Five Ways to Strengthen Your Students’ Critical Thinking Skills

A sixth-grade student contemplates the meaning of her math lesson. <br /> <strong>Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action</strong>It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
– Aristotle

Critical thinking is defined by the Foundation for Critical Thinking as the “mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.”

The Common Core Standards emphasize a thinking-based curriculum predicated on elevating students’ considerations beyond memorization to conceptual understanding. As our society has evolved into a broader global economy with technology infiltrating many aspects of traditionally paper-based occupations, students must learn to obtain and analyze rapidly evolving pieces of information and understand how they fit into a broader schema.

As a teacher, you recognize the importance of critical thinking skills among your students. So how can you teach a young person to consider a problem more deeply, from more angles, and from more perspectives? You can employ age-appropriate strategies with students that will motivate them to think beyond a problem or question’s face value and help them explore possible answers with increased genuine conscientiousness and skill application.

Teaching Techniques to Foster Deeper Thinking

1. Using Storytelling
Stories are one of the best tools for translating concepts into perspective, framing issues, and improving memorization. A student can memorize, for example, that the Holocaust was the mass genocide of European Jews during World War II. However, by teaching students Anne Frank’s story and allowing them to read what life was like in hiding, the story gives perspective, creates empathy and understanding in a manner that transcends facts, and helps students internalize the perils of such complex concepts as racism, hatred, and war.

2. Retrieval Practice
Retrieval practice is a teaching modality that challenges students to write, describe, or draw learned concepts that can be complex and difficult to remember. As a way to start using this approach, ask students to write down everything they remember about a specific concept or topic, such as The Oregon Trail, Fibonacci numbers, or the plot of The Outsiders. Engaging in the process will help students identify what they do and do not remember or understand about the topic. After the exercise, encourage them to go back and review what they missed.

3. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Asking open-ended questions is an incredibly useful practice for encouraging critical thinking for elementary school children. In homework assignments, in group work, and in class discussions, rather than asking students to recite facts or validate true and false information, ask them open-ended questions that will enable them to apply what they have learned descriptively. Open-ended questions also allow students to problem solve and build on prior knowledge. As a bonus, when students realize that they can articulate concepts, it will boost their self-esteem and build academic confidence.

4. Practice Elaboration
Elaboration is a learning and retention practice that encourages students to expand upon their recollection of a concept in a detailed manner. This process helps students create mental connections between topics and facts. As they do this, their retention of the information deepens. To apply this learning modality, rather than asking your students to memorize facts, ask them to compare and contrast elements such as characters in a story or historical periods. While this concept sounds simple and may be something you do in class already, being aware of its value will help you leverage it in class more frequently.

5. Encourage Creativity Without Borders
Young people learn to work within guidelines, but to apply what they’ve learned, they also need to think without constraints. Give students an assignment with no templates or expectations. For example, instead of giving them a template to create a self-portrait, give them a wide variety of art supplies ranging from paper and markers to beads and dry pasta shells, and let their imaginations run wild.

The next generation of our world’s leaders must be innovative, agile, expressive, and insightful. By fostering deep thinking in your classroom with students of every age, you will help your students build confidence and creativity and more thoroughly understand how to apply concepts and lessons in a broader context.


Photo Credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

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