–but don’t test whether applicants have acquired it. In part because they have no idea what the term means themselves.
- So many people, dependent on devices, see everything in black and white. Especially older generations who grew up without smartphones cannot ask questions about what they read online, which has led to a wide increase in instances of fraud and scams.
So, what Is critical thinking?
More than just thinking hard or understanding a concept, critical thinking is actively being able to reflect, communicate, interpret, and compare information to solve problems and make complex well-informed decisions. It is the ability to evaluate and analyse a situation or piece of information and critically judge it.
One step further, strong critical thinkers can make decisions based on their own beliefs, the skill to convey false from reality, and the possible outcomes of their decisions.
Adults, for instance, who don’t have strong critical thinking skills are more likely to drink and drive. Why? The inability to correlate the risk involved and the consequences of hitting something or someone isn’t a priority. Instead, the thought “I need to get home, and this is how I get there” is acted upon.
Weak critical thinkers might also participate in extra-marital relationships (without the mutual decision made between spouses), are more likely to have extreme credit card debt, and will generally not be set up to succeed.
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:
- kindergarten or foundation
- lower primary
- upper primary
- 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.
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 to kindies.
- 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?
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?
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 skills 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 more.
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 skills 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 essential
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.