How to introduce critical thinking skills into your classroom

Peter Worley

Peter Worley is the CEO and co-founder of registered charity The Philosophy Foundation, president of SOPHIA and a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. He has been working in classrooms doing philosophy since 2002, and is an award-winning author of many books on the subject including The If Machine, and his latest, 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking, both from Bloomsbury.

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This approach to teaching critical thinking (CT) makes use of the ‘descriptive-not-prescriptive’ principle I introduced in this article for Innovate My School. In other words: teach by showing them (the students) what they already do rather than telling them what they should be doing but aren’t. Though I will talk about philosophy sessions, as that is my background, the principles and procedure that you will find outlined here apply to any teaching context where the teaching of CT skills will be of value, whether maths, English or P.E.

In my work I have long advocated a dispositional approach to critical thinking over a skills-based approach. The idea is that if we give the children the opportunity to think through issues together they will, without instruction, employ CT skills. By doing philosophy regularly, the aim is that the children learn to naturalise and internalize making use of those skills so that they are disposed to use them in situations where CT skills are called for. And it is anecdotally true to say that children, during philosophy sessions, make use of many CT skills such as recognising an infinite regress, identifying and challenging assumptions, drawing distinctions, providing counter-examples, spotting some formal and informal fallacies etc. There is an extent, however, to which I have taught CT skills making use of my knowledge of CT by modeling and highlighting how to approach CT. Here is an account from a colleague of mine, Miriam Cohen Christofidis, about how she does this:


I was doing a session on 'what is education'. The children got into a discussion of whether all learning is education and I asked if all education is learning. Some saw the difference others didn't. I asked if it could be true that all learning is education but not all education learning or vice versa. They thought about it. I then asked them, ‘If all chickens are birds does it mean all birds are chickens?’ Then they all got it. I would say that is developing critical thinking but it does not use any critical thinking terminology and so, in a way, is not explicit.


So, though I and my colleagues had been working hard on developing dispositional critical thinking in the classroom, the children had not learned how to use these skills strategically. In other words, they don’t tend to say, “What we need to do here is consider whether the claim is symmetrical; does it work both ways?” We have been working on ways that we may begin to teach, more explicitly, CT skills using the descriptive-not-prescriptive approach:


Here’s the procedural outline:

  1. Run your lesson (or philosophy session) as normal. During enquiries and discussions…

  2. Listen out for examples of CT skills being appropriately used (this will, of course, depend on your knowing what CT skills are – see further reading below to find out more if necessary). For example, a child drawing a distinction (in a discussion aboutstrength/weakness, a distinction is drawn between physical and emotional strength/weakness).

  3. Highlight to the whole class what the pupil has done and introduce the technical term: for example, “You’ve drawn a distinction. That’s when you take a word or idea and then break it up into more than one kind of X, in this case strength. You’ve come up with two kinds: physical and emotional strength.”

    • (Optional) Expand: in this particular case you could even ask them if they can think of any more kinds of X: Teacher: “Are there more kinds of strength other than physical and emotional?” Student: “Yes, there’s also mental strength.” T: ‘That’s really interesting. Can you say what’s different about mental strength from physical and emotional?’ etc.

  4. Write the word ‘distinction’ on a piece of paper and add it to a CT vocabulary wall-display or board in the classroom (a ‘Thinking Skills/Tools Corner’ or ‘Thinking Wall’). You could also write up a short description of the CT skill too (see 3).     

  5. Encourage the class to appropriately apply the new Thinking Skill in other philosophy sessions, but also in other non-philosophy lessons too.

  6. (Optional) Set the class some exercises in order to practice their new Thinking Skill.

  7. Continue to listen out for the appropriate use of other CT skills in philosophy (or other lessons) and repeat the process above adding new vocabulary and skills to the Thinking Skills board.

  8. Regularly ask the class to consult the ‘Thinking Skills/Tools’ board to see if there is a tool that would be appropriate when thinking through problems or engaged in enquiries.

  9. Listen out for children who start to do so unprompted.     


Key CT skills to look out for, to get you started:

 

  • The drawing of distinctions – splitting one concept X into further concepts X1, X2, Xn… (eg ‘I think there’s more than one kind of freedom: there’s physical freedom, the freedom to do what you want, and mental freedom, the freedom to think what you want.’)

  • Providing counterexamples – providing a plausible example that attempts to refute a claim made. (eg A: ‘You should never lie.’ B: ‘But lying to your Gran to avoid hurting her feelings is okay.’ A: ‘Yeah, it’s     alright to lie then.’)

  • The identification of assumptions – seeing what has been taken for granted in an argument that is in fact contestable. (eg T: ‘Where were you before you were born?’ S: ‘You might not have been anywhere.’)

  • Spotting false dichotomies – seeing that what appears to be between only two mutually exclusive options A and B may have further possibilities such as C, D, n… or that A and B may not be mutually exclusive. (eg T: ‘Were the men good or bad men?’ A: ‘I don’t think they were good or bad.’ B: ‘And I think they were both.’

  • Spotting false entailments – seeing that claims don’t follow from other claims that have been made when it is supposed that they do. (eg A: ‘They will work together because they need each other.’ B: ‘But, just because they all need each other doesn’t mean that they will actually work together; they might hate each other so much that they’ll all lose out.’)

  • Spotting contradictions and tensions – noticing where there might be contradictions or tensions within an opinion expressed or between different opinions expressed. (eg A: ‘You just said that it’s better to be an unhappy person than a happy pig because they would live longer as a person, but earlier on you said that a short good life is better than a long bad one.’)     

  • Construction of arguments – the use of the formal structure of premises and conclusion in order to bring some rational force to a claim. (eg ‘Everything is made of atoms, right? And you can’t see atoms, right? So, I shouldn’t be able to see my hand if it’s made of atoms, right?’)

    • Argument:
      • Premise 1: Everything is made of atoms;
      • Premise 2: One cannot see atoms;
    • Hidden premise: If something X is made of something Y that can’t be seen, then X will not be able to be seen;
    • Conclusion: Therefore, I shouldn’t be able to see my hand if it’s made of atoms.
    • Note: as it happens the argument is not sound as it commits the fallacy of composition: the belief that X has the same qualities as that which is comprised of; one cannot see a single atom, but one may see many atoms grouped together (see below).

 

  • Construction of counter-arguments – the construction of an argument in order to refute a previous argument and that aims to demonstrate that the first argument needs to be revised or rejected. (eg ‘You can’t see an atom; that’s true, but you can see lots of atoms together. And your hand is made of lots of atoms, so that’s why you can see your hand.’)

  • Critical analysis of arguments – the deliberate attempt to show that an argument lacks the rational force claimed by the exponent of the argument in virtue of its structure and/or content. (‘What’s wrong with what you said is that you said you “can’t see atoms”, but that’s wrong: you can see atoms if there’s enough of them. What you should have said is: ‘you can’t see an atom’. But your hand is not made of an atom, it’s made of lots of atoms.’)

    • Note: The difference between ‘counter-arguments’ and ‘critical analysis’ is subtle: the latter explicitly examines the structure and content of the first argument rather than creating a new argument that only implies the shortcomings of the first. This kind of internal-to-the-argument critical analysis is less likely with children than the more straight-forward use of counter-arguments but it does, on occasion, occur very much as I’ve illustrated in the example here (see below for more on this).

  • Seeking an alternative point of view or argument – the deliberate and creative move to think of another point of view or argument that has hitherto not been thought of or entertained in the discussion (eg ‘But on the other hand, someone might say…’).

  • Critical engagement: actively seeking any problems there may be with an argument or idea – the deliberate attempt to look for problems or shortcomings in an argument that has been, prima facie, accepted.


Further critical thinking reading:


Warburton, N: Thinking From A to Z (Routledge)
Weston, A: A Rulebook For Arguments (Hackett)
Cam, P: 20 Thinking Tools (ACER)


Do you use such tactics in the classroom? Let us know below.

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