The importance of teaching critical thinking to students

The importance of teaching critical thinking to students

Educational institutions, accrediting bodies, students and employers all agree: students need to develop better critical thinking skills.

Critical Thinking is not just a “nice to have” skill in the 21st century, it is essential. We live in an age where we have more information at our fingertips than ever before and more opportunity to communicate with people across the globe. But how to we discern what information is correct, relevant and unbiased? How do we know when to accept what someone is saying, and when to question it?

Educational institutions, accrediting bodies, students and employers all agree: students need to develop better critical thinking skills. Modern-day access to instant answers means many of us are falling behind in our ability to ask the right questions or analyse the answers we get.

Critical thinking has been defined as the ability to:

  • ask the right questions
  • recognise the existence of problems
  • read between the lines
  • recognise implicit and explicit assumptions
  • identify relevant and irrelevant information in arguments
  • recognise bias in yourself and others.

Critical thinking is the foundation of strategic thinking, creative thinking, good judgement and good decision making. Good critical thinking results in the ability to draw the right conclusions more often.

The good news is that there is substantial evidence showing that critical thinking can be improved with training.1

Research also suggested that improving critical thinking ability has a knock-on effect in improving problem-solving ability, openness, creativity, organisation, planning and making the right choices in life.

There is currently a gap in critical thinking teaching at schools and our ability to apply this skill at university or in the world of work. In a recent survey of organisations critical thinking/problem solving was identified as the top skills gap for job applicants.2 On the flip side, school leavers recognise the important role critical thinking plays in securing a job, but note that they didn’t have enough opportunity to develop it in school.3

How can schools give their students a competitive advantage in a tight job market? Educational institutions across the country are looking for solutions –new ways to teach critical thinking, measure student learning and demonstrate efficacy. The challenge is identifying the best practices and incorporating them into the curriculum on a systematic basis. Across most institutions, the majority of educators have not been formally trained in critical thinking, they do not know where critical thinking best fits into the curriculum or where to access quality educational resources and, as a result, they are not in the best position to teach others or to evaluate the most effective teaching models.

TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS

Here are some tips to teaching critical thinking skills and creating a critical thinking culture in your school and in your classrooms:

  1. A common misconception is in the understanding of the term Critical Thinking. Many people think that critical thinking is simply about being critical of ideas and proposals. The first step to creating a critical thinking culture is to introduce the concept with a good definition.
  2. Create a culture of critical thinking in your school where questioning is not only accepted but also encouraged at all levels including teachers and students. Provide opportunities for deeper learning (reflection, application, guided discussion).
  3. Introduce “Socratic Questioning” into your school culture. Socrates established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analysing basic concepts, and tracing out implications. His method of questioning can be easily found through an internet search and is the best-known critical thinking teaching strategy.
  4. Introduce a model or framework of critical thinking to organise and expedite learning. For example, the RED model of critical thinking put forward in the 1930s by two experts in the field, Goodwin Watson & Edward Glaser:
    Recognise assumptions: This relates to the ability to separate fact from opinion in an argument.
    Evaluate Arguments: This is the ability to analyse information objectively and accurately, question the quality of supporting evidence, and understand how emotion influences the situation.
    Draw Conclusions: This is the ability to arrive at conclusions that logically follow from the available evidence.
  5. Introduce assessments to measure the current levels of critical thinking in teachers and provide a development program for those who need support. The ability to teach critical thinking to students starts with teachers having a good understanding on the concept first.

START INVESTING IN THE GREATEST GADGET OF ALL: OUR MINDS4

The next steps involve identifying quality resources to support educators, reaching agreement on when and how to integrate critical thinking into the curriculum, and having much deeper discussions between corporations and educators on what critical thinking looks like in the work setting. These actions will enable students to become well-prepared employees and citizens.

References

[1] Diane Halpern, PHD, 2003, American psychologist, psychology professor and past-president of the American Psychological Association

[2] The ongoing impact of the recession series; @shrm.org.; Society for Human Resource Management; Mar 13, 2013.

[3] 21st Century skills and the workplace: A 2013 Microsoft Partners in Learning and Pearson Foundation Study; Gallup, Inc., May 28, 2013.

[4] Thinking Matters: Critical Thinking Is Crucial for Success by Stedman Graham, Huffington Post, Dec 13, 2014

This article has also appeared in Always Learning magazine, Issue 3, 2015. Browse the magazine and the Always Learning Newsroom blog for more education related news and articles.