How to develop critical thinkers in your classroom

Julia Sharman

Julia has over 30 years’ experience working in the education sector as a specialist and advisory teacher for SEND and mental health. Previously a Local Authority Coordinator leading on educational projects and community learning in the public, private and voluntary sectors and freelance writer. She is a specialist teacher for children with dyslexia and an Advisory Teacher for children with mental health issues and medical and health needs.

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“Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking.” Lau and Chan (philosophy.hku, 2015)

Developing the essential components of critical thinking require extended periods of time – so best to start early! Previously attributed to adult learners, the benefits of critical thinking are now widely recognised and taught in Secondary education. However, with the onset of the new National Curriculum, there is much emphasis on language and how it is used. Therefore, the expectation is that younger pupils should develop the necessary skills to become critical thinkers.

Critical thinking doesn’t mean being able to be critical in the sense of criticism or to be argumentative; it means being able to be objective. Successful critical thinking requires many skills: planning, questioning, justifying, analysing, problem-solving, researching, evaluating and enquiring. All these skills are separate skills to acquire, but are inextricably linked. Effective critical thinkers also need to develop self-awareness, initiative, resilience, empathy, be able to communicate well, and have the ability to reflect, co-operate and focus. Critical thinking encompasses independent thinking.

Development and acquisition of these skills enhances language, and can be gained and utilised through speaking, listening, reading and writing. Let’s have a brief look at the skills.

Planning: A proposed or intended course of action or process of thinking or organisation involving preparation using a stepped approach and forward thinking to achieve a desired outcome.

Questioning: To gain more, and more in-depth, information on which to formulate ideas. Be able to effectively use question starters: Who? What? Why? When? Where? How?

Justifying: Being able to give reasons and explain thoughts and actions.

Analysing: Examine how key concepts and factors fit together and relate to each other.

Problem-solving: Being able to interpret the problem, understand the intended outcome and use logic and evidence to find solutions.

Researching: Finding out information about a particular topic or concept, so that questions can be answered or problems solved in systematic way.

Evaluating: Assess the significance of an idea and its relevance, the evidence on which the idea is based and how it relates to other ideas.

Enquiring: Being curious and interested. Being able to pose questions.

Self-awareness: Knowing our own values, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, emotions, personal preferences and tendencies, and know how we work best.

Initiative: An initial thought leading to action, to follow through / take charge of a plan.

Resilience: Maximising opportunities to develop social competence, positive relationships, support and promote academic and social performance, and to participate meaningfully.

Empathy: Being aware of the feelings, thoughts and emotions of others.

Reflection: Thinking about own actions, values, qualities and faults and the effects on others. Recapture experiences or what others have said and make plans to do or think about things differently.

Co-operation: The ability to collaborate, engage in teamwork and work together to achieve the same end.

Focus: A skill that maintains attention until a task is complete or being able to pay particular attention to a specific topic.

Although the number of skills is comprehensive, the above list is not exhaustive. Critical thinkers also need to acquire the ability to consider alternatives and to listen to others’ thoughts and points of view. They also need to develop scepticism - this involves having a healthy questioning attitude when exposed to new information, and eradicates the likelihood of believing everything everyone says. Furthermore, it is imperative to develop humility. This simply means, when faced with new convincing evidence, being able to admit that their own opinions and ideas are wrong.

Do you teach critical thinking in your classroom? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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