When children first start learning to read, they begin by reading for details in a story or passage. Later, they learn to summarize or identify the main idea. Neither of these skills requires critical thinking, but when children begin to draw conclusions or interpret an author’s intent, then they are using critical thinking. Students use critical thinking each time they ask, “What does this mean?” That is why comprehension requires effective critical thinking. For a student to make sense of a story or passage, the student must be able to analyze what is specifically said by an author and what is implied but not directly stated by an author. Critical thinking is a vital step in reading comprehension. When a student’s reading comprehension improves, reading ability and reading scores also improve.
One of the reasons reading scores were so poor in 2019 is the fact that our classrooms do not emphasize teaching critical thinking. Why not?
Educational psychologist and critical thinking specialist Dr. Linda Elder states that the reasons that classrooms do not emphasize critical thinking are: “First, faculty who control and teach the curriculum simply don’t know what critical thinking is. Second, they think they do.” Elder goes on to explain that “Most teachers have never been explicitly taught the intellectual skills inherent in critical thinking.” Elder explains that, in education, we confuse rote memorization with learning. In today’s classroom, elementary to college, the emphasis is on memorization, not critical thinking.
What is critical thinking?
“Critical thinking is about evaluating data, observations, well-known facts, available research, as well as opinions to draw some conclusions related to solving a problem or taking a decision.”
Critical thinking requires a person to analyze facts objectively before forming a decision or making a judgment. Critical thinking is based on evaluating evidence to determine whether something is true or not. Accuracy is essential in critical thinking. We cannot just assume that students will automatically learn critical thinking or how to analyze, evaluate, and make accurate decisions or judgments. These are skills that must be taught. Foremost, a critical thinker needs a willingness to admit that they may be wrong, needs to be able to question their own thinking, needs to recognize their own bias or prejudices, and a critical thinker needs to avoid drawing conclusions before evaluating the facts.
The lack of critical thinking is clear in the question of should I or should I not wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic. Are people turning to the facts? Are people evaluating the pros and cons of wearing a mask? No, critical thinking has not entered the scene. The question of whether to wear a mask or not is being purely decided by biased opinions, not facts. Researchers state that 100,000 deaths could be avoided if everyone wears a mask.
Yet, people continue to die, coronavirus is still surging with 80,000 new cases a day for an all-time high, and unfortunately, people continue to refuse to wear a mask.
Critical thinking is a lifelong skill, but if students do not learn critical thinking in school, they most likely will never learn to apply evaluation and analysis to their decisions and problems. Critical thinking is not only essential for understanding a story; it is also essential for making wise decisions in life. Critical thinking helps us make intelligent decisions, evaluate the consequences of our actions before acting, and helps us to solve problems. Critical thinking should be taught when children are young, even as young as first grade:
“A child’s natural curiosity helps lay the foundation for critical thinking. Critical thinking requires us to take in information, analyze it and make judgements about it, and that type of active engagement requires imagination and inquisitiveness.... They have to think about how the new information fits in with what they already know, or if it changes any information we already hold to be true…. we evaluate that information to determine if it is true, important and whether or not we should believe it. Help children learn these skills by teaching them to evaluate new information. Have them think about where or who the information is coming from, how it relates to what they already know and why it is or is not important.”
Do the Common Core Standards require critical thinking?
Yes, the Common Core Standards stress that critical thinking should be a part of the school curriculum. Unfortunately, education programs are not preparing teachers to teach critical thinking. The Center for Critical Thinking conducted a study and found that 89% of teachers felt that critical thinking was very important to include in the classroom curriculum, but only 19% could actually explain what critical thinking is and 75% of those interviewed could not explain how they would teach critical thinking to their students.
How should critical thinking be taught in the classroom?
In many schools, critical thinking is neither encouraged nor taught. Many schools blame this on standardized testing. Teachers say they do not have time to teach critical thinking; they must help students prepare for testing. Yet, taking a test requires critical thinking, even a multiple-choice test. The best way to teach critical thinking is to incorporate it into the curriculum. Make it part of the learning process.
The first step is to encourage questions and to allow students to evaluate and analyze the information they are being taught in the classroom. Don’t be afraid to have students challenge what you teach; instead, encourage students to explore and discover the truth. Teach students to research and find the answers:
“In our rapidly changing technological world more information is available at the touch of our fingers, so critical thinking skills are a must today…. – of all the information we deal with each day-- some is accurate-- but it can be very easy to get pulled into believing something that is propaganda or an outright fabrication…. Social media is a great place to see how few people employ critical thinking skills…. Teaching our children to question facts and research questionable statements presented as facts, is imperative today. In many schools, kids are not always encouraged to take a critical mindset and question facts.”
Teach students how to analyze information, not just memorize facts. Memorization discourages critical thinking. Teaching students how to classify and compare information is better than memorization. Comparing and contrasting two stories or two characters in a story can be an excellent way of teaching critical thinking. In the middle of the political turmoil all around us, classifying and analyzing the statements made by politicians can be not only an important classroom assignment but it can also be an important life task:
“Classification plays an important role in critical thinking because it requires students to understand and apply a set of rules. Give students a variety of objects and ask them to identify each object, then sort it into a category. This is a great activity to help students think and self-question what object should go where and why.”
Teach perspective taking. To actually teach critical thinking, we must also teach perspective taking. Perspective taking is being able to see an issue from someone else’s point of view, not just your own. Some teachers teach brainstorming with the misconception that they have taught perspective-taking. The teachers think that they are teaching perspective taking when they teach brainstorming, but that is not how you teach perspective taking. Brainstorming is a way to generate ideas. Perspective taking is a way to understand what other people are thinking and feeling--to walk in someone else 's shoes as the old saying goes. Brainstorming and perspective taking are two completely, totally different things. Brainstorming is good; it generates ideas, but brainstorming is not the same as perspective taking:
“Some of the very best critical thinking exercises for elementary school students involve exploring a concept from multiple perspectives. This tactic not only establishes that an idea should be assessed from different points of view before an opinion is formed, it gives students a chance to share their own viewpoints while listening to and learning from others.”
Encourage decision-making and problem-solving. Critical thinking requires that students gather knowledge from at least two different perspectives and then learn how to apply that knowledge toward making a decision or solving a problem. Students should evaluate the pros and cons of a decision or solution. This enables students to apply what they have learned from the textbook or from classroom discussion. All students should learn to use a simple problem solution format: define the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, evaluate solutions, explore consequences of selected solution(s), and implement the best solution.
“When children are deeply vested in a topic or pursuit, they are more engaged and willing to experiment. The process of expanding their knowledge brings about a lot of opportunities for critical thinking…. Teach problem-solving skills. When dealing with problems or conflicts, it is necessary to use critical thinking skills to understand the problem and come up with possible solutions, so teach them the steps of problem-solving and they will use critical thinking in the process of finding solutions to problems.”
Encourage creativity. Teaching a student to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life situations is extremely important in life. Helping students make that application through hands-on learning ensures that the student will remember what they have learned. There are many ways to turn a critical thinking lesson into a hands-on learning experience:
“Imagination is key to teaching critical thinking in elementary school. Teachers should seek out new ways for students to use information to create something new. Art projects are an excellent way to do this. Students can also construct inventions, write a story or poem, create a game, sing a song—the sky’s the limit.”
What are the advantages of teaching critical thinking in the classroom?
The editors at Wabisab Learning, a resource for creative new ideas in teaching, offer six advantages to teaching critical thinking in the classroom.
Encourages curiosity. Critical thinking involves evaluating information in a rational not emotional way. Critical thinkers check the facts and research to find information that supports or fails to support their ideas. Critical thinkers are curious and want to learn.
“Effective critical thinkers don’t take anything at face value, either. They never stop asking questions and enjoy exploring all sides of an issue and the deeper facts hiding within all modes of data.”
Generates creativity. The best grades in school always go to students who are also creative. If you are just memorizing facts, you are not really learning. Finding new and different hands-on ways to learn enables students to generate their own ideas and thoughts on a subject. Such is a skill that is needed throughout life.
“Critical thinking in business, marketing, and professional alliances relies heavily on one’s ability to be creative.”
Teaches problem-solving. It has been said that Albert Einstein spent five minutes solving a problem and 55 minutes defining and researching the problem. Critical thinkers do not just throw out opinions or guess at a solution. Critical thinkers study the problem.
“Those who think critically tend to be instinctual problem solvers. This ranks as probably the most important skill we can help our learners build upon. The children today are the leaders of tomorrow….”
Fosters independent thinking. As a teacher, we all strive to help our students learn how to learn and how to think independently. Students need to ask questions, identify connections between ideas, and formulate their own ideas rather than just assuming something to be correct. “Getting our learners to begin thinking independently is one of the many goals of education.”
Enables students to be successful in and out of the classroom. Every teacher wants their students to be successful both in the classroom and outside of the classroom. The question is how do we help students to be successful. The answer is the way we teach.
“Many great educators have said many great things about the importance of lifelong learning skills. John Dewey, however, probably said it best: ‘Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.’…. The point is that they never stop being learners. This is what it means to be a lifelong learner and a critical thinker.”
Critical thinking can be used with any subject. Critical thinking teaches reasoning skills, how to evaluate a problem, organization, how to decide if a solution is workable or not, and analytical thinking. It can even be said that critical thinking “… is a cross-cultural activity for the mind, and the mind must be exercised just like a muscle to stay healthy.
Dr. Eliza Abioye adds to this list of advantages for teaching critical thinking with a reminder of what happens when we do not teach critical thinking in the classroom.
“Critical thinking minimizes the chances of children being brainwashed by what they are told, what they see on TV or even what they read. They can be able to differentiate the truth from hearsay. Through this, children can explore their mind at a deeper level and develop the courage to think for themselves.”
How can we best apply critical thinking when teaching reading?
We need critical thinking in school. There are advantages for students—in the classroom and beyond. So, how can we apply this concept of critical thinking when teaching reading?
First, improve comprehension skills. My next blog post will talk specifically about how to improve comprehension skills, but, for now, I’ll only emphasize that you cannot have critical thinking if you do not have comprehension or understanding of what you are reading.
Encourage children to ask questions. Children should always be encouraged to ask questions about things they do not understand. Yes, answering questions can enable students to demonstrate what they have learned. A test may also show simply how well a student is at taking tests. In reading, we must do more than simply tack on a list of multiple-choice questions at the end of the story. Use open ended questions, discussion questions, free writing responses, and other ways to generate thought with your students.
Analyze stories or nonfiction passages. Allow students to compare and contrast stories, characters, or even themes. When students are reading a story where the hero has to solve a problem, have students stop midway through the story and write how they would solve the problem. Incorporate research with nonfiction topics. The idea is that you want students to do more than just read and answer a list of questions. You want students to work with the reading material.
Be creative and use hands-on learning techniques to apply what the student is learning. I have said before and I will say again the best teaching methods are hands-on. So, develop some hands-on projects that connect with what your students are reading. Make a book. Build a project. Find a way to help students get involved with what they are reading, regardless whether it be fiction or nonfiction.
Comprehension and critical thinking are intertwined. You cannot teach comprehension without teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking is essential for effective reading. How are you teaching critical thinking in your classroom?