Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking is at the centre of much that we aim to do as teachers. It is a fundamental academic and life skill. If it is something we have embraced, it should be present in all our lessons. But what exactly is it, and how do we teach it? 

What is Critical Thinking?

This is how Saga Briggs sets out a working definition of Critical Thinking. It is interesting to note that many of these characteristics are learned through non-academic lessons like Circles. How can we bring them into all lessons?

Critical Thinking is NOT:

Critical Thinking IS:

  • Simply mimicking other thinking
  • Simply agreeing with other thinking
  • Being biased towards one way of thinking
  • Being biased against one way of thinking
  • Drawing conclusions too quickly
  • Denying faults in one’s own thinking
  • Placing weight on insignificant details
  • Questioning other thinking
  • Embracing other thinking
  • Emulating other thinking
  • Willingness to be wrong
  • Questioning one’s own thinking
  • Putting logic before bias
  • Recognising contradictions


Critical thinking in written assignments

It is important when setting a written assignment to get students to do as much of the thinking as possible. For juniors, it is probably acceptable to give them headings under which to arrange their own ideas. Seniors should be making their own headings and then arranging their ideas (preferably starting with a mindmap). An “essay” where they are given a step by step guide as to what to write is really just a memory test (in an exam), and is about as cognitively challenging as making a photocopy.

Saga Briggs suggests 3 ways to ensure that written assignments involve critical thinking.

  1. Discuss the phrasing of prompts. Make sure that students know what they are doing - discussing/analysing/exploring/assessing.
  2. There’s no argument without a counter-argument. Try to choose topics where there is some controversy. Consider both sides of the argument. Debating is a wonderful way to build this kind of thinking.
  3. Good essayists admit when they don’t know the answer. Textbooks like to make the world simple and straightforward. But the world is complex and messy. Acknowledging the limitations and complexity of knowledge is an important part of critical, nuanced thinking.

Tech Connections: 

  • Use Plagiarism checking when you set the assignment.
  • Add a Rubric that scores for thinking and ideas rather than facts, layout and grammatical correctness.
  • Insist on a properly set out bibliography.

Discussion is an essential part of promoting critical thinking. It requires cognitive flexibility and language skills. Saga Briggs suggests 3 ways to ensure that discussions involve critical thinking.

Critical thinking in discussions

Discussion is an essential part of promoting critical thinking. It requires cognitive flexibility and language skills. Saga Briggs suggests 3 ways to ensure that discussions involve critical thinking.

  1. Hold regular “written” discussions.
    It can be beneficial to involve writing before or in discussions. You could ask students to write down their ideas first before opening the discussion (TLAC - Everybody Writes), or you could have an online discussion (eg using Google Classroom). That way each student gets to think for themselves.
  2. Highlight the mysterious.
    While it is “important for students to learn the basics of a concept, … use discussions to show that your topic is still ‘alive’ and very much up for interpretation.” You can have a Do Now which raises issues through a big question, intriguing video clip, relevant news item, etc. Make it clear that you do not know the answer.
  3. Always refer to other disciplines.
    Use your general knowledge and/or work with colleagues from other departments to make links between different disciplines and also to connect to the SDGs. Show that knowledge is not the next chapter in the textbook, and does not come pre-packaged in conveniently sealed boxes, but rather is the means to interact with our complex world and its many problems.

Click here for some TLAC ideas on managing discussions.

Tech Connections: 

Google Classroom Questions are a useful way to get everyone in the class involved in a discussion in a matter of seconds. In your classwork tab, click on Create, and then choose Question. A benefit of this tool is that students have to answer the question for themselves before they can see and respond to others’ ideas.

Critical Thinking in Tests and Exams

  1. Students write their own test questions 
    A good revision strategy is to get students to write questions for themselves and their peers. From the kinds of questions, you can see quickly if their understanding is correct and if it has any depth.
  2. Include the “how” and “why” in MC questions
    Multiple-choice, multiple-selection and short answer questions don’t need to be simple and easy. By carefully wording the question stem, and including options that require fine discrimination and in-depth knowledge, it is possible to keep a critical edge.
  3. Oral exams
    The best way to see if a student really understands is to have a discussion with her. You can see if she is able to “think on her feet” and truly make use of the skills and knowledge of your subject. 

Tech Connections: 

In Google Classroom it is easy to make a Quiz that can include a variety of question types. Of course, a major benefit is that the test will be marked immediately. Just go to the Classwork Tab, then click Create and Quiz Assignment.

Source/More info:

Briggs, S (2014), There's a Better Way to Teach Critical Thinking

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