Given the growing importance of critical thinking and creative thinking, it is quite incredible that there is not a specific subject taught in state schools around the world that deals primarily with the development of students’ abilities in these areas. Such a change is probably on the way over the course of the next couple of decades, as it becomes clearer to governments that the jobs of the future depend on citizens who possess these skills to a highly refined level.
According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Higher Order Thinking Skills such as synthesizing, analyzing, reasoning, comprehending, application, and evaluation can be distinguished from Low Order Thinking Skills such as memorization which alone does not prove that a student has understood a concept or has the ability to apply it.
Much of critical thinking concerns itself with being able to properly understand a problem or task that needs resolving. In the context of education, this might be something as simple as understanding a question on an examination paper. How can a student hope to do well if he or she has not fully understood the question and therefore what kind of answer is required?
It is very common for a student to rush, or make an assumption that turns out to be false. For example, when asked, “Where is the clock?”, many English-as-a-second-language students hear the word ‘clock’ and immediately answer incorrectly, “It’s four o’clock.” They simply do not listen or read the question carefully enough.
One of the hallmarks of an essay written by a student with poorly-developed critical thinking skills is a lack of depth and limited justification or arguments for why they have written something. This is characterized by short sentences that lack imagination and explanation.
A simple way of resolving this is to encourage students to remember to ask themselves the question ‘Why?’ after each and every sentence, and see if they have covered the answer. If not, they can ‘dig deeper’ and offer more details in their writing or speaking. You can use ‘Tell me more!‘ if you think ‘Why?’ sounds too harsh.
Self-awareness is another key component of critical thinking. Not only must we be aware of the issue that needs solving but we must also be aware of ourselves and our biases during decision making.
Students can be reminded that we all make thousands of decisions every day, varying in importance from the relatively trivial choice of one fruit juice or another when shopping, to the ‘big decisions’ in life about which future direction to pursue whether it be in our personal lives or professional lives. We can also increase awareness by considering moral dilemmas – situations in which there is not always one clear best answer.
If a possible reason for a situation has been given, it is useful to ask students if there are any alternative reasons or explanations, and whether such reasons have more or less evidence in support of them. Ask them for explicit supporting evidence and how reliable this evidence is.
Ask students to consider the opposite viewpoint to their own, and list reasons why it might be supported by others. Then ask them to explain why their own viewpoint is better, or more accurate.
Encourage students to be open-minded about accepting a different viewpoint if more evidence emerged in support of it at a later date.
Encourage students to conduct thought experiments in which the context changes. Do their arguments or viewpoints still remain relevant?
Once students have put together a proposal, or viewpoint, or solution to a given problem, ask them to write a logical conclusion. What do they think, why do they think what they think, and what is the conclusion of their work?
In class presentations, encourage those in the audience to ask questions at the end, and have each group or individual comment on positive aspects of their classmates’ work and politely offer any counter arguments or constructive criticisms.
Key visualization tools to introduce to students include force field analysis (to weigh up pros and cons of various decisions), affinity diagrams (which group data according to their natural relationships), cause and effect diagrams, consensus building (in conjunction with others) and action item tracking (once a decision has been made).