Aren't we already teaching critical thinking?

Peter Ellerton Oct 10, 2019

Everyone seems to agree that critical thinking is an essential component of whatever list of 21st-century skills we might assemble. Other elements of this list include things such as creative thinking, entrepreneurship, problem-solving, decision-making, personal and social skills, and working collaboratively.

It is misleading, however, to think of critical thinking as simply one of a long list of essential skills. Critical thinking is better understood as underpinning all the other skills. Without critical thinking, for example, it is difficult to understand how we can have effective problem-solving or decision-making. Entrepreneurship also requires highly developed skills of analysis, evaluation and justification.

But not only does critical thinking underpin these other skills, those skills themselves are necessary for effective thinking. Creative thinking is a necessary component of effective thinking, and includes the constituent skills of generating and applying new ideas, identifying alternatives, and seeing or making new links.

Communication, collaboration and teamwork are fundamental to developing the norms of effective thinking, and collaborative or social cognition, as recognised by Vygotsky, Lipman, Kuhn and others, is recognised as a key step in improving individual cognition.

The personal and social skills that are necessary precursors to collaboration are also therefore a focus of an education in thinking. In short, T4T is a pedagogical focus on effective thinking does not just support the development of 21st century skills - it demands it!

Don't we already teach students how to think?

All discipline methodologies have critical thinking principles baked into them. That's what makes them effective as methods of inquiry. The methodologies have been constructed to be effective so they must have rational, critical components.

So isn't teaching maths or science or history enough to teach critical thinking?

The short answer is no!

Learning a discipline methodology doesn not mean that you understand the rationality behind it. Simply teaching students to solve complex problems within a discipline is not sufficient to ensure they are aware of the kinds of thinking that are necessary for the process or how that thinking can be improved.

What's more, without making these skills explicit it is very difficult to get students to transfer these abilities from one context to another. Content and disciplinary knowledge are necessary but insufficient conditions for teaching students to think critically.

Three critical questions about the thinking classroom

One way to assess how much your own classroom practice is focused on thinking is to ask your self these three questions - questions for which it is important that all educators have a good answer.

Please take the time to examine your own answers right now and reflect on how easy they were to answer. Write down your answers as we'll come back to them later.

  1. How do you know when students are thinking in your classroom?

    What kinds of activities do students engage in that indicate to you that they are thinking? Is it enough that they are talking with each other or asking questions of each other or of the teacher? What kinds of things do they say to each other? What kinds of questions are they asking? All of these issues are worth teasing out in some detail.

  2. How you plan for that thinking to occur?

    Given that we might recognise the signs of students thinking, how do we plan for these things to occur?in what way is the consideration of student cognitive activity apparent in lesson and unit planning?

  3. How do you give students feedback on the quality of their thinking?

    Once students begin to think, what kind of language do we have to speak with students about the quality of their cognition? Is it enough to simply check to see if a student gets the right answer, or to determine in a problem where they might have gone wrong? How is it that we can give them detailed and precise feedback on how well they analysed, justified or evaluated?

These three questions are very useful to focus us on the task of Teaching for Thinking. I also recommend using these questions with your colleagues as you begin discussions with them and lead your own professional development teams.